"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)
Earlier this week, the cable network G4 announced that it had added a prospective reality show called “Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan” to a lineup that includes such newsworthy fare as “Cheaters” and “Ninja Warrior.” The show, which plans to follow an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit of the U.S. Navy from Stateside training into one of the deadliest places on the planet, is billed as a real-life “Hurt Locker,” which G4 president Neal Tiles told the Hollywood Reporter was his favorite film of 2009. While acknowledging that the life-and-death duties of troops in a war zone are a far cry from G4′s usual programming, Tiles characterized “Bomb Patrol” as squarely within the network’s demographic wheelhouse. “G4 and the Navy like this for the same reason,” he told the Reporter, arguing that the show will appeal to the “tech side” of G4′s young male viewers.
In the next few days, Entertainment Weekly voiced its skepticism and Rachel Maddow decried the project’s “packaging of the war as entertainment.” Beliefnet’s John W. Kennedy criticized “Bomb Patrol” for “plac[ing] cameras in places they don’t belong for essentially entertainment purposes,” apparently overlooking the fact that there’s no indication so much as a frame has been shot so far.
August is a slow news month — per Bush-era Chief of Staff Andrew Card, not a good time to introduce a new product — and snap judgments are the fuel on which the commentariat runs. But before we attempt to stamp out the attempt to put the Afghan war in front of G4′s 6 million viewers, can we ask one question?
Compared to what?
The specter of American troops’ travails being served up “Jersey Shore”-style is a repellent one (although I wouldn’t mind watching Snooki and the Situation sweat through a few weeks of basic training). But it’s not as if “Bomb Patrol,” if and when it arrives, will be crowding worthier war-zone programming off the air. At the moment, news networks are more concerned with Americans fighting mosques in Manhattan than the Taliban in Kabul. Kennedy contrasts the prospective show with a “defensible one-time documentary or ’60 Minutes’ piece,” but audiences who are willing to watch war coverage in such traditional forms aren’t the problem. There’s been no shortage of documentaries, theatrical and televised, about the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. What’s missing are people to watch them. That goes double, at least, for G4′s core audience of 18- to 34-year-old males, a group who are more likely to wind up serving in the armed forces than watching a documentary about them. Even “The Hurt Locker,” which was explicitly designed as an action movie first and a (veiled) critique of the war effort second, was hardly a box-office bonanza.
Maddow’s critique, more detailed than most, centered on the train-wreck appeal of some reality programming, only in this case, instead of someone driving drunk or stepping out on their significant other, the stakes are infinitely higher. On Maddow’s show, the New York Times’ Frank Rich disparaged the “snuff-movie quality” of the proposed series, as if people would eagerly be tuning in each week to see which brave young sailor might get blown to smithereens.
The problem with this analysis is twofold (well, threefold, but we’ll sideline the objection that the series in question doesn’t even exist yet, conceding that editorials in the conditional tense don’t make for riveting viewing). First, not all reality TV is “Jersey Shore,” and even otherwise dopey shows have risen to the occasion when circumstances demanded. Second, decrying the packaging of war as entertainment is high-minded and all, but that ship sailed a long time ago, when the night-vision videos of aerial bombardment came back from the first Gulf War, turning missile strikes into Missile Command. Even respectable journalism (whatever that means these days) uses the tools of suspenseful storytelling to hook audiences in, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Without some fresh angle to renew the American public’s interest in Afghanistan, it’s just another war that has tragically outlived the nation’s attention span. That’s the reality, on TV and anywhere else.
Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter at SamuelAAdams or at his blog, Breaking the Line.More Sam Adams.
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)