"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)
Festival de Cannes
When this post goes up, I should be suspended somewhere above the Atlantic, dozing fitfully and hoping to arrive on the Riviera just before the press screening of “Blindness,” which opens the 61st Festival de Cannes on Wednesday evening. So the customary scene-setting that opens this kind of article will have to wait: Let’s assume that the palm trees, beachfront hotels bedecked with sponsor logos, cigar-smoking bald men with implausibly leggy companions and all the other accouterments of that deluxe-run-to-seed resort town are ready to play their assigned roles.
Actually, that bald “producer” making bad deals in three languages and his “supermodel” friend may have to leave their beach togs in the suitcase and retreat from the poolside bar. Right now the extended forecast calls for overcast skies and patches of rain for at least the first week in Cannes, which is pretty unusual and certain to be understood by many commentators as an indicator of something or other. Let me be the first (OK, among the first): Cloudy skies blah blah blah, recession blah; even in the film world’s capital of excess, the industry is forced to look inward. Will that do? Great, let’s move on.
From a film lover’s point of view, this year offers one of the most exciting Cannes lineups in many years. There are expensive, high-profile projects: “Blindness,” an adaptation of Nobel laureate José Saramago’s apocalyptic novel that stars Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo and is directed by Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”); Clint Eastwood’s 1920s baby-switching thriller, “Changeling,” with Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich; “Synecdoche, New York,” the directing debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman; Steven Soderbergh’s two-part, four-hour magnum opus about Che Guevara. (Come to think of it, Spielberg has a new movie too. Something to do with Indiana?) There are new works from some of Europe, Asia and Latin America’s most adventurous art-film directors: Arnaud Desplechin, Philippe Garrel, Jia Zhangke, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Lucrecia Martel. There are numerous breakthrough works, both from first-time directors and those new to international audiences. I haven’t looked forward to a festival this much (in terms of actually seeing movies) since I started doing this job.
Still, it must be said that those cheap cloudy-weather metaphors fit a little too well. Cannes is both a film festival that grabs worldwide headlines and a backstage trade show for film-industry insiders, and that latter incarnation is likely to provide a high-anxiety couple of weeks. Nobody in this business really knows where their next dollar (or, given the sorry state of our currency, their next euro) is coming from in the best of times. With widespread digital distribution somewhere just over the horizon and the sinking United States economy threatening to drag the rest of the Western world down with it, a major business-model meltdown — similar to what has already befallen the music industry — seems more likely than not.
Two major players at Cannes the last few years — the mini-studios Picturehouse and Warner Independent — simply don’t exist, thanks to last week’s abrupt announcement that corporate parent Time Warner is shutting them down and, for the moment, backing away from independent film. (Yes, I know: TW brass have denied that last part repeatedly. Nobody believes them.) Everybody else in the business seems to be losing their appetites, rather like guests at a banquet where two people have already died of botulism. Fewer films were acquired this year at Sundance, and at far more modest prices, than in boom years of the past. That pattern is likely to continue at Cannes, which hosts an immense commercial marketplace attracting thousands of producers and distributors alongside the red-carpet festival premieres (most of which are themselves for sale).
Maybe the rain and mood of economic gloom will modulate the hordes of celebrity-seekers and the all-night partying, but probably not by much. Whatever becomes of the flickering-image business in years to come, something tells me that Cannes will retain its central, if schizophrenic role. This is where Hollywood and Europe come to stare meaningfully into one another’s eyes and pledge undying love (before going home to screw strangers); where businessmen throw away their money on exquisite dreams while artists whore themselves for pennies; where the movies at their most vulgar and cinema at its most pretentious are revealed not merely as identical twins but (in a typical final-reel plot twist) as the same damn thing wearing different outfits.
In a terrific article last week for the Independent, British critic Geoffrey Macnab begins by bemoaning the shallowness, hype and craven commercialism that so often dominate Cannes. He remembers a legendarily debauched 1996 party for “Trainspotting,” at which he saw Robert Altman wander through, unrecognized, just some irrelevant bearded old Yank bothering the young’uns. He dredges up a great quote from Irwin Shaw’s pulp novel “Evening in Byzantium,” in which a character suggests that the festival adopt a new slogan: “Spread your legs and take your money. That ought to be printed on every letterhead, under the seal of the city of Cannes.”
Yes, sure, all true. True but not sufficient. Macnab doesn’t get far into his jeremiad before he admits that for most people who go to Cannes, the experience is neither trashy nor glamorous, but a large dose of grade-A sleep-deprived workaholism spiced around the edges with a few parties (i.e., opportunities to shmooze while drunk on rosé rather than wired on espresso). Sure, it’s a ludicrous event plagued with publicity stunts, hopeless fame-seekers and other parasitical forms endemic to show business. It’s also where ideas and money from all around the world flow together in a profane torrent. It’s a place where many deals are hatched and a few consummated. And it’s a uniquely demanding form of communal aesthetic discourse that rewards, of all things, political outspokenness and artistic daring.
Macnab is right that Cannes can produce peculiar collective judgments: “No Country for Old Men” won nothing from last year’s Palme d’Or jury, and “Pan’s Labyrinth” won nothing the year before that. “The Lives of Others,” surely among the decade’s most acclaimed European films, wasn’t even accepted at Cannes. But those pictures were bound to find their audiences sooner or later. If jury members and squabbling critics at Cannes gave a crucial global marketing boost to fare that was more prickly and less easy to love, like Andrea Arnold’s “Red Road” and Bruno Dumont’s “Flanders” in 2006, or Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light” last year — well, hell, isn’t that the point of the whole enterprise?
One winds up comparing apples and oranges all the time at Cannes, or maybe apples and cement mixers: What does it even mean to ask whether “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is better or worse than “Hunger,” British artist-turned-director Steve McQueen’s film about Irish Republican Army hunger-striker Bobby Sands? One is a whole lot better if you want chase scenes shot on multiple continents involving animals and little kids; the other is infinitely preferable if you want to watch a man slowly starve himself to death for an unrealizable political vision in a room caked with his own excrement. (They should hire me to market “Hunger,” don’t you think?)
We can achieve somewhat more consistency by separating the films at Cannes into four categories. There are the massive media-spectacle premieres, whose only purpose is to draw drooling television reporters from all corners of the globe and serve as the final capstone to months of pre-release hype. (Now that “Sex and the City: The Movie” has been turned away at Cannes’ virtual velvet rope, I have to admit I kind of miss it.) There are morsels of the devil’s candy, movies that tempt us with a momentary vision of intertwined artistic and commercial possibility. There are the serious films from acclaimed art-house directors, leading contenders for the Palme d’Or that will be discussed knowledgeably by people like me — and then go on to be seen by small audiences in a handful of big cities around the world. Last, and most intriguing, there are always the total unknowns, the left-field X-factor surprises made by whoever from wherever that momentarily startle even the jaded hordes of Cannes into believing in the impossible, in rebirth and eternal life, in the sheer amazingness of the world, in the magical resurrection of lost time up there on the screen.
Le bruit et la fureur, qui ne signifient rien
I guess Paramount Pictures decided that if they didn’t spend a bajillion bucks on a Cannes premiere for Steven Spielberg’s fourth Indiana Jones movie, then nobody around the world would ever hear about it or want to see it, right? Whatever the reasoning may be, Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LeBeouf, et al. will parachute in on May 18 (just four days before the film opens around the world) for the full red-carpet treatment. Ought to rival “The Da Vinci Code” in ’06 as most frenzied media event in recent Cannes history. (Still, while I don’t have immensely high hopes for “Indy 4,” it can’t possibly be that bad.)
Then there’s Thursday’s premiere of “Kung Fu Panda,” which I’m sorry to say is not a sequel to Agnès Varda’s 1987 “Kung-Fu Master” (a movie about a love affair between a 15-year-old boy and a 40-year-old woman), but rather a computer-animated, kid-oriented DreamWorks movie about, well, a panda who learns kung fu. Voices include Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman and Lucy Liu. Somehow it’s very French to include a movie this silly in the official selection, in some grave effort to demonstrate lightheartedness. I gather some publicity stunt is planned for Wednesday morning, along the lines of last year’s “Bee Movie” event that featured Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock in bumblebee costumes. Dare we speculate that Jack Black in a cute black-and-white fur suit is involved? I can’t make it, darn it all.
Les bonbons du diable
Based on a true-life 1920s kidnapping case, in which the returned child apparently wasn’t the same one who was snatched, Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” (with a script by “Babylon 5″ creator J. Michael Straczynski) continues the director’s recent run of upscale and relatively ambitious genre movies. Angelina Jolie plays the bewildered mom, with John Malkovich in a preacher role and Amy Ryan and Colm Feore atop a whopping supporting cast. Eastwood is one of a tiny handful of American filmmakers who’s widely respected by European cinephiles and still packs a box-office wallop at home. “Changeling” won’t open in the U.S. until late fall, and is widely expected to be an Oscar contender. One might add that this is Eastwood’s fifth film in competition at Cannes, he’s never won an award there, and he’s 77 years old.
Cannes programmer Thierry Frémaux decided to combine Steven Soderbergh’s two Che Guevara movies, “The Argentine” and “Guerrilla,” into one competition entry entitled “Che,” which runs almost four and a half hours. That’s pretty damn unwieldy, but I guess the alternative was to have two movies with the same director and same star competing against each other. Simply based on heft and perceived political relevance, “Che” immediately became the betting favorite for the Palme d’Or (especially with the jury headed by known lefty Sean Penn), but I’m not buying it. The first film follows the young Argentine doctor (Benicio del Toro) as he rises to international fame during the Cuban revolution, while the second traces his final, fatal effort to launch a continent-wide revolution from the Bolivian jungle. It all sounds fascinating, and more than a little arduous. Can Soderbergh actually carry all that political and historical weight and make it entertaining?
As Macnab points out, a movie in which the entire world goes blind is, at least arguably, an odd choice for opening night at the world’s most illustrious film festival. What concerns me more about Meirelles’ “Blindness” is its multinational mélange quality, which so often produces mediocrity. We’ve got a Portuguese novelist whose works are allegorical, reflective and distinctly uncinematic, a Canadian screenwriter (Don McKellar), a Brazilian director and a largely American cast. Of course it’s true that Meirelles managed movie stars, a Hollywood budget and an English script capably enough in “The Constant Gardener,” but adapting Saramago is an exponentially more difficult challenge than adapting John le Carré.
Sometimes you hear too damn much about a movie in advance, and I feel like I’ve been reading about “Synecdoche, New York,” the directing debut of “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, for years now. There’s also the problem of that title, which might be funny the first three or four times you hear it. Later on, not so much. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the quixotic theater director from Schenectady, N.Y., beset by woman problems (Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams) who builds a private world in a Manhattan warehouse. Going by Kaufman’s track record, it’s likely to be an intriguing, amusing, high-concept affair. How well Kaufman works with human beings remains to be seen. (He reportedly isn’t doing any interviews in Cannes.)
Les hommes très serieux (et encore une femme)
Although it made barely a ripple in the American market, Arnaud Desplechin’s energetic, allusive, brilliant and tragic “Kings and Queen” (2004) might be the worldwide critical favorite of all European films made in this decade. Desplechin returns to Cannes this year with “Un conte de Noël” (“A Christmas Story”), a tale about a warring, wounded family whose cast of French stars includes Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Devos, Hippolyte Girardot and Chiara Mastroianni. There’s nothing in the entire festival I want to see more. If Desplechin is an obvious Palme d’Or candidate, that goes double for the Dardenne brothers, Belgium’s masters of tight-focus, hardscrabble realism, who’ve already won it twice (in 1999 for “Rosetta” and in 2005 for “L’Enfant”) and are back with “Lorna’s Silence,” a crime drama about an Albanian immigrant, a snack bar and a murderous mobster.
“Il Divo,” writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s biopic of legendary Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, will no doubt be a big deal throughout Western Europe and absolutely massive in Italy, where the implacable Andreotti and the political paralysis he represents have become identified with national crisis. Early word on the film is terrific, but Italian movies don’t travel well, unless they’re about the Mafia, cheating husbands or both. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan became a Cannes mini-sensation in ’06 with the commanding, Bergmanesque relationship drama “Climates.” I can’t tell you much about his new family drama, “Three Monkeys,” but it’s eagerly anticipated and could well be an award contender.
Unfortunately for Jia Zhangke, who has chronicled contemporary Chinese alienation in “Still Life,” “The World” and “Platform,” he has emerged in a period where, despite his country’s fast-rising stature as a world power, there’s not much of an international market for Chinese-language art cinema. Jia certainly has his admirers, but they aren’t numerous. He strikes me as one of the true visionary filmmakers of the moment, and as such he is criminally underappreciated. Watch out for his new “24 City,” another geographical and allegorical examination of Chinese society. It stars Joan Chen and is set in and around a state-owned Chengdu factory that must be torn down to make way for the eponymous luxury-condo development.
Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, a member of the Cannes jury last year and one of Latin America’s hottest younger-generation filmmakers, follows up her 2004 psychosexual melodrama “The Holy Girl” with a dark-sounding psychological thriller called “The Woman Without a Head” (and no, I don’t think that’s entirely metaphorical). Martel fools around with genre films, and ordinarily that doesn’t play well at Cannes, but her genre films are brainy and erotic and ambiguous and heavily art-damaged. Looking for a hunch to play in the Palme d’Or office pool? (Of course you’ve got one, right?) Well, here’s mine.
Among the subplots at this year’s Cannes — historically a conservative force in French culture — is a cagey 40-year commemoration of the French student uprisings of 1968, which ended that year’s festival prematurely. One tangible sign of reconciliation is the presence of longtime underground filmmaker Philippe Garrel (best known for his recent, and beautiful, “Regular Lovers”), a veteran of ’68, former lover of Velvet Underground singer Nico and longtime Left Bank legend. He’s here for the first time in his long career with “La frontière de l’aube” (“The Edge of Dawn”), a saga of sex and death that stars his son, Louis Garrel, a leading French actor who’s considerably better known than his father.
Les inconnus et les imprévus
I guess it’s pretty silly to try to predict surprises, since if I predict them successfully they’re, you know, not surprises! Let’s just say these are a few of the intriguing possibilities I see scattered among the bigger names, both within the Cannes official selection and in the sidebar festivals.
First off, we’ve got betting science. At the last two Cannes festivals, the Palme d’Or winner has been the movie that premiered on the morning directly after opening night and the ensuing parties. (Perhaps the jury watched it in a hung-over, penitent state.) Based on that highly suspect premise, this year’s prize will go to Argentine director Pablo Trapero’s purportedly grueling prison drama, “Leonera,” which screens Thursday morning. I don’t know about that, but Trapero’s hilarious and moving road-trip movie “Rolling Family” was one of my favorite films of 2006, and I can’t wait to see this one.
Hardly anybody outside Hungary has seen the films of Cannes newcomer Kornél Mundruczó, I guess, but reading about them has me mighty intrigued. His 2005 “Johanna” is a crazy-sounding operatic adaptation of the Joan of Arc story set in a contemporary hospital, while his new “Delta” appears to be an allegorical or mystical tale of brother-sister incest set in a rural backwater. It’s also a light year for Asian films, but Singapore director Eric Khoo has been called that nation’s answer to Martin Scorsese. His new “My Magic” is among the true dark horses in this year’s selection. Screening out of competition, two-time Palme d’Or winner Emir Kusturica’s documentary about soccer legend Diego Maradona (“Maradona by Kusturica”) is sure to be a hot ticket, especially since it paints the Argentine national hero as a staunch leftist and anti-American.
This year’s Certain Regard competition, generally reserved for lesser-known directors and more offbeat material, kicks off with British director Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” an already-controversial film about early-’80s IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. (No, it’s not Steve McQueen the movie star and sports-car enthusiast. That would really be a story, since he died before Sands did.) There aren’t many serious American films at Cannes this year, but Certain Regard also features “Wendy and Lucy,” the new Pacific Northwest road movie from indie heroine Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy”). Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to his illustrious namesake) is best known for his moody, drifty horror movies, but his new “Tokyo Sonata” is a family story evidently bereft of ghosts or monsters.
International Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight, the twin sidebar festivals that run concurrently with the main Cannes program, are often the best places to find undiscovered gems, and from reading the programs I can only guess at a few of them. There’s “Birdsong,” apparently a Nativity story by the terrific Catalan minimalist Albert Serra (“Quixotic,” aka “Honor of the Knights”), and there’s the thriller “Four Nights With Anna,” the first new movie from Polish actor-director Jerzy Skolimowski (“Deep End”) in almost two decades. Argentine director Lisandro Alonso, who made the spooky, hypnotic jungle odyssey “Los Muertos,” is back with another enigmatic-homecoming yarn called “Liverpool.”
Joshua Safdie, a New York filmmaker who’s just 24 and barely known in the U.S., looks to be this year’s Cannes Amerindie discovery with his micro-budget feature “The Pleasure of Being Robbed.” I hear great things about Mexican director Rodrigo Plá’s “The Desert Within,” which will close Critics’ Week. And I simply must see Pablo Larraín’s “Tony Manero,” a fable of crime, rebellion and repression under the Chilean military dictatorship of the ’70s, whose 50ish protagonist yearns to escape into the universe of “Saturday Night Fever.” I mean, really, who doesn’t?
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.