"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)
Topics: Movies, Action movies, The Hunger Games, Zero Dark Thirty, Quentin Tarantino, django unchained, The Dark Knight Rises, Aurora shooting, Sandy Hook, Sandy Hook Shootings, Gun Violence, Thomas Frank, Violence, Editor's Picks, Life News, Entertainment News, News
At last the real villain has been revealed in our poisonous and circular culture of violence: It’s me. Well, OK, maybe not me personally, but the underpaid, disheveled and endangered tribe to which I semi-reluctantly belong, the movie critics. Even by an optimistic count, America is down to a few dozen professional film critics, most of whom traipse back and forth between screening rooms in Manhattan and Los Angeles, often appearing to have recently arisen at 7 o’clock in the evening. (The general fashion statement and social mode, as a friend once put it, is one of “Troll Under the Bridge.”) And yet, according to a baffling new article in Harper’s by cultural critic Thomas Frank, our sad-sack crew is a crucial enabler of American gun violence. (That’s a firewalled link, so I’ll try to quote liberally from the article while staying on the fair side of fair use.)
I’m sure that Frank, whom I generally respect (we’ve had a couple of conversations and email exchanges, all of them cordial), knew this wasn’t likely to make him popular in the critical fraternity. Hard truths must be uttered, and so on. But aiming his rhetorical weapon in such an unlikely direction might have worked better if he didn’t seem desperately out of his depth on the movie beat. His attempt to strike a contemporary note, for example, involves multiple references to “Gangster Squad,” a derivative action flick released in January that was immediately forgotten and will never be watched again by anyone for any reason.
Still more puzzling, perhaps, is the citation of a Soviet-made submachine gun in the 1988 B-movie “Red Scorpion,” as a prime example of Hollywood’s weapons fetish. Hello? ”Red Scorpion”? I might have gone with, for instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sawed-off Winchester Model 1887 shotgun from “Terminator 2,” perhaps the most iconic combination of star and weapon in action-movie history, but the fanboy details are not the point. The point is that this guy doesn’t know much about movies, given that the only reason anyone has heard of “Red Scorpion” – the reason Frank has heard of it, I assume – is because it was produced by corrupt Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and a clip from it was used to hilarious effect in Alex Gibney’s documentary “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.”
Mind you, along the way to his bewildering tirade against film critics and their sins, Frank provides an entertaining ride, as usual. He’s always an enjoyable stylist, as well as an expert at skewering the idiocies and pieties of American ideology. He works himself into a high dudgeon about the paranoid and tautological worldview of National Rifle Association jefe Wayne LaPierre, summing up the NRA argument that Americans are insufficiently armed thusly: “The task before us is to arm not only the guards in our elementary schools but also the teachers, the custodians, the cafeteria workers, the hall monitors. And on and on until the arms race is the preeminent logic of civilian life. Only then will the streets of Dodge City be safe.”
Frank also compares LaPierre’s refusal to acknowledge even the hypothetical possibility that his organization bears some responsibility for gun crimes with Quentin Tarantino’s strangled and defensive non-responses to questions about the real-world effects of his ultraviolent movies. I made quite a similar argument myself a few weeks ago, in suggesting that Tarantino did himself and the cultural discussion no favors by shutting down a British journalist who was bold enough to raise serious issues, and making the unfortunate proclamation, “I don’t want to talk about the implications of violence.” I enjoyed Frank’s mockery of Tarantino for “daring to take on such sacred cows as Nazis and slave owners,” and his invention of an imaginary Tarantino scene in which a person is castrated and then harpooned, while a sunny ‘70s pop song plays in the background.
In fact, before I get to Frank’s wacky campaign to kill the messenger, I want to make clear that I feel some sympathy for the general tenor of his argument – and a whole lot of sympathy for the perplexing difficulty of making any coherent argument about the relationship between the pervasive violence of pop culture and outbreaks of mass murder. Frank is right to point out that “an industry under fire will claim that its hands are clean,” as the NRA and Hollywood have both done, and right to observe that when people in the film industry insist that movies have no effect on human behavior, they’re engaging in “self-serving sophistry.” He could have phrased this even more strongly: Sometimes the people who make movies want them defined as works of art, possessed of profound significance and enshrouded in First Amendment protections; sometimes they want them defined as meaningless effluvia, pornographic fantasies with fewer real-world consequences than an Altoids commercial.
I think we all believe, on a bone-deep level, that living in the media universe of the last 50 years or so has reshaped human consciousness and affected human behavior in ways maddeningly difficult to define. Even social scientists who have devoted their entire careers to the effects of media – and of violent media in particular — have the Devil’s own time explaining how it all works, and nearly all of them shy away from simplistic theories of cause and effect. In what might be termed the mainstream psychological view, media violence is seen as a “contextual risk factor” that “increases the likelihood for aggressive behavior” to some minor but measurable extent while also, so to speak, raising the overall social temperature. There is little or no clear evidence connecting violent entertainment to actual acts of criminal violence, but some scholars suggest that violent media can serve as a “stylistic catalyst” that inspires disturbed people to act out specific fantasies.
Given that academic context, Frank’s description of certain kinds of violent Hollywood movies as “advertisements for mass murder” is deliberately provocative. This is the moment, I imagine, where Frank expects someone in my position to throw up my hands in dismay and begin declaiming against censorship. Well, let’s skip that step. In fact, I think the argument that Hollywood is, in some indirect and unintentional way, inciting or inviting massacres is worth taking seriously, for two reasons. First, it fits with the known facts, including the striking fact that even as overall crime rates have trended downward over the past 30 years in the United States, spectacular acts of mass murder along the lines of Aurora or Sandy Hook have apparently become more common.
Secondly, it fits what most people already believe, on a profound if unscientific level. (As my inbox, or the comments section of every article I’ve ever written on this subject, will testify.) As I wrote in January and as Frank says here, LaPierre may be a shameless hypocrite and an apologist for literal engines of death, but he struck a sensitive chord, especially with parents, in pointing the finger at ubiquitous media violence. Most Americans enjoy consuming violent movies, TV shows and/or video games — and most also believe or suspect they’re socially harmful. This isn’t really much of a paradox; just consider our national obesity epidemic, or the millions who struggle with addiction. No one is under the misapprehension that OxyContin or Jägermeister or double orders of garlic fries or 46-ounce tankards of Mountain Dew are good for you, but that doesn’t deter us from indulging on a mind-boggling scale.
So I agree that it’s time to confront the strong likelihood that our obsessive intake of symbolic violence is not healthy, and Frank is correct that this is sometimes (not always) a no-go zone for media-elite intellectual types. In the dry academic phrasing of a commission on media violence appointed by the International Society for Research on Aggression, “If one has a vested interest in violent media (e.g., one creates or uses violent media), cognitive dissonance and the need to maintain a positive self-image motivates the denial of media violence effects.” I didn’t feel like I could say this in the immediate aftermath of the Aurora shootings, but when Christopher Nolan released an earnest-sounding statement about the killer having violated the “innocent and hopeful” space of the movie theater, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. One could come up with many adjectives to characterize the experience of watching “The Dark Knight Rises,” but not those.
But in the latter portion of his Harper’s piece, Frank appears to slide all too readily into a LaPierre-lite posture of bogus moral equivalence, as if whatever moral culpability one might want to attach to “Django Unchained” or “Natural Born Killers” or “The Dark Knight Rises” were even remotely comparable to the guilt borne by the gun lobby and its cohort of nutzoid Second Amendment fundamentalists. He goes so far as to describe the film industry as “the other pillar of the gun culture — the propaganda bureau relaxing in the Los Angeles sun,” as opposed to “the political arm” at NRA headquarters in suburban Washington. It’s a nifty turn of phrase, but a shocking intellectual conflation. On one hand we have the people who actually make and sell the guns used every year to kill human beings, and who have vowed to fight any and all attempts to regulate gun ownership. On the other hand we have people who make pictures and tell stories, however juvenile and disturbing they may be. One of these things is not like the other.
Furthermore, Frank acts as if the violence we encounter on screen had appeared out of nowhere, with no obvious motivations and no social roots. “Today, as I absorb the blunt aesthetic blows of one ultraviolent film after another,” he writes, “all I can make of it is that Hollywood, for reasons of its own, is hopelessly enamored of homicide.” He has to know better than this. The synecdoche of “Hollywood” as a single-minded entity that makes autonomous and perverse decisions is hopelessly lame, and the only relevant “reasons of its own” are the enormous piles of money studios and producers can generate around the world by making action-packed spectacles with little dialogue to be dubbed or cultural specificity to translate. Violent movies are both an international language and an international currency, and they would not exist in such quantity and escalating intensity if audiences didn’t respond to them so strongly. If there is a disordered cultural appetite for spectacular symbolic violence, Hollywood may be feeding and strengthening it but didn’t create it, and it can be found in every corner of the globe.
I share Frank’s frustration that the opportunity to get serious and significant gun control laws passed has already evaporated, at least until the next outrage temporarily forces NRA-terrorized lawmakers out of their foxholes to pull mournful faces for the cameras. What is to be done in the meantime? In rapid succession, Frank goes from blaming violence on mindless action movies to blaming the success of those movies on the media. Journalists have enabled the sadistic crimes of Hollywood, he suggests, through “puff pieces and softball interviews and a thousand ‘press junkets.’” (Why the scare quotes? Are those not familiar English words?) Bootlicking movie critics have crowned Tarantino as a genius, and have refused “to tell the world what god-awful heaps of cliché and fake profundity and commercialized sadism this industry produces.”
I don’t quite understand what’s going on here, but it’s not based on any actual consideration of what’s wrong or right about film criticism. If Frank wants to argue that critics aren’t tough-minded enough, or that crappy Hollywood films often get a pass from gravy-train types who want to roll with the tides of popular opinion and deliberately steer away from questions of morality or semiotics, well, sure. Also: Welcome to the last hundred years or so of the film industry’s symbiotic or parasitic relationship with the media. Frank appears to believe that critics can actually affect the commercial success or failure of the kinds of big, violent spectacles he deplores, which is touching and also extremely silly. (Comic Book Guy voice: Chris Nolan will weep with shame when he reads my blistering takedown!) He conflates the lightweight celebrity interviews of the junket circuit with film criticism, when they’re distinct journalistic genres with entirely different goals. (I’m not demonizing the former category, by the way: It was a junket interview that provoked Tarantino’s now-famous meltdown.)
This fusillade against film criticism has the hurried manner of a guy with a plane to catch, and conveys no evidence that he’s actually read any of it. Frank quotes one context-free comment by Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, and leaves it at that. He appears to be unaware, for example, that the movies of Tarantino or Nolan are flashpoints for heated debate in critical circles, and that many prominent critics precisely and specifically decry the empty, pornographic violence of so much mainstream action cinema. Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, Glenn Kenny of MSN, Dana Stevens of Slate, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, David Germain of the Associated Press and that dude with the funny name from Salon are among the numerous critics who intensely disliked the blood-spattered mendacity of “Django Unchained” (a particular target of Frank’s ire) and said so. Opinions were even more divided on Nolan’s brooding, fascistic magnum opus, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
I’ve had several conversations about movie violence with fellow critics since the Aurora shootings. Many of us have written about the issue, without pearl-clutching rhetoric about censorship or a retreat to the pretentiousness Frank mocks: “No, these are works of art. And art is, you know, all edgy and defiant and shit.” I would say that the general consensus is that it’s a serious matter that lacks easy answers, and that those of us lucky enough to get paid to write about film have a moral obligation to address it straightforwardly. Do we have a potentially important role to play in helping both people inside the business and those who buy the tickets grapple with these questions? I certainly hope so. But with his final, totalizing declaration about the “fake profundity and commercialized sadism” of (apparently) any and all violent Hollywood movies, Frank appears to reject the very basis of criticism, which is the idea that individual works are ambiguous phenomena that can be understood in different ways. I assume he doesn’t mean it this way, but this reads like a passionate defense of Philistinism.
If Frank believes that both “Django” and the “Dark Knight” movies are “advertisements for mass murder,” OK. But that already risks meaninglessness by ignoring the distance between Tarantino’s farcical movie-geek universe and Nolan’s ponderous, pseudo-epic mythology, and avoiding the question of what the violence in their movies is supposed to mean and what moral weight it carries (or doesn’t). Does he feel the same way about “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Avengers” and “The Hunger Games,” which use different kinds of symbolic violence in different contexts toward remarkably different ends? If “Gangster Squad” and “Red Scorpion” left as deep a mark on Frank as they seem to have done, all I can say is: Different strokes! But were they really awesome in exactly the same way?
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)