"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)
Will you ever live down high school? You were larger than life or painfully insignificant, popular or nerdy, acceptable or odd, embraced or rejected. If you were a winner in high school, you look back and wonder if you’ll ever feel the warm, welcoming waters of such a small pond again. If you were a loser, you’re filled with a nagging compulsion to prove your coolness to the world once and for all.
Either way, when you revisit those years as an adult, piecing together old triumphs and rejections and disasters and reexamining them in the context of what you know now, suddenly it all makes sense: You were just a kid, and those bad classmates who made you feel envious and angry and pathetic were other kids, groping their way through the dark, grasping for whatever could soothe their insecurities or give them a firmer footing in the world, whether it was a Flock of Seagulls haircut or tapered jeans or Echo & the Bunnymen playing on a steady loop in their Walkman headphones or a 6-foot-high bong with a dancing bear sticker on the side.
For all the nastiness and stupidity of high school, it’s hard not to miss the naive romanticism of those years: mooning over crushes and daydreaming through class as if the world were one big, flashy musical extravaganza and you were its plucky, incorrigible star. As you get older, there’s a relief that comes from realizing that no one is watching and you can make whatever choices you want to. But there’s also a nostalgia for the days when the world was your stage — even if the audience was filled with merciless thugs, armed with spoiled eggs and rotting tomatoes.
If you can’t quite remember just how awkward and painful it was to be a teenager, “High School Confidential” (10 p.m. Mondays on WE) provides a chilling reminder. The eight-part documentary series follows 12 teenage girls attending a high school in Overland Park, Kan., revealing all of the triumphs and tragedies that can occur over the course of four short years.
We meet the girls before their freshman year, inevitably looking awkward and pimply and nervous at the prospect of being thrown into a big school filled with ruthless older kids. We watch the girls mature before our eyes, making and losing friends, picking up boyfriends (and in some cases, babies) along the way. The pitfalls chronicled here are not insignificant: A girl named Lauren, has a brain tumor removed. Another girl, Allyson, deals with an abortion and the death of her father. More typical, though, is Cappie, who fights with her mother, gets drunk with her friends, and ends a friendship, but makes it out of high school without any major mishaps.
Unfortunately, instead of watching the girls interact with their peers, we learn about their lives primarily through interviews, in which they tend to describe the latest developments in their lives with vagaries and exaggerations. The footage and editing are pretty primitive and the voice-overs share the leaden prose of a high school term paper. “Cappie was always adventurous, but by her junior year, her independent nature brought her to a difficult crossroads.” “Courtney’s story is about temptation and consequence in a Kansas high school.” The series’ perspective is so square that it’s clearly aimed at parents, not kids.
Although the problems these girls battle can feel oppressively heavy — peer pressure, anorexia, depression, loneliness — the terms they use to express their experiences sometimes provide unintentional comic relief along the way. Lauren describes being on the homecoming court as “the most amazing and fulfilling experience probably of my life.” Yes, walking onto the football field with a rhinestone tiara on your head is truly a life-altering event. “I’ve always been the type of person to think. I think all the time!” says Courtney. Remember when you believed you were the only one in the world with thoughts floating around in your head?
But I think my favorite part is when Courtney, who’s a good Catholic, has a dream that she gets drunk and runs over Jesus in her car. (I’m not an expert at dream analysis, but I think that dream means that she wants to get drunk and run over Jesus in her car.)
Along with the natural comedy inherent to high school, each episode has a few heartbreaking or memorable moments. In 9th grade, Cappie reports that her dad “isn’t making her a priority,” language that’s obviously been stolen straight from her mother’s mouth. But Cappie feels the absence of her father at this age to a painful degree. “You go over to your friend’s house and they have their dad, and you don’t have …” she trails off, in tears. And then there’s the end of Courtney’s episode, where her little sister, who struggled through a pregnancy when she was only 15, turns to her while the camera is rolling and says, tearily, “I never really thanked you for being there for me through the whole pregnancy thing.” Gulp! Sure, these kids are young and hormone-addled and they make stupid mistakes, but when you see how openhearted and kind they can be … Well, it makes you feel old and fat and jaded.
Old and fat and jaded as you are, though, it’s nice to spend a little time with young people, and get to the point where you can hear past the endless flow of “likes” and “whatevers” to the likable kids underneath. Clumsy and tone-deaf as it sometimes is, “High School Confidential” offers a fascinating look at the challenges and heartbreaks facing today’s teenage girl.
In case anyone is wondering what some of these girls will be like in, say, about 20 years, there’s “High School Reunion” (10 p.m. Wednesdays on TV Land), a show that’s maybe 50 times as sad and pathetic as an actual high school reunion.
The show brings together a group of 15 old high school classmates 20 years after they graduate together, and flies them all off to a house in Maui to drink to excess with their old friends/enemies/frienemies. When they arrive, the classmates finds their senior photographs, big hair and all, framed by their beds, along with a big, pretty pool and a bar full of alcohol.
Naturally, the cast has been selected based on how much drama has ensued between them. Thus do we meet Mike (the Rebel!) and Lana (the Drama Queen!), who were married until Lana slept with Mike’s best friend. Lana claims (as cheaters so often do) that the marriage fell apart long before that, and that the real problem was that she matured, but Mike never did. Sorry, lady, we’re not buying it.
But later, Lana discovers that someone drew a mustache on her photograph. Hmm. Maybe she has a point about that maturity thing.
A few fruity cocktails later, we learn that Justin (the Pipsqueak!) has a big crush on DeAnna (the Popular Girl!). Will the Pipsqueak, who’s now big and fit, land the former blond bombshell? She reports that she’s been married four times already. Yeah, we’re guessing he has a pretty clear shot.
Then there’s Matt (the Jock!), who hasn’t dated since his wife, Gayle, died six months ago. “If she were here, she would say live, live, live!” says DeAnna (the Popular Girl!), who, as far as we know, didn’t actually know Matt’s wife. “Because life is for the living, you know?” Yeah, I bet that’s exactly what Gayle would say.
“How do you figure out when the time is right to move on?” Matt asks. Then he says, “Gayle will tell me.” Or maybe Gayle will tell DeAnna, who’ll tell you.
Eventually it becomes clear that the real action isn’t making it into the final cut. While various faux-couples go on awkward, “Bachelor”-style dates together, the rest of the house lazes about at the pool and jokes around and drinks as much as humanly possible. Why can’t we stay at the house with them, instead of going on another forced, unromantic jaunt to the beach? Kat (the Lesbian!) says she wants to try dating guys again, but we can tell about five seconds into her highly platonic date with Rob (the Stud!) that men don’t do it for her (she confirms the same thing after the date). Matt and Yvette (the Girl Next Door!) go on a date that will only confirm that Matt isn’t ready to date yet, and Jason (the Bully!) is forced to confront a former victim of his bullying. But hilariously, as Jason is leaving, we spot something in Justin’s hands. TiVo’s pause button confirms what we suspected — it’s a beer bong! So while we’re watching two guys mumble awkwardly to each other about a fight that happened 20 years ago, or seeing two people smile politely through a meal, the rest of the house is doing beer bongs? Come on, people! Show us the good shit! If we wanted to see cheesy middle-aged dorks making small talk over their salads, we’d just go to the Cheesecake Factory. Give us slobbery, nostalgia-addled drunks pouring beer down each other’s throats, damn it!
But the producers are hell-bent on their own forced story line. At the end of the second episode, Lana’s ex-lover and Mike’s ex-best friend, Steve, arrives at the house, just so everyone can stand around feeling uncomfortable and eventually trade a few poorly chosen insults. Yawn.
Remarkable, isn’t it, how unattractive petty squabbles look among the aged? Something to ponder as you become less and less pretty and sweet-smelling and worthy of love by the second.
Let’s face it, given how much prettier and sweeter-smelling they are than us, young people would be unbearable if they didn’t say such amusingly stupid things so often. Remember how Lauren from “High School Confidential” was sure that walking around in front of the whole school with a rhinestone tiara on her head was one of the most “amazing and fulfilling” experiences of her life? Well, ABC Family has collected a whole gaggle of young ladies with the same notion for “America’s Prom Queen” (9 p.m. Mondays on ABC Family), a reality show that’s exactly as horrifying as that Stephen King movie “Carrie,” except without all of the pig’s blood splattering all over the place.
Ten prom-queen hopefuls will compete in “prom-themed challenges” (Sneaking vodka into the prom in a saline solution bottle? Vomiting in the girl’s bathroom without getting any on your dress?) to test “whether they deserve the title of America’s Prom Queen.” With the help of the “prom committee” — reality star Brooke Hogan, style expert Jai Rodriguez, comedian Theo Von, editor in chief of Cosmo Girl Susan Schulz — a handful of girls will be selected, America will vote, and “for the first time ever, America will have a prom queen to call its own.” God, won’t it be a huge relief when we finally do?
“The prom is the most perfect moment of your life,” offers aspiring prom queen Amanda from Peabody, Mass. I think if most teenagers started to believe that, teen suicide rates would skyrocket. Another contestant wants to win so she’ll have “the feeling that everyone loves me.” Wouldn’t taking some Ecstasy be a little more efficient?
After designing their own prom dresses (one girl designs a dress that makes her look just like the big princess with the huge tracts of land from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”), the girls walk down the runway, then they’re lectured by the prom committee members, and the whole thing feels just like one of the many modeling reality shows, only with younger, less attractive contestants. Cosmo Girl editor Schulz actually tells one of the girls that her magazine’s big goal is to “show a girl how to bring out her inner prom queen.”
Eventually, every time they say the words “prom queen,” I snort. With so many bubbly, positive thinkers in the group, I find myself rooting for matter-of-fact Niah, who refuses to play along with the producers’ script for her. “I don’t know if I would choose LaShell to go home, but I definitely don’t like her,” says Niah. “I’d choose her to go into the other room.”
Finally, the prom committee makes its decision. Some sluggish girl who has trouble bringing out her inner prom queen is sent home, and sadly, a bucket of pig’s blood doesn’t fall on her head right after her dismissal is announced. Everyone else cries and hugs and agrees that this has already been the most incredible experience of their entire lives.
But God bless them, it must be nice to feel that overwhelmed and excited about something so small, that doesn’t even include Ecstasy or supernatural powers or buckets of pig’s blood. Let’s leave the little bunnies to their wildly fluctuating emotions and their giggles and their big, salty tears, and thank our lucky stars that we left this rocky transition from the wonder of childhood to the world-weary exhaustion of adulthood behind us a long, long time ago.
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)