"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)
The scariest, most disgusting show on television isn’t “American Horror Story.” It’s “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
Bravo’s unscripted series offers that horror movie gimmick of showing you unlikable people doing ill-advised things that you can’t prevent no matter how loudly you yell or curse at the screen. But because the characters are — in the physical sense, at least — “real,” and the world-shattering plot twist at the core of this season was telegraphed to the audience long in advance, what might otherwise seem a guilty pleasure seems instead a travesty, as depraved a spectacle as anything that has ever appeared on American screens.
We all knew before this new batch of episodes started that “Real Housewives” husband Russell Armstrong killed himself in August 2011. We knew that some of his family members blamed the unrelenting public scrutiny built into the show’s production for hastening his death, and that the tension with his wife, Taylor, was more than a tabloid spat between shallow rich folk — that it was, in fact, symptomatic of something far darker than the typical unscripted cable show could handle. But “Real Housewives” either ineptly failed to integrate our awareness of the tragedy into the plot in any meaningful way, or else decided to plug its ears and tiptoe through the hand-woven silk origami tulips. Is this approach evidence of a conscious creative choice — the calm before the storm? If this franchise weren’t so committed to manufactured melodrama and toxic materialism, I’d offer a very tentative “yes,” but I suspect it’s more likely the case of the show not having the slightest clue of what to do with such explosive material — material that it frankly never should have tried to deal with on-screen, because it is morally, intellectually and creatively unequipped to get anywhere near it without making it dishonest and trite. We’re not talking about “Deadliest Catch” here, or even “Survivor” or freaking “Celebrity Rehab.” It’s “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
We’ve watched Taylor, Lisa, Kyle, Kim, Camille, Adrienne and friends skate through life same as always, planning million-dollar Las Vegas bachelorette parties and attending an engagement shindig in a Rhode Island-size mansion with a secret orgy room. We’ve seen them scowl and gripe their way through Russell and Taylor Armstrong’s daughter Kennedy’s fifth birthday party, a presidentially lavish affair that included a private performance by a pop star the child had never heard of and the gift of a horse that probably no one in her family would ever visit again.
The show’s standard M.O. — showcase copious wealth; watch rich women get drunk and shriek at each other; repeat — seemed grotesque enough in this political climate. Season 2 of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” aired during a fall dominated by images of citizens protesting corporate welfare and the unfair accumulation of wealth by the super-rich. But when you factor in Russell Armstrong’s suicide and the show’s craven and repugnant handling of same, “Real Housewives” goes from irksome to obscene. The show’s wacky “Desperate Houswives”-rip-off score, with its plucked violins going “Doot doot DOOT doot!” as the show’s soused heroines stumble from one catfight to the next, is creepy enough to make Bernard Herrmann shiver in his grave.
In the last few episodes, “Real Housewives” has introduced and stridently repeated accusations that Russell Armstrong beat his wife and even broke her jaw. But because this was never an overt factor in the narrative before Season 2, and because it’s been framed in fuzzy third-hand terms — with Camille repeating stories that Taylor told her about events that happened off-camera, and warning her, “You need to be honest, because that’s not cool!” — the whole thing reeks of opportunism. It’s as if the producers had an emergency meeting after the suicide and, after what felt like an appropriate interval of weeping and binge-drinking, agreed that in every crisis lies opportunity.
When “Real Housewives” frames the tension between Camille and Taylor as a case of two friends fighting over inappropriate disclosure of a secret — in this case, alleged domestic abuse of Taylor by Russell — the show cluelessly reinforces the same cycles of dysfunction that it congratulates itself for bravely addressing. (Taylor spoke to People Magazine about the abuse allegations near the end of the show’s season two production cycle, and a month before her husband’s suicide.) And then the series manages to make things even worse, by tacitly vilifying a man who cannot defend himself against the charges that the characters and the producers are lodging against him. Russell has made very few appearances in the narrative, but every time he shows up on-screen, the editors fixate on his most glowering, coldly furious expressions, and the score shifts into a menacing atonality. There was a moment during the pony party episode where Russell and Taylor had words, and the music went into super-scary “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy” mode. I half-expected an “Omen”-style close-up of Russell with glowing red eyes.
It’s possible that such moments of coiled anger are indicative of a homicidal monster who would fly into a lethal rage if he weren’t at a child’s birthday party. But it might also be evidence of slowly accumulating frustration and anger that all those cameras were constantly poking their lenses into every corner of his life, encouraging his wife and her friends to guzzle massive amounts of alcohol at every possible opportunity and “confide” in each other under hot lights and grow unhinged enough to call each other bitches and whores and worse — and that all of it would ultimately end up on national television and the covers of tabloids.
The distorting effect of all those lights and cameras cannot be discounted when we think about the tragedy of the Armstrong household. The whole thing is unnatural, bizarre, sick. Human beings were just not meant to live their lives this way. We should never forget that, ever. Even politicians, star athletes and rock stars have more privacy than these people. We can speculate that Russell Armstrong may in fact have been an abusive brute, or that Taylor may have been exaggerating or inventing details after the fact; we’ll probably never know for sure.
But I think we can agree that “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” is not the best forum in which to examine the matter, and that if it could not restrain itself from continuing, it should have tried to find some way to present all this heartbreak and horror with a shred of nuance and intelligence. It should not have presented Russell Armstrong as a psycho powder keg, and played up the sewing-circle theatrics of Camille’s disclosures about what Taylor told her, and it should not have added extra layers of nastiness by feasting on Taylor’s meltdown at a party in this week’s episode — a party that almost certainly wouldn’t have existed in the first place, much less spiraled into a drunken, profane screaming match, if the producers of “Real Housewives” hadn’t been perched on the edge of the melodrama with their cameras like electronic vultures. “I hate drama,” Camille told the camera during last night’s episode. Alas, she and the other housewives are required as performers to take part in it anyhow, preferably while swilling down glass after glass of alcohol to make things more “interesting.” And so they do. The program is a zoo, and they’re the self-committed animals we’ve come to gawk at; the producers are sadistic zookeepers, trying to rile up the beasts however they can.
I am not saying that “Real Housewives” killed Russell Armstrong, or that its intrusions had some bearing on whatever happened between him and Taylor behind closed doors. But there is no universe in which appearing on a show like this could have helped them. There’s no universe in which one can defend “Real Housewives” for the way it has dealt with this tragedy. And there’s no universe in which one can simply brush off the series as a “guilty pleasure” — not after watching the cast members, the producers and the network continue to exploit this catastrophe week in and week out. And anyone who watches a series like this for pleasure and discusses it as frivolous entertainment — as if it were a cooking or travel show or even a “Jackass”-style stunt compendium, or worse still, as if the “characters” weren’t actual people who agreed to let themselves be exploited and distorted by television — is “guilty,” indeed.
Everything about this season has embraced the ugliest and most reductive cliches about so-called reality television. The producers’ and the network’s financially motivated determination to go forward with the season under the guise of truth, healing and closure was disgusting enough. The housewives’ continuing to participate in offscreen P.R. — as if they were appearing on “The Amazing Race” or “Dancing With the Stars” — has been revolting, too. Last night, Taylor Armstrong told “Watch What Happens Live” that her behavior at the drunken Malibu party was the result of being abused by her husband. She never mentioned the hothouse environment of the TV series, with its circling cameras, bright lights and drama-lubricating booze, as factors. “My biggest fears were unraveling,” she said. “I was losing my mind. I was really terrified.”
Emotional pornography, thy name is Bravo.
Update: This piece has been corrected to straighten out the chronology of Taylor Armstrong’s public statements about being abused.
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)