"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)
It’s the middle of summer — or, actually, it’s the beginning of summer yet it’s also Midsummer’s Day, go figure — but these art-film people don’t want to let us go to the beach, let alone study up on the legendary history of the Silver Surfer (is he good, or evil, or what?) and read that 1977 Sidney Sheldon novel Aunt Patty left under the sofa. No!
It’s not enough that distributors keep churning out these piles of serious movies, week after week, but then they turn out to be puzzling. You’re supposed to think about them, and I — well, I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot to ask this time of year. Summer makes us all dumber, and please remember that I spent three weeks in Cannes, which has documented effects on intelligence, pigmentation, pretentiousness and the propensity to refer to famous people one has met once by their first names. (Harvey’s a sweet man, I don’t care what anyone says. And Sharon? Still gorgeous!)
That’s a roundabout way of reporting that I feel confused about this week’s two marquee offerings, although it’s just possible the confusion lies in the material. Pascale Ferran’s French-language adaptation of “Lady Chatterley” is an odd and volatile mixture, portraying literature’s most famous coupling at a leisurely pace. More sensuous than sexy, and more claustrophobic than explosive, this film is often sharply realistic and at other moments plodding and unfocused. It’s a profoundly thought-out picture about a love affair that blooms organically and spontaneously.
Zoe Cassavetes’ romantic comedy “Broken English” seems to have the opposite problem. This is an itchily neurotic film that fights its genre to a draw, with a female protagonist so steeped in pharmaceutical despair she’s one short step away from a Jacqueline Susann novel or an early Pedro Almodóvar movie. “Broken English” is interesting exactly to the extent that Cassavetes can’t control it; I doubt she realizes how repellent and terrifying her main character really is, or that the pair of female best friends depicted in the film can’t stand each other and just haven’t realized it yet.
I know exactly what to think about “Black Sheep,” a horror-comedy from New Zealand that’s one of this year’s film-festival fave raves. (Since last fall it’s been seen at Toronto, South by Southwest, Tribeca, Brussels, Amsterdam, Seattle and Newport, R.I.) Jonathan King’s film is an intentionally moronic mash-up of horror clichés bound to delight all fans of grade-Z entertainment. It answers the question “Can sheep actually be scary?” with a resounding maybe.
If you really want terror, you won’t see anything all year as profoundly scary as Jennifer Baichwal’s “Manufactured Landscapes,” a magisterial tour of the world’s most devastating and devastated industrial zones with Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. Purely as a pictorial experience, it’s an amazing film, but your mind will barely be able to process the Joseph Conrad-scale horror of what Baichwal and Burtynsky show us.
“Lady Chatterley”: Love and liberation in an English garden, en traduction française
Viewers will no doubt like and dislike Pascale Ferran’s “Lady Chatterley” in ample numbers, but the picture itself is an impressive construction that seems indifferent to such concerns. Watching it is something like swimming in the ocean: You have an idyllic, sun-struck dip for a while, and then the sun goes behind a cloud and you get stung by jellyfish and heaved up on the beach, shivering, half-dead and slimed with seaweed. It’s all the same to the ocean.
Let’s deal with the dumbest and most obvious question first: This movie’s in French, but the setting has not been transposed or anything. It’s set in post-World War I England and all the characters are meant to be English. This is no stranger, when you think about it, than staging a version of “Les Misérables” or “The Three Musketeers” entirely in English. (There are numerous French film adaptations of English literary classics, but we don’t often see them here.) You just have to deal with this when watching Ferran’s film, and it’s clearly going to be distracting for some viewers.
There were moments when I literally forgot about the language issue, but this “Lady Chatterley” (whose director has long been an esteemed behind-the-scenes figure in French cinema) is a work of translation in various senses. It’s not just a film in the French language; it’s also a French interpretation of a fundamentally English story about class and sex and liberation. As presented by Julien Hirsch’s moody camerawork, the lush, dripping forests of Clifford Chatterley’s estate, so suggestive of somethingness, don’t look quite like any English woodlands I’ve ever seen. While Ferran certainly imbues this landscape with a sort of immanent eroticism, there’s also a philosophical, almost diagrammatic element to her film. This is D.H. Lawrence rendered in the metric system.
Ferran and her co-writer, Roger Bohbot, have not in fact adapted Lawrence’s famous and formerly banned “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” but rather “John Thomas and Lady Jane,” his second draft of the same story. (The better-known version was the third draft.) So the earthy gamekeeper who redeems our heroine from her sexless marriage to a crippled aristocrat-turned-industrialist is named Parkin, not Mellors, and he’s genuinely working-class, not the officer-class rebel of the final version.
“John Thomas and Lady Jane” also features less conversation than “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which makes it better suited to film adaptation. We don’t get Lawrentian soapbox speeches from these characters, and for that I am grateful. As Parkin, Jean-Louis Coulloc’h is a thick, oblong man rooted in his rubber boots, hair swept high off his peculiar forehead. He’s disinclined to converse on topics more introspective than the nesting habits of birds. Standing upright, her consciousness all in her shoulders and bright face, the fluttery Connie Chatterley of Marina Hands yearns to draw him out, but also fears driving him away.
Despite its peculiar Frenchification, Ferran’s “Lady Chatterley” gets much closer to Lawrence’s intentions than any previous film version. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up to you. The author’s anger about class repression can only seem antique to a 21st-century audience (and certainly never had the same significance in France), but Ferran grasps that Lawrence was in a certain way quite moralistic about sex, and would surely have been horrified by the use of his novel’s title as a synonym for pornography.
This “Lady Chatterley” may resemble Lawrence’s awkward, earnest, rapturous poetry more than it does his fiction. Yeah, we see Parkin — we never learn his first name — and Connie do the deed on the floor of his toolshed (get it?), under a tree, on a rug before the fireplace and right down in the gloppy mud. (There is full mutual nudity but no actual on-screen poking.) But the sex is more a means than an end, that end consisting of running naked through the rain, twining flowers in each other’s hair (on heads, and elsewhere) and generally becoming one with the explosive fecundity of nature.
I’m not being facetious, nor do I deny that most of us could use a dose of that kind of eroticism. Lawrence always risks becoming ridiculous with his passionate sincerity, his naive and angry primitivism; you either ride along with him or you don’t. Ferran’s picture has some of that quality too, but in its measured pace and calculated loveliness tries to walk an unstable line between the Anglo-Saxon and Gallic notions of sex and sensuality, so famously incompatible. If a film can be both lush and cold, both erotic and cautious, that film is “Lady Chatterley.” It’s a picture to honor and appreciate, not necessarily to love.
“Lady Chatterley” opens June 22 in New York and Stamford, Conn.; July 6 in Chicago; July 13 in Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Philadelphia; July 20 in Portland, Ore., San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle; July 27 in Baltimore; Aug. 3 in Providence, R.I.; Aug. 10 in Santa Fe, N.M.; and Aug. 17 in Atlanta, St. Louis and Columbus, Ohio, with more cities to follow.
“Broken English”: For those who thought the “Sex and the City” women were undermedicated
So Zoe Cassavetes is the daughter of independent-film pioneer John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands, a fact that will be mentioned by every journalist who ever writes about her from now till the day she dies (when it will be in her obituary). Just thought I’d get that out of the way. Holding her feature-film debut, “Broken English,” up against her dad’s work is of course fundamentally unfair. But it’s such a strange combination of chick-flick cliché and raw, naked, uncontrolled emotion that one needs to find some standard of comparison.
Then there’s the equally unwarranted but irresistible question of how much Nora, the main character memorably played by Parker Posey, is based on Cassavetes herself — and whether or not Cassavetes is aware how unflattering a portrait it is. From the moment we meet her, Nora seems to be one of those flibbertigibbet middle-class women in the 28-to-32 age bracket who’s having an almost inexplicable breakdown. Instead of embracing her fleeting youth by dating a zillion guys, traveling the world or studying Zen or parasailing or Kurdish or pastry, she’s working a well-paid but depressing Manhattan hotel job and marinating in booze, pills and crappy self-esteem.
I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic; anguish is always real to the sufferer, regardless of his or her objective circumstances. But Nora is a pit of boundless unhappiness, well beyond the normal confines of the moody romantic heroine. Over lunch with her hellish, meddlesome mom (played by Rowlands, naturally enough) she begins weeping and moaning aloud: No man will love her, she’s a wretched mess, etc. To the extent that Cassavetes is resisting formula, I admire her, but she may have been too hypnotized by the uncanny, repulsive specter Posey has conjured up. For this kind of movie to work, we need to see the main character’s essential lovableness, not to be thinking: Jesus, honey, you’re right, you’re a freak. No self-respecting guy would marry you if the only other women alive were Ann Coulter and Joan Rivers.
Nora’s supposed best friend, Audrey (Drea de Matteo of “Sopranos” fame), is a perennially scowling, yuppie-nightmare wife who seems devoted to projecting her own unhappiness onto Nora. Does Cassavetes realize how little these two women like each other, and how much of their relationship is a vampiric exchange of hostility? Maybe she does; she has certainly made de Matteo look haggard and worn despite her noteworthy curves, something of an accomplishment in itself.
Justin Theroux injects some actual enjoyment into the proceedings as an asshole TV actor with a Mohawk (he’s the star of some show called “The Hit Man”) whom Nora foolishly sleeps with — you can’t say it’s against her better judgment because she doesn’t have any. Hemmed in by her job, her mom, her married friends and her self-loathing, Nora barely notices Julien (French heartthrob Melvil Poupaud), the Gallic playboy in a silly hat who hits on her at a party. Of course he turns out to be the guy who’s throwing a metaphorical rope into her well of despair, but the question remains: Dear God, why?
OK, the Sydney Greenstreet chapeau isn’t working, but Julien is a slim Parisian charmer with large, soulful eyes and a Marlboro tucked behind his ear. The overeducated young women of New York are pretty much at his disposal. What draws him to this ambulatory panic attack? Cassavetes doesn’t come close to answering this question, and doesn’t seem aware that it is a question. Posey has been justly acclaimed for her work in this movie, but the character she creates is a horror show. If you take Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City,” but subtract the wardrobe, the capacity for self-reflection and about half the gawky sex appeal, and then add a substance-abuse problem and an incipient personality disorder, you’ve got Nora.
“Broken English” shifts from awkward, agonizing realism to pure fantasy about two-thirds of the way through, which is quite a relief. Once you accept that Julien actually likes Nora and that for no particular reason they lose contact and she has to go to Paris, grumpy Audrey in tow, to find him, we’ve entered the cloud-cuckoo-land of romantic happy endings. Removed from her milieu and given the mission of finding herself, Nora lightens up and becomes something like a tolerable human being for the first time.
Despite its schizophrenic nature and often disagreeable characteristics, “Broken English” has flashes of something. You might say it has an integrity of purpose, if not of execution. Maybe it will serve to exorcise Zoe Cassavetes’ demons, and she can decide whether either of its narrative modes, anguished John Cassavetes-style naturalism or light comedy, is actually hers.
“Broken English” opens June 22 in New York and Los Angeles; July 6 in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington; July 13 in Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Santa Cruz, Calif., and Austin, Texas; July 18 in Lake Worth, Fla.; July 20 in Charlotte, N.C., Santa Fe, N.M., and Wilmington, Del.; July 25 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; July 27 in Little Rock, Ark.; and Aug. 1 in Portland, Maine, with more cities to follow.
“Black Sheep”: Woolly, cloven-hoofed, methane-spewing monsters must die!
These days I’ll cut any horror director some slack who declines to follow Eli Roth down the dead-end path of gruesomeness for its own sake. My objections are aesthetic, not essentially moral, although you could argue that somewhere down the line the two intersect. We see all sorts of random strangers — visiting European and Japanese businesspeople, mostly — getting their necks ripped out and arms chewed off by mutated flesh-eating ovines in Jonathan King’s “Black Sheep.” Jolly good fun, I say.
King wants to sizzle your biscuits a little, like any decent horror-phile, but his bloodshed and impressive creature effects (by the WETA Workshop, of “Lord of the Rings” fame) are folded into a good-humored pastiche whose ingredients are a bit of “Night of the Living Dead,” a little “Island of Dr. Moreau,” a fair dose of “The Fly” and a topping of self-deprecating Kiwi humor. It reminds me more than a little of “Frogs,” a 1972 movie with Ray Milland and Sam Elliott whose half-intentional comedy I did not appreciate at the time.
What’s the use of plot summary, honestly? Genetic engineering experiments on a remote New Zealand farm result not just in a new breed of man-eating mutton, but also (in an unexplained turn of events) in vampire-style sheep whose bite turns people into half-sheep, half-man monsters. What else do you want to know? Does it make any sense? Of course not.
Acting is only so-so, although Peter Feeney makes a fine impression as the unctuous Angus Oldfield, who has turned his great-granddad’s New Zealand sheep farm into a sinister monster-breeding facility. His estranged brother Henry (Nathan Meister) comes home after many years in the big city and becomes our hero, hooking up along the way with a vegan hippie chick named Experience (Danielle Mason), who’s actually there to liberate the persecuted wool-bearers, as well as to read chakras and critique the farm’s feng shui. (Special marks to Tandi Wright for her sexy, bespectacled, incorrigibly evil scientist.)
Can you really make the dullest and most docile of domesticated animals into convincing monstrosities? I don’t know about that, but the effects are impressive (the half-sheep creatures indeed bear a resemblance to LOTR’s Orcs) and King’s action scenes are ludicrous, horrifying and gratuitous in the finest monster-movie tradition. In the larger sense, the movie plays for laughs, but the actors never do, and here and there threads of actual darkness poke through the farce. If you’ve ever actually laughed out loud at a “Toxic Avenger” movie, this one is for you.
“Black Sheep” opens June 22 in New York and Los Angeles; July 6 in Chicago and Minneapolis; July 13 in San Diego; July 20 in Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., Rochester, N.Y., and San Jose, Calif.; July 27 in Atlanta and Nashville; Aug. 3 in Charlotte, N.C., Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis; Aug. 10 in Seattle and Aug. 17 in Tucson, Ariz., with more cities to follow.
“Manufactured Landscapes”: The beauty, and terror, of what we’ve done to our planet
From the opening shot of Jennifer Baichwal’s “Manufactured Landscapes,” which may last 10 minutes, you’re either with her film or you’re not. Her camera pans and dollies down the immense expanse of a Chinese toy and electronics factory, many football fields in length, while the rows of workers in fluorescent yellow go about their machinelike tasks. Baichwal’s film is about an artist, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, but it’s really about what Burtynsky has chosen to look at, aspects of modern life most of us choose never to see.
Baichwal’s camera accompanies Burtynsky to unimaginably huge piles of coal; to the mile-and-a-half-long Three Gorges Dam, with its 120-mile-long reservoir; to the factories where circuit breakers and household irons and oil tankers are built and to the ass-end places in the world where they end up when we’ve thrown them away. Without a single moment of polemic, Burtynsky’s pictures — and Baichwal’s document of how they are made — asks urgent and painful questions about what we have done to the world, whether it’s been worth it and what, if anything, we can do to change it.
Burtynsky avoids questions of human suffering, but it’s here all the same as we watch teenage boys in Bangladesh clear crude-oil scum by hand from the holds of tankers left for dead on the “shipbreaking beach” at Chittagong. Or when we see old Chinese women who may never have seen a working computer, but spend their working lives smashing old motherboards and monitors (and releasing heavy metals into the environment) to scavenge scraps of reusable metals. “Manufactured Landscapes” may tell you more about how the 21st century world actually works than you really want to know, but it’s a heartbreaking, beautiful, awful and awesome film.
“Manufactured Landscapes” is now playing at Film Forum in New York. Other cities should follow.
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.