"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Misguided Idealist. In a world filled with Lukewarm Layabouts, Pessimistic Hem ‘n’ Hawers, Wishy-Washy Whatever-heads, Equivocating Eye-Rollers and “I Told You” So-and-So’s, the Misguided Idealist leaps without looking, then chases his big dreams up the wrong tree. While the rest of us dilly-dally and second-guess, the Misguided Idealist throws himself behind his cause, proselytizing shamelessly and endorsing a utopian vision that’s impossible, costs too much, lacks common sense and won’t work on any level.
But for all of his countless flaws and terrible ideas, the Misguided Idealist has more passion in his little finger than a roomful of Passive-Aggressive Worrywarts, Self-Conscious Ironists, Bloviating Blowhards and Naysaying Neurotics combined. While the rest of us can list a million reasons to do nothing and keep quiet, to sit on the sidelines and whine softly until it’s all over and there’s nothing left to hope for anyway, the Misguided Idealist sticks his neck out, and this hard, cold world does the chopping. But even as the realities and facts come crumbling down around him, even as his big head rolls across the chopping block, he offers us a brief reprieve from our stagnant lives, where we toe the line and act appropriately and do what’s done, all without an original thought in our big, empty heads.
Speak for yourself, right? Well, that’s what the Misguided Idealist does every day of his cursed, uncomfortable life. And when they bury him, and the eulogists sum up all of his creative intelligence and his passionate beliefs and his imaginative alternatives with limp, inadequate words, calling him “opinionated” and “outspoken,” when they admit that he sometimes got on their nerves but gosh, was he tenacious — in a tone implying that his tenacity was sort of cute but mostly lamentable and awkward to behold — even then, the Misguided Idealist remains just as underappreciated and misunderstood as he ever was.
Shane on you
Vic Mackey of FX’s “The Shield” (sixth season premieres at 10 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, April 3) is just the sort of Misguided Idealist who’s charismatic enough to lead most of us over the nearest cliff. Unlike most Misguided Idealists, Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is pragmatic, to a point: A law enforcer who has no faith in the law, he’s willing to busts heads and take bribes and play dirty to serve what he sees as the greater good. Of course, Mackey’s greater good always includes a very necessary murder or two, plus enough cash to keep his autistic son in a special school. Even so, he’s a fiercely protective father figure who, sadly, often chooses the wrong children to embrace, and wanders down insupportable, perilous paths.
When Mackey did find himself a loyal foot soldier in Curtis Lemansky (Kenny Johnson), the man ended up dead, by the hand of none other than Mackey’s self-serving prodigal son, Shane (Walton Goggins). In last year’s disturbing season finale, Shane used a grenade pilfered from a Salvadoran gang to blow poor Lem to smithereens in his own car, making it look like an act of vengeance. Beady-eyed Shane is exactly the sort of Foolhardy Follower — selfish, flinchy, shortsighted — who’s attracted by Mackey’s corrupt-Daddy appeal, but even Daddy Mack couldn’t soothe Shane’s fears that Lem, who was facing jail time, might rat on the strike team and land everyone in jail for their various illegal activities.
Of course, we at home knew that Lem wasn’t about to rat, and that Shane, in turn, would rat in two seconds if it saved him from the big house. These are the tragic ironies we encounter so often on “The Shield,” merciless twists that are part of the show’s dark appeal. Instead of being dragged down or exhausted by this deeply unfair universe, though, the whole sick boat stays afloat, thanks in part to the brisk pace, the immediacy of each scene and the strength of Mackey’s personality.
Emboldened by years of dodging prosecution, Mackey felt he could devise a way to wriggle out of any bind. Last season, he assumed that, if he tried hard enough, he could thwart Lt. Jon Kavanaugh (Forest Whitaker) and dig Lem and the rest of the strike team out of the mess they were in. In this sixth season, we find Mackey faced with failure: Even if he finds Lem’s killer (or believes that he’s found his killer) and avenges Lem’s death, he still must face the fact that he failed to protect a member of his team.
It should be satisfying to see Mackey suffer, after years of enduring his arrogance and his sadism and his manipulations. And maybe it’s not so bad to see him squirm. But ultimately, we want him to devise a way out of this and every other bind. We may identify with the more ethical forces in the Farmington police department, like Detective Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), but we still want Mackey to outsmart her. We want this guy to get away with murder.
Shane is another matter. Will he get away with killing his friend? Will Kavanaugh succeed in taking Mackey down? Unlike so many other shows that drop a huge bomb on the audience in the season finale, and then do a sloppy job of cleaning up the mess at the start of the next season, “The Shield” doesn’t disappoint. The chaos in the wake of Lem’s death is just as strange and smart and complicated as it should be, with twists and turns and resolutions that feel organic but also unexpected. I don’t generally love cop shows, but each episode (FX sent the first six) was so fast-paced and suspenseful and gripping, I just couldn’t stop myself from watching the next one. It’s pretty amazing that, after five seasons, a cop show like “The Shield” could still be this addictive.
If you haven’t watched this show, the Misguided Idealist in me wants to urge you to rent all five seasons in rapid succession. Vic Mackey is the kind of bad cop that Shakespeare would dream up, if he were in the business of penning procedural dramas.
Of course, Shakespeare was the sort of Misguided Idealist who had the flexibility and imagination to recognize the humor in life’s lowest moments and most tragic turns. The same can be said of Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, whose documentary “So Much So Fast” (premieres on “Frontline” on Tuesday, April 3, on PBS, check listings) seeks out moments of levity and wisdom and sweetness and hope in an otherwise very sad story.
Stephen Heywood was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, when he was 29 years old, and doctors told him he had five years to live. While other families might have grabbed the hankies and settled in for a long wait, Stephen’s older brother Jamie turned out to be a Misguided Idealist in waiting. Jamie took action, starting a nonprofit organization dedicated to randomly testing drugs to see if they had any success in treating ALS.
Naturally, Jamie’s somewhat sloppy approach to finding appropriate drugs was viewed as a shot in the dark by doctors and scientists used to far more conservative, deliberate methods. But ALS research was incomplete and underfunded, and those more cautious methods would take years. Jamie saw himself as fighting against the clock to save his brother.
While Jamie toiled around the clock, Stephen spent his time with his wife and baby son, trying to enjoy his days with them. The camera captures his mix of patience, humor, resignation and denial throughout his slow decline into the nightmare of ALS. Even as his steps slow down, his speech becomes slurred and eventually he must depend on a wheelchair to move and a computer to communicate, Stephen retains a dark sense of humor and generous attitude toward his family.
Throughout “So Much So Fast,” it’s hard not to feel grateful to be allowed such an intimate look at a family’s evolution in the face of disaster. While Jamie throws his entire life into his foundation and he and his wife drift apart, Stephen takes the time to savor every second with his wife and baby. Time speeds up and slows down and we get lost in the little moments of Stephen’s life. We take extreme joy in his smallest triumphs and his dry wisecracks, and then we grit our teeth and wring our hands over the fact that Jamie’s foundation is losing money. The filmmakers have an obvious appreciation for the oddities and quirks of the personalities in this family, and they take pains to document not only the progression of ALS in Stephen, but the family’s slow evolution in coming to terms with Stephen’s fate.
Best award show ever
But not all Misguided Idealists are enforcing the law or running nonprofit organizations. A gaggle of them work at HBO, where, together, they come up with all kinds of big ideas, many of them terrible: “Hey, I know! Let’s take the breathtakingly original historical drama ‘Deadwood’ off the air just short of its fourth and final chapter, and let’s have David Milch work on a show about a surfer instead!”
At a recent meeting, apparently one of the Misguided Idealists said to the others, “Hey, there’s not really a big award for comedians, so let’s create one and give it out at our annual comedy festival!” Yes, only HBO would have the audacity to invent its own award for comedians and then have the rocks to call it “The Comedian Award,” suggesting that it’s the only award for comedians that will ever exist, anywhere. To make the whole thing even more confusing, in its first run, they give “The Comedian Award” to Jerry Seinfeld, a comedian who appeared in the 2002 movie “The Comedian.”
Thus, when I received a DVD at my doorstep that was labeled, simply, “Jerry Seinfeld: The Comedian Award” (9 p.m. EDT Sunday, April 1, on HBO), I figured it must be related to the documentary, in which Seinfeld forsakes the life of the idle rich to go back to his roots cracking jokes to surly crowds in smelly comedy clubs across the country. Instead, what I found was Anderson Cooper sitting in a chair on a stage with Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Chris Rock and Robert Klein. Seeing some of the funniest humans alive (Cooper included) gathered in one place, I couldn’t exactly blow it off, and I was glad I didn’t.
What transpired was a very odd conversation between the four comedians, one that Cooper tried to interrupt occasionally with his very straight, newsy non sequiturs. Apparently, Rock, Shandling and Klein agree that Seinfeld may be the comedy world’s ultimate Misguided Idealist. The man has a serious work ethic, and he’s a perfectionist to boot, a strange combination for a comedian. Instead of resting on his solid-gold laurels (Rock volunteers that he’d never work that hard if he were so rich), Seinfeld went back to doing stand-up, and if clips shown here (and in “Comedian”) are any indication, he’s funnier than ever.
Before Seinfeld receives his ugly glass award and gives a hilariously annoyed speech about the total stupidity of awards in general (that sounds bad, I know, but as with so many mundane topics, Seinfeld makes it work), this unpredictable and thoroughly entertaining conversation reminds us just how confident, smart and charismatic you have to be to hold an audience’s attention onstage. The comics trade quips along with compliments for Seinfeld, who stops them in the middle of a flood of praise and says something like, “I love this show! Can this be a series?”
But as Seinfeld himself points out, compared to being an actor, being a comedian is pretty tough: You not only have to write everything yourself, but then you have to get onstage, without any costumes or props or sidekicks, and make people laugh with what you wrote. This strange little award special is odd and funny and it makes you glad that there are Misguided Idealists out there like Seinfeld who are crazy enough to do such a difficult job instead of, say, languishing about their enormous estates, reading Tom Clancy novels.
She wouldn’t have a Willy or a Sam!
Speaking of languishing about enormous estates, Showtime’s “The Tudors” (premieres 10 p.m. EDT Sunday, April 1; the first two episodes are also available online) shows us just how good it is to be king, even when you’re short and fat and kind of ugly.
Oh wait! Showtime’s Henry VIII isn’t a pudgy redhead, he’s a tall, glamorous drink of water played by pouty-lipped bad-boy Jonathan Rhys Myers! With a $38 million budget and lots of beautiful costumes, elaborate castle sets and bubble-breasted handmaidens, “The Tudors” takes all of the intrigue and power struggles and tomfoolery of the House of Tudor and gives it six-pack abs and a rock-star swagger.
Fair enough, this is TV. Unlike his contemporary and advisor Sir Thomas More (Jeremy Northam) and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Sam Neill), the king may be misguided but he’s much more of a hedonist than an idealist: All he appears to care about is women and power. Which would be fine, but it’s pretty obvious that the real Henry VIII was far more nuanced and intelligent and original than the childish playboy depicted in “The Tudors.” While Rhys Myers does a good job with Henry’s haughty outbursts, he doesn’t really bring any unexpected flair or thoughtful tics to this picture. We believe him as a bored monarch, looking for action and excitement and a chance to air his petty grievances, even if it means plunging his country into war. But do we want to watch him for more than a few hours?
Eventually there will be twists and turns and crazy King Henry will fall madly in love, but so far this series looks like lots of sex and flashy sets without much well-crafted dialogue or intriguing character development to back it up. We can only hope this preening, too-sexy Henry will hit his stride in time, ridding Europe of Misguided Idealists and making England safe for Sluggish Second-Guessers and Dallying Divorced Kings once and for all.
Next week: Tony tangles with a Misguided Idealist in the family, when “The Sopranos” returns for its final bow.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)