"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 centerpiece events of the 50th New York Film Festival — an event that has consistently defined the American marketplace for the artiest and most prestigious grade of international cinema — is the world premiere of “The Sopranos” creator David Chase’s “Not Fade Away,” a 1960s-set suburban rock-band drama. Along with the rest of the movie world, I’m curious to see it (if there have been any screenings so far, they remain closely guarded industry secrets). But here’s my halfway serious question for Chase: Why bother?
Given the undisputed cultural primacy of televised serial drama in the 21st century, making the switch to feature film seems almost as much of an exercise in nostalgia as the movie itself. I can’t help drawing an analogy between Chase’s foray into the supposed respectability of filmmaking and J.K. Rowling’s recently published (and tepidly reviewed) adult literary novel. Both works are understood to be important entirely because the people who made them have been so successful in other far more popular genres. Otherwise, they would likely come and go without anyone paying much attention. As Chase must realize, there is no way on God’s green earth that “Not Fade Away” – whether it’s good, bad or indifferent – will have anywhere near the cultural currency or impact of “The Sopranos.”
Oh, the movies themselves are still with us; I’m not implying otherwise. Despite declining attendance and lots of attendant public hand-wringing, Hollywood continues to turn a profit by cranking out massively expensive, effects-driven franchise pictures that can play around the world. As perverse as this sounds, we’re arguably in a new golden age for global cinema, at least in aesthetic terms. With the cost of making a professional-looking movie dropping ever closer to zero, aspiring directors and ambitious new films are emerging from all corners of the globe and all sectors of society.
This year’s NYFF lineup – which kicks off Friday night with the premiere of Ang Lee’s 3-D “Life of Pi,” a movie that admittedly might find a pretty big audience – features films made in Romania, Turkey, the Philippines, Zaire, Chile and Mexico, alongside your standard art-house fare from the heavy-hitter European nations. Based on everything I’ve seen so far and everything I’ve heard from others, it’s an exceptionally strong sampler of global cinema. But let’s be honest: Outside Manhattan and beyond a dwindling coterie of journalists, bloggers and obsessive film buffs, almost nobody will notice or care. The festival itself will be packed, but that’s as much about its event status as a centerpiece of New York’s fall calendar as anything else. Later on, films like Portuguese director Valeria Sarmiento’s Napoleonic War epic “Lines of Wellington” or Chinese director Song Fang’s intimate “Memories Look at Me” will be fortunate to get momentary theatrical runs in New York and Los Angeles. Other films in the festival may never again play on a big screen in the United States, going straight to VOD and DVD.
If the NYFF once seemed like a central, if rather snooty, landmark on the American cultural scene, it’s now something closer to a marginal, high-culture preservation society, more akin than ever to its Lincoln Center neighbors, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. I have no problem with that; I love the opera and wish I could afford to go more often, as in ever. (If the film festival is pretty expensive, in moviegoing terms, at $20 to $25 for most tickets, that’s still a bargain compared to the “Ring Cycle.”) It’s just that there’s no point in pretending that movies play the same dominant role in our culture that they once did or that art-house movies of the sort the NYFF so lovingly curates have any impact at all on the American cultural mainstream.
Let me concede right now that I’m overstating the case a little for dramatic effect. But just a little. For every oddball little movie that breaks through into the national conversation – so far in 2012 that list includes “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which are strikingly similar films – there are hundreds of others that briefly get hyped by people like me and then sink without a trace. Your average episode of “Breaking Bad” or “The Good Wife” or “Louie” will generate many times more debate and conversation – more actual excitement — than all except perhaps a half-dozen movies released this year (and most of those will involve superheroes).
Film culture, at least in the sense people once used that phrase, is dead or dying. Back in what we might call the Susan Sontag era, discussion and debate about movies was often perceived as the icy-cool cutting edge of American intellectual life. Today it’s a moribund and desiccated leftover that’s been cut off from ordinary life, from the mainstream of pop culture and even from what remains of highbrow or intellectual culture. While this becomes most obvious when discussing an overtly elitist phenomenon like the NYFF, it’s also true on a bigger scale. Here are the last four best-picture winners at the Oscars: “The Artist,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” How much time have you spent, cumulatively, talking about those movies with your friends?
Now, if you’re about to protest that what I just wrote reflects my own bias and snobbery, let me cut you off at the pass. Celebrity gossip is still with us, of course, and as I think Jesus once said, always will be. But that has long been almost completely divorced from discussion of movies or any other specific cultural products. There are certainly areas of film culture that not merely remain alive but have thrived and metastasized beyond all reckoning, especially the heated and immensely detailed discussions of all things having to do with science fiction, fantasy and comic-book movies. (This is another parallel to what happened in the publishing world, where fantasy became the mainstream and literary fiction is, commercially speaking, an afterthought.) I usually strive to avoid the term “fanboy,” but former Los Angeles Times blogger Geoff Boucher, a leading avatar in that realm, has embraced it without shame.
Then there are sites like Nikki Finke’s Deadline and Sharon Waxman’s The Wrap, which create a surprising amount of heat by covering the deal-making and backstage chessboard movements at the Hollywood studios, production companies and talent agencies. Given that film production is one of the few remaining profit centers of American industry, I certainly can’t argue that stuff isn’t newsworthy. But why anyone who isn’t directly involved would be interested remains a little mysterious. One could argue that, in our era of consumer capitalism, films have been revealed as manufactured commodities rather than works of art, and people root for certain film franchises or producers or studios in the same way they root for Apple over Samsung, GM over Ford, or the Red Sox over the Yankees.
Film culture — in my now-defunct Susan Sontag sense — has a history, and I think it pretty much ended with “Pulp Fiction,” the brief indie-film boom of the late ’90s and the rise of the Internet. It’s just taken us a while to realize it. When the NYFF was launched in 1963, the films of the French New Wave were the hottest things on roller skates, and the Mount Rushmore Great Men of postwar art cinema – Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, Kurosawa – were at or near their career peaks. Cocktail party debate among the chattering classes often revolved around existentially inflected, black-and-white works like “L’Avventura” and “Last Year at Marienbad” or violent, generationally defined American films like “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” along with the contentious reviews published by Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and numerous others. Those who hadn’t seen such films, or hadn’t “gotten” them, felt not so subtly left out.
I’m not claiming, by the way, that the unquestioned elitism that underlay that kind of film culture was necessarily constructive. In fact, I would say that the New York-based media and intelligentsia had an outsize cultural influence that simply isn’t possible today. But the point of those conversations was never supposed to be discussing the films in pure or formal terms; it was all about what they meant, what they told us about the human soul or the emptiness of contemporary existence or the evils of capitalism. (Or at least about the importance of getting laid, a reliable constant.)
By the following decade, the decade of the “Godfather” films and “The French Connection” and “Taxi Driver,” the discussion had broadened to include American cinema both past and present. A new generation of young male filmmakers, each in his own way steeped in film culture, began to push for the magical combination of artistic legitimacy and popular success. In an odd way, that was the beginning of the end. Two of those young rebels, of course, were named George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who are correctly credited with permanently shifting Hollywood’s business model away from adult-oriented drama and toward teenage summer blockbusters.
Lucas and Spielberg are both devoted film lovers who have themselves made several cinematic landmarks and have inspired cultlike followings who study their work with monastic devotion. I guess it’s ironic, then, that they also created the conditions under which movies became seen primarily as machine-made production units whose significance was best understood in external terms – profit or loss, tickets sold, awards won – rather than in internal, aesthetic and inherently subjective terms.
That tension between viewing movies as art and as commerce is as old as the medium itself. But the sense that cinema was where you could find the most engrossing stories and characters — as well as a level of artistic ambition that was adventurous but, let’s say, not totally obscurantist – began to fade after the “Jaws” and “Star Wars” era, even though (or perhaps because) those were among the most discussed and most influential works in movie history. As I see it, film culture made a couple of last stands with the indie-film waves of the ’80s and ’90s, which brought us first Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh, and then Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson.
It’s definitely not a coincidence that the biggest critic of those years and an important advocate for most of those filmmakers was Roger Ebert, who has turned the Internet to his advantage like almost no one else and has prospered both as a populist movie critic and all-purpose cultural commentator. It’s also no coincidence that the mid-to-late ’90s zone of movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Fargo” and “Fight Club” overlaps with the explosion of Internet culture and the venture into original drama by the cable network formerly known as Home Box Office. I almost don’t need to add that it preceded the birth of YouTube and the spread of mobile devices, developments that undercut the traditional hegemony of movies even more.
How many movies made since 1999 have captured the center of cultural discourse and made grown-ups feel like they needed to see them and needed to have an opinion about them the way that Chase’s TV series or “The Wire” or “Six Feet Under” did? The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Dark Knight” and “Avatar”? I’ll give you those, although I know plenty of people who never bothered to catch the latter two. “Black Swan” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “The Social Network”? Maybe, or almost. “Brokeback Mountain” or the “Harry Potter” movies? I don’t think so.
I’m not saying that movies are now and forever irrelevant, nor am I switching sides in the great “cultural vegetables” debate of 2011 and arguing against the real or potential value of difficult and challenging works of art. (Trying to convince people to watch, you know, Béla Tarr movies instead of clips from last night’s Jimmy Kimmel show, on the other hand, is a waste of everyone’s time.) More than anything else, I’m looking in the mirror and thinking about the purpose of what I do, which is supposed to be communicating with people, sharing ideas and generating discussion.
Film culture in that old-fashioned, top-down genteel-chat sense inherited from Susan Sontag and 1963 doesn’t provide a way to do that anymore, and hasn’t for quite a while. That isn’t the New York Film Festival’s fault or the movie industry’s fault or my fault, but it’s no good pretending it isn’t true. Do we need to find new ways to talk about movies that connect them to the real world and the media landscape as it actually exists? Do we need to get over the idea that the form or medium of cinema is somehow sacred? Will David Chase go back to TV? My magic eight-ball points to yes.
The 50th-anniversary New York Film Festival runs through Oct. 14 at Lincoln Center in New York.
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)