"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 month, Salon’s critics offered their lists of the year’s best culture — movies, fiction, nonfiction, TV, even the top TV episodes (in a two-part slide show that concludes tomorrow). But at a time when there are so many top-10 lists, we also wanted to know what movie critic Andrew O’Hehir, TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and book critic Laura Miller liked least this year. Culture editor David Daley moderated the discussion.
David Daley: Andrew, you ranked all the films you saw during 2011 from 1 through 198. And while there are some especially rotten movies in that final 10, your worst pick of the year was “Your Highness.” Why did the badness of that film stand out over, say, “The Hangover 2″ or “The Green Hornet” or “I Am Number Four”? Are you ranking the worst films of the year with the same consideration as the best?
Andrew O’Hehir: Well, arguably, “Your Highness” is a pretty perverse choice for worst movie of the year. I’m sure most people who saw it, even if they didn’t like it, didn’t have that vehement a reaction. But it pissed me off in a way your average terrible Adam Sandler movie or misfired Hollywood spectacle pretty much never does. “Green Hornet” and “Your Highness” are actually similar situations, where you’ve got talented people and at least a potentially promising premise, but it adds up to something that’s both disappointing and actively irritating.
I was never hugely in love with David Gordon Green as an indie director, at least not after “George Washington,” which was a lovely little film. I have no problem with his decision to make mainstream comedies instead. But I found “Your Highness” just insufferable and insulting, in its smug, pseudo-badass vulgarity, in the way it squanders an interesting cast and some cool sets and locations, in its embrace of a willfully stupid, kidult-style sense of humor. It pandered to its audience every bit as much as the most crass kinds of Hollywood films do, but still wanted to congratulate itself for being edgy or indie or cool, in some undefinable mid-’80s pothead way. I could decide to blame all that on Danny McBride, who I completely cannot stand, instead of Green, but that doesn’t matter.
So, yeah, it’s a peculiar choice, but that’s what making this kind of list is all about. I would defend the standards at both ends of the list, in the sense that my No. 1 for the year, the Korean film “Poetry,” is something that very few people saw and far fewer would rank as high as I did. I’ll add that there are a few other apparent perversities on my yearlong list. Many critics loved the heck out of “X-Men: First Class,” which I thought was a totally mediocre comic-book movie, not that memorable and fairly silly. And I very consciously rated the last Harry Potter movie below this year’s Twilight movie, which may involve my semiconsciously making a point about the snobbish horror with which fans of respectable SF/fantasy universes view the Twihards, but is mostly just honest: I quite enjoyed “Breaking Dawn Part 1,” and I just didn’t think HP 7.2 rose above the level of generic action-adventure or offered anything to non-Potterphiles.
David: Andrew, in a piece this week on Hollywood’s bad year at the box office, you made the point that the end of the year is loaded with award bait for the coasts, and the rest of the year with franchises and sequels. It doesn’t seem to be working for anyone — there are too many prestige pictures hitting at once, and outside of Harry Potter, Twilight and Transformers, a lot of the summer spectacles underperformed. Did the big Hollywood spectacles get worse this year?
Andrew: You know, I do think this year’s spectacle films were mediocre, or even below that level, but I’m not sure how to account for that. To me the whole Marvel Comics movie series, as it lumbered from “Iron Man 2″ to “Thor” to “Captain America” on the way to next year’s “Avengers,” has started to feel huge and threadbare and witless. None of those movies was atrocious, and none of them fared as badly as, say, “Green Lantern” or “Cowboys & Aliens.” But the franchise seems so inflated and pompous, and is taking so damn long to reach its conclusion. Even the fans, I think, now have the feeling they’re being fleeced — and fleeced at this supremely slow pace that’s eating up a significant portion of their mortal existence. But tempting as it is to seek big trends — the death of Hollywood, which is always proclaimed but never actually arrives, or the abandonment of original content in favor of prepackaged brands, or the dumbing down of the audience — those themes are always with us. In analyzing one particular year, you’re talking about a high degree of randomness and statistical noise. Everybody in Hollywood wants to capture that “devil’s candy” combination of popular success and artistic or cultural significance. That’s why they do what they do. And this year had no “Dark Knight,” no “Social Network,” no “Black Swan.” (We’ll have to see whether Fincher’s “Dragon Tattoo” movie fills that role at all, although I’m dubious.) The big, successful movies didn’t get the critics excited, and many of them weren’t as big and successful as expected. And the critical successes, so far, are on the cultural margins.
David: Matt, that feels like a good segue into television, where the big critical successes again remained on the cable margins, but some pointed to a resurgence in comedy on the major networks. “New Girl,” “Whitney,” “Up All Night,” “Two Broke Girls” — did any of these make you laugh? Of the attention-getting new comedies this year, which did you like least?
Matt Zoller Seitz: I hated “New Girl” and “Up All Night.” “Whitney” and “Two Broke Girls” — both of which are masterminded by the star of “Whitney,” Whitney Cummings — are slightly better. At least they’re trying for something. But “Two Broke Girls” isn’t smart enough, or dumb enough, to be flouting taste as brazenly as it is, and the show’s emphasis on economic distress feels a bit forced to me, like it’s trying to cash in on the zeitgeist — “Hey, people are broke right now, how about a sitcom about that?”
The big problem is that the best half-hour comedies — NBC’s amazing “Community” and mostly very good “30 Rock” and “The Office,” FX’s “Louie” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” HBO’s “Enlightened” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the unfortunately just-canceled “Bored to Death” on HBO — are so stylistically and tonally adventurous that when you see something a bit more traditional, like the Whitney Cummings shows or “Up All Night,” it just feels like a relic, a nostalgia act. You know? Why are invisible people laughing at everything? Why is the lighting so bright? And in order to make an impression on viewers who’ve grown to expect something more, a retro sitcom has to be either really beautifully constructed, as the super-traditional three-camera sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” was back in the day, or it has to be just total anarchy. Cute and just-sort-of-OK doesn’t cut it anymore. Nasty and just-sort-of-OK describes why “Two and a Half Men” was such a hit for so many years. It was as if somebody had dropped Charlie Sheen, the real guy, into a sitcom and told him to act human. But without Charlie Sheen, it’s just another sitcom. The Ashton Kutcher version of the series has been a disaster. “The Office” faced a similar problem after the departure of Steve Carell this past season, but while it hasn’t quite figured out how to cope in his absence, at least it’s still lively and funny.
David: Can the same be said for dramas — that the bar has been raised so high by “Breaking Bad’ and “Homeland” and a decade of HBO shows? When the fall schedule was announced, and there’s something like “The Playboy Club” on there, you wonder what year these programming geniuses are living in. What were the worst offenders on the drama side?
Matt: The worst offenders in my mind aren’t the really horrible shows that never had a chance of being anything but horrible. They’re the shows that had some promise but failed to deliver on it, sometimes because the producers or writers lacked imagination, but just as often because they were on the cable channel or the wrong network.
NBC’s “The Playboy Club” was definitely one of the biggest disappointments. It wasn’t just a network show that was hamstrung by network content restrictions — anything called “The Playboy Club” needs to run on cable — but it tried to coddle its audience and even blatantly misrepresent the reality of the world it was showing us. It was basically product placement for a dying brand, and Hugh Hefner narrated the pilot, complete with lines about how the bunnies were the first feminists or some such nonsense. ABC’s “Pan Am” verged on fantasy, too — it had an ongoing subplot about a flight attendant who was acting as a courier and eventually agent for the CIA, which apparently is loosely based on some actual incidents that happened on international routes — but it was a little bit too smart for a network show and not smart enough for cable.
ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” is too literal-minded and too choked with exposition even now, but it’s getting stronger. Problem is, once you’ve seen “Game of Thrones,” it feels like pretty weak tea — like “The Princess Bride” without the laughs. As a sci-fi geek who wants every great premise to live up to its potential, I was very disappointed in Fox’s “Terra Nova,” which had a pilot that intrigued in spite of its corniness, and a pretty good season finale. But in between, it carried on as if it were 1985 and it didn’t matter what crap they put on the air because we didn’t have any choices. You just can’t do that anymore.
About 10 years ago the top broadcast network executives started bitching to TV critics that it really wasn’t fair that their shows got lumped in with cable series for awards purposes, because they were hamstrung by limitations on content — limitations that could not really be lifted, not entirely, because that was the system they had to operate in, and for economic reasons they were stuck with it. That sounded incredibly lame then, and it’s pretty much an item from the nostalgia file now. The broadcast networks are trying hard — as hard as a network can try — but they can’t compete with cable creatively because on cable, surprise matters more than anything else. Audiences expect the producers of these shows to do something interesting and unexpected, something beyond the usual, and to be either as dirty or as realistic as possible, the two adjectives not necessarily being synonyms. All you have to do to grasp the difference between the broadcast version of a series and a cable version is to look at the difference between Fox’s pretty good, canceled “The Chicago Code” and a couple of other “portrait of a city” series, HBO’s “Treme” and Starz’s “Boss.” There’s just no comparison. Or for that matter, look at two shows that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are involved with, Fox’s “Glee” and the FX channel’s “American Horror Story.” The second show is so much more consistent and uncompromised than the first that it’s sad.
David: Laura, if we were to replace “cable” with “literary fiction,” and the mass broadcast networks with all other fiction, it would probably sum up the way far too many people look at books. At the same time, one of the great things about What to Read is that it’s an endorsement every week. If people are curious about what you didn’t like, they’d need to start by reading between the lines of what you didn’t review, but even that can be misleading with the way release schedules fall. In your top-10 list, you called this a great year for fiction and included an honorable-mention roll. But which of the year’s big novels fell short of your expectations?
Laura Miller: Two novels I looked forward to eagerly but couldn’t finish were included on the New York Times Book Review’s best-of list, Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” and Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia.” With literary fiction, which depends so much on style, you enter into the realm of de gustibus non disputandum est. “Swamplandia” seemed well-enough executed to me, but that particular blend of kookiness, cuteness and the bittersweet was not seasoned to my taste. It’s a certain school of contemporary literary fiction — often but inaccurately associated with Brooklyn — that can very easily go slightly off, depending on an individual reader’s tolerance for sentimentality. Mine is not very high, but I understand that other people feel otherwise and enjoyed “Swamplandia.”
“The Tiger’s Wife,” to my mind, had other problems, and I did write about them briefly.
I wouldn’t call either of these novels the worst things I read in 2011 by any means. If a book is truly terrible, and evidently so from the first page, then I simply don’t read it — a prerogative that I’m sure my film- and TV-reviewing colleagues must envy. There were many 2011 books I enjoyed but wished I’d loved a bit more. These two, however, were the ones I disliked yet persisted with the longest. I liked Russell’s earlier short story collection, and know that Obreht has many discerning admirers, so I will probably try their next books — with a little less anticipation, maybe, but not without good will.
David: That criticism feels almost generous — so let me conclude this by asking both Matt and Laura to take the gloves off. Laura, you mention that neither of those books were among the worst things you read — do one or two things stand out on that list, books you simply thought were failures? And Matt, you were especially outspoken about “Real Housewives” this year. Would that be TV’s low point to you, or was there something that sank even lower?
Laura: I can’t answer this! I just stop reading if the first few pages of a book strike me as irredeemably bad, and even with the two I mention, it’s only fair to add that I didn’t finish them, either. I have no incentive to persist, since I don’t review books I don’t like. Without a doubt, the worst first pages I read this year were samples from self-published books that the authors sent to me to solicit a review, but there is no point in naming those — no one has ever heard of them anyway. Other popular books whose first few pages I couldn’t get past were “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness, which seemed to land in exactly the wrong territory between pulp and literature, and “Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles, which was about not very interesting people as far as I could tell. Most of what I sample and then pass on is simply boring or a misfire and doesn’t really stick in my mind.
Matt: “Real Housewives” might not have been the absolute low point on TV this year — the medium is so vast that it’s hard to make such statements for certain; it’s like saying, “This, without a doubt, is the ugliest dog in the world.” But it was probably the highest-profile example of a major corporation — NBC, which owns Bravo — capitalizing on real-life misfortune and apparently not feeling a shred of guilt about it. I hate, hate, hate, hate these kinds of shows, the hothouse series that are basically about sticking people in little televised cages and encouraging them to figuratively claw each other to death. I have a somewhat different attitude about TV than some of my more diligent colleagues — if a show just doesn’t do it for me after four or five episodes, I stop watching it. Life is just too short to spend dozens or hundreds of hours a year watching something you find lacking. Unless there’s a public service aspect — watching crap in order to gauge the state of the culture, which is what I did in my columns about “Real Housewives” and Charlie Sheen, who I am convinced is actually a vampire.
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)