"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)
If there’s a way to win this critic’s heart, it’s to begin an episode by having Hannah make up a neologism that Urban Dictionary reveals already exists (“sexit”), only to have beautiful Patrick Wilson barge in to the coffeeshop where she works,. (If Patrick Wilson — here, brownstone-owner and physician Joshua — had been complaining about someone leaving dogshit on his lawn instead of employees leaving their trash in his garbage, Dunham would have hit the trifecta.)
In this episode, Hannah winds up in said brownstone after Ray, irate that his neighbor is asking him to do anything outside the realm of the door of the shop, assumes a defensive rigidity. Joshua (who, we learn later, insists on the “ua”) is not irate back, but confused. “I was hoping we could talk neighbor to neighbor,” he says, perplexed. No luck. To this grownup, they’re on the same street. To Ray, they’re not even in the same world.
And so we have yet another episode wherein Hannah, having left the orbit of someone (Adam! My Adam!) whose grandmother pays his rent, steps into life of an adult who has transcended such trifles. Joshua not only owns a brownstone he has restored and rehabbed — with the signifying stainless-steel fridge — he is completely unfazed by his surroundings. “I feel like I’m in a Nancy Meyers movie,” Hannah says as he hands her a lemonade from his unimaginably superior tumbler. Turns out she’s the employee who’s been using his trash, but even that was a step up: “I’ve never had,” she declares with wonder, “my own trash can.”
This is the part where anyone who has ever seen a movie, read a book, or so much as skimmed a magazine at the dentist’s steels themselves for the inevitable cliché. Is this the episode where Hannah gets dumped by an adult who realizes she is, after all, only 24? Is it the one where Joshua (also, he specifies, “separated,” not “married”) falls into an obsessive love with Hannah, during which she learns the limitations of a 42-year-old who blithely shtups her on his very own quartz countertop? Which Nancy Meyer movie is this?
Neither, of course — only a meta-reflection of how we see Nancy Meyer, because for Hannah, Josh(ua)’s entire life already is a cliché. Holding a glass of his actual wine as he grills the actual steak he was planning to eat all by himself, she looks with wonder at her surroundings: Indubitably the land of the Gen X done good. Suddenly, the twentysomethings on the patio below strike up a song. She smiles. He frowns. (Over here on my couch, I immediately turned down the volume.) “Wait, so you’re really the neighbor, like, shaking your fist — grrr?” Hannah says. Josh(ua) smiles back. “I’m the oldest guy in this neighborhood,” he says.
And thus begins what is a day off for both of them. (Well, Joshua takes the day off. Hannah has quit, in protest of his treatment.) They sit outside, reading the paper. They have sex everywhere. The play Ping-Pong, naked, volleying back and forth from distant lives. It is no joke to make two people spending time in one house all day interesting for a half an hour, but in this crucible, we are on pins and needles. This isn’t Hannah’s touchy-feely boss, or cocaine-curious editor, or mother and father, or even Ray. This is a regular adult, who is nice, and who doesn’t seem to find “3-2-1 Contact” life’s lynchpin. What happens next?
Here, I’m going to march into an as-yet-unfilled role myself and just be the black person who defends Lena Dunham. This week, my new favorite cultural critic in the world, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, wrote an essay in which he rapped Dunham’s hand for “Girls” being so white. (Though I am glad that he, too, finds Adam a truly fascinating character, particularly in the character’s terrifying monologue, which is so brilliant about being creepy you can easily feel creepy.)
“Girls” is too white. It is too white in the way the swath of Brooklyn where it is based is too white, and too white in a particularly horrible way, in that its inhabitants don’t even seem to notice. When I go with friends to Hannah’s nearby Prospect Park, they see the park. I see White people! Why is this all white people!
But I’m thrilled that this segregation has a new partner: public outrage. A show launched about the new generation, and it was only white. There was an uproar. Should this uproar have been directed, as too few columnists pointed out, at the 99 percent of the rest of the entertainment industry who have defaulted, in ignorant bliss, to a Prospect Park-like vista since the invention of talkies? Of course it should. Was it sexist that it focused on a young woman who has actually done a lot for people with cellulite? Why does Jon Stewart (whom I also love) get a company-wide show of support, and Dunham a blast of ire?
Finally breaking down from the stress of Joshua’s fruit-filled bowls and linens, Hannah begins to sob. “A long time ago, I promised myself I would try to have all experiences. But it gets so tiring taking in all the experiences for everybody, letting everyone say things to me.” To illustrate the depths of her depravity, she says, “I mean, I once told someone to punch me in the chest and then come on the spot.”
It’s hard to not read this as a cri de coeur about artistic bravery — one Dunham is also making fun of herself for having. And it is funny. For some reason, we — 58-year-old men, 22-year-old girls, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar — all want this show to be everything to all of us. We want Lena to take all our stories, and we feel failed when she doesn’t — even if her character is honored to take out our garbage.
I keep worrying, in these recaps, I’m imposing my perspective too much on the show, until I remind myself that, in every episode this season, Hannah and her friends have dipped into mine. (How many times have I shaken my fist at the noisy kids on my block? Who isn’t on the brink of divorce? When will I get away from that fucking quartz countertop?) By the same token, I’m sort of glad it doesn’t have black people. Those white girls seem like the type who would touch my hair. They do not even own garbage cans.
But as this season increasingly shows, if Dunham is not fluent in race, she’s is in time — our one true universal. I can’t feel what Hannah feels about aspiring to a better garbage can, but this episode, it was interesting to watch her see me — quartz and all. Somehow, Dunham knew that when someone her age cries, “Something’s broken inside of me!” it is meaningless to someone my age — not because I don’t understand, but because I do. Yes, I’ll try to scrape up something from my past to make them feel better. But I have to go to sleep. Tomorrow, I go to work.
Lizzie Skurnick is the author of Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stop Reading. She writes on books and culture for the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, Bookforum, the LAT, and many other publications.More Lizzie Skurnick.
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)