"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)
Was 17 months of work enough to transform Richard Kelly’s epic post-9/11 fantasy “Southland Tales” from a misshapen monstrosity into a masterpiece? No. But here’s the good news: It didn’t have to be. After its disastrous 2006 premiere at Cannes, Kelly took his endlessly awaited follow-up to “Donnie Darko” back to the drawing board and reshaped it extensively. If it arrives in final form as (still) a total mess, it’s such a passionate and ambitious mess — overcrowded with extraordinary images, incomprehensible ideas, literary and pop-cultural references and colliding subplots — that it transcends its adolescent awkwardness and approaches being magnificent.
Nothing about “Southland Tales” should work. A lot of it flat-out doesn’t work. Like Kelly’s cult-fave debut, it’s a movie about the end of the world. But while “Donnie Darko” focused its apocalyptic fantasy and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo on a classic, and sympathetic, character in transition (an adolescent boy coming of age) played by a tremendously gifted actor (Jake Gyllenhaal), “Southland Tales” violates virtually every convention of how movies are supposed to be made. Its cast reads like a who’s-who of minor celebrities from Hollywood B-movies and sketch-comedy TV, used more as furniture than as actors. Much of the plot — hell, almost all of it — is narrated in voiceover (by Justin Timberlake, no less). The closest thing it offers to a central character is a schizophrenic action-movie star played by a real, if presumably non-schizophrenic, action-movie star.
It’s safe to say that Dwayne Johnson (aka the Rock) gives a performance unlike any we have seen from him before, or are likely to see again. Johnson’s collection of Shatner-esque line readings, nervous tics and one-liners that seem drawn from never-completed Michael Bay movies (“The fourth dimension’s going to collapse on itself, you stupid bitch!”) is brave and often funny, but never suggests a recognizable human being. Then again, “Southland Tales” isn’t about human beings, or at least every time it tries to be it virtually falls apart. After all, Johnson’s character, the Republican-connected movie icon Boxer Santaros, has been through a rift in the time-space continuum and come back with his memory partly erased, increasingly convinced that he’s really Jericho Kane (hero of a screenplay Santaros himself wrote), whose destiny is to save the world from imminent destruction. So, you know, we’re not exactly dealing with what TV people call a “relatable” character here.
Not only does “Southland Tales” come with three accompanying graphic novels, the movie is meant to be the final three chapters of a baroque end-of-the-world saga set on the Fourth of July in 2008 — which was still seven years away when Kelly first conceived of this project. The forthcoming presidential election hangs in the balance; apparently the Democratic ticket is Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman, although we don’t see either of them, while the fictional Republican nominees are named Eliot and Frost. (We meet vice-presidential candidate Sen. Bobby Frost, played by Holmes Osborne, and without giving too much of Kelly’s bizarre literary in-jokes away, let’s hazard a guess that his running mate’s first name is Tom.)
So from the first frames of the movie, the viewer is behind the 8-ball, information-wise, and we are barraged with graphics and voice-over in a desperate attempt to get us up to speed. There’s been a terrorist nuclear attack in Abilene, Texas! So the draft has been reinstated and the United States is simultaneously at war with Iraq, Iran, Syria and North Korea (at least)! It’s World War III, and we need new sources of energy! So here comes a shadowy dude straight out of a late-’60s Bond flick named the Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) with some perpetual-motion machine that harnesses the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, producing something called Fluid Karma! But the Baron’s invention has slowed the rotation of the Earth infinitesimally, leading to fluctuations in the space-time continuum! And what’s his connection to the treacherous terrorists of the “neo-Marxist underground,” which is situated, naturally enough, in Venice Beach, Calif.?
Trust me, that’s only the most fragmentary version of the back story we’re supposed to absorb in the first few minutes. Then there’s the question of what all this has to do with Boxer, who’s come back from the Nevada desert with his mind in tatters and shacked up with a porn actress called Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), star of the ever-popular “Cockchuggers” series, who hosts a TV chat show populated exclusively with other porn stars and has a chart-topping dance hit called “Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime” (apparently to be released as a real-world single). Um, see, Boxer is married to the daughter (Mandy Moore) of the Republican vice-presidential nominee (Osborne), whose dragon-lady wife (Miranda Richardson) heads the new super-secret intelligence service called USIDent, created by some ‘roided-up version of the Patriot Act, which seeks to stop terrorism by monitoring all Americans, all the time. Maybe Krysta is working with the neo-Marxist underground, maybe she’s working for the Baron and maybe there’s no difference between those things. And maybe she’s just a porn star who believes that teen horniness is not a crime.
This is all without mentioning Seann William Scott playing both an Iraq-vet-turned-cop and his resistance-fighter twin brother, at least one of whom may have been the subject of a sinister experiment. (Arguably, his character, or characters, should be the film’s center.) Or Timberlake as a scarred loner with the suggestive name of Pilot Abilene, also a veteran and a drug addict, who narrates the film and appears in a musical number (lip-syncing “All the Things That I Have Done” by the Killers) that has nothing to do with anything but provides the most exciting and dramatic moment in the whole movie. Something evidently happened between those two guys in Iraq — but we never find out what. I’m sure Kelly’s fans will immerse themselves in these details (and many, many more), and I don’t dispute that if Kelly came to my house and explained the whole thing to me over a couple of hours and a couple of six-packs, it might more or less hang together.
Beyond the Multiplex Video: Is this the next great cult film?
But Kelly never gives us any reason to care about this byzantine, comic-book plot, and on the rare occasions when “Southland Tales” stops narrating itself and actually alights on particular characters in particular places, the dialogue is either arch non-sequitur — “Scientists now believe the future will be far more futuristic than they originally predicted,” says Krysta — or a last-ditch effort to explain Kelly’s careening plot. In every scene involving the neo-Marxist underground, its members basically sit around and discuss the depth of their ideological opposition to the totalitarian U.S. government, while occasionally calling each other “dude” or telling each other to “eat a dick.”
After seeing Kelly’s longer (and far less coherent) first cut of “Southland Tales” last year at Cannes, I suggested that he should cut the film down to a 90-minute non-narrative experimental film, and in an ass-backward way he’s gotten close to that. (In fact, he’s added numerous special-effects shots, rerecorded Timberlake’s narration and cut almost 20 minutes from the running time.) I don’t know how much the ludicrous, wheels-within-wheels story line and incredibly stilted dialogue of “Southland Tales” are meant to be Godardian or “Starship Troopers”-style satire and how much they accidentally wound up that way. But to my taste the plot, characters and actors are just the architectural framework over which Kelly has spray-painted an impressionistic tapestry depicting post-9/11 America as it might have been, or might yet become, or might really be if we could only see it clearly.
And quite a tapestry it is. All the overloaded news-graphic screens in the first third of the film aren’t just meant to convey information about what’s going on in Kelly’s version of 2008. In fact, you might say they don’t convey information. Instead, they mirror, and only slightly exaggerate, the jittery, amphetaminized media-fear economy we actually live in, where an incomprehensible stream of machine-gun factoids (many of them not facts at all) has become the instrument of brainwashing. Krysta Now isn’t meant to be a real human being any more than Britney Spears or Paris Hilton is; her predigested opinions on terrorism, war, abortion and teen horniness are every bit as sincere as her pitches for the energy drink with her face on the label. (Boxer Santaros, to his wife: “Krysta’s energy drink tastes really, really good.”)
Once the nonsensical helter-skelter of Kelly’s plot surrenders to its concluding set piece, when most of the characters take flight in the Baron’s enormous Mega-Zeppelin, pursued by twin brothers Ronald and Roland Taverner (Scott and Scott) in a flying ice-cream truck that may cause the universe to implode, “Southland Tales” finally achieves the loony, mystical pop-culture dream state it’s been laboring toward for two hours. Like the best moments in “Donnie Darko,” these scenes are majestic, evocative, ambiguous and willing to risk being ridiculous. We see Boxer, his wife and Krysta perform an elegant, ménage-à-trois dance number. We hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” done in Spanish, backed by a discordant, modernist string quartet. We hear several different people utter variations of the line “I’m a pimp. And pimps do not commit suicide.” We are wowed by Kelly’s long, sweeping, Scorsese-style traveling shots through the Mega-Zeppelin’s ice-blue ballroom. Even the movie’s juvenile obsession with fellatio becomes funny at last.
I’d be shocked if “Southland Tales” can duplicate the cult success of “Donnie Darko”; it lacks intimacy and connectedness, and feels to me like one of those overly ambitious, self-indulgent and profoundly flawed films that critic Stuart Klawans calls “follies.” But compared to the seemingly unsalvageable disaster Kelly screened at Cannes, this overcooked folly is a miraculous, Frankensteinian resurrection. Maybe this is grading on a curve, but I’d always rather have an excess of ambition than the opposite. Do Kelly’s efforts to blend political satire, trashy softcore, the visual universe of David Lynch’s “Dune,” the dense meta-world of “The Matrix,” the apocalyptic noir aesthetic of “Kiss Me Deadly” and a whole bunch of portentous quotes from T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost (and Perry Farrell) add up to something coherent? Well, of course not. But what do you expect? The fourth dimension is collapsing on itself, bitch.
“Southland Tales” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.
To listen to a podcast of the interview, click here.
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Noah Baumbach on “Margot at the Wedding,” directing Nicole Kidman and “the impossibility of autobiography”
Speaking of hellacious ensemble casts and collapsing dimensions, we turn to a different corner of the indie universe’s young-genius division and find writer-director Noah Baumbach, who follows up his improbable 2005 hit “The Squid and the Whale” with another wrenching, intimate family comedy in a middle-period Woody Allen vein. Part of me wishes Baumbach had traded casts with Richard Kelly; I’d love to see the Rock and Sarah Michelle Gellar play the neurotic New Yorkers trapped in a country house in Baumbach’s new film, “Margot at the Wedding.”
Instead, Baumbach gets a simultaneously absorbing and off-putting performance out of Nicole Kidman as the titular Margot, a New York fiction writer who’s returned home to an unidentified New England island, dragging along her androgynous, pubescent son, Claude (Zane Pais), for the wedding of her less accomplished sister, Pauline (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is Baumbach’s wife). Pauline is marrying a likable boho loser named Malcolm (Jack Black), while Margot is shagging the historical novelist down the street (Ciarán Hinds) and preparing to dump her oblivious husband (John Turturro).
Baumbach may be young, but the movies he makes, to this point, are old-school psychological dramas with a powerful Freudian undercurrent. This is the kind of film where family secrets will be unearthed, acts of violence — symbolic, psychic and even physical — may occur at any moment, and you just know that old, rotten tree overlooking the house is going to collapse at the worst possible time. As every New York reader already knows, the crumbling intellectual marriage in “The Squid and the Whale” was widely assumed to be a portrait of Baumbach’s own parents, the writers Jonathan Baumbach and Georgia Brown. But hell, I pretty much grew up with those parents too, 3,000 miles away, and so did a lot of other people I know.
So I have no idea whether the meddlesome, unreliable and increasingly manipulative Margot resembles anyone in Baumbach’s family. I do know that she’s an emotional train-wreck who verges on caricature without quite coming one, and that Kidman’s performance will hold you hypnotized. Stephanie Zacharek will review “Margot at the Wedding” on Friday, so I’ll just say that it’s a strong movie, in the sense of strong cheese or strong spices. Intriguingly, Baumbach compares the emotional dynamics of his film to those of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” a bloody neo-Western set along the Texas-Mexico border that could hardly be more different in terms of characters and setting. Thing is, he’s right, and the two movies may have a similar problem: a kind of mechanical excellence and purported moral seriousness that seems oddly bereft of the human element. As with the Coens’ film, some viewers will love “Margot at the Wedding” and some will hate it, but hardly anyone will leave the theater feeling unaffected. I spoke with Noah Baumbach last week by telephone. (Listen to a podcast of my conversation with Baumbach here.)
Directors hate it when you open with a question about influences, but it sure seems to me like you must be a fan of those ’80s and ’90s Woody Allen films, the “serious” ones like “Interiors” and “September” and “Another Woman.”
I do like those movies very much. I also like the movies that he’s influenced by, the Bergman movies. For this movie, I was thinking particularly of Bergman from “Persona” through “The Passion of Anna,” “Shame” and maybe “Cries and Whispers.” Those are all movies I particularly like.
You’ve got one of the biggest stars in the movie business playing a character who, let’s face it, is not necessarily going to win the audience’s heart. Were you conscious of that at all, while making the film?
You know, not really. I have a lot of affection for the character. It’s not that I’m unaware of the more difficult aspects of her personality — certainly the way she is, as we’re seeing her in the movie — but to me she’s a really interesting character. The more I found my way into her the more I felt energized. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, people are going to be upset by her.” But I do understand that she’s a tough character.
What did you and Nicole talk about in developing the character?
We really talked about it from a psychological standpoint. I think this is a woman who’s going through a crisis, and for an actor that’s fun to play. In my experience, people who feel particularly vulnerable aren’t aware of the others they’re taking out in their wake. That can be hard on the people around them, but when someone’s in pain, it’s like they don’t realize they can also inflict as much pain. In the case of Margot, she’s testing what effect she has on people.
This is a country-house movie, like at least two of the Woody Allen films and several of the Bergman films we were talking about. What is it that’s so dramatic about taking urban people and transplanting them into this unfamiliar setting?
From just a personal level — it’s something I still have, but I certainly had it as a kid — when we went away for the summer, there was a sense of adventure and also a sense of displacement, of anxiety. It could be scary. In the case of this movie, not only are they in the country but they’re even on an island. It feels like it’s a long way home. Personally, I connect to that, having grown up in the city and feeling very connected to the city. I’m very intrigued and also somewhat trepidatious of the country. It works for me with the more psychological aspects of the movie: the inner life and the outer life, and how they influence each other.
I was really interested in Malcolm, the character played by Jack Black. He’s this essentially likable failed bohemian and you sort of think, with a little luck and a little more effort, he could have been successful too. But because he’s not, Margot views him with total contempt.
Right, he’s the kind of guy where he used to be a musician, and now he’s painting. The artist without an art. What was interesting to me was coming into this movie with an unreliable narrator. You come into the movie with Margot, who talks about Pauline [her sister] being crazy. Somebody recently said to me that Pauline becomes less crazy as the movie goes along. Well, what’s really happening is you just realize she wasn’t as crazy as you were told she was.
If you take Margot out of the equation, Pauline and Malcolm are two people who haven’t had things go the way they thought. They’ve bounced around a little bit, and now they’re finding, in their own way, a potential security and calm. They’re starting to feel better about themselves. In Margot, you have somebody who has found success and a family. She’s gone to the city and done it all right, and she’s unraveling. Just as the two people who’ve had a harder time of it are breaking through, the successful one is crashing. I thought that was an interesting dynamic.
The relationship between Margot and Claude, her son, is really central to the movie. He’s this kind of liminal figure — he’s androgynous, right on the edge of puberty, his sexuality is unclear. He’s just so unsure of himself, and they’re so close. It’s not clear whether Margot is a good or bad influence.
The movie, in my head, started with them on the train together. Having these two people coming out of a larger family, who have such a strong bond but are both in moments of flux. Margot is on the verge of leaving her family, and Claude is on the verge of puberty, which along with everything else is physical change. How do these two people fare out in the world, away from the comfort of home? And given that they’re so wildly drawn to each other, what happens when they feel each other pulling away? When someone you feel that close to, when you feel their attention wandering — if you’re feeling vulnerable, sometimes you pull back that much harder.
This movie feels like it was done on the same scale as “Squid and the Whale.” Was there anything about working with a major Hollywood star that changed how you make films?
No. When you get down to it, it was essentially the same experience I had on “Squid and the Whale.” Everyone came to this movie with the understanding they were making this movie, and the desire to make this movie. I think that’s what’s fun for actors who do popcorn movies and do smaller movies, to have that experience. Everybody who came to this movie was excited to do it this way.
There’s a key scene when Ciarán Hinds’ character, who is Margot’s lover, asks her at a public event about the autobiographical elements in her work, and it makes her furious. You’ve been asked that question many times, but let me ask it again. How much do these characters come from your life?
Well, they all spring from me in some way. These movies are intensely personal to me. And with the scene you’re talking about, it was one too many “Squid and the Whale” interviews that got me writing it. I think, in some ways, that scene dramatizes the impossibility of really understanding, from the outside — or from the inside too, because I don’t think the writer always knows that much, after a certain point, what’s what — the impossibility of really discussing autobiography in a work of fiction.
Of course this movie is a comedy, in the old-fashioned sense. The stage isn’t covered with dead bodies at the end, so it’s not a tragedy. But do you think it’s a funny movie?
I do, yeah. To some degree I start everything thinking I’m writing comedy. I’m also open to it becoming something else. Depending on where I am in the day, the same things can make me laugh or upset me, and these movies work on that level in some sense. Depending on who you identify with, or how you react to certain characters, it’s likely that someone next to you might be laughing while you’re thinking, “Holy shit!”
How are audiences reacting to it so far?
I’ve only sat through it a couple of times. Once I’m done with the movie — it’s such a long road, since I write and direct and edit and everything, so I’ve seen it every which way — of course I’m curious how audiences are reacting, but I’m glad to have it be something for them and not for me anymore. But it does get laughs. It gets a lot of laughs, and “Squid” was the same way. I’ve been with audiences where they’re laughing the whole time, and then people come out and say, “Boy, that was upsetting.” People laugh out of tension, too. I felt that recently seeing “No Country for Old Men,” where I was laughing but my palms were sweating the whole time.
You couldn’t ask for more different films, but in that sense they might be similar. It’s like there are similar mechanics at work.
They’re both movies where when the train leaves the station it just keeps going. I had this feeling with their movie, and I hope people have with “Margot,” where you feel that almost anything could happen, but you’re in such good hands that it’s a pleasurable experience. I’ve certainly had that experience with movies I didn’t like at all — where you feel like anything could happen because nobody’s running the show! With “No Country for Old Men,” it was great because I knew they were completely taking care of me, but at the same time anybody could get shot at any moment.
There’s a potential for violence in your movie too.
If you create psychological tension in a movie, you often find yourself scared that physical harm can come to people. In “Squid and the Whale,” when Jeff Daniels’ character has a collapse at the end of the movie — I had no intention, ever, of that character dying. What I discovered in making it was that people would feel, “Oh my God, he’s going to die,” because there was so much tension built up. In this movie, there’s a feeling that the world is dangerous, but that’s coming from the inside. It’s dangerous inside.
Earlier you mentioned Bergman’s “Persona,” in which a woman stepping on a piece of broken glass becomes this traumatic event that rips the whole film open.
Right, right. I love that in a movie, where some little thing becomes monumental.
Are you reconciled to the fact that some people really won’t like this movie? I described it to a friend as something like ordering a pizza with triple anchovies — you really want to eat it or you really don’t.
Well, of course I hope everybody will like it. I hope they’ll be open to it. I’ve had public Q & A sessions where someone will say, “I can’t believe these people! They’re all crazy.” And someone else will grab the mike and say, “Are you kidding? This is exactly how people are.”
Well, it may depend on whether you’ve ever known someone like Margot.
Or on how much therapy you’ve had.
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.