"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)
James Cameron’s “Titanic,” one of the most expensive and successful productions in motion-picture history, returns to movie theaters this week — 15 years after its original release, and 100 years after the sinking of the great ship — in a new 3-D version personally supervised by Cameron himself. (It was Cameron, after all, who launched the now-fading 3-D craze two and a half years ago with “Avatar,” an even more expensive and successful movie.)
Cameron’s CGI-fueled saga of the great ocean liner’s fateful encounter with a North Atlantic iceberg, and of the storybook shipboard love affair between upper-crust Rose (Kate Winslet) and raffish, working-class Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), definitely opened up new possibilities in cinematic spectacle — but not everyone sees that as a good thing. Despite its massive popularity, massive Oscar haul and overwhelmingly positive reviews overall, “Titanic” is a divisive film among critics, with those who hate it complaining loudly about the immense length (3 hours and 14 minutes!), stagey dialogue and flat characterization.
In 1997, Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek described “Titanic” as “a film made with boorish confidence and zero sensitivity, big and dumb and hulking even as it tries to fool us into thinking we’re seeing elegance and gravity.” Geoff Andrew of Time Out London put it even more succinctly: “Cost: well over $200 million. Disregarding the ethics of such expenditure on a film, this unprecedented extravagance has not resulted in sophisticated or even very satisfying storytelling.”
Cameron’s new “Titanic in 3-D” wasn’t screened in advance for the press, and in any case it doesn’t seem likely that this new version will change anybody’s mind about whether it’s a great work of popular entertainment or mendacious crap. Salon senior writer Andrew O’Hehir invited producer and writer and Salon contributor Erik Nelson — a passionate admirer of Cameron’s work — to debate the “Titanic” quandary in an Internet chat session. Nelson has produced or executive-produced dozens of films and TV programs, but is best known as the producer of “Grizzly Man,” “Encounters at the End of the World” and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (a pioneering work of 3-D, in an entirely different direction) for director Werner Herzog. He is also the author of the admittedly eccentric “Double Bill” DVD column in Salon.
Andrew O’Hehir: I’m not exactly a “Titanic” hater, Erik — at least not the way some people are — but I’ll admit I feel little or no desire to see the damn thing again. I feel about “Titanic” almost exactly the way I feel about the Celine Dion pop song at the end: It’s an irritating but irresistible pop-culture artifact, and I sort of admire it for its shameless audacity, but I won’t go so far as to say I actually like it. Tell me why I’m misjudging this movie, which is immense in every sense of the word.
Erik Nelson: I knew you’d bring up Celine. Sigh. On this we agree. But Cameron is the Cecil B. DeMille, or “Cecil B. Demented,” of our time, and unlike DeMille, his films may still be watchable 50 years from now. He’s got that same mix of spectacle, hubris, technical mastery of the form and instinct for the mass audience that DeMille had, I think, without DeMille’s cynicism toward his audience. Cameron does not fake it. He makes the movies he would want to watch. And “Titanic” is one of these. Cameron is the anti-Michael Bay, proving that bigger, sometimes, can be better. I have spent a lifetime defending “My Man Jim” from the slings and arrows of responsible film critics. Or people with taste and subtlety.
A.O’H.: Ha! Well, there’s a lot to talk about there. So you don’t see anything overtly cynical or manipulative about “Titanic”? I probably do, and that’s certainly how a lot of the negative reviews are put: All this impressive technology in the background, basically as window dressing for the schmaltzy and ridiculous love story built around the two beautiful leads. You’re saying that Cameron actually values both parts of the movie just as much?
E.N.: Again, he truly believes in his work. And some of the things I take away from “Titanic” are the small things, all delineated in the script. The Titanic’s designer adjusting the clock as the ship prepares for its last plunge, Captain Smith’s last moments before the water explodes all around him, the Irish mother comforting her children, the scene where Jack nervously sketches the nude Rose. Somehow, it’s appropriate that the hands shown actually making that sketch are Cameron’s own — shot way after the fact. I can almost forgive him Celine Dion, for those scenes.
A.O’H.: Those moments are nice, but I will note that you’re evading the question, just a little. How do you feel about the dialogue in the movie? Back in 1997, that was my colleague Stephanie Zacharek’s principal complaint — well, one of many — and I definitely remember the romance between Jack and Rose, despite many visually lovely moments, being undercut by exceedingly hokey and unconvincing conversations.
E.N.: I agree totally with you and Stephanie about the ham-fisted dialogue. But Cameron’s unsung genius is in how he lays out, as a writer, the overall structure of his films. “Titanic” is a perfect example. Reams of historical exposition are slipped into scene after scene, with only the occasional clunker. The entire last sequence of the film, where the ship actually sinks, is diagrammed in an earlier scene, where the comic relief ROV operator shows Old Rose (and of course, us) exactly how the Titanic sank – so when we see it later, we aren’t asking dumb questions about how — and why — the ship broke in half. And again, there are those purely cinematic moments which transcend bad dialogue, and, of course, are so ripe for parody. Think about Rose and Jack on the prow of the ship. Pure corn, but unforgettable. There’s a reason why this film reached so many people internationally — and it has to do with that universal language of cinema.
A.O’H.: Well, I think you’re right about that. I recently asked Stephanie (who is today the lead critic at Movieline) about the reaction to her extremely negative review of “Titanic,” and she told me that for months afterward she was getting heartbroken emails, written in fractured textbook English, from schoolgirls in India and Japan who had fallen for the movie hook, line and sinker. Schmaltz it may be, but its reach was amazing.
E.N.: A man’s reach should not exceed his grasp, and Cameron’s work has a perfect balance of inspiration and perspiration. The engineer in him approaches the creative part with a rigor and thoroughness where nothing is left to chance, hence the perfect architecture of his films. Making sure the submersible works when diving the Mariana Trench and making sure that the mechanics of the sinking in Act 3 of “Titanic” is heralded in Act 1 — that is all part of the same mind-set.
A.O’H.: That anticipates what I was going to ask next, which is about the role of technology and engineering in this film. I feel like one thing critics reacted to was the sense that “Titanic” was a piece of machinery, as much as the great ship herself had been. This is one of those movies that changed our sense of what movies were capable of — not to mention how much they cost. It was a successor to “Jaws” and “Gone With the Wind” in many senses, but certainly that one.
E.N.: Well, in many ways, “Titanic” is critic-proof, but, then again, it’s a manufactured blockbuster by one of the very few people who seems to know how to pull one of those off. It’s instructive to compare “Titanic” with “John Carter.” They have a lot in common. Both are labors of love from pedigreed auteurs, both are old-fashioned epic Hollywood would-be blockbusters, and both are heavily dependent on CGI creating lost worlds. (I’ll just conveniently ignore the “Avatar” connection with the original “John Carter of Mars.”) But here is where Cameron’s strengths kick in. “Titanic” is perfectly structured, and ultimately, except for some dodgy dialogue and, of course, Celine Dion, perfectly executed. No CGI is used for its own sake. It’s deployed in service of the story. And finally, say what you will about egos, Cameron appears to have played with the other children when it came to giving the studio what it needed to market his film, and working with the other creative talents on his set. He is an autocratic dictator, but there is no doubt that he is in command of just about every aspect of filmmaking. As Cameron’s idol Stanley Kubrick once said; “Filmmaking violates the old adage that what is wanted is a system designed by geniuses to be run by idiots. It has always been the other way around with films.” The worst you can say about Cameron is that he is an “Idiot-Genius,” and that is what I love about him.
A.O’H.: That’s a fascinating way of putting it. Because Cameron’s ambitions are so large, in both commercial and artistic terms, and because he’s so relentlessly unsubtle, I feel like he makes an especially juicy target for critics. But there’s another element, isn’t there? The outsize influence of several of his films — definitely “Terminator 2,” “Titanic” and “Avatar” — has changed studio filmmaking, and not necessarily for the better.
E.N.: Not his fault. It’s easy to forget what a debacle this was supposed to be. Hideously over budget, fraught with stories of traditional Cameron megalomania, and even an unknown assailant who dosed the on-set catered clam chowder with PCP. Which was probably when Cameron decided to do a dialogue polish. Anyway, Churchill once described some rival as a “bull who brings his own china shop with him.” That’s Cameron, all over. I remember seeing Cameron on a Directors Guild panel with the other best-director nominees for that year, including Steven Spielberg. When Cameron explained how he built his life-size replica “Titanic” set after consulting with weather experts to make sure the prevailing winds blew the smoke back from the funnel, in the right direction, and how, when he personally edited “Titanic,” he reversed the image in his AVID so he could “feel” the rhythms of the film fresh, you could visibly see Spielberg’s jaw drop. This attention to detail is what makes his films the marvels of populist engineering that they are — and is also a reason why a lot of people just don’t like him. Nobody likes a smartass, and Cameron is both.
A.O’H.: You mentioned Michael Bay earlier. Isn’t he the dark side of the Cameron phenomenon? Cameron has consistently been an innovator, but the people that have followed in his footsteps haven’t had the same integrity, maybe. He convinced us that you could spend $200 million making a movie, and so we get the “Transformers” series and “The Last Airbender.” Then he convinced us that 3-D could look eye-poppingly beautiful and help to tell a fantastic story, and so every crappy comic-book sequel is in murky-looking 3-D. So he’s guilty, I say! Guilty of enabling forgettable but amazingly expensive pictures based on second-rate superhero comics!
E.N.: Well, In this age of “anti-perfection” it’s not surprising that a lot of people regard Cameron with skepticism. But when you consider what happens when “anti-perfection” meets “big budget” and abortions like “Transformers” get made, and worse, become giant hits, I think Cameron should at least get an “A” for pursuing his muse with a vengeance. Jean-Luc Godard once said, “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to,” and no matter where Cameron goes to strip-mine his ideas, be it the works of William Burroughs or Harlan Ellison, he always takes them many steps further than they have gone before. If others stumble in the ruts he left behind, it says more about them than about the original trailblazer.
A.O’H.: Very well defended, and you didn’t even point out that I was erecting an irrelevant straw-man argument. I guess I’m enough of a realism devotee — accepting that “realism” is itself a convention — that the extreme theatricality and pop-psychology symbolism in Cameron’s movies doesn’t really speak to me. Let me close by asking you a more immediate question: Will you go see the new 3-D version? Are you excited about it? Do you think it will add to the experience, even at a point when the 3-D boomlet has pretty well ebbed?
E.N.: No, I have no plans to see the 3-D version. Even though I have no doubt it is a technical marvel, as I know Cameron personally supervised it, the film was not originally conceived for that format, and many of those subtle moments I mentioned earlier might get lost in the funhouse, which by definition will bring out the most dubious elements of the film. Speaking personally of the 3-D movement, having produced Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” I can truly say I have been there, and done that. Not that anyone cares, but in my opinion “Hugo” was pretty much the definitive work in that genre, and I personally feel that 3-D immersive documentaries, like “Cave” (but without the albino alligators), are the way to go in the future.
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)