"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 Department of Justice has booked my plane tickets and hotel room in downtown Los Angeles. Now I just need to buy an actual pair of non-denim pants and I’ll be ready for my subpoenaed testimony this Thursday in a federal obscenity trial.
Seriously, though, for reasons much greater than my own involvement, this is a trial to pay attention to. The pornographer on trial, Ira Isaacs, is indicted for making and selling what’s known colloquially as “poo porn,” and redistributing foreign-made bestiality films, like ”Japanese Doggie 3 Way.” Needless to say, he’s not a porn magnate along the lines of Larry Flynt or Steven Hirsch: The guy is small-time. But he’s at the center of a now-rare obscenity trial, in which prosecutors will argue that the sexually explicit movies that he sold — not all of which he made — are offensive, violate community standards and have no redeeming artistic merit. The charges could put the 61-year-old in jail for the rest of his life.
The case is a leftover from the Bush era. It was filed before Attorney General Eric Holder quietly shuttered the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, which charged a whopping 361 defendants with obscenity under George W. Bush. Nowadays, obscenity cases — including those involving consensual, adult pornography — are handled by the same section of the DOJ that deals with child exploitation. It’s been a slow couple of years on the obscenity front since Obama was elected: No new cases have been brought.
You might think this would mean that the few cases allowed to carry over under Obama would deliver impressive wins, but that’s not the case. In July of 2010, the obscenity trial against pornographer John Stagliano was dismissed because, believe it or not, there was “woefully insufficient” evidence linking the defendants to the content in question. The judge offered an embarrassing reprimand: “I hope the government will learn a lesson from its experience.” Shortly thereafter, in August of the same year, the obscenity case against AdultDVDEmpire.com — for selling four BDSM titles — was settled in a plea bargain, with the defendant claiming that the sales in question were accidents: two-year probation and a $75,000 fine.
And yet conservative Republicans — and a handful of Democrats, too — are angry that more obscenity prosecutions haven’t been brought. Last April, 42 senators signed a letter calling for Holder to “vigorously” bring obscenity cases “against major commercial distributors of hardcore adult pornography” (i.e., those more like Flynt than Isaacs). More recently, after some tireless harassment, Morality in Media got Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to pledge to revive such prosecutions.
The Isaacs trial is another example of the abstract and subjective nature of these cases, which rely on the four-decades-old “Miller test” holding that something is obscene, and worthy of censorship, if it meets three requirements: 1) It “appeals to the prurient interest” based on “contemporary community standards,” 2) depicts sexual conduct in a “patently offensive way” and 3) “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” It also brings another opportunity to consider whether obscenity should continue to be defined by a 40-year-old standard — as well as the prospect of these prosecutions multiplying, and targeting more mainstream pornographers, under a Republican presidency.
So how did I get involved?
The short answer is that I interviewed Ira Isaacs, the pornographer on trial. The longer answer is that last April I published a Q&A in Salon with Isaacs and it included the following exchange:
As far as your upcoming trial, one of your goals is to prove that your videos have artistic merit.
I have to do that to sound not guilty.
The prosecution is presumably interested in this passage, because it’s possible to interpret Isaacs’ response as an admission that he doesn’t actually believe his own defense. (It’s also possible to read the rest of the interview, which includes discussions of James Joyce and Franz Kafka, and come to a very different conclusion.) I’m not a telepath, nor an expert voice analyst, so all I can say is that Isaacs said what I said he said. We offered a sworn affidavit that says as much, but I have nonetheless been “commanded,” as the subpoena puts it, to appear in court.
So, free trip to L.A.! Thanks, taxpayers. Assuming my testimony goes ahead as planned, you can expect to hear more from me about the case from the inside.
UPDATE: I just got word that the government has reversed its decision to compel me to testify.(Glad I didn’t buy those non-denim pants!) I’ll still be following the trial closely, though, so stay tuned.
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)