"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)
During his career-long passage from 1980s queer-cinema radical to venerated European master, the legendary Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has made comedies, thrillers, love stories and melodramas, often all at the same time. Indeed, given Almodóvar’s passion for classic Hollywood movies, the only thing surprising about the fact that he’s finally made a horror movie is that it’s taken him so long — and that he seems curiously uncomfortable with the label. “The Skin I Live In,” Almodóvar’s 19th feature film, reunites him with ’80s muse and star Antonio Banderas, playing a new-school mad scientist who is building the perfect wife in his secret laboratory.
Sporting perfect hair, a Gaultier wardrobe and the Anglo-sounding name of Dr. Robert Ledgard — Almodóvar loves character names that seem to belong to Rock Hudson in some half-forgotten Douglas Sirk picture — Banderas is perfecting a super-strong genetically engineered form of human skin, and using it on Vera (Elena Anaya), a mysterious beauty he has locked in the basement. Despite their sadomasochistic relationship (which is worse than you imagine), Vera seems to have fallen in love with Ledgard, and the coldblooded doctor has begun to reciprocate. That’s when Zeca (Roberto Álamo), the thuggish son of Ledgard’s housekeeper (Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes), arrives on the scene — and appears to recognize Vera as his former lover, although she can’t remember him. That triggers a series of violent events and, more important, begins to unzip the interlocking past histories of all these characters.
“The Skin I Live In” is likely to be a controversial film for Almodóvar fans. It’s as stylish and kinky as you could want, but compared to his recent female-centric melodramas (“Broken Embraces,” “Volver,” “All About My Mother”), this is a chilly genre exercise that casts his obsession with gender and sexuality in a harsh new light. It contains a genuinely violent and upsetting rape scene, which Almodóvar discussed in a meeting with a handful of critics at Cannes last spring. Before you read on, I have to caution you that this interview veers very quickly into spoiler territory. I’ve edited the conversation a little, but there’s no way to remove that element entirely, and the subject is so interesting I think some readers will be OK with the revelations. I don’t think it ruins the effect of the film if you know a little more about where Vera came from, or the depths of Dr. Ledgard’s depraved scheme — and I can assure you there are several important plot elements that are not disclosed here.
Almodóvar is an impressive but often maddening conversationalist, who’s delighted to talk at great length about the philosophical themes and artistic influences in his work, weaving back and forth between Spanish and English (with a few bits of French), interrupting his interpreter and repeatedly contradicting his interlocutors and himself. This discussion took place around a table in a crowded hotel bar, the day after the Cannes premiere of “The Skin I Live In.”
Pedro, can you discuss your interest in switching genders? You’ve used the idea of a sex change before, but not quite like this.
I think that in addition to it being something of a general dream that people have — the idea of seeing yourself as the opposite sex — there is the question of challenging God. If you are transsexual, then you are issuing a challenge to God, who created you in the wrong body. It’s a way of reaffirming your own identity. When transsexuals take the step of becoming what they feel they are inside, they are defying God and reaffirming their own identity. In “The Skin I Live In,” one of the most important elements is this element of identity. I don’t mean sexual identity, I mean identity as such. The doctor in the film operates the most atrocious changes on someone’s body, but in doing so he never touches what you might call the inner soul, the inner spirit, what makes us truly human. In this film I treat transsexuality in a completely different way from in my earlier films. In this film it’s the most atrocious punishment, whereas in my previous films it’s a way of reaffirming your true identity.
But doesn’t Vera, Elena Anaya’s character, find peace in her new body?
I think the first step to surviving adverse conditions, and Vera’s conditions are truly awful, is to accept reality as it stands. This adaptation to survival needs is not an immediate process. Vera’s first reaction to finding herself in a new body is very clearly expressed in the scene with the dresses. When, as a new woman, she is presented with these very feminine frocks, her reaction is almost animalistic. She tears at them. I told Elena Anaya to play this scene in a very feline manner, to leap on the bed like a tiger or a cat and rip the dresses as though she were ripping the hide of an animal. That is her first reaction to this imposed new sex.
But the second step, because this character is a born survivor, is to accept reality. And then the third step is to wait, to wait for any tiny chance to escape that may open. She achieves this through doing yoga, through copying the images of Louise Bourgeois, and these elements are essential to her survival. Then, when Vera frees herself through violence — but it’s a violence that has been imposed on her by circumstances — there is a very eloquent scene, a close-up in which you can see that she didn’t want to kill anyone, she is disgusted. Then, when she returns home as Vera, she sees the girl whom she liked when she was Vincent, and she still finds this girl attractive. In her mother’s shop, which is full of these feminine symbols — the dresses up on the walls, which are like ghosts of women — she still feels herself as Vincent, even though she’s deep inside this new body. So there’s a kind of epilogue to the film, in which Vincent as Vera makes love to Cristina, the girl he always liked. This is the closest thing to a happy ending, with a new body that you never wanted.
Do you consider this a horror movie? You seem to be saying different things at different times about that.
I really don’t know how to define the movie. If we promote the film as a horror movie, maybe people will be disappointed. I didn’t agree with one review I read, where there was a big confusion about the words “gender” and “genre.” In Spanish, we have the same word for these things. To talk about male and female, we say genero, and to talk about thrillers, suspense or comedy, we also say genero. He mixed up those ideas, and it was all a big mistake. I don’t think it’s a horror movie, no. I’m not trying to deliver big scares. I’m trying to go into your mind with an image that can horrify you. I didn’t want blood or scary moments, but the whole thing should be scary, perhaps in a subliminal way. I always have problems defining my movies in terms of genre, because I mix a lot of them. This is how I’ve done it since I began making movies. This movie also has some very noir moments — that’s a genre that I like — but you cannot say this is a noir movie. This is an obscure movie about sexual identity and about survival and also about an abuse of power. You can’t understand it on every level, it can be a metaphor for almost anything. You can watch the movie in many ways, but you can’t look at it as a typical horror movie, because it isn’t.
But surely we are justified in comparing this movie to James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein,” which seems very much like a film you would admire.
No, no, yes, yes, of course. That is included. I wasn’t thinking about that when I was writing, but it’s obvious. When I saw Elena Anaya, with these marks and scars all over her body, it’s impossible not to think about Frankenstein. Frankenstein arrives in my movie in a natural way, like a cultural myth. I didn’t want to avoid it. When I’m writing, I’m completely free. I did not try to make a new Frankenstein, just to make my own movie. But Elena really is a new type of Frankenstein monster. And, yes, of course, James Whale and Frankenstein is in my movie. Another friend mentioned “Les jeux sans visage” ["Eyes Without a Face"] of Georges Franju, an auteur I like very much, I film I remember watching when I was a child.
What role does the art of Louise Bourgeois play in this film? Why is it so important?
I wrote this script over many years. I made five movies during the 2000s, and after finishing every one I went back to this script. I was never satisfied with the results. I knew about Louise Bourgeois, of course, but then I saw her work in a big exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, and I thought it was so perfect, I was so moved. There were all these figures she had made with her own clothes, and I thought that was perfect for Vera. That deep emotion that she receives from the work of Bourgeois helps her a lot. Her worst enemy is the passage of time. So yoga is very good because it isolates you completely in your breath. To breathe is to live. That’s why she writes so many times on the wall, Respiro. “I breathe.” It’s like saying I’m still alive. The magic of yoga is that in concentrating yourself on the breath, you are in that present and you don’t feel anything. She has to fight against the passage of time. So I can say that I am very sad that Louise Bourgeois died a year ago, because this is a big tribute to her work.
Do you do yoga? You talk about it so passionately.
No, no, no. I can be passionate about, I don’t know, Alfred Hitchcock, and I didn’t know him. If I knew him, I am pretty sure I would not have liked him personally! I would have found him fascinating, but sometimes you don’t have to know the person, if you like the work.
You have two actors of different sexes playing the same character. That’s a pretty unusual casting and directing challenge.
Yeah, and they also have to look similar. Antonio’s character has changed her body, but he cannot change the bones. They have to have similar faces, and they have to be exactly the same height. It was very difficult to find the right actors. I was looking at more androgynous women, and I found some actresses who looked like men and were also very beautiful. Elena was not as tall as I wanted, but in the auditions she was much better than anyone else. I decided that she was the perfect actress to give the emotion and strength that I wanted. So the challenge was, yes, to find an actor exactly as tall as Elena. I think I saw hundreds of Spanish actors, and I was also looking outside Spain. The character is very difficult; no one can live this situation. This is not merely an unusual situation, it is a completely unique situation. You need a very good actor to play that, you cannot make any comparison with anything real. Fortunately, we found Jan Cornet, who is very new as an actor, and I think he’s great.
Can you still remember meeting Antonio Banderas for the first time?
Oh yes, I remember very well. It was in the early ’80s, I think 1981. I was looking for a Shiite terrorist. [Laughter.] All you needed was dark hair, which is very easy to find in Spain. There is a moment where he’s walking in the street and meets the protagonist, who likes boys. All he had to do was look at him nicely, with desire in his eyes. And he was so perfect! He was perfect for that period, to act and perform all the characters I wrote. His eyes were burning with real passion, and that was the male character I wrote in the ’80s.
Now, you know, after 20 years he has become — not quite a new person, but he has developed. He has a family and he lives in L.A., so obviously it’s something completely different from when I first met him. When he decided to come back to Spain to shoot with me, there was one condition I didn’t have to tell him. He should be in the same position in the work, he has to forget that he’s been a big success in the United States for 20 years. What I wanted was the same Antonio, playing a very different character. I have to say he was very generous. He said, “Pedrito, just tell me what you want me to do.” He put himself in my hands, and that’s what I needed.
How has Antonio changed in 20 years?
To talk about his changes is to judge him, and I don’t want to judge him. On one hand, he keeps the same person that I loved, and who I loved to work with, so let’s say that our relationship is based on that part of him. Of course he has many levels in his personality, and there is a big emptiness of 20 years. But we don’t talk about that, and it’s very easy for us to go back 20 years. I don’t need to talk about his changes. He’s older! He’s 50! Many things have happened to him.
There is a very disturbing rape scene in this movie, which reminded me of the one in “Kika.”
First I want to say that gender violence is one of the major problems in our country. Every year lots of women die at the hands of their husbands or their partners. So it’s a social problem that the government needs to resolve. We need to provide more help to women. It’s probably part of the genetic makeup of certain Latino men. Maybe we need to use transgenics on them to change this terrible tendency!
In my cinema there are a series of rapes in different circumstances, and they’re treated differently as well. The rape of Kika, like the rape of Vera, are terrible events, but they happen to two extremely strong women who have decided that they’re going to survive whatever happens to them, including the rape. At the moment, during the rape, when the victims try to talk to their rapists, it creates a kind of comic effect. Some people are outraged that there’s a comic aspect to those rape scenes, but I think you have to take it as it is. I’m not joking about rape at all, but sometimes in the course of the most terrible events, when somebody has decided that they’re going to survive, they may say or do things that appear comic to the spectator.
The difference between the rape of Kika and the rape of Vera is that Vera is being raped in an entirely new body and a new identity and a new sex, so it kind of multiplies the horror of what’s happening. There’s a line in the movie that really moves me, when Elena Anaya says, with this horrified expression, “Yes, I love it. This is driving me crazy with pleasure.” As she says that, she turns her face away so the rapist can’t see it.
Can you talk about the scientific aspect of the movie? Did you do some research on that side of things? Was that important to you?
Yeah, because during the writing of the script I thought it was science fiction, but in six years everything had changed. After the discovery of the human genome, the part of the movie that was science fiction has become real. Now what Antonio Banderas does in the movie could possibly be done. In fact, you can transfer genetic information from a cell that is not of your species into a human cell. You truly can blend the toughness of a pig’s skin into human skin. It’s being done with animals, with plants, with tissues. And what’s happening today is that the scientific community is putting on the brakes. They’re afraid of what might happen with humans.
When I talk to doctors about this, they are sure that someone is doing this, or something like this, and the problem goes way beyond a moral problem. We are on the edge of a crisis, an abyss. We don’t know exactly what the future will be. I don’t know whether we are going to see ourselves as human in quite the same way. From the moment in which you can intervene on an à la carte basis, and decide the exact characteristics of a new individual who’s going to be born, not only do you have the capability to eradicate deadly diseases — no more cancer, no more AIDS, nothing of that kind — you also have absolute control over that person’s identity.
That will totally change the meaning of humanity and it will also change the meaning of creation. What will become of all the religions that are founded on the idea of worshiping a God who created humanity? What will happen to all the religious culture that surrounds those belief systems? All of that will be wiped out in one go, and we’ll have a totally new concept of humanity. I’d love to be around to see it, but I don’t think I will live that long. Perhaps you will see it.
In a funny way this film is about the distinction between body and spirit, which comes from St. Augustine. Is this the first movie of yours that the Catholic Church might support?
You think so? I don’t think so. They are terrified of anything to do with sex. They want to do it, but they don’t want to talk about it. [Laughter.] You know, I was educated by priests, like most Spaniards, but I have forgotten all of that. The Catholic Church is not even a ghost for me. I don’t have to fight against that. They don’t have any influence in my life or over my mind. But I am only speaking about the church, not about spirituality, which is something completely different. If there is a message in this movie, it is that there is something that is belongs to you, that is untouchable, that no one can have access to. I’m a very spiritual person, just not in the religious sense. I actually don’t think that the spirit as such matters to the church, or to religions. Spirit is not something you can understand in dogmatic terms.
“The Skin I Live In” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.
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)