"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 405, Los Angeles’ leading freeway, is under construction. Lanes suddenly close and then merge haphazardly into the one nuzzled next to it. Center dividers inch closer and closer into carpool lanes. And drivers – which in a city of waitresses, actresses and waitresses longing to be actresses, might be the most infamous population of all — drive erratically as a result. The drivers are erratic because the road has become erratic; the road has become erratic because the city is erratic.
But for Payman Maadi, the star of “A Separation,” it feels a little like home. Los Angeles, he says, is in many ways just like Tehran. He’s here for the Academy Awards, which are quintessentially Los Angeles. But Tehran, of course, is nothing like the Academy Awards; the transitive property does not apply here.
So when I see Maadi dead asleep in the passenger seat just before the Oscars, I see the exhausting wear of Los Angeles — the city takes an unsuspected toll on an Iranian who runs a luxury watch shop in the country’s capital, and now finds himself in the throes of the movie industry’s biggest night.
Before falling into slumber, he recounted the night before, throwing out such names as Meryl Streep, who cornered Maadi and the film’s writer/director Asghar Farhadi to rave about “A Separation,” the foreign-language powerhouse film that was everyone’s Oscar pool gimme.
“She could recite every line,” he says of Streep. “She was crying during the [Independent Spirit Awards] montage, I swear.” Since arriving in Hollywood, Maadi has been cornered by almost every bold-faced name in the business, people who have come to view his film as a unique window into the realities of Iranian life; a reality that, usually funneled through the 24-hour news cycle, rarely comes to light. This week, like every other, the GOP primary race is filled with talk of war; headlines wonder whether Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear weapons program before the U.S. election.
But that’s not the kind of talk Maadi hears.
“[Streep] pulled me aside, and just told me how moved she was by the vision of realistic Iranian life. ‘It’s just one house. One house and you just see who is in there and what they are like, who they are.’ She was so moved. That’s when you realize you’ve done something special.”
Minutes later, my car mate, Katrin, one of Maadi’s childhood friends, is standing with him outside the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel when a car drives by, honking in some abstract show of support. He waves in thanks, and Katrin follows his lead, out of Hollywood-influenced instinct.
“I bet they thought I was Leila Hatami,” she says, referring to the female lead opposite Maadi in “A Separation,” and one of Iran’s leading actresses.
“No, they knew you weren’t her.”
“How do you know?”
“You weren’t wearing a chador.”
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For all its success, its hype, its all-but-guaranteed-Oscar chatter, “A Separation” is plagued with a curious bout of political silence. During the press circuit, neither the actors, nor the film’s writer/director, ever made mention of the narrative housing any political subtext — aware as they may have been that any film that reaches American shores from Iran is sure to be embalmed in politics long after it has left theaters. If a country of present-day notoriety produces any work of art, it becomes a victim of context — that might finally answer why North Korea has yet to produce a steady influx of romantic comedies.
Of course, the debate regarding “A Separation’s” politics has fallen into two distinct camps: that either the film is about something more intimate like family, and forgoes politics entirely; or the film is in fact rife with the country’s complex political landscape, but Farhadi and Maadi are simply not allowed to admit it.
The former requires the subjectively trained eye of a cinephile; the latter is a just matter of common sense. The politics of the film itself becomes gradually irrelevant as one begins to realize the politics of everything that’s come after it.
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“You walk into a restaurant, and you see Leonardo DiCaprio sitting beside you, and [Meryl Streep] sitting in front of you, and you give yourself 20 seconds of awe, and then it’s done,” says Maadi. “You don’t really look at them anymore. What makes these moments so incredible is that you go in thinking you’re there to see them, but they’re really there to see you.”
They’ve heard it all: Steven Spielberg said that he believed “A Separation” to be the best film of the year by a wide margin. David Fincher spent over half an hour discussing his various takes on the film’s complex technical scope. Brad Pitt took Maadi aside during a press conference to describe his intense reaction to the film’s opening scene, which caused his wife (maybe you’ve heard of her) to pause the film and return to it days later.
Angelina Jolie later cornered Farhadi at the awards, telling him that she longed to star in his next film. He thanked her, but politely made mention that, unfortunately, the female lead speaks only French.
Jolie told him she would learn the language by the first day of shooting.
But even after months on the circuit, it’s still hard for Maadi to shake the shock of having Hollywood’s most notable faces and filmmakers sing their praises. Woody Allen didn’t let his infamous shtick of never attending the Academy Awards stop him from reaching out to Farhadi and Maadi, asking for even 30 minutes of their time once they arrived in New York. Allen would eventually go on to claim the Oscar for best original screenplay from Farhadi, who, to everyone’s surprise, nabbed the fifth spot in the category — a rarity for non-English language films.
Allen’s consistent absence from the awards season racket begins to make sense to Maadi, as exhaustion once again sets in. We’re now on our way to a party hosted by Sony at the Andaz Hotel, and Farhadi has just texted saying he won’t be attending, citing sickness and overexhaustion. Maadi, who had planned on staying for an hour at most, and was even toying with not going altogether, is now obligated to stand in as the film’s representative; he’s just become the only member of the production in attendance.
The dinner is set to begin at 7:30, and by 7:15, after a bout with a passive aggressively calm GPS voice, we’ve finally pulled over on Culver Boulevard to call Maadi’s assistant to ask where exactly we’re going. Tension in the car has gotten significantly higher — the sort of anxiety that comes from worrying about arriving late to an event that one doesn’t even want to arrive at. Maadi’s wife, Faranak, is on the phone. Payman asks repeatedly for her to make sure the address gets texted as a precaution, but she hangs up before answering. “Faranak, why don’t you listen to anybody,” he snaps. “I asked you repeatedly to get the address texted. Do a job right, we may forget the address now.”
Suddenly we pass the Laemmle Royal theater on Santa Monica Boulevard and the tension in the car eases. The marquee features Payman and Leila’s face.
Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Film.
Maadi’s phone rings for roughly the fifth time in the last hour. He presses silent. The car keeps moving.
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By 11 p.m., we’ve arrived at some bar in some micro-sector of West Hollywood, with Maadi’s entire Persian posse in toe. The plan — as seems to be the theme — was to arrive earlier, but due to Iranian social requirements (meaning that the minute a restaurant is mentioned, suddenly cousins one never knew existed chime in about the best ambience for a late-night bar), it’s later than anticipated. The line outside the club and accompanying restaurant is longer than most of the skirts that the women waiting outside seem to be wearing, but Maadi leads us to the front, where, almost without a word, we are ushered in immediately. Once inside, I lose sight of him, but find him later surrounded by a gaggle of men and women, all of whom are giving him handshakes and high fives. Some, it is clear, he has seen before or known for longer; others seem to be treating him like an old acquaintance, even though he has yet to learn their names. Most call this the belly of the beast.
Aside from the already established A-list, no newcomer is probably reeling from face-recognition quite like Maadi. Considering that the Iranian population of L.A. ranges upward of 800,000, it has officially become the second largest such population in the world (second only to Iran itself). Because of this, “A Separation” finds itself as the reason all of L.A. is salivating: its two biggest industries — Hollywood and ‘Tehrangeles’ itself — both have equal stake in the film’s success. This makes Maadi perhaps the most recognizable person in the city to have never appeared on an American magazine cover.
“There is a different expectation from [Sony Pictures] for just what a foreign film has to do, has to look like to the people,” Maadi says. “The press can’t catch you behaving typical Hollywood. You have to uphold a certain distinction.”
This also has to do with the risk of losing it all. Should he be seen cavorting with a scantily clad woman, or with a drink in his hand, or with a face made red from too much liquor and a tie made loose by very much the same, the consequences would be dire.
Just three years ago, Jafar Panahi, one of the most influential filmmakers to come out of the Iranian new wave, was arrested while mourning at the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan, the woman whose death during the 2009 Iranian election protests drew international attention after a bystander filmed and released footage on the Internet of her laying bloodied on the streets. Over the course of the next two years, Panahi would be in and out of prison, culminating in a six-year jail sentence, and a 20-year ban on making any films, writing any screenplays, talking to Iranian media or leaving the country.
Events like this make the notion of a political film meaningless. Partly because any film to be made and released under such constraints inherently becomes a political act already, but also because Maadi and Farhadi could have made a real-time depiction of Ahmadinejad stealing the election and killing Neda himself, and come interviews would still have no choice but to claim that political readings are up for interpretation.
Maybe that’s the real belly of the beast.
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We move the table full of food against the back wall to make room for the friends and family that keep pouring into Maadi and Faranak’s L.A. apartment. He and Farhadi are currently taking their seats in the former Kodak Theatre. Plus ones don’t arrive for the Oscars unless you’re the kind of star Ryan Seacrest wants to ask about which designer made your dress. Faranak is unable to attend, leaving her to mingle with us commoners, holding our breaths to witness what was by then considered inevitable.
“This moment is so much bigger than him, he has no idea,” a friend of his sitting next to me says.
“I think he realizes the sort of excitement Iran is feeling right now. I don’t think he’s been going through this unaware of what a win could mean.”
“No, no, I mean what happens after this is so much bigger than him. I mean what happens to everyone else. What starts coming from Iran.”
“Do you mean ‘what starts coming out of Iran or coming out about Iran’?”
Before she can answer me, Sandra Bullock is onstage, and begins to read the nominees for best foreign film. Faranak’s hands go to her head, simultaneously covering her ears and alleviating pressure from her head. The room falls silent, and with the sort of focus everyone in the room had on the television, somehow Bullock’s every word came through more clear, more crisp, simply because the absence of movement acted as a speaker.
Moments later, Iran had won its first Academy Award. Farhadi was onstage, while Maadi and the rest of the film’s cast sat in support. They had decided hours earlier that the best way to remedy what many saw as a weak speech at the Golden Globes would be to pre-write the speech and allow Farhadi to deliver it himself.
I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.
The champagne is flowing; the tears more so. Phones explode, with many calls to Iran announcing the news. Faranak dabs her eyes with a mascara-covered tissue as tears keep streaming. Everyone is hugging her, and she finally catches her breath.
“Do you think they will get in trouble for the speech?”
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When the sun rises on the other side of the globe, and Iran hears the news, banners featuring Farhadi holding the golden statue are erected all over Tehran.
“People in Iran follow the Oscars a lot more than you think they do,” Farhadi told reporters backstage. “I know for a fact that right now, as the event is happening, it’s in the middle of the night, in the middle of the morning, and people are not sleeping. I know they are following.”
By the end of the day, two things will have happened. Farhadi’s speech will have been altered on the Web to include a mention of the nuclear stalemate between Iran and other world powers, reading:
“I proudly offer this award to the people of my country who, despite all the tensions and hostility of recent months between Iran and the West over Iran’s nuclear program, respect all cultures and civilizations.”
And Javad Shamaghdari, the head of Iran’s Cinematic Agency, will release an official statement regarding the win, viewing it as monumental not because it is Iran’s first Oscar, but because of its win over the Israeli drama, “Footnote.”
“This is the beginning of the collapse of the influence of the Zionist lobby over American society … this is an unusual reaction to the Zionist lobby, but it marks the beginning of the collapse of Israeli influence.”
When I ask Faranak where Maadi is the next morning, she tells me he’s asleep, and that she’s going to disconnect the phones so that he doesn’t wake up.
“What happens next is so much bigger than him.”
Rod Bastanmehr is a freelance writer, born in San Francisco, with a focus on film, culture and politics. His writing has appeared in Nerve, Thought Catalog, Not Coming to a Theatre Near You and more.More Rod Bastanmehr.
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)