"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)
Steve Kornacki: I was just thinking, this is for me — being with Ramin and Andrew — is good practice for “Up,” because I’m surrounded by two people who are much, much smarter than me. So I’m going to basically ask the questions here and try to steer the conversation and let you hear from these guys. I guess a good place to start would be that we had three really high-profile films last year that were politically themed: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln,” and “Argo.” I’m going to start with you, Ramin: Do you see any kind of a trend there, or any kind of statement about the time we’re in? Is there more of an appetite for political films?
Ramin Bahrani: Well, probably Andrew would know historically, but I think depending on what’s happening in the world, there’s always a possibility for a political film to exist. I mean, “Zero Dark Thirty” was probably the one that was the most directly connected to what was happening, “Lincoln” in more of a shadow way, “Argo,” I think, in maybe a way that makes the least sense in terms of what’s happening, actually. I think there’s always an appetite, and now that we clearly have a major conflict in Washington, I think that Occupy Wall Street is making people think very differently about society and our role in it. I think wealth and equality and this whole idea [of a] 99 percent is a huge topic – it’s on people’s minds, especially young people. So anyway, that informs cinema.
Andrew O’Hehir: It was such an interesting time last year, because those of us who write for the movie page often wish that we had a broader audience for the things that we write about, and really appreciate having some bleed between the front page, the news section, and the movie page. And last year it happened almost too much. I felt that the political world and the world of movies were talking past each other at times when we had debates about these films. You know, was “Lincoln” a vote of confidence or a critique of the Obama administration? Was “Zero Dark Thirty” an apology for torture or in some way an exposé of what the country has gone through over the last 10 years?
I think Ramin is right: The appetite for political discussion as – political discussion in culture, and for cultural issues to become political issues — is always present. And we just had three things that kind of crystallized that. There are all kinds of times when it’s not evident: I remember talking to Ralph Fiennes, the great British actor, about a year and a half ago, about his film “Coriolanus,” a play that was written in the early years of the 17th century, which was very clearly simultaneously referring the Eastern European conflicts of the ’90s and also Occupy Wall Street. So there are times when these things are obvious, like last year, and there are times when it’s maybe the job on one level of somebody like Ramin, and on one level somebody like me, to try to make these connections.
RB: I think one of the differences was that the films were high-profile, and they were connected to studios in ways where studios would normally shy away from such material. I mean, granted, “Zero Dark Thirty” was independently financed, but unless I’m mistaken, “Argo” and “Lincoln”: These were studio films, and all three had studio backing for the release. That’s different, because Andrew could write about, every week, he could write about a political film, but it doesn’t have a budget, it doesn’t have a marketing plan, it doesn’t have 10 famous actors in it that’s gonna draw you in – it mainly doesn’t have a marketing budget behind it. Here’s something that – there were three huge films that did.
SK: And three films that – I mean, they were very successful. “Argo” won the Oscar. Does that – the fact that they had the kind of backing and they were successful mean we can expect more of this?
AOH: Sure, I mean, you know, Hollywood’s not very bright and it’s always searching for patterns, so I don’t know if we’re going to see a biographical film about every president now. I kind of hope not.
SK: Fillmore would be a good one. [Laughter]
AOH: I’m not that eager for the James K. Polk or William Howard Taft movie to come out, but interestingly, one of the things that’s fascinating is that of these three movies, actually “Lincoln” made the most money of any of those movies. The one that was a bunch of bearded guys in the 19th century sitting around arguing was the most successful of those three films, not the one that has torture scenes in it or the one that’s an exciting escape picture about getting Americans –
SK: Plane tickets.
AOH: Yeah. I’ve certainly heard murmurings about various things that are being contemplated, and I –
RB: I think there’s a Washington thing being developed by [Darren] Aronofsky, actually. Which could actually be really interesting.
AOH: He’s doing a George Washington film? Wow.
SK: One of my pet peeves was sort of the political pundit class’s reaction to “Lincoln.” Which sort of consisted of, “Oh, there are so many lessons to Obama here about how to break the gridlock in Washington today.” Well, first of all, this whole, “Obama is the practitioner of Chicago politics. Can you imagine if he was overtly bribing members of Congress what the reaction from the right would be?” It wouldn’t be “Oh, great, he’s broken the gridlock.” It would be “Send him to prison.” [Laughter] But one thing you’ve written about, Andrew, that’s kind of interesting relating to these films, is that people tend to treat them as Democratic or Republican, to treat something, to categorize it as a Democratic or a Republican movie. Did you see that with – obviously you saw that with “Zero Dark Thirty” — but did you see that with “Argo” and “Lincoln” as well?
AOH: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. It was really obvious with “Zero Dark Thirty,” but the arc of that is so funny: While it was being made because of Mark Boal’s track record as an investigative journalist, there was this assumption that it was going to be kind of a thing that made Obama look like a hero, and it was gonna be critical of Republican policies. And then when it came out, the tide sort of flipped over and we had a bunch of –- our former colleague Glenn Greenwald and many other people attacking it as a justification for torture. Glenn wrote that when he hadn’t even seen the movie, I would point out, which I think was somewhat unfortunate, but in the case of “Lincoln,” it is interesting. I think that you did see people who saw it as either a criticism of Obama’s failings or, like, a lionization, instruction, as you said, in how to break the deadlock, which is so funny.
I kind of want to draw you out on this, Ramin. I know you have some criticisms of that film, maybe just as a movie, or maybe as a political statement, I dunno. What was your reaction?
RB: Both. Um, yeah. I mean, let’s just talk about politics. I mean, there’s a history involved in how that story even began, and that film treated that history like an animated cartoon in the beginning, and simplified it and reduced it to a sort of mockery almost. And it really wanted to say that it covered the CIA’s coup of Mosaddegh, but it also didn’t want to say it, so they drew it in a cartoon and they kind of made it real flowery and they went right into their story, which is about buying a plane ticket. I did find it sort of engaging as a story, but I think it’s politically a problem with the overture of the film.
SK: Do you think that – I mean, obviously Iran is such a fresh topic right now in political debate in this country. Do you think the fact that – maybe the casual viewer of “Argo” didn’t fully understand the back story to the embassy siege in 1979. Do you think that the image of the Iranians in the street, protesting anti-American sentiments and all that stuff – do you think that might’ve sort of advanced the cause of the sort of hawkish “Attack Iran” people in this country right now?
SK: Good answer. [Laughter.] What did you make of it, Andrew?
AOH: I mean, my main problem with “Argo” in a lot of ways — which is a movie that I enjoy when I watch it – was that I felt it was turning a very complicated story and Ramin has mentioned – Ramin, if I’m correct, your parents are from Iran. Is that right?
AOH: A very complicated back story, the 1953 coup and even the history before that, which is then rendered into a very conventional Hollywood thriller with a hero and a chase on the runway that didn’t happen and a very scary moment in the grand bazaar of Tehran that didn’t happen –
RB: A sweatshop of kids trying to put together a photograph.
AOH: Right, right. And most of the details – even though the general story is true, that Canadian intelligence and the CIA got these people out of Tehran on plane tickets – almost none of the details were true. So it’s a movie that wants to base itself in history and simultaneously wants to be a completely reassuring form of fiction that has almost no relationship to history. And I felt like, whatever their flaws may have been as movies or as politics, “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty” were both serious attempts to engage with the actual issues raised by actual events in history. And I don’t think that was the ambition of “Argo,” at all.
RB: I would just say that I don’t think a fictional film has any duty to retell history and facts the way they were and we just need to look at my hero Werner Herzog. You could fabricate the whole thing – it doesn’t matter.
I think an interesting film that we’re not talking about that could be added to this conversation in the high-profile film is “Django.” Which I think has its own fabrications and its own mythology, but I think was very political. I think, actually, in very many ways, as daring or more daring in many ways than some of the other films. Certainly as – more daring than “Argo,” more risky.
SK: But what do you think the responsibility of these films is to get these historical details right?
RB: I don’t think there’s any. So, none. The same as – we just go to Andrew Knope. We just go to Robert Flaherty, one of the first and most important documentary filmmakers. Films like “Nanook of the North,” “Man of Aran,” I mean things that were essentially created –
AOH: Staged. They were essentially staged. What we’d say now is that they weren’t probably documentaries at all.
RB: Right, they argue that Inuit people really fish like this and people still debate it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still an amazing film. And what’s amazing to me is I saw a photograph of Times Square when “Nanook of the North” came out, people lined up around the block to watch it. Can you imagine people lining up around the block to watch a documentary about Inuit people’s fishing techniques? But that was a revolution at that time. And he fabricated it. I think what matters is that good storytelling – so, well yeah.
AOH: I wanted to talk about the fact that politics can be brought into a film in another way, so he doesn’t have to blow his horn; let me tell you guys a little bit more about Ramin, who has a new film out called “At Any Price,” let’s get to that in a second. But you made three previous films: the first was called “Man Push Cart,” the second, “Chop Shop,” and then a film called “Goodbye Solo,” all of which in different ways are about immigrants in the United States, which may reflect your personal background, your parents and so on. But all of that – in none of those three films did the issue of immigration as a political – if you were pro-immigration and wanted to seal the borders, the film simply doesn’t address that, right? That’s not where you – that’s not where your vision of film and politics lies, that’s not your agenda.
RB: My own work, yes. I prefer not to have a strong agenda like that. I prefer to tell a story. For example, those films, they were political simply by the fact that they existed, and you were to think about those characters and those situations differently – not just in terms of their immigration status, but also in all three of their wealth status, which was low-income. And how do we see that, what does that mean, actually? Each having its own different strategy. I don’t really like watching an agenda movie as a fictional film. I’d run away. So I can’t make one like that. It would make me want to flee, and actually I don’t think any of the films we’re talking about, I don’t think they really had an agenda. I think they were trying their best to tell a good story.
SK: Yeah, because that’s Andrew’s – Andrew, that’s one of your arguments with “Zero Dark Thirty,” that you did not see an agenda at work.
RB: I think it was trying to tell a story. And I think it was so matter of fact about what it was showing that I felt that [director Kathryn Bigelow] was keeping a distance from things, she just showed what – look, I know, they cut this out, they added this, they fabricated that, they eliminated many things, like any film. But I thought that for much of the film, not all of it, but for much of it, her camera was pretty distant.
AOH: Tell us a little bit about your new film, “At Any Price,” which I haven’t seen yet, which I know isn’t about the most – your previous three films were all set in the United States, let’s be clear about that, but this is a more typical American, even white bread American, kind of setting.
RB: Well, the film is about a big business farmer – an agribusiness farmer. He’s also a genetically modified seed seller. He’s played by Dennis Quaid, and he wants to pass his farm and his business down to his son, who is played by Zac Efron, and the Zac character wants to be a race car driver. And this story is progressing, and an investigation is beginning on their farm from the genetically modified seed company — here it’s called Liberty Seeds — about patent infringement. So then that starts to unravel the farm. I do a lot of research, and I spent months living with farmers out in the heartland, so to speak. And the thing that I noticed was that the heartland was not a romantic place anymore. It wasn’t a place where people sat at tables at the sunset having vegetables from their garden. No. This was a big business. The farms were multimillion-dollar operations, the small farm was considered a thousand acres. Most of them were 5-, 6-, 10,000-acre farms, and they were run on very high-tech machinery. You don’t even drive the tractors. They drive themselves, so you just sit here like this in an air-conditioned cabin like a limousine, you know? And all the farmers told me the same thing: Expand or die, get big or get out. And that pressure they felt was to me no different than any business, be it mom or pop store, Wal-Mart, be it Wall Street, be it the housing crisis. And that’s a – that’s a dangerous philosophy when it goes to the extreme. I mean, if you keep expanding, expand or die, eventually you’re gonna kill yourself off, you’re gonna kill your neighbors off, you’re gonna kill off your community. Which is kind of what’s happening, and people get away with it — meaning banks, meaning Wall Street, meaning politicians — that are supposed to be in charge of regulating these issues but it’s just run by former Goldman/Deutsche heads.
So in some ways the film was a reflection of that. I mean, when de Tocqueville came and saw America and wrote about it, he talked about America as a place where people were pragmatic, meaning what’s good for me should kind of be good for you. You have to live it better for me because I want to make money, get a little bit ahead, no problem, because everyone wants to get a little bit ahead. But now what’s happening for me isn’t good for you. And that ultimately means it won’t be good for me either. And I’m concerned that that’s where the country’s headed, which I think is kind of a dangerous place.
SK: Did you – in doing this movie, agribusiness and everything – did you face any obstacles doing it? I mean, you talk about it, there’s big business, there’s a lot of political power behind it, did you have any problems?
RB: Well, I became friends with people who are actually farmers, who are actually in the film, who are involved in massive lawsuits with Monsanto; Monsanto’s trying to crush certain farmers. So I knew them, we talked about certain things, some of these things get re-created in the film. I remember one time we put up a sign in the movie. We made it. A seed company sign. We put it on the road and we filmed it and we ended up getting calls from Monsanto. What is this sign you’re filming? You don’t have the right to film our sign. Well, we’re not filming your sign. So it was amazing how it got to them somehow. And there was some hesitation on some farmers – I was very nervous to talk about seed cleaning, which is a patent infringement. And anyway, there was a big patent case that was just lost recently.
AOH: Is this the issue where if any of Monsanto’s seeds get onto your land and sprout and you didn’t pay for them, you’re in violation of their –
RB: Potentially, potentially, yeah. In my film, actually, the character’s corrupt from the beginning. He’s actually doing this on purpose to make more money, which matches anyone I look around the street and see – they’re all doing it on purpose to be corrupt and getting away with it. I see securitizing toxic assets and selling them to people who don’t have high school educations – this is wrong.
AOH: So as an economic allegory, this is not necessarily an uplifting picture on the whole –
RB: I gotta tell you, it’s a pretty exciting movie. [Laughter] Because farming – farming, that sounds like the most boring thing in the world. But it’s not really about farming. It’s about cutthroat business. Plus I’ve got Zac, and really fast cars, and it’s like serious competition, you know? So it’s as exciting as any cutthroat movie could be, but it’s set on a farm in a way you wouldn’t have expected, and the movie keeps going in ways you didn’t expect. Which matches the country, anyhow. Which matches what I saw.
Audience member: I recently watched “The World According to Dick Cheney,” and I saw all the press coverage that it got, and what was frustrating to me is that I feel like it didn’t really touch upon many of the things about the Iraq War that were so frustrating to many of us. And then you take the MSNBC documentary with Rachel Maddow, and it did touch upon those things. And it was ignored as liberal propaganda, and I’m sort of just wondering what you guys think about that.
AOH: It’s interesting, because I think there’s a problem of context. With Rachel Maddow, it’s assumed to be a heavily partisan account. And I haven’t seen hers, I’ve seen the Dick Cheney film, but I haven’t seen hers. So you know, on a broader context, I think we have a problem still, a big problem, in talking about the Iraq War. I’ve noticed this in almost all the coverage of how people have been responding to the Iraq War. Other than making fun of very specific individuals like Don Rumsfeld who is, let’s face it, a soft target, it’s very difficult to talk about what went wrong without indicting ourselves in the media generally and in some cases specifically members of the so-called liberal media on a somewhat broad scale. Alex Pareene has written about this very recently — I think he’s here tonight — about the fact that many of the people talking about now how terrible it was were the same people in 2002 saying, “Yeah, let’s go, it’ll be fun.”
Audience member: I guess my question is more do you think the one opportunity we had to have a serious conversation with Dick Cheney about the war was wasted?
AOH: You know, I don’t know that he – I get the strong sense from [director] RJ Cutler in that film that he just wasn’t going to answer any questions that required reflection. You know, RJ spent 20 hours with him, and you have to believe he asked him some questions about the war. I mean, Cheney still believes it was a great idea. What else is he going to say. “We did the right thing, the world will thank us for it one day,” he sounds like Stalin. “I’m sorry we had to break some eggs, but everybody will eat the omelette,” you know.
Daniel D’Addario (Salon): Hey. I was wondering if you guys think that the Academy Awards have a clarifying effect or a deleterious effect on these issues. Because I feel like to a certain degree it brought a brighter light onto movies like “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” as the subject of conversation for two and a half months, but at the same time it kind of shuts out a lot of other perhaps more interesting political films.
AOH: I’m sure you don’t want to jeopardize your future chances at the Academy Awards. [Laughter]
RB: I hope to be there one day.
AOH: You know, it’s interesting. I think you’ve hit on a real problem with the Oscars, which is that they tend to focus on a small handful of films. This year at least they were pretty good, on the whole; there’s something to be said for that. But yeah, the sense that other films get shut out of the conversation that maybe also have political lessons to draw. And I have to admit, I think it was so hilarious that like a week after the Oscars, the congressional members who were thinking about investigating Bigelow and Boal for “Zero Dark Thirty” just dropped it all. [Laughter] It was like, I don’t know who paid off Dianne Feinstein and John McCain to go after that movie, but, um …
RB: I mean, the most important thing is “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson. Anyone who can’t recognize this as the best film of the year by the best filmmaker in America is just missing something.
AOH: And it didn’t get nominated, so …
RB: It’s insanity. Everyone knows it’s the best film, and everyone knows he’s the best filmmaker America has, so what else is there to talk about? Which of the other films are as good? Well, they’re all pretty good, they all have something nice in them, but we know: “The Master” was the best film by the best filmmaker, and also, in its own way, quite political. Just more imaginative and more risky. It’ll come back, no doubt about it.
Audience member: I’m curious what you guys think of “House of Cards” …
SK: I have strong opinions on “House of Cards.” [Laughter] I hated “House of Cards.” I loved the British “House of Cards.” If you’ve ever seen that.
AOH: It’s on DVD, it’s brand-new.
SK: Yeah, you can get it on Netflix, too. I loved the Francis Urqhart character, the British version. Frank Underwood – I don’t know if it’s Kevin Spacey sort of having a Southern accent, sort of not having a Southern accent. (Laughter) The idea of a white Democrat representing a Southern state – the idea that he would be the majority whip, the chief vote counter in the house of representatives, and they tell us at one point that the balance of the House is 218 Democrats and 216 Republicans, so it’s pretty narrow, and he literally murders one of his own Democratic members. What kind of a whip would do that?!?! [Laughter] So I have a problem with that, and I have a problem with the basic idea, which is that people believe that the basis of every political decision made everywhere in America emanates from Washington, D.C. There’s no such thing as state politics. So it’s Kevin Spacey, the majority whip from South Carolina, powerhouse of D.C., who is the decision-maker, the key decision-maker, in what? The race for governor of Pennsylvania. It’s like, he is going to decide which ambitious Democrat from Pennsylvania, which state senator, which state representative, which member of Congress, which Cabinet secretary, gets to run, and everybody’s going to say, “Well, the chief whip of the Democrats has spoken! So much for my career in Pennsylvania politics!” So much about that bothered me. But what do you guys think? [Laughter]
Audience member: The average person – you guys kind of alluded to this earlier – the average person who is not really tech savvy or doesn’t really give a shit about politics – they’ll watch these movies and they’ll look at them at face value and they’ll say, “This is reality, this is true.”
SK: OK, well, I think a less dense thing that bothered me about it is –
Audience member: You can make it American if you want to, but I’m just putting it out there – I mean, even people in different countries believe whatever they’re told about their political leaders or filmmakers or whatever.
RB: Oh, yeah. In my new film “At Any Price” there’s so much fabrication about how it actually works but it’s close enough, you know. Even my first film, “Man Push Cart,” there’s a guy dragging a – you know the carts where you get your coffee and donuts.
AOH: New York street cart, that’s what his first movie’s about.
RB: The guy’s dragging it on the street. You can’t actually drag that thing on the street.
AOH: Everyone has a vehicle to pull one.
RB: But everyone believed it. [Laughter] I just found the streets that are slightly downhill. So yeah, it doesn’t matter if it’s a good story.
Alex Halperin (Salon news editor): The movie “At Any Price” sounds so far away from anything that you get that Hollywood can make now or that Hollywood would make now. How does a movie like that get made?
RB: Great difficulty and movie stars and a good story and I’ve made three films that people believed in and this gentleman wrote such good things about my previous films. You know, like that basically, but with difficulty. Even when George Clooney wanted to make “Ides of March,” I assume it probably wasn’t so easy even for him, because he wanted to make a serious film about a serious subject that I also found really entertaining and engaging and well-made. But it’s tough. They go into – you go to Hollywood and say “I want to make a drama,” it’s as if you walk in there and say, “I hate your mom.” [Laughter] The look on their face is as if you insulted their mother, you know? But I just want to make a drama about people. But they don’t want to hear about it. But you know, I actually think people like those kind of stories. I think they want to hear about a human story that could impact them emotionally and if you’re lucky maybe later they’ll be like, “I actually saw a movie tonight and I’m still thinking about it.” As opposed to what I think happens in a movie that doesn’t have that, which is a car chases an airplane on a runway and I had forgotten literally that I’d seen the film. I had to remember – someone had to be like, “Did you see such and such a movie?” and I had to say “No.” And then I called him and said, “Actually, I did see that movie.” I find that to be a movie I’m not interested in. I’m not saying that someone else couldn’t be, but it just doesn’t interest me.
Alex Pareene (Salon writer): I think it’s possible for art, good art, to have shitty politics and sort of have a negative real world influence –
RB: It’s possible, yeah.
AP: I wanted to know if you have a favorite movie that does have shitty politics. [Laughter]
RB: Do you have one?
AP: Probably – arguably my favorite ’30s and ’40s movies have very horrible politics at their core. But I was inspired by – I only very recently saw “Gone With the Wind” …
RB: “Gone With the Wind” – I only saw it recently. I always thought of it as a romantic movie that I wouldn’t be interested in. I thought it was good [Laughter]. That Scarlett O’Hara – I thought it was one of the greatest female characters I’d ever seen in a movie. She was so cynical and passionate and vicious and generous and everything. She was all things. Plus it has this killer Ben Hecht line in the end. “I don’t give a damn.” You can’t make a movie like that in Hollywood anymore. [Laughter] Imagine if you wanted to make this big studio production and Ben Hecht says, “I’m gonna end the film with this line: ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’” Can you imagine them saying, “Yeah, I’d give them $20 million to make that film.” [Laughter] That’s pretty cynical but it’s truthful in a way. Is it racist? Yeah, of course. “The Searchers” has racism in it, and I think it’s one of the best films ever made.
AOH: I think “The Searchers” is genuinely tormented about its racism, which doesn’t stop it from being racist, but it speaks to the American soul in a way. But yeah, there’s a – you mentioned the ’30s and ’40s. I think the sexual politics of the screwball comedies that I loved probably leaves a great deal to be desired, but by contemporary standards, you know – D.W. Griffiths’ “Birth of a Nation,” a really great film that changed the course of human history. Profoundly racist attempt to apologize for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. I love the – to go in a totally different direction, I love the films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, arguably has some crazy Christian mystical view of humanity, which is that we should all give up the world, probably, and just see each other again in heaven.
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)