"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)
One of the more common action-movie clichés — and there are many — is what we might call the destabilization of the hero’s secret lair. It feels like almost every Jason Statham action movie, from the “Transporter” films to the remake of the ‘70s vehicle “The Mechanic” offers up a variation of the lair. (Check out the six-minute mark of “The Mechanic.”) There it is in the curious hit-girl flick “Hanna,” the little log cabin in the middle of the wilds of Finland where CIA assassin Eric Bana has exiled himself and daughter, played by Saorise Ronan — traceable only when Bana activates a hidden beacon. The latest “Mission: Impossible” film, directed by Pixar vet Brad Bird, tucks one inside a Russian rail yard. And while the lair is largely a male domain, women heroes get in on the act, too, as in “Columbiana,” where Zoe Saldana’s revenge-minded hit woman keeps her weapons and her computers stashed in a hard-to-find place in an industrial stretch of Chicago.
Here it is again, as reliable as a car chase or shootout, in the Denzel Washington thriller “Safe House.” A novice CIA operator, played by Ryan Reynolds, assigned the lowly duty of keeping watch over a never-used Cape Town safe house, is forced into action when Washington, as a master spy, and a band of hired killers crash the joint. It won’t spoil this rather underwhelming movie to tell you that before it’s done, more than one safe house will prove to be not so safe.
It doesn’t matter where: Among the swamps of the Bayou, off the Mediterranean or in a posh European capital (the preferred address of the various Bourne movie killers), more and more heroes are setting up shop in clandestine lairs that are, at least for awhile, safe from prying eyes.
It used to be the villains lived in lairs and the heroes lived in homes, a point never made more clearly than in another Brad Bird movie, “The Incredibles.” The lair of his would-be arch-villain syndrome is an homage to all the great villains’ lairs of 1960s and ’70s Bond movies. It’s a stunning jungle hideaway that is both technologically astounding, with its helipads, reactor rooms, launch silos and such, and supremely luxurious, a tasteful Dwell-worthy concoction of glass and wood. (So expensive, such urbane taste — hard to believe these guys had such megalomaniacal schemes.)
By contrast, the Incredibles, a family of ex-superheroes living incognito under witness protection, reside in a typical house in an ordinary suburb. The film marks a clear divide. Homes were warm; lairs were cold. This used to be a fairly reliable split. Recall Michael Mann’s mid-’90s crime epic, “Heat.” The main difference between relentless workaholic cop Al Pacino and relentless workaholic thief Robert De Niro is their homes. Pacino lives with his wife and her daughter in a modern-enough townhouse (slick art on the wall, a floating staircase next to a wall of glass bricks). The house belonged to Pacino’s wife’s ex-husband. He describes it as a “dead-tech postmodernistic bullshit house,” but it’s still a home, with pots and pans in the sink and Post-it notes on the wall. De Niro, by contrast, lives in a true dead-tech crib, a pristine, anonymous beachfront condo. By moonlight it’s lit in distancing cobalt. During the day it’s bleached white and empty, the better to facilitate De Niro’s motto of walking away in 30 seconds flat if he feels the heat around the corner.
Strictly speaking, the hero’s lair has antecedents in a thousand NASA-like control centers where some secret agency oversees vast operations, at the behest of an angry, gruff guy who looks like Chris Cooper or Sam Shepard and barks orders to a bunch of mouse-clicking subordinates. The cool box-like bunker that houses the HQ of British Intelligence in the recent adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a standout recent entry, every bit as stylish as all those British Secret Service foreign offices from the Bond films. And, of course, heroes with secret identities have long divided their time between public residences and hidden bases from which they execute their good deeds. We’re all familiar with the Bat Cave, Professor X’s Westchester County estate and Tony Stark’s Malibu mansion and workshop.
Still, all those stories, even the superhero ones, put the lair at a remove from the home. With greater frequency, however, the coldly efficient high-tech lair is becoming the template for our fantasies about home. The change is mediated by the preoccupation with terrorism over the last 10 years, with the housing crash in the U.S. and with our fears and fantasies about technology and globalization itself. The recession has robbed homes of much of their value and their myth of opulence — our desire that they be seen and admired — but the lair offers a carefully curated, chilly alternative. Home, in other words, is no longer where the heart is.
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Homes exist on the map, in a public world that presupposes neighbors, markets, schools, the possibility of a family or community. They are lived in and messy. Heroes are rooted to their homes and fight to defend them. Plenty of action heroes live in homes, but usually they’re FBI agents or cops, someone like Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh from the “Lethal Weapon” movies. They may be special operators, perhaps, but they are still nominally connected to official government agencies. Even a classic loner hero like Dirty Harry Callahan had a regular apartment in San Francisco. For all his vigilante posturing he was part of the fabric of the community he defended.
In real life, we associate lairs with terrorist groups buried in networks of tunnels and caves along the Hindu Kush or Osama bin Laden’s unassuming compound in Abbottabad, where Navy SEALs killed him last May. In the movies they are different in kind — it’s the good guys who occupy them — but not really in function. The movie lairs are slicker, of course: clean and streamlined, antiseptic and debugged. Chock-full of encrypted computers and hidden caches of weapons. They are usually spartan but smartly appointed, in accents that range from pure industrial to, oh, some confection of Scandinavian modern or analog retro. Record players are a dead giveaway, spinning jazz or classical, art forms so long considered opposites and here united as twin exemplars of cool refinement. The hero may sleep in the lair, may even live in the lair, may even enjoy the lair, but the lair is as much a base of operations as a residence. The lair, really, is a spying place, from which its occupant monitors the world from a position of perfect poise that precedes decisive moments of action.
The difference is this: Heroes love their homes and are, at best, indifferent to their lairs. It is an utterly disposable machine for living. Great care has gone into its technological accouterments; the crib is usually booby-trapped. Yet when push comes to shove and the lair is exposed, the hero has no problem moving on. And exposed they must be, if only to disrupt the fine aesthetic weave of the hero’s monastic existence. Eventually the hero opens up to other people. He makes a mistake. And then, inevitably, the lair is found out. It pops up on the grid. Someone makes a phone call. Someone plants a bug. And then the place is surrounded by a bunch of special forces, black-helmeted hand-signaling SWAT types, who eventually breach the lair, leading our hero to set off the explosives that destroy his own joint. If he times it right, he can race down a long concrete hall (perhaps with Sharon Shone on his arm) just a step ahead of his own fireball.
This all sounds like the province of today’s blockbusters, and mostly it is, but hints of this home-lair dynamic turn up in some unusual places. We could think of “Rear Window,” for instance, as a film about a man who is only able to find satisfaction, both personal and erotic, when he turns his home into a lair. James Stewart is a professional photographer laid up with a broken leg, stuck in his apartment and stifling under pressure to marry the too-good-to-be-true Grace Kelly. But when Stewart starts spying on his neighbor, convinced he killed his wife, he turns his home into a lair — a place for surveillance and potential action — and Grace Kelly suddenly becomes an action heroine and, now, finally, unbelievably desirable. Like all lairs, this one is eventually exposed, this time when murder suspect Raymond Burr stares back into Stewart’s apartment. The apartment is not exactly destroyed in the end, though Burr does push Stewart out a window. But the lair is effectively dismantled. In the final shot of the movie, Grace Kelly lounges on a chaise with a fashion magazine while Stewart nurses two broken legs, a sign that the domesticity of the home has been restored. (It’s entirely unclear whether these two will stay together.)
An even richer evocation of the emergence of the hero’s lair is Francis Coppola’s “The Conversation.” Gene Hackman’s wire tapper, Harry Caul, is hardly an action hero, yet he essays the modern hero’s most salient features, hyper-competence at his craft and existential loneliness. The film follows Caul’s complicated eavesdropping of a couple as they wander through busy Union Square in San Francisco, and Caul’s mounting fear that his surveillance tapes will result in the lovers’ death.
The best scenes depict the violation of Caul’s own private spaces. Caul has two places: an ordinary apartment that he has fortified with several locks, and his workshop, a loft in a Potrero Hill factory. There he pieces together his audio tracks like a composer.
When wiretappers comes to town for a convention, Caul reluctantly hosts an after-hours party at the workshop. He is paranoid enough to lock away his surveillance tapes, and as the lengthy scene unfolds, he spirits away a convention model, Meredith, played by Elizabeth MacRae, to a private corner of the loft. Thinking he’s alone with her, he begins to let his guard down. But he pays for cracking open his heart: His chief rival (Bernie Moran) has planted a bug on him and recorded the entire liaison. An angry Caul throws everyone out. Meredith stays the night but in the morning absconds with the audiotapes, which she had been hired to locate.
It gets worse. At the end of the movie, Caul dismantles his own apartment, tearing into walls and pulling up floors, looking for a bug placed by his mysterious employers. Is there a bug at all? We never find out, but Caul looks as exposed and ruined as his home. Off the grid but not far enough, super-skilled but not skilled enough, and with no place left to go, Caul can only play a few mournful notes on his sax as he sits in the ruins of his own once-private world.
Compare that with Hackman basically playing the Caul part again in the late ’90s thriller “Enemy of the State.” This time he’s a former CIA surveillance expert who gets involved with Will Smith’s innocent on the run. His industrial lair in South Baltimore — Hackman calls it “the jar … self-contained, unplugged from the world” — takes even more precautions from detection than Caul would ever have dreamed, but it suffers the same fate. Hackman blows the place up once the villains find it. But the charge is entirely different. In the first film, we imagine that Hackman’s life is destroyed as his lair and home are compromised. In the second, the home and the lair are now the same place, and their destruction is entirely uncommented upon. Just a write-down of an asset gone bad. Anyway, who has time for lament or remorse as Hackman and Smith flee for their lives? The fireball is too damn big.
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We are in an age marked by stateless actors, whether they are terrorists or multinational corporations, refugees, or, at least wistfully, if we are able to get away on vacation, us. (If not, the Internet is a more and more useful facsimile.) It is an increasingly rootless place, one where connections promise to extend in all sorts of directions but often times fail to really take root. We dream of riding the eddies of globalization to undreamed of heights and fear being cast adrift and obliterated like so much flotsam. Same as it ever was.
Only now these tensions are pushing our ideas about home in two opposite directions. We turn ever more to our homes as bulwarks against the pace of globalization. Whether it’s earth-friendly DIY living, Brooklyn, N.Y., or Portland, Ore.- style, or the thousand or so home-improvement shows on TV, we seem to be exhibiting a desire for the complete curation of our living environments, right down to the organic, locally sourced food in the fridge, and right down to the studs. We dream of total living environments, be they immaculately designed home theater rooms, spa-worthy baths or gleaming, industrial-grade kitchens worthy of a Michelin three-star restaurant. Anyway, it’s the home as stylish fortress of solitude. Doug Liman’s thriller “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” purports to be a satire on married life, where two assassins live together but don’t know each other’s true identity. But it’s really a comment on the integration of the controlling, surveilling lair into the very bones of a bucolic American home. To wit: Mr. Smith keeps his lair-within-a-home in the basement of the garage. Mrs. Smith stashes her high-tech gear behind the stove. You know it’s a lair, though, and not a home because when it gets exposed and destroyed, the Smiths move on and don’t blink an eye.
At the same time, the feeling of rootlessness plays out in an opposing direction, toward escape. It’s crucial that the lair be somehow off the grid, invisible, and so these action movies and thrillers are filled with imagery of the deletion or manipulation of the main characters’ records of identity. In the early days of the Internet, protagonists were likely to be at the mercy of sinister forces who could manipulate their identities at will, charge them with bogus crimes, steal off with their bank accounts. Wipe you out. Nowadays, action heroes control their own records, so they can manipulate their own identities and, when need be, wipe themselves out.
Still, the information age provides too much pleasure — and for screen detectives and problem solvers, too many valuable clues — to reject outright. In particular, social media offers a mostly benign vision of participating on the grid, where shaping one’s identity through posts and tweets and pictures is good fun, and being tracked on GPS counts as a plus.
The lair, then, offers not so much an escape from technology as the site of mastery over it. The point is not to be off the grid, exactly, but on top of the grid, able to disconnect but plug in, Matrix-like, when you need to. That’s the real appeal of hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander, beyond her capacity to exact revenge on a world of men who hate women. It’s that she expertly operates from the most fluid of all lairs, cyberspace, hacking without getting hacked, watching without being watched. This same logic underscores what may be the smartest action scene of the last 10 years, from “The Bourne Ultimatum”: Jason Bourne tries to shepherd an investigative reporter through London’s Waterloo Station while goons with surveillance cameras try to snatch him, all the while keeping out of sight himself. It’s a virtuoso expression of the need to see without being seen.
The lair expresses the exact same, intoxicating longing: glorious, uninhibited freedom to move about the planet, plugged-in but leaving no trace. If you have a good enough travel agent you could be anywhere, from the most remote eco-tourism preserve, to some edgy neighborhood in a refurbishing part of town. All we need are the phony passports and the suitcase full of unmarked bills. The lair has become a home, and the home a lair. Perhaps they meet in the middle in some slick Ian Schrager boutique hotel, whose ideas then work their way down, through IKEA or West Elm or HGTV, to the rest of us. The dream of social mobility is giving way to a fantasy of transnational mobility, where one’s identity can be endlessly remade or totally effaced. It is, perhaps, the physical manifestation of the Internet, the promise of instant access to everything, everywhere.
The wittiest lair of late is that Moscow rail car from “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.” Tom Cruise and a fellow agent, on the run, regroup with their colleagues inside a mobile train car decked out with computers, clothes, lots of guns and other trade craft. It’s an amusing comment about urban gentrification the reclaiming of undervalued land for high-end production and consumption. Next year all the spy agencies will be outfitting agents in train yards. The art galleries and hip chefs are sure to follow. You figure IMF’s New York version is at Hudson Yards, a short walk from the High Line.
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You’d think all this talk of lairs would have no appeal back in the real world, in a city like mine, Las Vegas, which has been absolutely crushed by the recession. The housing market here is one of the worst in the nation. No shortage of foreclosures, no shortage of homeowners desperately hanging on, or desperately trying to short sell and get out. In neighborhoods like mine, where the kids play on sidewalk-less streets, the anxiety of economic ruin still hangs over us.
One wants to snicker at this idea of the home-as-lair, especially since our indifference to homes and communities is part of the reason we find ourselves in this mess to begin with, and especially since most of the rest of the reason we find ourselves in this mess can more or less be placed at the feet of Wall Street captains of finance who, presumably, are flying high on a jet stream now, to some lair-like retreat.
Perhaps the real estate bubble meant too many of us wanted lairs and not homes: investment properties, places to rent out, places to hold onto for a minute and then flip, cash in on, and move on. The analogy may be a stretch, you say, and sure, you’re probably right. It is much more complicated than that. Still, the notion has a trace of resonance when you find yourself on the back end of it, stuck underwater in a home with a crippling loss of value, feeling at the mercy of banks, a global economy, beyond your power.
So with one breath we cling toward the old security of the home — the desperate refinance or loan forgiveness — and with the other, we consider, with cool practicality, the lure of the strategic default, the home as disposable commodity, as a lair that has finally been compromised. Only this time the analogy is real. We are choosing between being crushed by the relentlessness of a system that is too big to fail or swallowing a measure of its own clear-eyed ruthlessness.
If the latter, time to walk away. No remorse. No regret. Thirty seconds flat, right? Pack your bags, set the auto-destruct, flee the fireball of foreclosure or ruined credit or disapproving banks, try to swallow down what shame you may feel, and, if you can, start over again.
It seems to work in the movies, anyway.
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)