"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)
Recently, for the first time in many years, I watched Richard Linklater’s 1994 film “Before Sunrise.” I remembered it well, down to particular lines of dialogue and the movements of background players that might go unnoticed by a viewer less obsessive than myself. Back in the late ’90s, the tape of my VHS copy of the movie stretched and strained between the heads of the VCR, weakening after so many rewinds and repeated viewings. The story of the film is simple enough: Girl and boy, Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), meet on a train in Europe. She is going home to Paris; he is stopping in Vienna and catching a plane back to the States in the morning. They talk. They connect. Before they’ve even exchanged names he convinces her to hang out with him for the night. She agrees and they do just that: hang out. Like Linklater’s first two films (“Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused”), “Before Sunrise” is charmingly plotless, following the two characters as they walk and talk through the evening and night, falling in love.
The film is, I believe, a high point of the ’90s, a decade second only to the ’70s for great, innovative cinema. Linklater, Soderbergh, Hartley, Anders, Stillman, Tarantino, Campion, Kieslowski: These were the antidotes to so much Hollywood blockbuster schlock we’d all endured through the ’80s. Their movies were slow and weird and occasionally awkward, which, not coincidentally, happened to be three adjectives easily ascribed to myself during that period. The film was (in a word I had a habit of overusing back then) brilliant.
A good friend of mine at the time did not agree. “Ugh,” he said. “I hate that movie.”
“You liked ‘Mallrats,’” I pointed out. In my mind this should have ended the discussion, a quick felling of his argument before it began. I was 20 years old and while I understood that people were entitled to their own opinions, I also knew that when they differed from mine it was due to either ignorance or bad taste (which, despite proverbial wisdom, I almost always argued with).
“My old girlfriend walked out in the middle,” he added, amused. (I would later, very briefly, date this same old girlfriend of his, but that would end soon after a heated debate over the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground, a debate that paused only momentarily; I put VU’s “Oh! Sweet Nothing” on, the girl said, “He sounds like Jerry in this song,” and we made out a little.)
So what did my friend not like about “Before Sunrise”? “It’s so pretentious.”
Well, sure. The two characters’ intelligence and articulation bend the frame of believability, and their relentless earnestness is going to grate on the sensibility of some audience members. The Jesse character especially gets cited for his intellectual leanings and philosophical theorizing. Near the beginning, he wonders about the number of souls in the world, and if as the population rises the souls simply get split between us all, ever shrinking in size. “Is that what makes us all so fragmented?” he wonders aloud. “Is that why we’re all so specialized?” Though if his heartfelt musings could sometimes seem a bit lofty, we must remember that this was the ’90s, a high-water mark for both apathy and irony, so the scales were off from the get-go.
But if pretentious is such a crime, then why was this dude hanging out with me? See, pretentious is another adjective easily hung on my svelte 20-year-old frame. I could not, as Jesse does, quote W.H. Auden at just the right moment, but I sure as shit wanted to. Hell, I wanted to be that character. And why not? Surely of all the character sins one can commit, pretentiousness is not the worst. Look around as you make your way through the world today: Is that kid in the horn-rimmed glasses making a show of reading “Anna Karenina” on the train really the worst dude you see? I think probably not.
What we often call pretentiousness, especially among the younger of us, is little more than a trying on of a cerebral life. Kids in their teens and early-20s, in all their self-consciousness, strike the poses of intellectualism. They don the clothing that they believe will communicate their interests in philosophy and literature and art, with books and splatters of paint and eyeglasses as key accessories. They display their tastes and interests, gauging reactions from their audiences. They read and watch and listen, and then discuss and argue with one another in order to understand what they think. It is an operation of discovery; just as we stumble through the dance of rebellion in our adolescence, we, in the next phases of our life, undergo a process of identifying not just who we aren’t, but who we are. And, like it or not, for many of us, this development involves black turtlenecks.
But, I say again, why not? Would we prefer that the kid on the train was trying on the outfits of bigotry and violence and ignorance? Of greed and exploitation? Yet we heave the word “pretentious” at these kids with tiresome regularity.
Was I an intellectual at 19, 20? No, most certainly not. If I lived in a world of ideas, this was mostly due to a fear of interacting with the world itself and an unhealthy regimen of rereading Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History.” But there is a chance that at the time, in certain circumstances, if pressed, I would have called myself one, to see how the word fit as it rolled off my tongue. Would I now? No.
I believe there have been times when people openly declared themselves intellectuals (though in truth I’m basing this belief partly on Rob Reiner’s character in “Bullets Over Broadway” and various depictions of Communist agitator/playwright types of the WPA days). And it isn’t humility that prevents me from self-identifying thusly, but rather self-preservation. It is as if the worst thing in the world we can be accused of is trying to be smart. This is, certainly in part, a vestige of that ridiculous apathetic mentality of the ’90s. To try at anything would betray the sin of caring enough to try. As if lack of interest were any less of a posture (and a particularly lazy one at that) than any other. Thank God we seem to have gotten past that particular barometer of cool.
But aside from discouraging future generations of philosophers and poets (or just thoughtful citizens), the main problem with the casual vilification of pretentiousness is that we end up using it as a pretext to take up arms against anything that smacks of intellectualism. We see this every time humanities and arts courses are defunded or someone talks about voting for the guy he’d like to have a beer with. Among public policymakers, the so-called high-minded pursuits are constantly being threatened and attacked as unnecessary. As if a well-read society weren’t a happier society. As if the viewing of art doesn’t add much needed nourishment to souls desiccated by a hundred thousand insurance forms and boner pill commercials. It is a shortcoming of our age that we have little ability to see or appreciate that which indirectly benefits our lives. We have traded in understanding for information, knowledge for data. And those endeavors — philosophy, psychology, art, even simple human interactions — that help to make sense of the more perplexing aspects of our existences have been relegated to the realm of the nonessential. We’ve taken a myopic and simplistic view of the world: What does not contribute directly to the bottom line is seen as frivolous, as if Maslow’s hierarchy of needs includes little more than food, shelter and the occasional fuck.
But this devaluing of the intellectual doesn’t appear only in the expected corners of the Republican Party.
I’ve spent seven years now in various graduate degree programs, and even here we can easily find the anti-intellectual movement. In any given M.A. or MFA or Ph.D. program, amid those arguing over which is the best Philip Roth novel or about lesser-known Abstract Expressionists, there are those who refuse to participate in the discussion. There is this faction of graduate students who insist on keeping it real: those classmates who never engage in conversations about ideas outside of the classroom, who at the bar look away in boredom at the mention of Proust or Marilynne Robinson. Now I’m not talking about those graduate students who don’t actually read outside of the syllabus or enjoy the work they purport to do, though there are a few of those hanging around your average graduate program. I’m talking instead of the anti-intellectual intellectuals, those who make a show of their protest against all things egghead. These self-loathing brains shrug off their own academic and artistic pursuits with a wry grin. But the problem is: If you think a group of graduate students debating Kant is dull, just wait until you’ve heard a hundred arguments over the Cubs bullpen or the merits of mid-era Van Halen. If intellectual striving is pretentious, then what do we call an insistent resignation to fleeting mediocrity?
This all might be connected with the so-called New Sincerity movement, where childlike wonder is deemed the pinnacle of human experience (Ahem, Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.” Ahem, Spike Jones’ “Where the Wild Things Are.” Ahem, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.) Here all one must do is take seriously what one’s older siblings took ironically and call it all awesome. It is as if enlightenment were not something to push forward toward, but to back up into. But unfortunately, twee 20-somethings having their picture taken with Santa Claus sincerely today is just as pointless as cynical 20-somethings doing it with a roll of their eyes in 1992. Yes, we’ve moved past the jaded mode of cool, but what do we gain from our curiosity if like doe-eyed naïfs we ignore all intellectual complexity? If everything is awesome, then we cannot discern what is important. Much of this, I believe, has developed due to a fear within the culture’s subconscious of being labeled pretentious. We’ve traded a shield of pessimism for one of undiscriminating innocence.
So, what is important? Well, if we trust the characters (and in turn the filmmakers) in “Before Sunrise,” we find that ideas are important. Intellectual contemplation is important. But so is love. What we might forget is that this film is unabashedly romantic. While one might casually see a nearly real-time document of two attractive, intelligent people wandering around a European capital, what we are really watching is a fantasy. Their night together is ridiculous. Everywhere they turn is another prompt for their burgeoning love. A Gypsy palm reader? Check. A malnourished poetry busker? Done. A quiet Gothic cathedral? Got it. A bartender who recognizes the extraordinary romance in the night air enough to hand over a free bottle of wine, and a not-at-all-dangerous urban park in which to lie and drink that wine. Yep, yep.
The movie is an exploration of how love begins. And it does not commence with wild plotlines or even simple glances across rooms. Yes, late in the film Celine admits that she wanted to sleep with Jesse when she first saw him, but that was attraction, not love. Love is what they find after that. It builds through the exchange of serious ideas. Their ideas and passions and fears and concerns are what make their identities, and it is each of their identities that the other falls for. While the film might at first seem similar to others of the era in that we have educated young people with seemingly little interest in contributing to the capitalist system, it avoids the pessimism of the time by allowing the characters to feel passionately about their ideas and about each other. This enthusiasm sets them apart from the clichés of the generation. No one in the history of the world has ever been passionately cynical.
In keeping with the hyper-reality of the world through which the characters traverse, the script eschews all of the usual banalities (work, TV, popular music, etc.) that make up so much of our real-life conversations. And this is the problem many people have with the movie: That’s not what we people sound like. We revel in those banalities. We luxuriate in the incessant trivialities of pop culture as we might a mud bath, not even minding when the mud is mostly dung.
This is not meant to be a pronouncement against all popular culture (we are, after all, talking about a movie here, at least ostensibly). Nor it is meant to confuse pretentiousness with its ugly cousin, snobbery. There are plenty of filmmakers, writers, musicians and the like who attract great attention and seem well worthy of acclaim. But in discussions of art, regardless of form, the subject of accessibility comes up far too often. Is the narrative movement apparent, with clear plot-point markers? Are the themes understandable? Is every note, every image, every brush stroke pleasing to the ear/eye/mind? As if work that is less accessible (whatever that actually means) is somehow either deficient or threatening. The whole idea of accessibility, in fact, is predicated on the notion that the imaginations and intellects of “common folks” (as though there ever was such an easily defined and identifiable fellowship) will stretch only so far and might snap if asked to push farther than Sunday night HBO.
And what happens when a work does not meet these relatively low standards of accessibility (or, god forbid, relatability)? Why, the work is deemed pretentious, of course. But where would literature be without James Joyce or Samuel Beckett or Gertrude Stein? Where would film be without Stanley Kubrick or the French New Wave? Music without Eric Satie, John Coltrane or the Fall? Art without Walker Evans, Frida Kahlo or Pablo Picasso?
Say so long to Radiohead, “The Tree of Life,” “The Sopranos,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” Kate Bush, Dave Eggers, “House of Leaves,” Cindy Sherman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joanna Newsom, Paul Auster, “The Wire,” “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” David Lynch, Julie Taymor, the Coen brothers, Damien Hirst, Public Enemy, Carole Maso, Banksy and a million other things that make this world better than it would otherwise be.
These artists and works are not pretentious. Real pretentiousness comes when the creator of a work is more concerned with displaying his or her intellect than communicating something real. None of what I’ve mentioned fits that bill. None, as I see them, value obfuscation over clarity. Why, then, are some of them difficult to follow or comprehend? Because what they are attempting to communicate is difficult; because their subject matter necessitates complex or otherwise unusual modes of communication; because they want to get to something deep and true. Life (and everything encapsulated in that word) is big and messy and, yes, often inaccessible, and the best art reflects that in both subject and form.
You do not need to like everything I’ve mentioned (hell, I don’t like all of it), and you certainly don’t have to run out and reassess your opinion of “Before Sunrise,” but to write off the work of these artists as pretentious is to undervalue complexity and innovation, and make it that much easier for the “Two and a Half Men” and Snookis of the world to drag us down into the mire of idiocy. On the other hand, if we open ourselves to the more challenging works of our time — the idea driven and quiet and structurally odd — and we agree to spend time with them, to listen to them, to hang out and see where the night takes us, then we may just find art with which to fall in love.
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)