"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)
So you want to hear a story? I’ve got one for you. It’s about a beleaguered suburban dad who’s got problems in his marriage and goes to see the rabbi — actually, a whole sequence of rabbis — with unsatisfactory results. It’s got an envelope full of money and a glorious 1964 Coupe de Ville in it, both of which lead to startling and unforeseen consequences. It’s got a secret message, possibly or probably from Hashem (aka God), inscribed on the teeth of an oblivious goy. This whole story might indeed be a fable about the way Hashem works in the lives of ordinary people — or it might be about a dybbuk, a demonic spirit from ancient Jewish folklore. Then again, the fable might just be about the disordered, random operations of fate, and the futile human struggle to understand them.
One thing is for sure: This story, which comes to us in the form of a movie called “A Serious Man,” is one of the subtlest, darkest and most deceptive ever spun by Joel and Ethan Coen, its writers, directors and producers. This is by far the most personal and revealing film the Coens have ever made, which might not seem like saying much: They’re known for creating mannered, sardonic fictional worlds shaped as much (or more) by film history as by real life. But in recapturing the vanished realm where they grew up — a self-enclosed world of Midwestern Jewish suburbia — the Coens have crafted perhaps their most original work, one that presents itself, early on, as middleweight middle-American domestic comedy before revealing a strange and secret power that’s closer to magic or myth.
In fact, it isn’t true that “A Serious Man” appears to be suburban comedy at first, since it opens with an ambiguous yarn straight out of 1920s Yiddish theater. On a snowy night, in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe, a man and his wife are visited by — well, who, exactly? Is it a man who recently recovered from a serious illness and was mistakenly reported to be dead? Or has the man really died, and been possessed by a malicious, wandering spirit — a dybbuk? (Whether dybbuk or human, the visitor is played by legendary Jewish theater actor Fyvush Finkel.)
Only after that are we plunged into suburban Minneapolis in 1967, straight into the ear canal of bored teenager Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff), who is listening to Jefferson Airplane on his transistor radio instead of paying attention in Hebrew school. That transgression will be discovered and punished — Hashem sees everything we do, after all — and so will the other sins committed by the movie’s characters, which range from adultery to accepting bribes to smoking some killer weed in the middle of a weekday afternoon with the hot, semi-abandoned wife next door.
What’s the connection between the dybbuk story, set in a vanished world of poor and superstitious villagers, and the far more familiar story of Danny’s dad, Larry (the wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg, another New York theater actor), a perennially perplexed college professor who’s trying to keep his respectable suburban existence from slipping between his fingers like so much Minnesota lake mud? There are a lot of possible answers: The Coens could be saying, for instance, that modern American Jews still inhabit the same mythological universe their European forebears did; or perhaps that the people in the 1960s story are still paying off the debt incurred by that couple in the Yiddish tale.
But the real answer is that I don’t know, and that like “A Serious Man” in general, the Yiddish prologue either clicks with you or it doesn’t. Although critics generally love this movie so far, there also seems to be an emerging consensus that it’s “too Jewish” and too light on star power to have any chance with a general audience. Maybe that’s all true — there’s definitely no Clooney or Pitt in this cast — but speaking as someone who’s about as goyish as you can get while still living in New York City, I found this beautifully crafted movie to be frequently hilarious, consistently surprising and rigged with spring-loaded narrative bombs, from its opening scene to its devastating final shot.
Is Larry Gopnik even the “serious man” of the title? He yearns to be, but his wife, Judith (a pitch-perfect Sari Lennick), reserves that adjective for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), the pompous, erudite pseudo-bon-vivant for whom she’s leaving Larry. Melamed — one of those guys you’ve seen in, say, Woody Allen movies but couldn’t put a name to — gives an absolutely priceless performance, but it’s tough to pick a favorite in a supporting cast like this. Richard Kind plays Larry’s depressive brother Arthur, who haunts the Gopnik family in dybbuk-like fashion, monopolizing the bathroom (to drain his sebaceous cyst) or arriving home at dawn and in handcuffs. Adam Arkin is a pathologically pessimistic divorce lawyer, George Wyner plays the rabbi who tells us the story of the goy’s Hashem-inscribed teeth, and Amy Landecker gets one wonderful scene as the blasé-but-smoldering stoner babe next door.
You certainly couldn’t say that “A Serious Man” is suffused with Proustian longing for the Jewish suburbia of years gone by — these are the Coens, after all, and there are plenty of other sources for that kind of thing. But it isn’t a ruthless satire, either. I think it’s a meticulously pitched black comedy, which is both too slippery to hold in your hands and fundamentally sincere in expressing the Coens’ view of their roots and the universe.
Although Joel Coen (the taller one, with longer hair, generally seen in sunglasses) and Ethan Coen have a reputation as being difficult interview subjects, in my few encounters with them I’ve found them congenial, amusing and completely willing to discuss their films, their methods and their motivations. I think they don’t do well with vague or general questions — when asked at a recent press conference, “What’s the best thing about being Jewish?” they declined to answer — and don’t especially relish playing the role of celebrities. Ask them to talk about movies, though, or about the vicissitudes of 1960s television reception, and you’re golden. I met them recently in New York, just before the premiere of “A Serious Man.”
I was thinking about your last three movies: “No Country for Old Men,” “Burn After Reading” and now this one. They’re really pitched in different keys, so to speak. Is that deliberate, or did it just come out that way?
Joel Coen: You do pursue that to an extent. The funny thing about those three movies is that the scripts were all done around the same time, and they got made in the particular order that happened for boring production reasons. But when you move on to something else, you’re often thinking, “What can we do that’s not like what we just did?” Just because that makes it more fun for us.
I’m someone who also lived through the period of American history you capture in this film, and it’s incredibly vivid. It seems like one thing you guys really like about making movies is the opportunity to create a world, a place and time that’s specific to each film.
Ethan Coen: It is important to us, where and when the story is set. To get a grip on the story, we kind of have to get a grip on its context. Especially in this case, because the context of this one is where and when we grew up. It’s interesting you refer to it as American history — I guess that means we’re getting on. But yeah, the whole enterprise of doing a story in the ’60s, in suburbia, in this Jewish community — Midwestern suburbia — was interesting to us. And part and parcel of thinking about this story was thinking about where it was set.
J.C.: Part of the pleasure of making a movie, of actually putting the movie together, is creating a world that’s specific to the movie. When you’re doing period movies, that has its own challenges and pleasures, which was pretty much the case here.
You have some shtick in this movie about sending Dad up onto the roof to adjust the TV antenna, in a futile effort to get rid of all that snow on the screen during your favorite show. I can remember that, but I suppose there are now several generations of Americans now who will never have that experience.
J.C.: That’s true. Those times are gone — TV aerials. We actually had to put the aerials up on all those houses. Another interesting problem was that we were looking for a neighborhood — and you can find them where we were shooting — where the houses are of that vintage and are still in great shape. The problem is that they’re surrounded by old trees that weren’t there 30 or 40 years ago. So most or all of the trees were removed digitally, by computer. But in doing that, because they used the roof lines of the houses as matte lines, then they had to put all those aerials back in.
E.C. I want to say we had rabbit ears on our TV, which we didn’t use in the movie. I remember dicking around with the rabbit ears, spinning them and moving them around on top of the set.
With aluminum foil on top of the rabbit ears?
We didn’t do that. Some people did, but we didn’t do that.
You were not low-class enough for aluminum foil on top of the TV set. That’s a goy thing. [Laughter.]
You know, we always had a black-and-white TV, even past when our friends got color TV. But I remember that the early color TVs had controls for “Hue,” and there was something else, some other quaint, dated term.
I remember that. I can’t remember what it was called. You could make it go really green in one direction, and then really, like, this hideous orange-red color in the other. Was that what it was?
Yeah, I guess. You saw some really gruesome color.
Now, the most specific and startling thing about this film’s setting, which is definitely not universal, is that it’s a Jewish community that looks very generic at first glance, but totally isn’t. Most representations of Jewish culture in American movies comes down to two things: immigrant culture, on one hand, or the fully assimilated culture of a Barry Levinson movie, where the people are into Cadillacs and football. This is totally different: middle-class, fully American but not assimilated.
J.C.: That’s correct. That’s a really good characterization of it, and of how it’s different from what you’re familiar with: things like a Barry Levinson movie or, like, Bernard Malamud or Saul Bellow novels. Those are also more urban.
E.C.: They’re all more urban and except for Saul Bellow, more East Coast.
J.C.: Yeah, he was a Chicagoan, but Chicago is very different from where we grew up. You’re right, it’s very American but not assimilated. It was a community that existed within the wider culture but was protective and somewhat insular. You felt like your experience — even though we were aware that most of the people around us were not Jewish, in the city that we lived — we felt like our experience was in certain ways really bounded by the community.
E.C.: It wasn’t just us. It was universal among the Jews in our community. We went to Hebrew school every day after school, Monday through Thursday. We went to shul on Saturday, and Hebrew school again on Sunday morning. It was, you know –
J.C.: We had some form of religious instruction six days a week.
That’s impressive. I notice that you don’t ever show the kids in the movie in public school, where presumably they are interacting with non-Jews every day. Except for the scary neighbors, and of course the goy with the teeth, there pretty much aren’t any non-Jews in the movie.
J.C.: Right. What seemed interesting, as a place to set a story, was that world on the bus coming home from school, and the experience in Hebrew school and the synagogue. To a certain extent, when you’re thinking about these things, you’re also aware of the things you’ve seen many, many times and the things you haven’t seen at all. The things you haven’t seen at all seem like more interesting challenges, more interesting stories.
Some viewers may be taken aback by the way you depict the community’s attitude toward non-Jews. There’s a lot of dismissive talk about “goys,” and the community seems totally self-contained: Jewish doctors, Jewish lawyers, Jewish dentists. I guess it’s all summed up at the end of the anecdote the rabbi tells about the “goy’s teeth.” Which is awesome, by the way. At the end of it, Larry asks the rabbi, “What happened to the goy?” and the rabbi is, like, “The goy? Who cares?”
J.C.: [Laughter.] That always brings the house down.
E.C.: It’s a classic line.
J.C.: That’s the way, you know, non-Jews were talked about. It wasn’t in a dismissive way. It was that, in certain contexts anyway, they were the Other.
E.C.: Right. It wasn’t even about slighting them. It was: They have nothing to do with us.
Well, I’m definitely out of my depth with respect to Jewish culture, but the whole story — the whole movie — feels to me like a Talmudic parable, a moral fable about what happens to somebody who makes certain choices in his life. Then you’ve got these other stories nested into it, including a prologue that’s in Yiddish and has the feeling of the old Yiddish theater. It uses the old tradition of the dybbuk, a kind of demonic spirit from Jewish folk tradition. I’m sure you don’t want to give too much away, but what can you say about the relationship between that story and the main story?
E.C.: Well, it’s interesting that you ask about it in connection with your other comment, that the main body of the movie feels like a folk tale or fable. That, I guess, is the ambition — well, not even the ambition of putting on that beginning story, because there was no clear-cut agenda. It just felt right to us. But I think it felt right for that reason. It felt like a folk tale, so it served implicitly as an introduction, to say, “Here’s another folk tale, here’s another Jewish story.” I guess this is imposing an explanation after the fact, because we don’t really think about it in these terms while we’re doing it, but, yeah, it’s part of the whole Yiddishkeit, part of the whole Jew storytelling thing. Jews are big on stories, you know?
J.C.: Yeah, exactly. At a certain point we were thinking, maybe not explicitly, “What is Jewish storytelling?” This is Jewish storytelling, and this is Jewish storytelling. Are they an echo or a reflection of each other? Can they be? Would that be interesting? “What is a Jewish community?” This is a Jewish community in the shtetl, this is a community in another place. Are they reflections or echoes of each other in some way that’s vaguely interesting and feels right, or at least not wrong? Will it be an interesting ambassador for the rest of the movie?
As Ethan was saying, sometimes you impose these things after the fact. But I think there was a little bit of thinking that by doing this we were saying immediately, “This is a story very specifically about Jews.” Not a story about the Midwest, which you might have felt for a while if we hadn’t done this. We were plunging into the deep end, and saying, “Here you are in a world of Jews, and that’s what this movie is going to be about.” It’s a cliché, but when you see them in the long black coats and the sidelocks, that’s putting your face in it. And we thought that was a good thing.
Yeah, I guess that’s roughly how I responded to it. I assumed that there was a relationship between that first story and the later story, but not a linear, one-to-one connection, like those people in the shtetl are the grandparents of those later people or something. It does pose a question right away: What’s the relationship between this village in Poland or wherever the hell it is, and this suburban neighborhood in Minneapolis?
E.C.: Another thing that appealed to us about it was that first you see Jews where you’re used to seeing them, in the shtetl — and then you see Jews on the plains. That’s odd!
Let’s talk about the story of the goy’s teeth. So some non-Jew goes to see a Jewish dentist, who discovers that he’s got a coded message from God written on the inside of his lower front teeth in biblical Hebrew. Did you make this up from whole cloth, or does it have some basis in folklore or something?
E.C.: It’s got a basis in fact. It’s something that happened to me a few years ago. I don’t really like to talk about it. [Laughter.] No, we just made it up. The whole Jewish storytelling thing: You go to the rabbi with a problem, and he tells you a story. So what’s the story going to be?
J.C.: The only thing we had trouble with was coming up with a Hebrew expression or word that was exactly seven characters that meant “Help me.” For that we went to a rabbi named Daniel Sklar, who suggested something.
E.C. It was good. He said, “It’s kind of ‘help me,’ kind of ‘save me,’ kind of ‘redeem me.’ And we thought, OK, that’s perfect. Those are all good tones.
This is your most overtly Jewish movie, by a long shot. But I was able to come up with a brief list of other Jewish characters in your films. John Goodman’s immortal Jewish convert in “The Big Lebowski,” of course, who announces that he doesn’t fucking roll on Shabbos. And I think we can assume that Barton Fink is Jewish.
E.C. We assumed that too.
J.C.: Well, he’s Jewish and the Michael Lerner character in that movie is Jewish. The studio head. Some people kind of objected to that at the time, absurdly.
E.C.: We made a studio head Jewish! Imagine that!
“A Serious Man” opens Oct. 2 in New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, with wider national release to follow.
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)