"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)
Sometimes you see celebrities out in public acting bored, like they’re somehow too cool for the crowds of gawkers and photographers — and, ahem, deeply serious film reporters, watching only for sociological purposes — that define them as celebrities in the first place. Not so Eva Mendes, who turned up the other night for the premiere of her new film “Live!” at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Mendes did not act as if she were mildly repulsed by the whole enterprise, or pretend to be internally debating the chapter of Kierkegaard she had just read. Maybe it’s because Mendes is 33, and after years of “Children of the Corn V” and “Urban Legends: Final Cut” she’s finally a movie star, and she has been around the block enough times to understand that it won’t last forever. Whatever the reason, girlfriend was working that red carpet. She strutted and preened and blew kisses, Marilyn style. She playfully smoothed out the fabric of her dress so her, er, figure would show itself off better. She leveled her dazzling eyes and dazzling teeth on each of us for a moment as she passed. My 1.9 seconds with Eva were special. I understand that there may be other guys in her life. But whatever else happens, we’ll always have 8:17:04 p.m.
It was like being in the middle of a lightning storm. The pack of paparazzi opened its insectlike compound eyes and sprang into action: A star who acts like one! One who has decided to treat this parasitic exercise, this tightrope walk across a chasm of bottomless vapidity, as if it were actually fun! Mendes has a similar effect on “Live!” a mendacious but entertaining reality-show spoof that strives to be high-minded even as it wallows in the worst kinds of TV fantasy. It seems much funnier and meatier than it has any reason to be, and that’s largely because Mendes attacks the movie and eats it whole, without mussing a thread of her form-fitting haute couture outfits.
“Live!” follows Katy Courbet (Mendes), head programmer of a fictional network called ABN, as she prepares to produce the latest innovation in reality TV: a live Russian-roulette tournament with a loaded gun and checks for $5 million awaiting those who pull the trigger and survive. It pains me to report this, but “Live!” belongs to that most tedious of 21st century genres, the mockumentary. See, it’s purportedly being made by Rex (David Krumholtz), a shaggily earnest film school type, as a ruthless exploration about Katy’s quest to kill somebody on the air for a better Nielsen share. The only purpose to this structure, it seems, is to let us watch Katy zipping her sheath skirt as she emerges from a ladies room stall (she respects Rex for his ruthlessness) and watch Rex gradually fall under her sway, intellectually and otherwise.
Katy seems to wear different fabulous designer ensembles in every shot, let alone every scene, and Mendes plays her as a prowling feline predator, or perhaps a shape-shifting Circean enchantress. She’s smarter than anybody gives her credit for being, and tougher than anybody who has ever been born. She knows what Rex wants before he wants it; she knows what we all want, and she’s going to make sure we get it. It’s not even quite true that Katy thinks it’s OK to show people shooting themselves in the head on TV. (She holds secret doubts, as it turns out.) It’s more like she sees the Manifest Destiny of television, and grasps that morality, hers and anybody else’s, is completely beside the point.
Writer-director Bill Guttentag delivers all this in the slick, bright colors it demands, and he certainly gets credit for writing this bigger-than-life villain. (When her boss tells her that the idea of seeing somebody die on the air gave him a hard-on, her first instinct is to check out his lap to see if it’s still there.) For about the first hour, as Katy fights against the network suits and the Federal Communications Commission’s lawyers to bring her misshapen mutant baby to life, “Live!” has all the hyperbolic meanness that was pretty much lacking from Jake Kasdan’s similarly themed “The TV Set” (which premiered here last year).
Then Guttentag makes a crucial strategic error, expending tremendous energy on actually showing us the premiere episode of Katy’s game show (itself called “Live!”), in which six stage-managed, “Real World”-style contestants — their up-close-and-personal segments queued and ready to go — spin around on a set built to look like a revolver’s chamber, waiting for their appointment with destiny. It’s gruesome, but it isn’t really satire because reality TV cannot be satirized. Except for its premise and its climactic moment, Katy’s show is less lurid than a lot of stuff that has really been on the air over the past seven or eight seasons.
Second, this shifts the focus from the film’s only magnetic personality to the game show’s assemblage of bogus contestants: the surfer dude, the struggling farmer, the former cheerleader, the buppie, the gay kid from a tough neighborhood. The only one who’s interesting is the only one who’d never get cast in the real world: the onetime fashion model turned feminist performance artist. Finally the movie gets swallowed up by its subject matter, becoming exactly the kind of vicious spectacle it supposedly abjures. We’re hypnotized for the same reason the film’s fictional booboisie audience is hypnotized: We want to see which of these suckers will actually be sacrificed for us.
Tribeca screenings of “Live!” have been packed, and I don’t doubt that somebody’s going to acquire it or that a wider public will pay to see it, partly for the outrageousness of the premise (which Guttentag hasn’t thought through as well as he might) but mostly for Mendes’ dominating femme-fatale performance. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty classic Tribeca problem film: It has one sensational asset and some decent material, but the reasons why it’s not premiering at a more prestigious festival — and why its commercial ceiling will probably be pretty low, in the end — are evident.
This festival has succeeded, far beyond anybody’s initial expectations, in becoming a major cultural event. But Tribeca’s success is based more on volume than quality. It hosts world premieres by the dozen, but not many of them, especially among the American narrative films, are worth making much fuss about. This is an important destination for documentaries, and over the past few years, festival director Peter Scarlet has brought in lots of adventurous foreign films for what may be their one shot at finding American viewers. (My favorite film from last year’s festival was the rich and tragic Egyptian melodrama “The Yacoubian Building,” which still has no U.S. distribution.)
Most of the indie features that end up at Tribeca, however, are films that didn’t get into Sundance or Berlin or Cannes or Toronto. It’s not like those four festivals never miss good stuff, but let’s face it: The pool of filmmaking genius is only so deep, and the Tribecans end up scavenging what’s left after the big guys have finished. So the more interesting entries are often high-concept oddities like “Live!” and, even more so, Zak Penn’s cheerful improv-comedy film “The Grand,” which is, God help us, another mockumentary and another attempt to spoof the unspoofable inanity of TV. (According to rumor, it’s also one of the main acquisition targets at Tribeca this week.)
“The Grand” kicked off Tribeca’s festival within a festival of sports films, cosponsored by ESPN. It’s about poker, and I’m not sure who decided that was officially a sport. (At least darts, which is broadcast as a competitive sport in Britain, involves standing upright.) OK, “The Grand” isn’t really about poker, although I guess the poker tournament seen within it is “real” (in the sense of unscripted and unrehearsed). It isn’t really about anything except its cast goofing all over one another, but it’s supposed to be, let’s see, a behind-the-scenes film about a TV broadcast of the world’s richest poker tournament, one in which Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson), the deadbeat scion of a casino-owning family, has vowed to recoup his family fortune and save the historic Plugged Nickel from the wrecking ball.
As my idol Joe Bob Briggs used to say, that’s an awful lot of plot getting in the way of the story. Not to mention an awful lot of card playing. Possibly fans and scholars of ESPN’s seemingly endless coverage of poker will find the gentle parody herein irresistible, but I find myself still mildly surprised that grown adults will sit and watch strangers play card games on television. Is backgammon next? Cribbage? Chutes and ladders? I guess I’d watch “Celebrity Candyland” if Eva Mendes were on it.
Presumably, the real point of all that structure and back story is to create absurd situations for Penn’s roster of comedians and eccentrics — from Harrelson and Werner Herzog to Cheryl Hines, Ray Romano, David Cross and Chris Parnell — to ping-pong around in. Penn says that 90 percent of the film was unscripted, and I can believe it (for good reasons and bad). He has clearly done his time absorbing “Kentucky Fried Movie” and the early National Lampoon films, and there are some moments of inspired lunacy and enjoyably classic borscht belt shtick.
As a player always seeking an edge through outrageous behavior, Cross shows up at the tournament in a head-to-toe hijab, insisting to an official, “I converted to, uh, Muslim last night.” Then there’s Parnell, playing the number-crunching, possibly autistic poker geek who lives with his mom and always mumbles the following mantra at the table, right before sipping his special “brain drink”: “It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, the stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.” (Contestants! Citations, please.)
Meanwhile, Hines plays a harried suburban mom who just might be the best player in the tournament (with Romano as her hapless, fantasy-football-obsessed husband), Richard Kind is the Internet poker demon from Wisconsin who has never played against live humans, and Dennis Farina is the Vegas old-timer who misses the kneecapping and mob hits. But the idea of Herzog as a coldblooded card sharp known only as “The German” is funnier than the execution, and you could say that about this movie as a whole.
Harrelson is a natural comic talent but not much of an improviser, and he never settles in; an entire subplot involving Michael McKean as a nefarious but dimwitted developer pretty much fizzles out. Some of the throwaway bits in “The Grand” — like the great Gabe Kaplan, as the nebbishy dad to Hines and Cross’ brother-sister poker-playing tandem, wandering around backstage wondering whether the deli table is fresh — are funnier than the main action. Penn keeps the movie flowing in its brisk, bland, mildly frenetic style, and this film should have every chance of clicking with a guy-centric niche audience (unlike his last spoof-umentary, “Incident at Loch Ness,” which was pretty much a dud).
Will some Korean or Korean-American reader please explain to me how you do that domino thing where you make a row of shot glasses fall into a row of beer glasses? I’ve seen it done in two different crime thrillers that premiered here this week, and it’s awesome. (But I suspect if you screw it up you really look like a jerk.) One of those movies was “West 32nd,” an intriguing shift in direction for American director Michael Kang, whose first film was last year’s charming coming-of-age tale, “The Motel,” and the other was “A Dirty Carnival,” a sleek and violent mob opera from Korean filmmaker Ha Yoo.
Kang has been studying up on the kinds of films Ha Yoo makes, as well as the kinds Martin Scorsese used to make. “West 32nd” has a limited budget and an uneven cast, but it paints the underworld of New York’s Koreatown in rich, alluring colors that don’t quite hide the rot. John Kim (John Cho) is the baby-faced, idealistic lawyer drawn into the world of Mike Juhn (Jun Sung Kim), a charismatic but shadowy guy of about his own age who assures him that Korean gangsters aren’t like the Italians and the Russians and the Dominicans and the blacks — there’s no violence, everybody gets along, things get worked out. Famous last words, of course. John’s there to investigate a murder, and Mike knows a lot more about it than he’s telling. (Mike and John do much of their bonding in the “room salons” of 32nd Street, mysterious private clubs with sushi, girls, lots of Johnnie Walker Black Label and the drinking game I mentioned above.)
There’s nothing remotely original about the plot of “West 32nd,” and Grace Park (of “Battlestar Galactica”) is a little limp as the principal love interest. But Kang depicts the complicated social world of Korean immigrants and their American-born kids with subtlety and almost no sentimentality. Finally, to escape from “West 32nd” John has to shed his middle-class pretension and become as vicious as the men he at first patronizes. If John had seen “A Dirty Carnival” (not to mention anything by Park Chanwook) he might not have harbored any illusions about Koreans and violence in the first place.
Ha Yoo’s impressive big-screen entertainment elegantly repurposes bits and pieces of various mob classics — I especially feel “Scarface,” “The Untouchables,” John Woo’s early pictures and the first few “Sopranos” seasons here — and it might be this season’s must-see for fans of Asian genre film. Its hero (played by the stylish Jo In-seong) is a midlevel mob striver of around 30 named Byung-du. He’s supporting his mom and sisters and he’s not many years removed from being a normal guy with normal friends. But a ruthless streak is starting to emerge.
Byung-du is being drawn back toward an old sweetheart, a quintessential good girl who works in a bookstore, but the big boss has started to offer him opportunities for advancement — like the chance to garrote a hostile district attorney on a country road. Meanwhile, his filmmaker friend, a hapless struggling artist, longs to meet his fellow mobsters to help him flesh out a movie idea. You won’t be shocked to learn that none of this turns out too well.
“A Dirty Carnival” is the kind of sub-Shakespearean drama of ambition and betrayal that has been told in many languages and many countries, but not often with this much richness. Ha Yoo stages some of the most exhilarating fight scenes of the post-”Matrix” era, but in overall effect this is more a moody melodrama shot in rainy blues and washed-out yellows than a martial arts film. Like all the best crime pictures, “A Dirty Carnival” offers a jaundiced perspective on the society that nurtures and enables the mobsters. Real estate and pop culture are as much a part of the dirty carnival as murder and extortion; to paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism, business is just a continuation of crime by other means.
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)
For the latest movie coverage from Andrew O'Hehir, see his author page.