"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)
When Orson Welles first stepped onto the set of “Citizen Kane,” he exclaimed, “This is the biggest electric train set any boy ever had!” Think about that quote the next time you happen across Robert Zemeckis’ “Polar Express” or Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited.” While drastically different in tone, style and story, both features are built around characters taking a spiritual journey by rail. They’re about as personal and obsessive as expensive Hollywood movies can get.
And taken together, they tell us a quite a bit about the state of the auteur in the age of digital technology. Cinema, like every art form, has always had an aspect of omnipotence. Art lets man play God — or at the very least return to a childlike state of openness that lets the imagination run free. And many of the technological changes that marked this decade in film were all about building a bigger and better train set. From the use of CGI to create fairy tale landscapes and grotesque monsters in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the “Star Wars” prequels, to David Fincher adding and subtracting years from Brad Pitt’s face in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” flights of fancy don’t seem so fanciful anymore.
I’ve just given myself a natural segue to start bashing Zemeckis as a soulless high-tech noodler — a label hung on him by hostile critics who miss the 1980s showman who directed “Used Cars” and “Back to the Future” and think he’s lost touch with his artistry, and maybe his soul. I can understand their dissatisfaction — I loved the old Zemeckis, too. But I’m impressed with what Zemeckis has become. The three films he shot in the 3-D motion-capture process — “Polar Express,” “Beowulf” (2007) and this year’s “A Christmas Carol” — strike me as the most technologically, stylistically and tonally radical blockbusters to appear on U.S. screens since the heyday of Stanley Kubrick.
I’m not suggesting the two directors are philosophical birds of a feather or that they’re equal in artistry — in the cinematic firmament, Zemeckis is a star, Kubrick a galaxy — but that they share a pioneer’s mind-set. Kubrick was an inventor and an explorer as well as a storyteller, and so is Zemeckis. Kubrick was famous for coming up with a stunningly ambitious idea for a scene or image, being told by crew members that it couldn’t be done because the technology didn’t exist, then having them invent it, and even supplying them with sketches and reading material to get them started. From the groundbreaking miniature and optical effects in “2001: A Space Odyssey” through the dinners lit by candlelight in “Barry Lyndon” and the stunningly elaborate and expressive Steadicam shots in “The Shining,” Kubrick didn’t just make movies, he changed how movies were made. And whatever he didn’t invent he improved. Part of the appeal of his films was that whether or not you liked the film as art, you could depend on Kubrick to surprise you — by showcasing a fresh way of creating, photographing or manipulating an image, or by applying a risky tone to a tricky subject (think of the corrosive black humor of “Dr. Strangelove,” which dares to see the absurdity of Armageddon, or the subjectively distorted visuals of “A Clockwork Orange,” which externalizes the demented worldview of its sociopathic hero). Zemeckis shares Kubrick’s determination to tell old stories in new ways.
He also shares with Kubrick — and the great model-train aficionado Welles — a world-builder’s mentality. Zemeckis has spent much of his adult life creating or perfecting new devices, processes and even shots. You can see his restless curiosity at work in the dazzling optical effects in the “Back to the Future” trilogy and the integration of live action and animation in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” through the innovative, digitally assisted camera angles in “What Lies Beneath” (the most astonishing of which starts very low, looking up through a seemingly transparent or nonexistent floor, then slowly rises to an overhead view that shows the floor fully intact). Now, thanks to motion capture, which can reproduce a moment from any angle the director wishes, Zemeckis is able to create whole worlds in his hard drive. He’s no longer confined to stitching bits and pieces of reality and fantasy together and cleverly hiding the seams, as he did in his ’80s and ’90s movies. He can treat reality as if it were sculptor’s clay. If he can visualize it, he can put it on screen.
While the motion-capture technology used by Zemeckis has improved with each new feature, the early complaints lodged against “Polar Express” — that the world seemed too slick and inorganic and the characters too rubbery or PlayStation-like — still resonate. And it’s true that when Zemeckis’ Beowulf leaps around the mead hall, there’s no density to his movements. It’s like he’s being controlled by joystick (or by invisible marionette strings). One wonders whether Zemeckis made a tactical mistake that the chess master Kubrick would have avoided. Did he throw his artist’s vision behind a technology that wasn’t ready to achieve what he wanted it to?
Perhaps. But if we buy that reading of Zemeckis’ career, we have to first accept that the whole point of the exercise was photorealism. And I don’t think it was. I suspect instead that Zemeckis digs motion-captured imagery not in spite of its unreality but because of it. The “people” in his last three films are emblematic, archetypal, like puppets or figures in a mural; their “illustrated” look syncs up perfectly with the subject matter, which is dramatically very basic and general.
He’s a mythmaker now.
“The Polar Express” is an enveloping (some would say oppressive) parable about the limits of rationality and the necessity of faith. “Beowulf” is a stark fable about the long-term consequences of sin, depicting its hero as a warrior-pillager who’s both the figurative and literal father of his troubles; Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s screenplay spikes the ancient poem with a dash of “Oedipus Rex” (“What caused this infernal plague on Thebes? Oh, wait a second, my bad — it’s me!“). His latest opus, “A Christmas Carol,” is his most visually arresting movie since “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” It’s a heartfelt and in some ways demented fusion of finger-wagging morality tale, up-to-the-minute social satire (the movie foregrounds the Cratchit family’s economic deprivation and lack of decent healthcare, and pointedly shows Scrooge realizing his responsibility not just to the Cratchits, but to people like the Cratchits) and overscaled, psychedelic amusement park ride (the Ghost of Christmas Present hauls Scrooge from location to location in a disembodied flying room with a transparent floor; it’s like a glass-bottomed Victorian hovercraft). And it continues the Zemeckis tradition, begun in the “Back to the Future” trilogy and continued in the motion-capture features, of enlisting a handful of actors to play multiple roles. (Tom Hanks in “Polar Express” and Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman in “A Christmas Carol” made like Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove,” appearing in multiple roles under digital makeup.) Zemeckis is the ultimate example of new-millennium moviemaking — a total filmmaker who hasn’t touched film in years; a sorcerer with an eyepiece, making his dreams come true.
But as is so often the case with Zemeckis, pre- and post-2000, the presentation in the recent movies is so overwhelming, such a spectacle in itself, that it simultaneously amplifies and undermines the subject. The movies are structurally very conservative — linear in their storytelling, unambiguous in their symbolism, strikingly classical in their compositions and camera movements and sense of pace. It’s the package that’s revolutionary. And Zemeckis is only the most dramatic example of this kind of filmmaker; we’ve seen many of them this decade, from Peter Jackson (the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “King Kong” and “The Lovely Bones” ) to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (who resuscitated both the “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones franchises, digitally rebooting them in ways that alienated fans of the analog originals) to Fincher (who applied digital world-building technology to the blockbuster adult drama in “Button” and “Zodiac”). All these directors have a touch of Welles about them; all directors do, granted, but digital technology has turned every movie, even medium-size ones, into opportunities to dream really, really big, and exercise near-absolute control over every scene, frame and pixel.
What’s missing from all these movies is an awareness of the limits of control — a self-aware, self-critical sense of what God complexes can do to an artist, or to anybody. You can sense of a bit of this temperament at work in Fincher’s last two films — which makes sense given the subject matter, namely the mystery of evil and the inevitability of death — but for the most part Fincher’s self-reflection is coded, at times deliberately camouflaged. It’s there if you want to look for it, but it never comes looking for you. That’s a defensible approach, but in an era of control-freak visionary filmmaking, a more challenging, confounding and emotionally intense vision is necessary.
That’s where Wes Anderson comes in. The director of “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004), “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007) and this year’s Roald Dahl adaptation “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is as much a train-set filmmaker as Zemeckis, Jackson and Lucas, and like Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson (“Punch-Drunk Love,” “There Will Be Blood”), Zemeckis and Spielberg, he’s one of the few prominent Hollywood filmmakers working in the ’70s auteur tradition — and doing it with a style so distinct that it can never be stolen, only imitated. He’s notorious for fretting over every aspect of his movies, from the texture of the clothes to the precise geometric motion of each shot and camera movement to the choice of on-screen font (he prefers variations of Futura). Detractors describe his style as fussy, overcomplicated, even airless — and if one prefers a messier, more spontaneous kind of filmmaking, or a more “invisible” style of direction, Anderson is almost certainly the opposite of fun.
I won’t mount a defense of Anderson as an exciting, imaginative and important filmmaker in this article, because I’ve already done it in a series of video essays. I mention him in this piece because of two particular aspects of his art. One is his commitment to analog moviemaking. He shoots on film and prefers to do everything, special effects included, on the set rather than create them after the fact. Even when he employs digital effects or processes, he calls attention to their artificiality; think of the obviously stop-motion sea creatures in “Aquatic” — or, for that matter, the unruly, roiling fur on the creatures in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — which the director insisted be fabricated with hard-to-manage animal hair rather than more controllable synthetic hair, because he just liked how it looked.
Even more significant, in the context of Zemeckis and company, is Anderson’s interest in depicting the emotional and social consequences of the control-freak, God-complex behavior that most directors (including Anderson, I’m sure) possess. Think of Max Fischer in “Rushmore” (1998) learning to redirect his self-aggrandizing talent into a poignant gesture of reconciliation, by dedicating his Vietnam play to Herman Blume, a Vietnam vet, and then contriving to have him sit next to his sometime lover and Max’s unrequited love object, Miss Cross. Or the entire once-great family of geniuses coming to grips with their personal and professional failures in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” specifically the major role that their charismatic but deeply selfish patriarch, Royal, played in the catastrophe.
Better yet, consider the title character of “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” a visionary stoner who designed his own boat and his crew’s technology and uniforms, and runs a little movie studio producing documentaries that record his exploits and glorify his image. Zissou responds to his partner’s death-by-jaguar-shark by vowing, à la Captain Ahab, to hunt down and destroy the animal, only to lose another loved one in the process to a random accident. The shock makes him realize that the shark attack was random as well, and realize that one can’t survive and be happy without learning to accept the limits of control over everything in life — especially death, no matter how senseless or unfair it may seem. (The moment in “Aquatic” when Zissou stares through the mini-sub porthole at the shark and asks, “I wonder if it remembers me?” might be the definitive big-screen statement on post-9/11 grief.) As my colleague Adam Nayman said in an e-mail exchange: “Anderson hit upon a brilliant notion: Moby Dick doesn’t care a whit about Ahab. This particular Ahab has to learn to accept that the object of his obsession is utterly indifferent, which hurts — and everyone else in the sub seems to recognize this.”
One can also derive renewed vigor and strength from the trauma of loss and the fear of death — a point made visually, and amusingly, by the great moment in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” where the Fox family pauses on a road to regard the mysterious figure of a lone black wolf on the hill. Mr. Fox raises his arm and gives the Black Power salute, and the wolf returns it. It’s not just the director reassuring fans that making a kid’s movie didn’t defang him; it’s also a reminder that the flip side of destruction is creation, and that Mr. Fox’s creativity and wildness (like everyone’s creativity and wildness) come from the same place.
Anderson explored the limits of control even more pointedly in “The Darjeeling Limited,” in which three rich, hyper-intelligent but estranged brothers embark on a “spiritual journey” through India. The eldest micromanages every minute of the journey through laminated itineraries provided by his personal assistant, and all three seem reluctant to really give themselves over to the experience because the very prospect scares them. (Told that the train stopped because it got “lost,” one brother cries, “How can a train be lost? It’s on rails!”)
The film is all about learning to accept, even embrace, the randomness of existence and the omnipresent threat of death, incarnated by a legendary man-eating tiger. The beast appears at the end of the most conceptually daring of Anderson’s beloved dollhouse shots — a slow pan through a passenger train of the imagination whose riders include significant characters from many different times and places. The sequence’s final camera movement is a left-to-right whip-pan from Bill Murray’s businessman (who missed a train in the opening scene) that reveals the tiger in the bushes, patiently keeping watch over all of them.
The final shot of the entire movie is a mirror-image, right-to-left pan, moving from the brothers (who’ve had their adventures, experienced a couple of almost-epiphanies and then gotten back on the train) to a shot of the Darjeeling Limited stretching off into the distance (the camera is mounted on the side of the train). The wide screen is divided into perfect halves. On the right is the sleek metal train, man’s creation, moving along a predetermined track. On the left is the landscape rushing by, a blur of green hills perpetually revising itself. Control and chaos: You can’t have one without the other.
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)