"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)
Steven Greenstreet was almost certainly out for publicity with his video “Hot Chicks of OWS.” After the controversy around the film was mentioned on CNBC, Greenstreet’s response was a tweet to reporter John Carney: “Thanks for the mention on CNBC for “Hot Chicks”! But maybe correct the spelling of my last name?” Female critics, on the other hand, he’s asked out for coffee.
The video is certainly an attention-getter. To the strains of “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,” Greenstreet interviews women at Occupy Wall Street about the issues and their activism. The women are uniformly articulate and bright — but the camera loves to linger on their hair, on their lips, on tattoos peeking through bare skin. Greenstreet, on his blog, calls it “the sexy side of protesting corruption.” To others, it reduces women activists to sex objects.
Have youth, sex and activism always gone hand in hand? Or is this an unfair “OWS Gone Wild,” a film that lures women in under the pretext of taking them seriously, only to leer over their hotness?
The film caused quite a stir at Salon, where staffers debated the issues over email for several hours. Here’s a taste of the conversation.
Laura Miller: So this dimwit is making himself disagreeable to the women in the movement
Matt Zoller Seitz: For what it’s worth, I think the video is lovely. It’s the headline — “Hot Chicks of OWS” — that’s a problem.
The relationship between the two is that of a shallow jerk who goes somewhere looking to get laid, and instead falls madly in love and finds himself wanting to be a better person.
Laura: The video is pretty rather than leering, true, but even without the title, if I were one of those women (especially if he didn’t ask to film them first, explaining the context), I would be 1) creeped out and 2) annoyed that my attempts at political speech were reduced to appreciation of my looks.
Matt: It’s worth noting — and this really has no bearing on the video one way or the other — that protest movements throughout history have tended to attract people who aren’t really interested in the politics, but are only looking to meet interesting men and women. Social action as dating service.
Thomas Rogers: I went to the Act Up oral history project at White Columns Gallery in New York last year, and I remember a bunch of the people on the tapes talked about how the main reason they started going to Act Up meetings in the first place is because they wanted to meet cute guys — and then they eventually got involved for all kinds of other reasons.
Laura: People go to every kind of social event looking for romantic partners, including church group meetings, and there is nothing wrong with that. But it also doesn’t mean that everyone participating agrees to be photographed and presented as bait to lure those people into the movement.
The atheist community had a similar dust-up over this issue, when one of their guys gave a talk at a conference about the importance of female members and said “boobs are good.” This, not surprisingly, displeased female participants who thought they were welcomed for their ideas and work, not because their breasts might attract more guys (who would, presumably, contribute ideas and work of real value). Also not surprisingly, that community has an ongoing problem with sexual harassment that continues to make women feel like they don’t want to be involved in it.
If the women this guy filmed consented to be displayed for this purpose, then it’s a different matter. We don’t know if they did, but few of them are looking at the camera, and because he’s a professional filmmaker, he could easily have gotten those close-ups without them knowing it by using a special lens.
It’s worth remembering that today’s women’s movement grew out of a counter-culture in which a lot of women were sexually harassed with the argument that they should supply sex “for the sake of the movement.”
Not everybody who feels entitled to photograph women without their permission as a sexy advertisement for a movement also feels entitled to aggressively come on to or grope or worse those same women as one of the perks for being such a good soldier for the movement. But I guarantee you that every guy who feels entitled to do the latter also feels entitled to do the former, and will say that women who are trying to look pretty and offering themselves up as enticements to join the movement must be asking for it. Better to enlighten guys like that about the concept of consent with something smaller, before things get out of hand.
Rebecca Traister: The larger, simpler argument, outside of consent or permission, is: This video is sexist. It’s an example of women participating in public life — political, professional, social — and having their participation reduced to sexual objectification. That’s what happened here, nothing more, nothing less.
The notion that dressing in a certain way is an invitation (and presumably that dressing in another way is not) is flawed. There is no way for women to dress (dresses, shorts, jeans, overalls) that is not considered an invitation by someone. When you add in the ways in which women are expected to dress in order to be taken seriously, or liked, or listened to or paid attention to, and then add to that assumptions that the choices that they make equal invitations to be ogled, it leaves women no sartorial freedom.
Matt: Laura, I don’t disagree with the spirit of your argument, but the most we can agree on is that the filmmaker used the footage of the women in ways they probably would not approve of. Not only is there no reasonable expectation when you go out in public that you will not be videotaped, there is no reasonable expectation that said videotape will not be used for some embarrassing, nonsensical or nefarious purpose.
This happens all the time in every area of filmed or videotaped media, and we at Salon derive enormous pleasure from it when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do it in a comedic context, and get mad when the people at Fox News do it. Do you remember when Ed Bradley interviewed Katherine Willey, the woman who alleged sexual misconduct by Bill Clinton? One of his questions to her was, “Was he aroused?” David Letterman took that one line out of context and ran it every night on his show for two weeks. It was a huge laugh-getter.
I disagree with the notion that “consent” even comes into play here. This is an honest video by somebody who is obviously young, heterosexual and male, and probably not that deeply interested in the specifics of the politics of the event, although I bet he got a lot more interested once he got there and started seeing all the women featured in the video. What’s really interesting to me about the video — and I don’t think anybody in this thread has mentioned this yet — is that the filmmaker is not just ogling bodies. He’s doting on faces and gestures. There are no ostentatious cleavage shots or shots of butts wiggling as they walk down the street, no music-video-type objectification, and nothing remotely pornographic. This is not the work of a masher, as a different generation would say. It’s very gentle and even romantic, in a juvenile way. He’s photographing these women in the way that I personally look at a woman I have suddenly developed a huge crush on. This video reminds me of the great short story “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” – that lovely monologue by the guy who can’t stop looking at women; it’s a litany of the incredible cross-section of femininity that passes before his eyes every day in New York City. That’s what I get out of this piece. If every man is as “creepy” as this guy, the human race is in pretty good shape.
Andrew O’Hehir: Not to introduce the sometimes tiresome cultural-studies topic of the “male gaze,” but that’s exactly what Rebecca is talking about here. The public sphere is an unequal arena for men and women, who go into it with different expectations about how they “should” present themselves and how they will likely be viewed. It always has been unequal, of course; the only difference today is that feminism, metrosexuality, more widespread acceptance of homosexuality, etc., have complicated the picture and leveled the playing field a little. But not a lot.
Try to imagine a straight woman coming up with a blog or site like this, cataloging the hot guys of OWS. You basically can’t, and if she did it would automatically come with quotation marks. You can imagine a gay man doing it, certainly, and you can imagine a woman privately sharing with her friends thoughts (but probably not pictures) of the hot dudes she ogled at Zuccotti Park. But the eroticism of the “male gaze” remains permissible in public in a way that doesn’t happen for women, even if the equation is a bit more fraught than it used to be.
Emma Mustich: But isn’t that just what this website featuring men on the London Tube did, earlier this year?
Andrew: If so, I stand somewhat corrected. Did that site read as created by and for women? I would still maintain that public female lechery is in its infancy, relatively speaking.
Laura: Also, it doesn’t happen in a context where what one man will interpret as an invitation to ogle or photograph, another will interpret as an invitation to grab or worse. And women have no real way of knowing which men are which until it’s too late.
Thomas: For what it’s worth, Queerty did one as well (though, as Andrew mentioned, it’s hardly surprising that gay men would do this).
Laura: Yes, women do this, but it doesn’t come in a cultural context where many women are still regarded as deserving or inviting nonconsensual sexual contact simply because of the way they dress. Or, for that matter, where women’s identity and worth is reduced to the sexual interest they inspire in men.
Matt: But at the risk of sounding like a closet caveman — which I probably already do! Too late! — I think this video captures an aspect of social protest that is rarely acknowledged publicly, and that gets roundly criticized whenever it is acknowledged, namely that the sight of people totally immersed in a moment or an activity can be tremendously sexy. The first Chicago Transit Authority album, which was partly a response to the 1968 riots, has a bit of the same energy.
By no means am I saying this video is on the level with that album, only that it’s coming from a somewhat similar place. It’s not intellectual, it’s mammalian. It’s centered on a particular political event but it’s mostly about being young and full of passion, energy and hormones. There is a place for that kind of expression. Maybe it’s too soon for that? Or maybe the timeline has accelerated because of technology, and it’s not too soon for that?
The filmmaker made an honest — and in the greater scheme of things rather mild — short video using footage from a real event, and now he’s being held up as a symbol of the patriarchy, an example of straight male cluelessness, the boot on the neck of half the population. A fair viewing of that video does not support anything like the vitriol that has greeted it. When you feel you’ve been misunderstood and vilified, you start embracing the stereotype just to get a rise out of people and piss them off. I think if somebody were to interview him a couple of months from now, or go back in time and interview him an hour after he finished cutting the piece, he’d come off very differently, and probably a lot more sympathetically.
I’m much more offended by the video that the New York Times put up yesterday that arranged a dialogue between supposed representatives of the OWS and anti-OWS mind-sets — which in the Times’ view meant finding a guy in a suit and tie and a guy who fits the Archie Bunker stereotype of a dirty hippie. That’s truly offensive and dangerous. This “women of OWS” video is just some guy’s reporter’s notebook entry, one that happens to take the form of a viral video. If you just look at the video itself, I really don’t think it’s threatening or disturbing. If what is demonstrated in that video is a truly piggish mind-set, or the mind-set of somebody who could potentially become a groper or rapist or just a hateful sexist brute, then all men are beyond redemption.
It’s rare to see a completely honest portrait of a person’s subjective mind-set, communicated by somebody with filmmaking talent. This video fits the bill. It puts us inside the heterosexual male mind in the way that certain parts of Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese and James Toback movies do — objectifying women while being fully aware that that’s what the filmmaker is doing, not hiding it, and tying it to the physical world the women inhabit. If the video were less sexual/romantic/objectifying, and more concerned with how it presents itself to the public, it would be less honest and less distinctive and interesting. The filmmaker would be telling the audience what he hopes will make them (and himself) better people rather than what he was really thinking and feeling. It would be just another agitprop video — a genre that is hugely valuable, don’t get me wrong, but of which there is no shortage of current examples.
I also think if this video had a different headline on it, this discussion would have been much less contentious. Sometimes the headline is everything.
Laura: I’m not saying that all men who feel romantic about pretty strangers are potential rapists. Obviously they’re not. And most heterosexual women want to be seen as attractive by men. But the issue of who gets to control that is really, really charged because of tens of thousands of years of human history in which “romantic” trappings often concealed brutal inequities. A video can be “romantic” in style and really, really problematic in concept at the same time.
So, yes, women tend to be far more exquisitely sensitive to the vibes of these things than men are. And the fact that everything this guy has done to promote his video suggests that he cares nothing for how women might feel about how he uses their images also suggests that there is a creepy, disrespectful element to the thing, even if not everyone can detect it.
And you know what? If this were a video that showed men and women, maybe made in collaboration with a female or even a gay male filmmaker, I doubt anyone would have any problem with it. But there’s a lot of historical baggage implied in the way it was, in fact, done. The framing matters.
Mary Elizabeth Williams: I get that where there are youth and passion, there are hormones and desire. But this entitled attitude among dudes that if you wear a skirt to the revolution, it’s because you’re inviting male attention is flat-out BS.
Here’s a thought — sometimes women do things for themselves. Sometimes their own prettiness, or choice of wardrobe, or decision to wear lip gloss is independent of whether it elicits male appreciation!
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)