"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)
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Over the past two or three years, something new and exciting has been bubbling up on the outer fringes of American independent film, and the world is finally noticing. Well, noticing a little. This new wave of ultra-low-budget filmmaking, sometimes dubbed the “DIY Generation” or “mumblecore” (a word I hope never to speak or write again), is still a long way from anything the film industry understands as commercial viability. Andrew Bujalski, the 30-year-old writer-director who is the principal critics’ darling of this movement, has been forced to self-distribute his two films, “Funny Ha Ha” and “Mutual Appreciation” (and even doing that took him three years).
On one hand, it’s a scandalous state of affairs; Bujalski’s pictures have their flaws, but with their restless energy, fragmented naturalism and cinematic ambition, they expose most Amerindie efforts to capture the anomie zone of early adulthood as tired “Reality Bites” knockoffs. On the other hand, what ties Bujalski and other young DIY filmmakers like Aaron Katz, Mark and Jay Duplass, Joe Swanberg and Frank V. Ross together is not so much a shared aesthetic — their movies are pretty different, at least in mood — as a thoroughgoing rejection of the indie establishment’s dominant modes and mores. So what do they expect?
Most of these directors’ movies share a Dogme-like commitment to naturalism, a patience with long takes and rambling conversations, a sometimes agonizing focus on middle-class post-collegiate romantic relationships in various states of decay, and an indie-rock ethic of self-help and community building. Their roots lie most obviously in Jim Jarmusch, John Cassavetes and early Steven Soderbergh — one friend of mine opines that these guys need to send their copies of “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Sex, Lies and Videotape” back to Netflix — but maybe also in Godard, Rivette, Bresson and other Euro-arty models. For most of these filmmakers, the process of making the picture seems to be as important as the end result. Whatever you make of this, it’s pretty much the opposite of the “Napoleon Sunshine” indie formula, in which quirky characters and story lines are painstakingly packaged in familiar narrative structures aimed at a semi-elite, not-quite-mass audience.
Swanberg’s new film, “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” which looks to be the DIY movement’s breakout work, epitomizes all these tendencies. Bujalski, Mark Duplass and fellow filmmakers Kent Osborne, Ry Russo-Young and Todd Rohal all act in the film; during the shoot, they crashed for several weeks in a Chicago apartment that doubled as the set for an improvisational movie about a group of young people crashing in a Chicago apartment. In his director’s statement on the film’s Web site, Swanberg describes the shoot as a community bonding ritual: “Many people whom I love and admire were willing to put their busy lives on hold for days and weeks to … sleep on the floor with me in a rented apartment and make a movie. We shared ideas, fears, loves, successes and failures. We stayed up late and danced. It was magical. I grew as a person just as much as I did as a filmmaker.”
Under capitalism, of course, there is no such thing as a revolution too strident (or too warm and fuzzy) to be turned into a commodity. Anyway, it’s not as if these young directors don’t want viewers, or don’t want to get paid for their work. Bujalski is reportedly adapting Benjamin Kunkel’s novel “Indecision” for Paramount Pictures, which sounds like a prescription for disaster idea to me. Meanwhile, “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” along with Aaron Katz’s lovely romantic comedy “Quiet City” (more on that one next week), serves as centerpiece to “The New Talkies: Generation DIY,” a retrospective at New York’s IFC Center that also includes movies by Bujalski, the Duplass brothers, Ross and Kentucker Audley, along with earlier Katz and Swanberg efforts.
For whatever it’s worth, I’d rate “Mutual Appreciation” as clearly the best film produced by this nascent movement (which surely won’t contain Bujalski for long). Swanberg’s “LOL,” Katz’s “Dance Party USA” and the Duplass brothers’ “Puffy Chair” are other good starting points. “Hannah Takes the Stairs” is a denser, talkier and more challenging film; it’s the second-semester course, if you like.
We’ll stay on the margins of the marketplace for a quick DVD overview (something I promise to do more often in the months ahead). Admittedly, jumping from a grab bag of earnest young experimenters to European cinema’s slipperiest and most accomplished provocateur is unfair to both. Austrian director Michael Haneke is best known to American viewers for the art-house hits “The Piano Teacher” and “Caché,” but as a new box set of his first seven features demonstrates, his curiously addictive brand of cinematic confrontation has been a long time brewing.
Our final below-the-radar surprise is the year’s most delightful and deluded release, a faux-1920s silent adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror classic “The Call of Cthulhu,” long deemed unfilmable for some pretty good reasons. Admittedly, your hair may turn white and blood may come spurting out your eyeballs while you watch this disc, with its journey to unmentionable, Cyclopean, non-Euclidean cities and encounter with the squid-faced eldritch Old One who lives there, dead but eternal. But at least along the way you’ll have a great time. Or, to put it another way: Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!
“Hannah Takes the Stairs”: Three boyfriends, one bathtub and the “1812 Overture” as a trumpet duet
“There’s something that seems really wrong about handing somebody a script and saying, ‘It’s OK, I already wrote it. You just need to do this,’” said Joe Swanberg. He’s a large, cheerful fellow who looks like the kind of faintly bohemian college football player who might have a copy of “On the Road” stuffed in his locker. We were sitting in a cluttered conference room at the South by Southwest Film Festival, last March in Austin, Texas. Under the programming guidance of Matt Dentler, SXSW has become the DIY filmmaking movement’s mini-Mecca. “I’d much rather say, ‘What do we like about each other?’” Swanberg continues. “‘What do we want to learn about each other? And how do we turn that into a movie?’”
That manifesto summarizes both the potential and the difficulties of Swanberg’s rigorously improvised approach to filmmaking, and more specifically of “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” his densest and most accomplished work to date. (He has made two previous features, “LOL” and “Kissing on the Mouth,” along with an ongoing Internet soap opera called “Young American Bodies.”)
Swanberg half-intentionally parodies the title of a legendary indie film of an earlier generation, and indeed there’s something oddly reminiscent of Woody Allen about his work — if you can imagine Allen dead broke at age 25, making zero-budget movies starring his semislacker friends. Swanberg has the same obsession with failed male-female communication (in his case, uniquely crippled by the new technologies that supposedly enable it) and a similar set of neurotic, self-involved characters, bouncing through serial-monogamous couplings with no clear end in view.
While “LOL” focused on a posse of three fatally passive-aggressive guys too addicted to electronic modes of communication to pay attention to real-life women, “Hannah Takes the Stairs” reverses the sexual polarities. Its protagonist is a likable, perennially self-absorbed blond named Hannah (Greta Gerwig), who’s half femme fatale and half Lucille Ball. Her story doesn’t have much plot, but it has a nearly perfect symmetry: We witness the end of her relationship with a handsome deadbeat musician (Mark Duplass), the full arc of her next one, with a geeky, obsessive co-worker (Bujalski), and the beginning of a new one, with a sweet-tempered, slightly older guy (Kent Osborne).
Swanberg’s improvisational technique, tightly focused camerawork and deliberately choppy editing forces our attention to individual scenes rather than overarching story, and many of those have sharply observed moments. When Duplass’ and Bujalski’s characters abruptly swerve away from Hannah, without the courage to break up with her, or when Hannah subtly sabotages the imminent romance between Osborne’s character and her supposed best friend, it may bring back cringe-worthy memories of your own recent or not-so-recent romantic misdeeds. The film’s intimacy never feels fake, it’s sporadically and unpredictably funny (I didn’t exactly enjoy the cacophonous trumpet duet of the “1812 Overture,” but I won’t soon forget it), and the nonprofessional cast is surprisingly good.
Still, it’s those same qualities — the choppiness, the unrelenting self-examination, the almost painful sincerity, the low production values, the absence of conventional plotting — that will make at least some viewers bored and dissatisfied with “Hannah Takes the Stairs.” At the film’s SXSW premiere, a whole row of women in front of me, who had settled in with popcorn, Cokes and evident enthusiasm, got up and left after half an hour. Clearly, they didn’t find this entertaining.
Swanberg comes off in person as modest and humble, even eager to accept criticism. But he makes it clear that his aesthetic principles come ahead of pleasing a larger audience. It’s frustrating to see viewers driven away, Swanberg says, “but when you weigh that frustration against having to make other kinds of movies, making the kinds of movies you want to wins out in the end. It’s always hard to put so much love and energy and work into a film and then say, ‘Oh, but only 1/100 of the people are going to see it.’ But I’m stubborn, and I’d rather have the audience change to like my films than to change my films so the audience likes them.
“There’s nothing about ‘Hannah Takes the Stairs’ that couldn’t be reproduced with movie stars as a cutesy romantic comedy,” he goes on. “It’s totally doable. But by doing that, you would take all the things that make ‘Hannah’ special and strip them away. I’m totally uninterested in going that route.” He is more likely to make a zombie or a superhero movie, he says, than to make his old movies over again with mainstream resources. “I think going to the place that’s going to scare you and challenge you is the right path, versus saying, ‘Oh, I already did this and it works, so now I can redo it for more money.’”
If my endorsement of “Hannah Takes the Stairs” sounds lukewarm, maybe it is. I admired its patchy, uneven bittersweetness and its undeniable integrity, without ever loving it or feeling swept up in it. But, for Christ’s sake, let’s give the guy a break. Swanberg has been out of college for four years and all he’s managed to do is make three feature films (with another in the can), several shorts and an Internet video serial. At this point, his genius is more about his generosity and entrepreneurship, his daring and ambition, his vision of what is possible and what may become possible, than it is about the movies he has made. “Hannah Takes the Stairs” cost $40,000, which is by far the most money he has ever worked with.
Working cheaply, with off-the-shelf video cameras and a nonprofessional crew, Swanberg says, is the price of artistic freedom. “It takes tremendous weight off your shoulders in terms of what you’re going to tackle. If I’d had to do ‘Kissing on the Mouth’ on a cheap film budget of, like, $50,000, I don’t think I would have even set out to make the film, because it would be so unrealistic to think that it would make that money back. But knowing that it was only going to cost a few thousand dollars, and knowing that it was my few thousand dollars, allowed me to say, ‘Cool, this is the movie I want to make. So I’ll make it.’”
“Hannah Takes the Stairs” is now playing at the IFC Center in New York, as part of “The New Talkies: Generation DIY.” It opens Sept. 7 in Boston, Sept. 21 in Los Angeles and Sept. 28 in Seattle, with more cities to follow.
New on DVD: Evil at the heart of society in “The Films of Michael Haneke”; evil under the sea in “The Call of Cthulhu”
You can find plenty of laborious essays on the Internet decoding the films of Michael Haneke in the light of incomprehensible European social and literary theory. But, honest to Pete, you’re better off just watching them. Kino’s new box set “The Films of Michael Haneke,” covering the German-born, Austrian-raised director’s major works from “The Seventh Continent” in 1989 to “The Piano Teacher” in 2001, is its own seductive and treacherous lotusland. It’s a must-have item for cinephiles, but beware: Once you enter Haneke’s world, it’s not easy to get out.
As I wrote to somebody who demanded that I share my private theory about the origin of the mysterious surveillance videotapes in Haneke’s 2005 international hit “Caché” (not included here), you have to remember that his movies combine normal storytelling with a certain strain of postmodern provocation. Haneke is such a technical virtuoso, so skilled at camerawork and framing, atmosphere and mood, that it’s easy not to see that he’s aiming beyond the boundaries of ordinary narrative. He treats his characters with generosity and respect (or at least the ones he takes seriously), but he is also, always, seeking to remind us that we are participants in an artificial, highly ritualized process: the act of watching a film. So the middle-class family members terrorized by an invisible voyeur in “Caché” are characters in a story, but the force tormenting them is, like Augustine’s conception of God, not to be found inside their world.
Partway through Haneke’s terrifying 1997 “Funny Games,” the wisecracking criminal, possibly named Paul, who invades a different bourgeois family’s vacation home and subjects them to physical and psychological tortures begins to speak in knowing asides to the camera. When his dimwit accomplice suggests killing off the whole family and moving on to their next enterprise, Paul protests, “But we’re not up to feature length yet.” Then he turns to the audience and says, “What do you think? Don’t you want a full-length movie, with plausible plot developments?”
In an accompanying 2005 interview, Haneke comments ruefully that “Funny Games” — intended as an indictment of the audience appetite for violence — has itself become a cult movie among horror fans in English-speaking countries. (I don’t know how he hopes to avoid a similar fate for his forthcoming American remake of the film, starring Tim Roth and Naomi Watts.) His other movies don’t all possess the same level of overt gamesmanship, but once you understand that he wants you to watch yourself watching his film — and that the boundary between narrative and “reality,” between story and commentary, is highly porous — they start to make a lot more sense.
I was particularly struck by Haneke’s first film after his post-”Funny Games” relocation to France, the 2001 “Code Unknown,” which wasn’t much seen outside Europe and struck some of his fans as a sellout. (Translation: Nobody gets gruesomely killed.) It’s a slithery, fragmentary work that follows the consequences of a random Parisian street encounter as they ripple through several disparate lives across the continent. “Code Unknown” has more of an overt social message than most of Haneke’s films, but it also has a powerful psychological undertow; it seeps into your subconscious and ends up every bit as disturbing as “Funny Games.”
This set also includes Haneke’s excellent 1997 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “The Castle” (made for Austrian TV), along with his early study of violence and dissociation, “Benny’s Video,” and “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance,” a study of a Columbine-like massacre that predates Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” by a decade, and outdoes it too.
I have long maintained that Peter Jackson should have bailed on his bloated “King Kong” remake and spent the money on adapting “The Call of Cthulhu,” H.P. Lovecraft’s demented cult-horror fable from 1926. He never did, but possibly something better happened. A cadre of Lovecraft enthusiasts from Los Angeles cobbled together $50,000 and made the film as if it still were 1926: As a black-and-white silent movie, barely 45 minutes long, featuring intertitles drawn from Lovecraft’s text, earnest but never ham-handed overacting and a tremendously imaginative array of cheapo special effects, including a Louisiana swamp made out of papier-mâché and tissue paper, and a sunken oceanic city of horrific dimensions, built from plywood in somebody’s backyard.
Director Andrew Leman and writer-producer Sean Branney are authentic Lovecraft fans, who bridge the gap between camp and serious interpretation brilliantly. Their “Call of Cthulhu,” culminating with the appearance of the living-dead squid-god himself — yes, he’s a rubber stop-motion miniature, but quite an effective one — is sometimes funny but never a spoof. The laughs come from the disjuncture between modern movie-watching expectations and the conventions of 1920s melodrama, not from any disrespect for the source material. This is a Lovecraft film with precisely the kind of bottled-up arrested-adolescent ardor that the talented but profoundly silly writer would himself have appreciated, and I can imagine no better tribute. Except to include a sentence in italics in a feeble attempt to convey the sanity-shattering horror of the Great Old Ones and their pending return! Absolutely do not miss the making-of documentary, an inspiring tale of can-do indie spirit that made me want to weep with gratitude. Joe Swanberg and his pals would be proud.
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.