"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)
OVER THE WEEKEND I had the luxury of seeing Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s slavery-centered revenge fantasy. Like everything the gore-obsessed culture monger has produced, from Pulp Fiction to Kill Bill, I found myself wrapped up in a narrative so inventive I was in no time cheering along as the taskmasters bled out. I’ve had long conversations with more film-savvy friends on Mr. Tarantino’s artistic merits. Sure, some of them are enamored, but others find him too liberal with his tendency to borrow—more of a master of post-modern pastiche than an authentic auteur, while posing as the latter. I can’t say I don’t sympathize. As someone interested in authenticity (in literature, especially), I can’t fault those who take Tarantino’s obsession with Kung Fu movies, Spaghetti Westerns, and scene stalking to task. Still, with each release I find myself unflinchingly in awe; whether or not I’m being spoon-fed what’s already been done, Tarantino’s films accomplish the goal of playing with a viewer’s perception of past and present. He does wonders with rendering violence surreal, while, of course, polarizing the hell out of his audience.
Never has this been truer than with his last two films, where he opened up a real can of worms. You’ve got to think he expected this, with both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained tackling some of the most horrific tragedies in human history. But whether he did or not doesn’t matter now. The backlash he received hasn’t hindered his success. If anything, it’s bolstered his image as a provocateur, especially in conversations over artistic license, on whether or not he has the right to tell other people’s stories. While Basterds was enjoyed by many Americans and lauded in Tel Aviv, a sizeable and thoughtful percentage of the Jewish American community was offended by the film’s violence, revenge themes, and historical liberties. Though my feelings towards the film were mainly positive, the main argument I noticed being leveraged against it, as with Django, was that the history being represented belongs to those affected by it, and if you take it out of those peoples’ hands, you have the tendency to mess with cultural ownership.
I’m not unsympathetic to this line of thought. In fact, I’m a proponent of using immense caution when appropriating cultural narratives that are foreign to one’s own, especially if those narratives involve passing judgment upon those on the receiving end. This is the issue I had with The Reader– a movie, written by a non-Jew, about the moral gravity of the catastrophe that befell the Jewish people. A fairly tepid screenplay, it proceeded to make tacit judgments upon the prevailing narrative vis à vis the Holocaust, reinforcing, through a muted humanization of a Nazi death-camp guard and her sexual immaturity, that Jews are unwarranted in their characterization of concentration camp officers as utterly cruel and unfeeling, a murky subject considering the lopsided reality of the Nazi genocide. This is part of the reason the film was so confused in its purpose, leaving many cold, because–as elegantly stated by Manohla Dargis of The New York Times–it was “about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.”
Other Holocaust related films have skirted this line in varying shades, whether in the representation, or underrepresentation, of Jewish characters in their own narrative. But somehow, when I saw Inglorious Basterds, I was able to put every aspect of the political and moral out of mind. I didn’t worry for a moment that the film was offering a seminal verdict upon the fate of Jews during the Holocaust, nor did I feel as if it was attempting to lodge comment or complaint upon the state of modern Jewish identity, its relationship to Israel, and the fraught nature of modern anti-Semitism. If anything, the film—as quoted by Eli Roth—was “Kosher porn,” playing into jejune desires for vindication, not by anesthetizing them or pretending they can be erased. The thematic through-line I felt while watching the Bear Jew click his way from a tunnel with a baseball bat wasn’t a call for Hebrews to forget, bury, or even rise above their generally miserable history, but rather to take a few solid shots at their perpetrators, and feel a little less like victims. It was more like a video game in the experiential sense, an exercise in schadenfreude. Something as simple as someone giving you a joystick and saying, “Hey, young American Jew, you know those Nazis that sent bubbe and zayde to the ovens? As opposed to playing out that story again, why don’t spend a couple hours blowing the heads off the fuckers who were responsible. It’ll be good for you.” No one thinks the Nazis are going to rise up again (at least not under the title of Nazi—hatred tends to change faces for practical purposes). And no one is being trained to kill or destroy. Going to a movie like Inglorious Basterds entertains a libidinal urge to rectify what is no longer rectifiable. It’s a matter of the classic conundrum: “If you could go back in time and exact furious vengeance on a bunch of Nazis to save your ancestors from being flayed alive, would you? And more importantly, how would you?”
There is an obvious “eye for an eye” mentality to be found in Tarantino’s filmmaking. This can make people uncomfortable. A conservative mind might look upon the director’s penchant for diversity, his incorporation of African-American, Jewish, Latino, and Asian perspectives into his work as more than mere tropes, as threatening. The right’s reaction to Django Unchained, for instance, was particularly telling, being that they couldn’t overlook the hyperbolic, a-thematic nature of the film, construing it instead as a call for black libel against Christian whites. The far left, being increasingly unable to see cultural representation outside of a very rigid box, also found itself in the position of coming out against Tarantino’s narrative of victim overcoming oppressor.
Though the political and socially conservative right is easy to lampoon here, as racism is just part of the party platform these days, I find the left’s reaction to Django far more interesting. Some prominent black filmmakers and intellectuals, including Ishmael Reed and Spike Lee, have voiced complaint against the film. I can’t, and won’t, contradict Reed’s feelings here, as I don’t know too much about him or his views historically, but Spike Lee’s refusal to see the film, at least in my opinion, seems absolutely absurd. Apart from the fact that a lot of Lee’s films are, frankly, hit and miss, he has a noted history of depicting ethnic and racial groups in unsavory ways. Jews, specifically. Although he cursed Quentin Tarantino’s employment of artistic license to stage a campy slave revenge narrative, in Mo’ Better Blues, he had no problem using that very same license to depict two characters, Josh and Moe Flatbush, as bloodsucking Shylocks. And The Inside Man—which I actually enjoyed—was nothing more than a Jewish revenge fantasy in itself, employing another culture’s history to exact grand modern comeuppance upon a banker who accepted starter money from the Nazis. If Spike Lee were to follow the same rules he espouses against his contemporaries, then he would find himself extremely limited in his repertoire. Not to say that he can’t or shouldn’t feel uncomfortable with Tarantino’s film, but he should definitely examine his own propensity to represent others in the same way.
This is all to say that Django Unchained should be heavily scrutinized. Though I enjoyed both of Tarantino’s recent films, I was happy to read counterarguments.Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic took his usual moderate sensibility to Inglorious Basterds: “Given the chance, of course, I would still shoot Mengele in the face. That would be a moral necessity. But I wouldn’t carve a swastika into his forehead. That just doesn’t sound like the Jewish thing to do.” I found this to be an incredibly valid viewpoint, or at least one far more preferable than Christopher Hitchens’ (may he rest in peace), when saying that watching the film was like “sitting in the dark having a great pot of warm piss emptied very slowly over your head.” Returning to Goldberg, I get the idea that even if you remove artistic license from the argument, people will walk away from a Tarantino movie with a different idea than the one the director hoped to convey, an idea that wouldn’t necessarily be espoused by the people being depicted on screen, either. Roxanne Gay explored this sentiment beautifully in her recent Buzz Feed essay on watching Django Unchained in a rural town. I thought this part here was particularly right on: “From the start the audience around me laughed, quite heartily. What was disconcerting was how often they laughed at the wrong times. Some of the laughter was nervous tittering during the first instances when the N-word was bandied about. They laughed when Stephen asked Calvin Candie if he was going to let ‘that nigger,’ Django, sleep in the master’s house. They laughed when Django told King Schultz people were staring because, ‘they ain’t never seen a nigger on no horse.’ The more the word was used, the funnier it seemed to become for the audience.”
Audience perception is definitely worth considering, especially when you’re working with supercharged elements like blacks killing slave-holding whites and Jews massacring Germans Nazis. People are wont to come out of a viewing with warped ideas on a minority’s place in history. Many Jews don’t want to be seen as having a lust for blood, especially with the situation in the Middle East and anti-Semitism’s increasing institutionalization outside of the United States. I obviously can’t speak for African Americans, but I do know, from the experience of friends, colleagues, and those magical things called books, that perception of violence in the black community by whites is something that still plays itself out in modern day America.
Another question to ask in this context is whether or not Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasies are really making up or changing anyone’s mind? Perhaps naively I happen to believe that prejudice begins with ignorance, and tends to thrive independent of knowledge to the contrary. The anti-Semites I’ve met, anyway, aren’t necessarily deprived of resources, and have the ability to access large amounts of information that could curtail their hatred, but instead choose to avoid it in favor of conspiracy literature. I don’t think it’s very different with anti-black racism, as many are weaned on hatred in the crib, rather than developing it later in life. It’s unlikely that someone like Quentin Tarantino is going to be changing many attitudes that haven’t already been instilled from the get-go. He is a fantasist more than anything, and isn’t going to have about just as much luck with academics looking for absolution as he would with racists looking for vindication. Also, let’s just think for a moment what would happen if an African-American would have directed Django Unchained, or for that matter, a Jew would have directed Inglorious Basterds? I can’t imagine anything good would have come of it. In fact, the product itself might have flown beneath the popularity radar, remaining something for consumption within the respective communities, as opposed to society at large. I’m not sure if traumatized peoples would even be able to exact such narratives in the same way (check out this piece about Tarantino and Reginald Hudlin’s feelings towards Roots). If anything, the horror of their pasts would make it harder to employ nuance. It’s safe to bet that if a Jew had directed Inglorious Basterds it would have caused a much greater uproar in both the Jewish community and the film going community at large. An absolute shanda fur die goy. I can’t even imagine what would happen with the African-American alternative on Fox News. Can you?
The question of artistic license will continue to remain a heated one as society explores the parameters of political correctness in the 21st century. But it’s worth thinking about whether or not creative work that represents a culture other than the creator’s is worthwhile as long as it comes from a place of appreciation. If representation comes from a place of distaste—which it often does—then condemnation will follow. One of the main American missions of the 21st century, however, seems to deal with encouraging people to understand each other’s histories, reinforce co-existence, and seek out cultural exchange. Should we be surprised that films like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained are what emerge from this neoteric milieu? Tarantino, as he recounts in this NPR Fresh Air interview, grew up a student of multiculturalism by default of his upbringing. The fact that he would give enough of a fuck to depict victims as heroes who will never be wronged again gives me a shiver of hope down my spine. It makes me think that mainstream culture is branching out, that it’s becoming popular, even fun, for the once meek to take pride in their newfound power. Also, let’s not forget that Tarantino’s primary outlook on cinema has a lot to do with what’s ‘cool’ or ‘badass,’ not what’s ‘offensive.’ What does Tarantino love? Kung Fu movies, Spaghetti Westerns, Blaxploitation. All of which incorporate a lone hero, a paragon of narcissism, righting historical wrongs, avenging lost honor, or saving a town/polity from corruption. People don’t freak out over Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter’s depiction of history, even though it’s just as fantastical as Inglorious Basterds in many senses. And perhaps that is the director’s greatest accomplishment. By creating controversy almost unwittingly, by braving the pinnacle of cool, he leaves his viewership to set the stage for discussion. At the end of the day, he’s a guy who likes to like culture on the screen, and whether or not that’s the politically correct thing to do, you can argue he’s damned good at doing so.
Samuel Sattin is the author of “League of Somebodies,” a debut novel about one family’s efforts to create the world’s first superhero. (Spoiler: It doesn’t go so well.) Imagine The Doom Patrol cross-pollinated with Philip Roth and then remixed by Mel Brooks. Audible recently released the audiobook performed by John Keating. Sattin is 31 years-old and lives in Oakland with his wife. His work has appeared in Salon, io9, Kotaku, Publishing Perspectives, The Good Men Project and he’s currently a contributing editor at The Weeklings. Follow @samuelsattin on Twitter!More Samuel Sattin.
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)
Salon is proud to feature content from The Weeklings, which offers an essay a day, every day, on all aspects of the culture, from the mundane to the sublime. Everything is a topic.