"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)
It’s hard to tell what “Sex and the City 2: Attack of the Clones” is supposed to be advertising: Is it homosexuality or Islam? Bergdorf Goodman or Abu Dhabi? Not that any of those products come off too well, but this ghastly, gassy, undead franchise-extender feels like an infomercial for something, and it can’t be heterosexual marriage. That appears to be an endless nightmare from which three of the four SATC gals are struggling to awaken.
Certainly Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), one-time center of the SATC universe, seems trapped in a grim, loveless marriage with the erstwhile Mr. Big (Chris Noth). I assume writer-director Michael Patrick King doesn’t want this to look as bad as it does, but sometimes actors’ faces can’t lie the way filmmakers want them to. Parker looks gaunt and haunted, as if Carrie’s perennial unhappiness has begun eating her from inside, and Noth plays his married-man role with an ashen, stricken, gut-shot expression, looking as if he’s about to pass a kidney stone in every scene.
Big yearns to lie on the $12,000 leather couch, get fat on takeout food and watch the Weather Channel on his new flat-screen TV — the character seems to have bypassed his 50s and gone straight to supper-at-Denny’s age since the first SATC film — but through various forms of time-honored feminine coercion Carrie extorts diamond jewelry out of him and drags him to restaurants and red-carpet premieres night after night. Oh, the suffering! They’re like the wounded couple in Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” except with millions and millions of dollars and no souls. When Carrie asks Big, “Am I just a bitch wife who nags you?” I could hear all the straight men in the theater — all four of us — being physically prevented from responding.
Just in case you think the recession had no effect on Big and Carrie’s lifestyle, au contraire! They were forced to sell their fabulous rooftop penthouse and now must make do with just two enormous Manhattan apartments, only one of which has a walk-in closet larger than my living room. Carrie’s nearly done decorating the place and has written a new book, leaving her alone with the annoying collection of tics and mannerisms — head cocked at a 45-degree angle, lips pursed expectantly, eyebrows raised in a nonspecific interrogative — that have come to dominate Parker’s performances.
King isn’t one-third as interested in his two mom characters, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), but their various versions of overprivileged parenthood also look like living hell. Something to do with the Problems of Today’s Women, which include workplace sexism, fingerpaint on vintage Valentino dresses and Irish nannies with huge tits. I guess that leaves single-white-femaleness, the existential condition on which this empire was built. But this film’s only representative of singlehood is 52-year-old über-cougar Samantha (Kim Cattrall), who’s involved in a desperately cheerful attempt to turn back the hands of time. She ingests more high-grade pharmaceutical hormones than the entire 2002 Tour de France. She rubs ointment on her vulva while taking a business call. She tells her girlfriends she’s tricked her body into thinking it’s younger: “By the time you ladies are 50, I’ll be 35!”
Even more unforgivably, we see Samantha wearing the same appalling but expensive dress as Miley Cyrus, playing herself in a scene that’s supposed to be comic and affirmative but is just witheringly sad. Granted, over the television life of “Sex and the City,” Samantha was brought closer and closer to clowning, with Cattrall’s game but overcooked performance walking a hysterical knife-edge between actual sexiness and a terrifying last-call-on-skid-row simulacrum thereof. But she began as one of the coolest, most liberated TV characters since Mary Richards, and now she’s begging for red-carpet sisterly solidarity with Hannah fucking Montana.
It would have been more merciful for writer-director Michael Patrick King to have rented Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda out to the “Saw” franchise, or to Rob Zombie, so we could watch them get shot in the head or skinned alive by Arkansas rednecks. Instead of that, we get something that’s truly sadistic: the SATC girls as haggard specters, haunted by their freewheeling ’90s past and stupefied by the demands of work, marriage and/or motherhood. This bloated, incoherent movie mimics an SATC episode in structure — vague social relevance at the beginning and the end, conspicuous consumption in the middle — with virtually none of the wit or panache, and seems devoted to destroying our affection for these characters.
Our central foursome, with various partners and offspring in tow, reunite at the beginning of “Sex and the City 2″ for the Connecticut wedding of ol’ pals Anthony (Mario Cantone) and Stanford (Willie Garson). As Carrie tells a Bergdorf clerk, “Just when you think your friends are too old to get married, here come the gays!” In staging this long and often mind-boggling wedding sequence as a combination of Broadway musical and teenage-girl ballet fantasia, and dressing his extras in caricatured Fire Island get-ups, King seems to be posing the rhetorical question: Can a gay-wedding scene staged by a gay director still be homophobic and offensive? I think I’m voting for yes, especially since Stanford and Anthony disappear from the movie right after their nuptials and play no role in what happens later. (Spoiler alert! Liza Minnelli dance number Liza Minnelli dance number Liza Minnelli dance number! OMG scary!)
Do you really want me to reconstruct how this movie gets from a gay wedding in Connecticut through the lugubrious scenes of Carrie and Big’s vampire-like existence and onward somehow to a girls-only, all-expenses-paid luxury getaway to Abu Dhabi? Because I can’t. King’s storytelling operates on the premise that the viewer zones out every few minutes, and when she swims back up to the surface again, something new should be happening. Preferably involving camels. Yes, there is a scene involving camels in which the term “camel-toe” is verbally and visually invoked, and that might be even more embarrassing than the moment when Samantha refers to a manly desert-adventurer type as “Lawrence of my labia.”
In perhaps the movie’s most telling moment, Samantha responds to the Abu Dhabi invitation by exclaiming: “Two years of bad business and this bullshit economy — I’m done! I need to go somewhere rich!” “Sex and the City” and its women are artifacts of the gone-but-not-forgotten economic boom, and the fictional Abu Dhabi of “SATC2″ — which is either Morocco or a studio soundstage — has nothing to do with the real Middle East and everything to do with a consumerist-masturbation fantasy where the ’90s never ended.
I half-expected Monica Lewinsky to show up in a cameo, except that presumes A) a sense of humor and B) a depth of historical knowledge that King does not possess. This movie might as well be set in Czarist Russia or on the Ice-Diamond Planet of K’Znorg, for all the realism it provides. Abu Dhabi is just the answer to King’s narrative question: How can I get these 40-something gals out of their miserable, disgustingly-rich-but-ordinary lives, into a succession of frightful high-fashion outfits and into some version of the single-woman Manhattan playland they used to inhabit?
Wajahat Ali was correct to complain in Salon that King’s portrayal of the Muslim world is dumb and offensive: The “SATC2″ coven has no problem with the “new Middle East” when it’s all about private manservants, endlessly flowing fruity-tooty cocktails and a comped luxury suite that looks like Al Pacino’s house from “Scarface,” only less tasteful and metastasized to infinite proportions. The foursome develops a sudden concern with the oppression of Arab and Muslim women only after the pipeline of pornographic bling-juice is cut off. This is doubly frustrating because there’s the germ of an interesting idea here — ultra-randy Samantha, going head-to-head with Islamic sexism and Puritanism — which is handled too clumsily to be either funny or dramatically effective.
Indeed, this movie’s offensive on many levels, but Arabs and Muslims don’t get to feel special. It relies on stupid stereotypes because it’s a stupid movie that’s offensive to virtually everyone. It’s offensive to the demographic it claims to adore — straight women and gay men — who are depicted, more than ever, as hopelessly obsessed with the surface of things, to the point where they forget there’s anything below that. The only reason it isn’t offensive to straight men is that there aren’t any; Big is something else, a shambling, half-dead ghoul enslaved to a demonic harridan. (One of Carrie’s old boyfriends makes a token reappearance and livens up the movie briefly, but he’s a purely perfunctory complication.)
It’s offensive to an entire audience who came of age with these women and who remain breathtakingly loyal, and out of nostalgic affection may not have the heart to turn away from them. It’s offensive to King’s own creations, toward whom he now seems to feel nothing but contempt. It’s offensive because it keeps cattle-driving a franchise once based on sparkle and economy toward new heights of painful, frantic emptiness. I kept telling myself, over and over, that Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte — the real, flawed, funny, recognizably human ones, not these lobotomized zombie replacements — would never do anything so dumb.
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)