"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)
Everyone tells you to slow down and enjoy life, but they don’t explain who’s going to pay the bills and shake the crumbs out of the toaster while you’re moving at half speed. Personally, I know that if I stop and smell the roses, I usually end up lying around in some rose bed all day while my boss tries desperately to reach me on my cellphone.
And most of the time, I don’t even smell roses. I smell financial liabilities and unfinished to-do lists, a smell not unlike burnt toast. For me, free time means rehashing old conversations or worrying about how much I should be saving for retirement.
Seizing the day is a slippery slope for old people like me. Once you’re old enough to fully grasp just how short life is, you’re constantly tempted to hop the next plane to Italy and max out your credit cards on really good pasta and Chianti. But you’re also old enough to know that if you don’t sublimate those urges, the dog won’t get fed and the toaster will fill up with crumbs and then burst into flames and burn the house down at the exact moment when the fire insurance expires because the bill went unpaid for too long.
Mind of the unmarried man
This tension between responsibility and hedonistic self-indulgence strikes at the tumultuous heart of Showtime’s “Californication” (premieres at 10:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 13, after the return of “Weeds”). The half-hour comedy stars David Duchovny as novelist Hank Moody, a horny middle-aged guy who handles writer’s block by cruising for hot younger chicks. He’s having a reasonably exciting time, albeit in a drunken, self-deprecating, wishy-washy sort of way, but his escapades feel increasingly unsavory as his own daughter approaches her teen years.
In fact, Hank Moody is the kind of character who would be wildly unlikable if anyone but Duchovny played him. He drinks too much, behaves like your standard overconfident asshole, occasionally pines for his ex-girlfriend Karen (Natascha McElhone), who has long since moved, and mumbles incoherently about his inability to write. “Writers write. That’s what they do,” says Hank. “Me, not so much. Nada, nothing.” Worst of all, he optioned his novel “God Hates Us All,” and some studio made it into a movie (“starring Tom and Katie”) called “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Next up, a film version of Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” titled “Careless Whisper”…
But Duchovny not only makes Hank forgivable, he makes him lovable. Like Bill Clinton stopping by McDonald’s for a Happy Meal in the middle of his morning jog or holding forth on honor and dignity while getting a blow job under his desk, Duchovny effortlessly embodies a charming mix of idealism and the lost boy repeatedly led into temptation. If Hank winked and acted as if his weaknesses were vaguely adorable (see also: “Mind of the Married Man”), he’d get on our nerves, big time. Instead, Hank is a nice mix of cynical, vulnerable and vaguely self-hating, grounded by the self-possessed, down-to-earth quality Duchovny brings to every role.
“Californication” is reasonably charming straight out of the gate, and as the story progresses, the intelligence of the writing gains traction. One night out on the town, Hank’s friends set him up with a woman, Meredith, who’s clearly not his type. When Meredith urges Hank to tell her about herself so she doesn’t have to tell him (“I mean, that’s what writers do, right? They make up stuff?”), he gets a twinkle in his eye as his two friends shrink in their seats. Soon, Hank is making a series of elaborate liquor-fueled guesses about who she is and what she does for a living. Even though we’ve seen this scene before in other movies, the moment has a fresh feeling of devastation and recklessness:
“You had a serious boyfriend in college, broke up right after, he married the next one. You got a low-maintenance gig in the human resources industry, had a string of bad relationships. You put on some weight. You looked around and saw all your friends starting to pair up and get married, so you decided you should lose the weight. You joined a gym … maybe you did a little running. You say you want to work, maybe start your own party-planning business, you fancy yourself a poor gal’s Martha Stewart? But what you really wanna do is sit at home, on the couch, with some poor sap, watching reality TV while he watches you get fat again.”
Come on, now, be fair. Isn’t that every girl’s dream?
You can tell by Meredith’s face that Hank has hit his mark. “That’s so mean, but it’s exactly the sort of thing a writer would say,” I tell my poor sap of a husband.
“Yeah, that was clever. I bet a writer wrote that!” he replies. Ouch!
So maybe “Californication” is just another self-indulgent story told by yet another self-indulgent writer, but with so much sex, booze and mean-spiritedness in the air, it’s hard not to enjoy all of it. The moral seems to be that you can have everything you want, you can indulge all of your urges and focus completely on enjoying yourself, but it still might not make you happy.
Hey, wait a minute — isn’t that the moral of “Mad Men,” too? There must be a lot of unhappy TV writers out there. Apparently life in the rose bed isn’t exactly a bed of roses…
Boy in the bubble
For more proof of that, tune in to “Flipping Out” (10 p.m. on Bravo), a reality show that follows the spirited life of Jeff Lewis, a sad little boy who’s allergic to the big, wide world, so he has to live in a protected cocoon, surrounded by an army of loyal pets, dedicated assistants and spiritual healers.
No, Jeff isn’t a child with a rare immune disorder, he’s a real estate mogul who buys expensive properties and fixes them up so that rich people can move into them without being kept up at night by tacky wallpaper or unattractive wall-to-wall carpeting.
Jeff, like Duchovny’s Hank Moody, is a character who could exist only in the rarefied air of the Southland. He has that expressionless face — smooth, wrinkle-free forehead, puffy lips — common to a new herd of ageless clones, roaming the streets of Los Angeles, searching for their souls!
Immediately, we learn that Jeff likes stuff to be… just so. In the first scene of the series, Lewis gives his assistants Jenni and Brant his lunch order:
Jeff: I want to change my drink order.
Jenni: What would you like?
Jeff: Ideally, 70 percent lemonade, 20 percent punch, 10 percent Sprite. If they don’t have fruit punch, do like 85 percent lemonade, and 15 percent Sprite.
Brant: All right.
Jeff: If they don’t have lemonade, do 85 percent punch and 15 percent Sprite… or 7UP.
It’s charitable of Bravo, really, to introduce us to the Worst Possible Boss in the World, so we can never imagine that we’ve ever, in our lives, had to tolerate anyone half as sadistic.
“Jeff is unique because he’s crazy,” says Jenni. “He has five psychics, a pet integrator, a staff of employees that really don’t do that much. He’s obsessive-compulsive. He’s neurotic. He’s a loose cannon, but a lot of geniuses are crazy, bottom line.”
“I’m very fortunate, because I’ve found a business that validates and celebrates my disorders,” Jeff tells the camera. I know how he feels, but… I wouldn’t necessary call it a turn of good fortune to be paid for your worst flaws.
Jeff certainly behaves like a person whose flaws are being encouraged by his circumstances, a sad scenario that might someday be named Spears-Lohan Syndrome. When Jeff discovers Brant talking on the phone in his car outside one of Jeff’s properties, he goes ballistic because he feels that his employees should never talk on the phone while they’re on the clock unless they’re driving somewhere. In other words, go ahead and endanger the lives of others — just don’t waste my time at any cost.
Brant is unrepentant. This could get nasty. The cameras are rolling, and Jeff is getting steamed. There’s no way this won’t end badly. And then — it does!
Jeff: You’re fired!
Brant: No, I’m quitting!
Jeff: No, you’re fired. I fired you before you quit, so you’re fired!
Brant explains that no, he’s quitting because Jeff is being ridiculous, to which Jeff responds, “OK, good luck. Good luck bartending.” Then he counts out a pile of cash, preparing to demean Brant even more by throwing some bills at him before he leaves.
“You can mail me a check,” Brant says as he walks out.
“I’m having a tough time dealing with stress and anxiety,” Jeff tells his spiritual healer in the next scene. “It seems like people are irritating me more than they normally do.” The healer responds by covering him with a Navajo blanket and encouraging him to yell loudly into a rolled-up blanket. Wait a minute. Even at his healer’s house, he’s forced to yell into a blanket? What kind of pillow-biting nonsense is that?
Instead of visiting a self-conscious healer, maybe he should stop imbibing so much high-fructose corn syrup. I’m thinking a switch to 55 percent lemonade and 45 percent sparkling water might do this guy a world of good.
Soon we see that Jeff’s life is just one purchased scenario after another: He’s built his whole world around buying things. But whether he’s buying a house, a person or an arbitrary solution to his emotional challenges, he always seems the same: high strung, controlling, manic and unable to relax.
The whole spectacle would be unspeakably sad, if it weren’t so — you guessed it — wildly entertaining. You may doubt Jeff’s sanity, but there’s no doubt that he belongs in front of the camera. My only beef with “Flipping Out” is that it’s an hour long. All of the shows in the Insane Mogul reality genre are an hour long, of course, but given the great comedy here, why not trim it down and make it a half-hour reality comedy instead? Do we really care about his renovations, or how his inspections go? No. We just want to see him meet with his psychic, act like a supreme tool, and fire people for no good reason.
We want to see these things because sometimes, the more worthless and pathetic a show is, the more it feels reckless and decadent to watch it. We know we can’t fly to Italy, after all, so what’s the next best thing? You guessed it! Watching “Big Brother 8″!
Even though I quickly grow to hate the people on this show, with their endless prattling and their bad slogan T-shirts, I love to watch what happens to people when they have nothing but time on their hands. On CBS’s “Big Brother 8″ (9 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays), the residents aren’t allowed to read, they can’t play guitar, they can’t talk to anyone on the phone. All they can do is overthink their circumstances and plot to destroy each other.
It’s fascinating to watch how quickly things turn sour. For the first few weeks, aside from a few rogue lunatics, most of the people in the group are friendly to each other. They laugh easily, play on each other’s jokes, trade anecdotes. Slowly but surely, though, they get quieter and more wary. They start to anger more easily.
After a month, you can see all of the cumulative idle hours take a toll on the houseguests, particularly the ones who chain-smoke instead of working out, or pace and twist the knife and mouth off instead of calming themselves down.
The biggest ticking time bomb this year is Dick, whose nickname is, appropriately enough, “Evil.” Dick is a middle-aged rocker who looks the way the real Hank Moody might look, after years of too much drinking and smoking and freaking out. First he targeted his obvious enemies: Jen, an apparent narcissist who no one in the house likes, and Kail, a drippy, disloyal, ineffectual schemer who formed a weak alliance with three male houseguests, only to discover that none of them even got along. But once Dick felt comfortable being honest with everyone, he went nuts, railing on anyone who expressed a thought or opinion that didn’t mesh with his own.
“I just don’t agree and that’s way off from what I think,” he told utterly friendly and benign houseguest Jameka last week, as if she should care whether her opinions or beliefs fell in line with his.
But remember, these people have nothing to do, and the cameras are rolling! As we’ve seen, year after year, even though you’d expect the residents of the house to behave self-consciously and keep to themselves for two months, instead they make friendships, break up, fall in love, and mess with each other’s heads.
Which would be great, if the producers would boil three hours of footage every week down to, say, just one. Imagine, no more dull head-of-household competitions or interviews with that limp dishrag of a host, Julie Chen. Just one solid hour of hearty laughter, tears and ruthless infighting!
But then, maybe the point of “Big Brother 8″ is to give us a taste of what it might feel like to live in a vacuum, without any structure. It’s like winning the lottery, or selling a big novel and then not being able to write again, or throwing money around on real estate and surrounding yourself with hired friends. It sounds great. It should be great. So why are these people so miserable?
It’s almost enough to make you relish the small joys of good, old-fashioned hard work. But not quite.
Next week: “Weeds” returns and “Flight of the Conchords” continues to shine. But is anyone still watching “Big Love”?
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)