"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 what’s left to blog about?
We sit at the beginning of our fifth weekend. “City Island” is continuing a slow and effective rollout around the country. Our per-screen averages are extremely encouraging — the trades like using the word “sturdy” — and our reviews are for the most part excellent. Rotten Tomatoes has us at an 85 percent rating. It seems like “City Island” is, in fact, that rare thing In today’s marketplace: an indie film that is enjoying a measure of mainstream success and has done so on its own independent terms: I got to make the film I wanted to make with no interference. Once it was done we offered it up for sale and it was purchased — as is. (Ten years ago I was editing my film “Two Family House” in a post facility in downtown Manhattan while across the hall — in a room choked by the stench of Marlboro Lights — Harvey Weinstein sat furiously destroying a film he had purchased the previous year. I believe the film was called “B Monkey”; hence the moniker “Harvey Scissorhands”). Once the movie was purchased, the advertising campaign was designed and the input and comments of the filmmakers were welcomed and listened to.
And now the film has been sent off on its own — like a kid going off to sleepover camp or boarding school. You’re on your own, kid. Don’t make me look bad …
But the question remains: What’s left to blog about?
How about blogging?
Why do we do it? I’ve said before that I feel blogging is truly the freest form of writing that we have — entirely personal, about anything you wish it to be about, with no editorial supervision required or expected — and one that can actually reach an audience.
But it also comes without a paycheck. Indeed, blogging wouldn’t be blogging if remuneration were involved. It would be something else … something more professional, more polished, more journalistic. Except for one thing: Bloggers frequently outshine the “professionals” at their game.
For instance, my favorite film-history blogger, the Self-Styled Siren, is infinitely more sophisticated in her reflections on old Hollywood cinema then, say, your average film studies dude (or dudette) teaching a class at the local college campus. As for jazz history, Marc Myers’ JazzWax blog is worlds beyond anything the ubiquitous Leonard Feather or the unfortunate James Lincoln Collier ever brought to the jazz history table.
Yet they do it out of love and not as a career.
In my case, you might think the blog bit was simple self-promotion. But as I mentioned a few columns ago, Movies ‘Til Dawn began as a way to make sense of the amount of time I was losing every day searching out old film clips on YouTube. Indeed, blogging about old movies and old music was a way for me to park excess information I’d acquired over the years into a kind of viral trimbin — said material being knowledge that I was never able to put to any practical use. I don’t know what, if any, value there was to others in my early film/music history posts; the value belonged to me. The burden of stuff stuck in my brain was alleviated. And it’s nice to see your words in print as well.
Many people begin blogs with no particular aim in mind at all. And as “Julie & Julia” has demonstrated, a little blog can be a money-earning kind of thing — just catch the right publishing wave and land on the shores of Nora Ephron-ville. Then there’s the whole “Will film bloggers overtake the guys who get paid for it?” question. Answer: Let’s hope so! Will this be the death of “true film criticism,” as A.O. (“they call me Tony”) Scott bemoaned in his recent whiny New York Times piece? Probably. If the case of Variety tossing its major film critic Todd McCarthy out is any evidence (and it’s not just McCarthy — it’s the entire post that is finito), it appears that the wind has shifted in favor of the blogosphere.
Still, the fact remains that choosing to blog regularly is a mad pursuit. If being a writer means, in William Goldman’s words, “always having homework,” then starting a blog is akin to having started your own school and made yourself into its sole teacher and student; you’ve created the workload and assigned it to yourself. If you fail (i.e., don’t continue blogging) you’ve earned a very public “F.” Because if you’ve started a blog and built any sort of an audience at all, you risk true shame and embarrassment if you should choose to abandon it. These blogs sit there, you see, on the Internet for God knows how long, floating like a “dead cloud” (a post-nuclear invention of Martin Amis’ in “London Fields” — dreadful image …) Your failure to finish what you begin — a rather common trait in so many of us in life but one that still carries the sting of a childhood reprimand — is there for all to see: Witness me, says the abandoned blog, vanity project of my thwarted ego, one more display of why I’m who I am and not, say, Rupert or Redstone or some other universe master. The only thing you ever finish, screams your mother-figure from offstage, is a roll of toilet paper!
But bloggers persist and this makes other bloggers wonder about each other. I’ve noticed over the past few years of my blog-life that to meet a fellow blogger is to exchange a look that is usually shared by surgeons, cops and movie directors: You do this too? How did we choose this path? Why can’t we quit? Do you drink a lot?
You see, the blog owns you at some point. I’d love to come out and play … but I’ve got my blog.
A little while ago, in an effort to create some coherence and solidarity amongst bloggers, a chain interview for bloggers was developed and unleashed amid the ether. I was tagged by one of my faithful readers, Marianna from Greece — herself a blogger – to participate. The idea being that, as a result, a fellow blogger will read the interview and then must make contact and ask me to interview them. Result: A true blogging circle-jerk. A Web full of bloggers interviewing other bloggers. Is this hell?
Actually it was quite fun. And since learning to participate in group activities — never a strong suit of mine as a child — is something I’m trying to get better at in middle age, I agreed wholeheartedly to participate. Below are the rules as they were sent to me:
1. Send me an e-mail or comment saying “Interview me.”
2. Then five questions will be e-mailed to you (questions I choose to ask you).
3. Answer them on your blog.
4. Do not forget to repost the rules along with your answers and offer to interview any other blogger who e-mails you or comments that they wish to be interviewed.
I went ahead and did it. And I hereby reprint my “self-interview.” It’s not bad, really, and of course I then sent the request on to another blogger. I offer you the interview and — if you’re a blogger and haven’t done this yet — the opportunity to “pass it forward.”
If you had to choose one song to be in your life’s soundtrack which one would it be and why?
Why one? I listen to music almost constantly — therefore picking one song would constitute a form of torture as it would be playing in constant rotation, driving me mad. (Apropos of this: Gore Vidal once said, “What is a long life but a nightmare of endless repetition?”) But if I were to pick a song which I considered the best, most poignant accompaniment to how I picture my own existence it would be the Art Tatum-Ben Webster recording of “All The Things You Are” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein.
If you had to distinguish one moment, a moment you hold close to your heart, from your life so far … which one would it be?
So many come to mind of course — I’ve led a full and fortunate existence. But it would, I think, come down to any random moment I have with my son.
Because the most seemingly inconsequential moments with your kid are somehow to me the most delightful and profound ones. I’m talking about the moments where suddenly the miracle of their existence strikes you with full force — and usually they’re doing nothing specifically wonderful at that moment, beyond of course existing.
Let me add one more specific moment that I hold seriously close to my heart: Being in my old apartment in Greenwich Village one night and watching on TV as it was announced that my film “Two Family House” won the big audience prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The joy was not just in nabbing the prize; it was in not being there in person to collect it, a fact the New York Times commented upon which made me seem (and feel) deeply cool.
In the movie “S1m0ne” Al Pacino plays a producer who finds working with a digitally-made actress easier and better than working with a real-life one. Do you feel that nowadays technology and the, so called, digital age have the effect of making humans less and less needed?
No. Though I fit the classic profile of a Luddite, I am in fact enthused and enchanted with the so-called “digital age” and the various ways in which it is making precisely what I’m interested in more available and achievable. All progress comes with a cost of course — hasn’t the automobile, so necessary in our lives, completely altered and uglified the world’s landscapes? On the other hand, the car is a brilliant invention and many automobiles are even works of art. (Though none, I daresay, are being currently manufactured.) Even if we are growing more isolated as a result of our much-vaunted “interconnectivity,” humans will always be needed to use the technology that develops. Digital media — whatever purpose it may be serving — is ultimately a consumer tool, and the consumer will always be a human. And there are certain actors who I would have preferred working with a digital version of.
Is there something in your line of work that you saw and said “Oh, I wish I had done that!”? Did you admire anything to the point of healthy jealousy?
A great many things provoke the “healthy jealousy” you speak of, though I prefer to think of it as “honest envy.” When I was a kid, the fight scene in the movie “Shane” made me want to be George Stevens, the director who staged it. (Funny that I’ve never shot anything remotely resembling that — although there is a pretty funny fight scene in “The Thing About My Folks.”) Other movies that made me want to have made them: “All That Jazz,” “Sunset Blvd.,” “The Sweet Smell of Success” and “The Awful Truth.” Musically, anytime I hear Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson play the piano, it makes me want to quit everything else I’m doing and pursue that sort of excellence single-mindedly. And then there are great tennis players. I’m not one. But something about that particular sport’s champions fills me with awe and envy. Perhaps it’s because they are alone with their technique and not part of a team. They have only themselves to rely upon, which I somehow relate to. Certainly as a pianist it makes sense to me; but even in filmmaking, though it is a highly collaborative endeavor, the director is in an extremely lonely position. The final judgments are yours; they may not be what others want so you must rely on your instinct. So often on a crowded set, you feel that sense of isolation that I can only imagine a tennis player feels when staring at his or her opponent.
If you were given the opportunity to go back in time and change something from your past, would you choose to do anything differently or not? And why?
I can honestly say no to this since I’ve come to believe (just in the last few years) that everything follows a pattern that was established long ago, in some forgotten “war room” where our lives are doped out before we live them. We are merely actors — not the scriptwriters. Apropos of this, I will close by quoting a line from Steven Soderbergh’s film “Che,” a line that has had a profound impact on me:
“Live your life as if you’ve already died.”
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)