"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)
Over the last couple of days, the insular world of the New York entertainment media has gotten its collective panties in a bundle over the question of whether New York Press critic Armond White had or had not been banned from press screenings of “Greenberg,” the new film from director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding”) that opens next week in New York and Los Angeles. Anonymous e-mails and outraged tweets have flown back and forth, complete with exaggerated First Amendment claims and calls for a critical boycott of Scott Rudin and Focus Features, the producer and distributor of “Greenberg,” respectively. In comments forums, fellow critics have lined up for or against White, a legendary contrarian known for his forceful and idiosyncratic opinions. (I know White only slightly, but have always found him a pleasant guy in person.)
Although the charges and counter-charges in this case are pretty salacious, the furor is only partly about White and Baumbach. It’s also about the uneasy symbiosis between film critics and the movie business, two organisms that feed off each other in an awkward dance of privilege, access and manipulation. L’affaire “Greenberg” is also heartening to many film journalists, in a peculiar way. It suggests, in the face of all available economic evidence, that what we do still matters. “I think it’s almost a badge of honor to be occasionally disciplined or threatened by movie publicists,” wrote Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeffrey Wells in a recent post. “Call it an oblique tribute to your tenacity or toughness of spirit or perceived influence.”
If you need to get caught up on this earth-shattering dispute, valuable blow-by-blow histories can be found on New York magazine’s Vulture blog and at The L Magazine. Mind you, calling this kerfuffle a tempest in a teapot might be demeaning to teapots. Neither Baumbach nor White is famous enough for anyone outside the self-regarding media bubble to care, and there were no First Amendment issues involved. (Getting to see movies for free is a perk, not a right.) In any case the worst of the nastiness has now been papered over: White will see the film this week after all, and Leslee Dart, a publicist with the powerful agency 42West, told Village Voice columnist Michael Musto that the decision to deny White entry to an early press screening was hers alone, and didn’t come from Baumbach or Rudin. (It may be that Dart is taking a bullet for her clients, but that’s exactly what publicists are paid to do.)
One thing that’s clear in all this is that nobody expects White to like “Greenberg” too much. Although he’s known for venomous diatribes against the films and directors he dislikes, Baumbach’s last two films have proven to be especially irresistible targets. Here are the opening paragraphs from White’s memorable review of “Margot at the Wedding”:
Noah Baumbach makes it easy to dislike his films. Problem is, he also makes it easy for New York’s media elite to praise them. Start with his style: “The Squid and the Whale” and Baumbach’s new “Margot at the Wedding” are two of the decade’s most repellent movies. Visually, both look like mud; their smart-ass, low-budget affectations (shot by high-price cinematographers) bridge lo-fi mumblecore with Conde Nast hipsterism. This anti-aesthetic lays waste to the bromide that nobody sets out to intentionally make a bad movie; Baumbach does. His deliberate ugliness makes him the Lars von Trier of Brooklyn and the Hamptons.
Baumbach’s characters — picked from New York’s self-punishing literary class — are also repellent. Not since Woody Allen’s Big Apple reign in the 1980s has a filmmaker so shamelessly flattered the professional classes in the guise of exposing them. Baumbach labels their tales with haughty movie titles that are actually New Yorker magazine short-story code, referencing a style of middle-class entitlement and smirk.
White goes on to describe the characters played by Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Baumbach’s wife) as “skittish hateful chicks” and describes the director as a “cinematic enabler to New York’s most obnoxious people,” trafficking in “arrogance, conceit and ugliness.” Other than that, though, he loved it!
Now, White isn’t the first critic to be blacklisted, or threatened with blacklisting, over unpalatable opinions, and he won’t be the last. In fact, White confirms that it’s happened to him before. He was barred from a screening of Spike Lee’s 1996 documentary “Get On the Bus,” after a long-running feud with Lee and one of his publicists finally boiled over. The list of banned or almost-banned critics stretches at least back to the 1970s, and includes such luminaries of the trade as the late Pauline Kael, Judith Crist and the original TV-critic duo of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
There are various reasons why the White-Baumbach contretemps sparked such a Twitterific uproar. White’s incendiary critical persona, and propensity for making enemies, have rendered him an object of fascination for many of his fellow film journalists. Indeed, IFC.com’s Vadim Rizov did some admirable digging and comes up with a suggestive case that White’s antipathy to Baumbach stems from an ancient feud with Baumbach’s mother, onetime Village Voice critic Georgia Brown. White, Rizov says, should have recused himself on that basis from reviewing Baumbach’s movies.
This history connects to Leslee Dart’s most explosive claim. She told Movieline’s S.T. VanAirsdale that White “has gone on blogs and in interviews and said that [Baumbach's] parents should have aborted him.” Various versions of this have often been cited on the Internet, but hardly ever sourced. In an e-mail, White confirms that it stems from his 1998 review of Baumbach’s “Mr. Jealousy,” in which he suggested that other critics were praising the movie simply to curry favor with Baumbach’s mother, and concludes: “To others, ‘Mr. Jealousy’ might suggest retroactive abortion.” That’s a mean-spirited and distasteful dig, to be sure, but Dart and others have distorted and repackaged it beyond recognition. (Although that review predates the New York Press’ Internet archive, J. Hoberman of the Village Voice has unearthed it.)
Whether you see White as sinned against or sinning, he’s in pretty good company. In a 1996 interview, Pauline Kael told critic Glenn Lovett that the notoriously prickly P.R. forces at Warner Bros. had barred her from various screenings in the ’60s and ’70s. “It’s very embarrassing when your friends and colleagues are getting into a movie and you can’t,” Kael recalled. “On one occasion I was invited to a screening by mistake. When I got inside and sat down, I was asked to leave. On another occasion, when the studio publicist saw me, I was told the screening had been canceled. Later, I was told that as soon as I left the building, the screening was called again.” )
When Judith Crist got her first job as a film critic in 1963, at the New York Herald Tribune, she almost immediately became famous for trashing a now-forgotten movie called “Spencer’s Mountain,” a youth-oriented hit that, she wrote, “for sheer prurience and perverted morality disguised as piety makes the nudie shows at the Rialto look like Walt Disney productions.” Warner Bros. sent Crist a telegram disinviting her from all future press screenings, and one major New York theater pulled its ads from the paper. In a Time magazine article, an unnamed Hollywood source described Crist as a “snide, sarcastic, supercilious bitch,” not language often encountered in print in those days. It was, of course, the making of her reputation.
Jami Bernard of the New York Daily News told Lovett she was personally banned from Disney screenings by then-corporate head Jeff Katzenberg for “the tone” of an interview she’d done with Eddie Murphy. Rod Lurie of Los Angeles magazine claims to have been “barred for life” by Warner Bros. for his immortal description of Danny DeVito as a “a testicle with arms: flailing, spinning little knobs” in his 1991 review of “Other People’s Money.” Chicago Reader critic (and Film Salon contributor) Jonathan Rosenbaum reports that Warner barred him from screenings for almost three years, solely over his refusal to narc on a fellow critic who had told him about a “secret” screening of the 1991 drama “New Jack City.”
Ebert and Siskel were briefly barred from 20th-Century Fox screenings in 1990 after making fun of the studio’s comedy “Nuns on the Run” during a joint appearance on “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee.” Ebert’s published review of the film for the Chicago Sun-Times is exceedingly mild, even regretful, and it’s hard to say what the most ridiculous element is here: That Fox made a film called “Nuns on the Run,” or that the studio was outraged that leading critics thought it was dreary and unfunny.
Judy Gerstel, a critic for the Toronto Star and Detroit Free Press, was dropped from several studios’ press lists in the early ’90s, apparently for her brutal takedown of Steven Spielberg’s “Hook,” which she described all too accurately as a “pseudo-Freudian, pop-psychology paean to fatherhood that’s more an acting out of male menopause than a cinematic work of art.”
Sometimes it isn’t opinions that get film journalists shunned, it’s simple information. In 1993, Jeffrey Wells reported a freelance piece for the Los Angeles Times on a stealth-preview screening of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “Last Action Hero,” a screening Columbia Pictures denied had even taken place. He was banned and bullied by Sony/Columbia for some time, but the episode only cemented Wells’ reportorial reputation, and got him five years as a Times columnist and then an independent career as a popular film blogger.
There’s no more reliable way to alienate the Hollywood studios than to report on film junkets, the assembly-line meet-and-greets in which an assemblage of journalists are flown into New York or Los Angeles, housed in luxury hotels at the studio’s expense, and granted short, closely monitored interviews with big-name talent. (Like most major publications, Salon does not accept free lodging or transportation from movie studios.) Blogger and freelancer Eric D. Snider’s 2006 report on a junket for Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” “I Was a Junket Whore,” is a classic of the genre — right down to the tone of wide-eyed amazement — but I could have told Snider from personal experience there’d be some payback.
David Edelstein, now the critic for New York magazine, recalls an episode in his own career that has pre-echoes of the White-Baumbach affair. It suggests how thin-skinned filmmakers can be, and how long they can hold grudges even when doing so is totally counterproductive. Edelstein saw Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” in 1984 and hated the portrayal of the relationship between Mozart and his rival, Antonio Salieri. He wrote a withering review for the Village Voice that compared the film to “a Masterpiece Theater production of ‘The Mark David Chapman Story.’” Apparently, this made Forman go ballistic. “But there was nothing he could do about it until, years later, he saw my review of ‘Dangerous Liaisons,’” Edelstein remembers. “I wanted to make it clear that that ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ didn’t feel like a period piece, and the one I could think of was ‘Amadeus.’
“I had forgotten that Forman had his own version of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ coming out, ‘Valmont,’ and reportedly he went crazy when he read this, taking it as a sure sign that I would come out with both guns blazing in my review of ‘Valmont’ — why he cared I can’t imagine.” So Edelstein got a call from the New York publicist for “Valmont,” saying that he “would not be admitted to the screening, and that they were going to pay attention to everything I wrote from then on.” Edelstein asked some other critics to intervene on his behalf, and a few days later, another publicist called him back: “‘For the record, you were never banned. We just have to schedule some more screenings.’ I said, ‘Come on. You called me and told me I was banned. You’re going to tell me you didn’t say that?’ ‘Yes, I’m going to tell you that.’”
“I find it fascinating that Milos Forman, whose movies almost exclusively deal with people being punished and martyred for mouthing off (‘The People vs. Larry Flynt,’ ‘Amadeus,’ ‘Man on the Moon’) — he’s all for free expression until it’s directed at him.”
I don’t expect Armond White and Noah Baumbach to get past this dust-up and start exchanging holiday cards any time soon. But the only thing Baumbach, Rudin and company have accomplished this week is to make sure that lots and lots of people who’d never even heard of Armond White will now want to read his review of “Greenberg” next week.
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)