"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)
Two weeks ago, on Dec. 4, federal antitrust regulators cleared a $4 billion deal for Disney to purchase Lucasfilm and all of its properties. Disney first announced the deal in October and said it would begin work on relaunching the “Star Wars” franchise, at one time the most beloved — and still among the most popular — series of movies in the history of film. But it would seem that the Disney studio heads have been so preoccupied with whether they could bring back ”Star Wars” that they didn’t stop to think if they should. (Actually, I’m sure they just thought about which expanded universe novelization has the most action figure potential.)
I would love to love a new “Star Wars” film, and maybe Disney will dazzle me with a truly surprising choice to take over the series. But I strongly suspect that the best we can hope for is blandly competent entertainment that rehashes the same themes of the film and looks like a cut scene from “Final Fantasy XIV.” I think it goes without saying that the prequels disabused me of much of my fondness for the saga, though I suspect the last thing the Internet needs is another screed on that topic. But my lack of interest goes deeper than that.
I have found myself struggling to care about the idea of a new “Star Wars” film recently, and not for boring reasons like “getting older,” “maturity” or “having better things to do.” When done correctly, nothing gets at the heart of the human experience like genre fiction. Intergalactic manhunts, demonic possession and telepathy are simply the most effective metaphors for primal human needs and emotions that a storyteller can employ. The good-versus-evil and nature-of-temptation backbone of the original ”Star Wars” trilogy still resonates several decades later, but many aspects of the execution feel more dated than you might remember, should you ever choose to watch it free of nostalgia. And let’s not get started on the prequel trilogy, which never seemed to be about anything. (To be fair, I doubt that whomever Disney brings on board for the new ones could make anything nearly as terrible as the prequels, though perhaps Michael Bay will rise to the challenge.)
The main reason I dread the idea of a new “Star Wars” saga is because we’ve seen it already. It was a TV show called “Firefly.” It was canceled 10 years ago this month, and it was better than anything George Lucas ever did.
“Firefly” premiered on Fox in the fall of 2002. It was the brainchild of geek king Joss Whedon, who previously created Greatest TV Show Ever contender “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and can probably buy his own IRL spaceship after turning “The Avengers” into a smash for Marvel. “Firefly” was about outlaw Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (played by the great Nathan Fillion, who often brings to mind a 20 percent more sincere Bruce Campbell) and his crew, who have a series of adventures on desolate, frontier-like planets while attempting to outpace the sinister government that controls the galaxy. It is important to note that it is impossible to recount the plot of nearly any science fiction endeavor without making it sound wildly hokey. It’s all in the execution with these things, and “Firefly” was hilarious, smart and surprisingly emotionally resonant for a show about cowboys in space. (The scene where Mal remembers when he first saw his ship is a real tear-jerker.) In a perfect world, this thing would have run for six seasons, and there would be so many sequels to the attendant film spinoff, “Serenity,” that we would almost be sick of them. (This is the same alternate world where the Replacements were the most popular American rock band of all time and Conan O’Brien still hosted “The Tonight Show.“)
Instead, “Firefly” was canceled after 14 low-rated episodes, a decision that Fox executives will one day struggle to justify to their eternal maker. As is often the case with these things, the show found an afterlife on DVD and a set of devoted fans who call themselves Browncoats. Better late than never. While the “Star Wars” films were a good bit more lucrative and mainstream-famous than “Firefly,” credibility is its own currency, and this show helped make Whedon a god to his people. He is currently one of the names most commonly bandied about by the Internet fan community as a suitable director for an upcoming “Star Wars” film. Which is absurd, as the “Star Wars” franchise is beneath him. Not that Whedon would say such a thing, as he has always been upfront about the influence; he has said that the idea for “Firefly” came from reading Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel, “The Killer Angels,” which then made him think of the Millennium Falcon. But “Firefly” improved on Lucas’ template on nearly every level, and his deft mix of white-knuckle set pieces with three-dimensional character motivations, thorny philosophical issues and genuinely hilarious one-liners helped set a template that smart genre directors like Joe Cornish and Rian Johnson have followed.
A new “Star Wars” film is as unnecessary as it is inevitable. But maybe if the people who get the job examine the upgrades Whedon made to the space opera story, they can make something that can resonate and dazzle the way a good intergalactic romp should.
1. Respect the Audience
Look, people flying around in spaceships and shooting lasers at each other is not the stuff of Don DeLillo novels, but it’s at least as good an example of an archetype as most of humanity’s creation myths, so don’t assume everyone seeing your movie is a child. (And don’t assume that all children are stupid, either, because that’s rarely the case.) ”Firefly” is packed with smart touches that Whedon doesn’t go out of his way to draw attention to, but which are there for anyone who notes them and wants to consider what they mean to the rest of the story. For example, there are vast differences in technology between the rich planets and the Dust Bowl planets, and the characters tend to use Manadarian curse words to signify that, in the continuity of the “Firefly” universe, West and East cultures have fully integrated. The ”Star Wars” movies have a tendency to stop the the plot momentum to laboriously explain the mitochondria counts in Jedi blood or the political impact of the trade embargo against Naboo. This gives viewers the sense that George Lucas self-consciously wanted to show that there were big ideas in the “Star Wars” films but that he had no idea how to actually work them into the narrative.
2. Respect the Women
Female characters in the “Star Wars” saga mainly exist to be rescued, to be leered at, to deliver expository dialogue, to look disappointed in the male characters and then to be rescued again. To be fair, this is still frustratingly true of a great deal of science fiction stories, and there are several strong female characters in the plethora of expanded universe “Star Wars” novels. Joss Whedon is the great male feminist of pop culture, and as such “Firefly” had well-rounded characters like Gina Torres’ Zoe Washburne, the ship’s second in command, and the ship’s engineer Kaylee Fyre, played by Jewel Staite. (There was a fair amount of saving damaged-genius River Tam, played by Summer Glau, throughout the series and movie, but this story line eventually paid off in a thematically satisfying way that found the character embracing her inner strength in a way that there’s not really room to explain here but which involved a lot of awesome kung-fu moves.) These characters were more than just obligatory love interests and rescue Macguffins, and they weren’t perfect Mary Sues, either. They had fleshed-out character needs and personality flaws (Kaylee was insecure, Morena Baccarin’s Inara was emotionally closed off), they often drove the episode’s plots and, as is usually the case in Whedon productions, they got the best one-liners.
3. A Sense of Humor Makes the Doom Go Down Easier
On the subject of of humor, let us play fair. “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi,” by far the best films in the “Star Wars” oeuvre, have many hilarious moments. Han Solo’s iconic utterance of “I know” is a strong contender for the single best scene in film history. These are the only two ”Star Wars” films that Lucas did not direct and which featured the work of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who seemed to have a feel for things like “emotion” and “how words sound when actually said out loud.” That leaves four other films, which include many moments of failed Jar Jar humor, grating C-3PO antics and unintentionally hilarious lines like “Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo.” Even “A New Hope,” beloved as it is, feels square and pious when watched today. “Firefly” and “Serenity” are usually good for a funny quip when the character aren’t fighting space cannibals. Whedon and his writing team were particularly adroit at setting up a scenario that, based on rules regarding the premise or escalating dialogue rhythms, seemed to be heading in one direction before being quickly upended. Or, in other words, at doing things like this. Just because you’re trying to escape an evil space government doesn’t mean it has to be Sturm und Drang the entire time.
One of the major reasons that ”Firefly” was so much funnier than Lucas’ work was that Whedon and his writers were always willing to slow the pace of the story to find relatable, human elements. The other reason was that Whedon was willing to let his actors actually act. This is also why it’s more satisfying on a dramatic level. The most memorable moments from “Firefly” aren’t the swashbuckling and gunfights, they’re the look of fear in Fillion’s eyes after Mal is shot and left for dead, or Inara struggling not to cry after she learns that Mal had sex with her best friend. Lucas has a tendency to hire actors like Mark Hamill or Hayden Christensen who have the iconic look that fits his imagery but couldn’t emote their way out of a desiccated Tauntaun. They’re rife with stilted line deliveries that vacillate between looking confused and annoyed. Harrison Ford might have broken through by sheer force of will, but generally Lucas saddles great performers like Natalie Portman and Samuel Jackson with unending reams of clunky dialogue that have to be delivered just so with no time for human inflection or else Lucas won’t be able to add 100 unnecessary digital characters in the scene six months later.
5. Get Real
Computer-generated imagery was the worst thing that ever happened to George Lucas. Once he had the technology to make every frame look exactly the way he wanted it to, he proceeded to make the most lifeless series of films ever made, and he also went back to scrub his original trilogy of many of their endearing quirks. Actors became furniture he arranged in front of a green screen. Humanity and warmth became software programs that kept crashing. Everything looked amazing and nothing connected. Whedon might not have Lucas’ visual panache or budget, but he does more with less. CGI is like fine hot sauce. A little bit can make a meal delicious, an overload can make it inedible. Whedon stuck to real sets and desert locations, and he judiciously used CGI to give scenes an extra oomph. “Serenity” features a scene where Mal and his crew try to escape from a marauding horde by leaping into a junky hovercraft that keeps stalling out when it needs to go faster. According to a making-of feature on the DVD, the actors were actually in a vehicle that kept knocking them around. It was changed in post-production to look like a hovercraft. What was not changed, because it could not be improved upon, was the chaotic immediacy of the actors slamming into each other, both physically and verbally.
Whedon knows that a cool hovercraft race is important, but not as important as the characters piloting the hovercraft. A good space opera needs to blow up relatable human emotions to a grand scale. It has to be about more than breakthroughs in imaging software and cultural nostalgia. We have to care about who the people in the spaceships are, what they want and why they are laser fighting. The fantastic must feel real. George Lucas used to know this, and then he forgot over time and hoped that if he threw enough fancy images at the screen, we wouldn’t notice. Lucas and “Star Wars” have scale on their side. The movies have epic budgets and an unrivaled cultural recognition. But Whedon’s works win on the human level, and that’s the only one that really matters.
Michael Tedder has written for the Village Voice, Spin, Paste and quite a few other places.More Michael Tedder.
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)