"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 is time, gentle readers, to leap to the cultural barricades and defend one of the most productive forces in the history of the human species: boredom. Inspiring, right? You have now started to read an essay about boredom, in open defiance of the pathetic fallacy, not to mention Jesus’ famous comeback to Satan: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” You see, there’s been a bit of a dust-up lately about the value and significance of boredom amid the “community” of film critics, which never bears a stronger resemblance to a gaggle of barnyard fowl than when it is squabbling. The word “kerfuffle” also comes to mind, or the phrase “tempest in a teapot.” But as silly as these disputes may appear on the surface, they do speak to something larger.
This intra-critical dispute has a little to do with a lot of things, including the symbolic schism over films as different as Terrence Malick’s family history of the universe, “The Tree of Life,” and the Marvel Comics-derived mutant-superhero opus “X-Men: First Class.” It has something to do with the utterly unsurprising fact that most critics have decanted bucketloads of scorn all over summer flicks like “The Hangover Part II” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” and have seen them go on to become massive worldwide hits, demonstrating once again that eggheads who watch 350 movies a year have become specialists or experts, of one variety or another, and don’t have much connection to ordinary moviegoers or the reasons why they buy tickets.
It has a whole lot to do with the ancient 20th-century feud between advocates of art-house cinema, which is essentially a remnant of what used to be called “high culture,” and fans of mass-market popcorn entertainment. Which is weird, because one side won that battle a long time ago but refuses to acknowledge its victory and wants to go on acting like the aggrieved underdog. And as tempting as it is to compare the winning side to post-Reagan conservatives who keep whining about what victims they are, decades after their demented ideology has permeated our culture from top to bottom, it isn’t totally fair, so I won’t!
But before we get to the specifics of the current debate, let me make clear where I stand on boredom: I’m for it, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I enjoy it when it’s happening to me. The culture-nerd argument is mostly about the value, if any, of sitting all the way through Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” or Wagner’s “Parsifal” or whatever, but let’s broaden the discussion beyond aesthetic, medicinal boredom — what the critic Dan Kois has termed “eating your cultural vegetables” — to a broader species of boredom. I can vividly remember the exquisite boredom of being young in the 1970s, punctuated occasionally by Rolling Stones records, reruns of “Star Trek” and desultory games of pinball. It was that boredom that led my generation to create and disseminate punk rock, and then (God help us) the global phenomenon of “alternative culture,” which flourished in an interesting way for quite a while before itself attaining mastodon-scale boredom.
Now, I’m not saying that our variety of boredom was superior to anyone else’s (or, to be more honest, while I may believe that at some level, it clearly isn’t true). The boredom of Eisenhower-era America produced that extraordinary cultural and political efflorescence known in the aggregate as “the ’60s.” The boredom of the first impoverished generations of Parisian bohemians produced Impressionist painting and Symbolist poetry. The boredom of the Hollywood studio system produced Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, George Lucas and Brian De Palma (and, boy, talk about mixed results). The boredom of life in America’s neglected Reagan-era inner cities led to hip-hop. Watch any Chekhov play, and you grasp the national ennui that preceded the Russian Revolution. I’m saying that boredom is a productive and indeed revolutionary force, by the way, not that its results are always or everywhere pleasant.
I think what gets critics all het up about contemporary culture from time to time is the sense that the tyranny or hegemony of entertainment has pushed boredom so far into the margins that it’s no longer available, or at least not in the density or quality required to produce cultural revolutions. What we have instead is the meta-boredom of a pop culture that’s all bells and whistles all the time, can’t be switched off and watches us while we’re watching it, rather too much like the telescreens of Orwell’s “1984.” As I wrote a few months ago when reviewing the unbelievably boring “TRON: Legacy,” it’s the “boredom of endless distraction and wall-to-wall entertainment, the boredom of a culture where boredom is forbidden … and the once-proscribed Pleasure Principle has become iron law.”
Mind you, this is likely to be a misreading of both fact and context, as so often happens when you get a bunch of middle-aged critics complaining about the Culture of Today and everything that’s wrong with it. Boredom will out, as Shakespeare didn’t quite say. I have no reason to believe that there aren’t plenty of young people who are bored to death by the 24/7 culture of YouTube and Facebook and nonstop entertainment, and avidly scheming to subvert or transcend or destroy it. I certainly hope there are. (One might suggest Antonio Campos’ “Afterschool,” Matt Porterfield’s “Putty Hill” and Giorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” as recent, and very different, indie-film examples.)
Anyway, here’s what happened: Dan Kois, a critic I like and generally enjoy, wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine employing the above-referenced “cultural vegetables” trope. It was a charming and unpretentious piece, almost as much about parenting as about movies, in which he discussed “aspirational viewing,” meaning watching stuff you don’t actually enjoy because you think you should. He wrote amusing, if patently unfair, summaries of movies he has thus forced himself to sit through, including Tarkovsky’s allegorical science-fiction masterpiece “Solaris” and Kelly Reichardt’s recent shaggy-dog western, “Meek’s Cutoff.” You already know where I’m going to come down, but I don’t find either of those movies boring in the slightest, and think they’re bush-league examples at best. Kois has presumably never seen Tarkovsky’s earlier “Andrei Rublev,” which is incredibly boring (and also totally worth it in the end), or Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s brain- and butt-numbing, seven-hour “Hitler: A Film From Germany.”
In fairness, Kois says he is grateful to have seen “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Solaris” and some other art-house flicks by the likes of Derek Jarman and Hou Hsiao-hsien (again: pshaw!), and along the way he makes one sly, sharp point. Other critics evidently love slow and difficult films, he writes, “movies that I find myself simply enduring in order to get to the good part — i.e., not the part where you’re watching the real-time birth of a Kazakh lamb, but the rest of your life, when you have watched it and you get to talk about it and write about it and remember it.” (The film he’s talking about there, by the way, is “Tulpan.” Not boring at all! I described it on original release as the “Citizen Kane” of yurt movies.)
Kois said nothing about how, durn it all, them furrin films don’t have enough explodin’ bikini babes in ‘em. His positive examples included Alfonso Cuarón and Steven Soderbergh, not “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Hangover Part II.” He sounded genuinely conflicted about wishing he could love Tarkovsky et al., and realizing that he never will. But something about his puckish tone of sticking up for an unpopular cause — that being the dominant and indeed ubiquitous mode of global popular cinema — definitely rubbed the Times’ regular critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, the wrong way. They fired back in a hydra-headed piece that I almost entirely agree with, but that also makes Kois’ point for him all over again, and fails to get at the fundamental nature of the dispute or division. (I am friendly with Dargis but, oddly, have never had a conversation with Scott.)
Those two have been saving up some zingers for an occasion like this, it seems. Dargis begins by describing Kois as a “cheerful conformist” (I envision him going home to a 1950s Levittown house, just as an apron-clad robot wife is removing the pot roast from the oven) and suggesting that he prefers cinematic “junk food.” She describes the $186 million (and counting) “Hangover Part II” as not just monumentally boring but “the kind of boring that makes money, partly because it’s the boring that many people like, want to like, insist on liking or are just used to, and partly because it’s the sort of aggressively packaged boring you can’t escape.” I agree with every syllable of that, but it’s the ruthlessness of the sentiment that’s surprising, stemming from a long and bitter education in the distance between what critics think and what ordinary moviegoers want to see.
Then comes Dargis’ pièce de résistance, when she discusses the way long and challenging films — and the ones she cites, including Andy Warhol’s eight-hour “Empire” and Béla Tarr’s seven-hour “Sátántangó,” are five-star examples — compel you to “meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think,” while commercial movies at their dumbest purposefully inhibit that process.
Thinking is boring, of course (all that silence), which is why so many industrially made movies work so hard to entertain you. If you’re entertained, or so the logic seems to be, you won’t have the time and head space to think about how crummy, inane and familiar the movie looks, and how badly written, shoddily directed and indifferently acted it is. And so the images keep zipping, the sounds keep clanging and the actors keep shouting as if to reassure you that, yes, the money you spent for your ticket was well worth all this clamor, a din that started months, years, earlier when the entertainment companies first fired up the public-relations machine and the entertainment media chimed in to sell the buzz until it rang in your ears.
It’s not like I think that’s wrong; I think it’s brilliant. But along the way Dargis half-accidentally endorses Kois’ premise, in observing that the purpose of watching, say, the real-time meatloaf-making scene in Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is not the immediate pleasure of the images, characters or story (since there’s precious little of that) but what happens to you internally during and after the film. To borrow Kois’ formula, it’s more about having had the experience of watching it than about the actual watching, if you take my meaning. Again, I’m supportive; most viewers and many critics have been indoctrinated with overly narrow, almost infantile notions of what can be beautiful in motion pictures, and how to find pleasure in them. But on the other hand, precious few people will want to ride along with a concept of movie-watching that sounds more like churchgoing or Zen meditation, and it’s difficult for Manohla Dargis or me or anybody else to advocate that without appearing to adopt a position of lofty and superior wisdom.
While the tone of A.O. Scott’s response is somewhat cooler, he gets close to a central issue here, albeit one that’s distinct from the question of what’s boring and what’s not. Film critics sometimes appear defensive about liking art-house fare that has minimal marketplace value, and correspondingly about disliking many of the “industrially made movies” Dargis mentioned above. It’s ludicrous, of course, to act put upon about a job that requires you to see several films a week and then tell thousands of strangers what you thought about them. Slings and arrows come with the territory. It’s nonetheless true that fans of mainstream cinema can be remarkably intolerant about opposing points of view, and absolutely do not want to hear some pseudo-intellectual tell them that the manufactured spectacle of the week is, from his lonely point of view, actually meaningless crap. (This goes double, or triple, for fans and supporters of Christopher Nolan, but at least they’re defending someone whose talent is beyond question.)
If I had time to page through Guy Debord’s Situationist manifesto “Society of the Spectacle,” I’d probably find the apposite quotation, something about how the individual spectacle (like the big summer film) supports the larger spectacle (the consumer society) and is supported by it. And how taken together they create a grand, unified spectacle, a kind of totalitarian dream that must be dreamed by everyone at the same time and from which no one can wake up. Scott puts it a little more modestly, but it’s the same idea:
Lately, I think, protests against the deep-dish and the highbrow … mask another agenda, which is a defense of the corporate status quo. For some reason it needs to be asserted, over and over again, that the primary purpose of movies is to provide entertainment, that the reason everyone goes to the movies is to have fun. Any suggestion to the contrary, and any film that dares, however modestly, to depart from the orthodoxies of escapist ideology, is met with dismissal and ridicule.
I agree with that too, and I think the mockery to which Scott has been subjected by bloggers like Tom Shone (an exceptionally entertaining writer who is almost always 100 percent wrong about everything) only serves to illustrate his point. But now we’ve reached a point where everyone in this dispute, me included, has been forced into positions they don’t actually hold. Dan Kois is not some boob defending every lame superhero movie, and Scott and Dargis are hardly nosebleed aesthetes immune to the charms of pop. This whole argument may stem from an ancient intra-critical disagreement that probably isn’t interesting (or shouldn’t be) to many regular people. On one hand we see critics whose theoretical roots go back to, say, Theodor W. Adorno and the unforgiving neo-Marxist philosophers of the Frankfurt School, who tended to view all aspects of popular culture as tentacles of a nefarious and monolithic machine. On the other we see the acolytes of Pauline Kael, who rejected all that for a passionate embrace of pop culture, albeit one that sometimes seems like the stalkerish love of a jilted ex-wife. (Late in her life, Kael famously said that she might not have defended trash culture so avidly had she known it would become the only culture.)
Suffice it to say they’re both right and both wrong and that, thankfully, hardly anyone holds those positions in their purest form. Pop culture can be a tremendously liberating collective experience, and can also be a tool and an example of totalitarianism. What remains of aristocratic high culture in the art-house tradition really does embody some of the finest aesthetic values of the post-Renaissance West, but it can also be a masochistic and exclusionary ritual, like Odysseus tied to the mast and listening to the Sirens sing. What is boring? A lot of human life is boring, and we’ve all got to pick our poison. Most people, most of the time, prefer to be distracted from the boredom of everyday life with movies that labor to entertain them — and they may get understandably pissed off at those of us who claim that those things, too, are boring.
What about works of art that are deliberately and intensively boring, in the Tarkovsky mode? They’ll almost certainly be out there somewhere, for the audience of flagellants like me who want to seek them out, but that’s hardly the point. Even if you take the most dystopian possible view, as I often do, and see a culture that has tried to build a massive edifice to keep boredom out, a Maginot Line or Berlin Wall of permanent entertainment — well, then reflect on what happened to the Maginot Line and the Berlin Wall. Boredom is like the ants’ nest underneath your picnic, or the mass of hungry zombies outside the mall. Do what you will, you can’t keep it out.
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)