"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)
THE MOVIES HAVE NOT BEEN KIND to first-rank American novelists. De-boned, trashed, gussied up, their books are too often reduced to commemorative stamps in a mogul’s photo album, with the spittle still sticky on the page. Even the labor-of-love adaptations are sticky; the filmmakers are so reverent toward the material that what might have some depth and tone and snap ends up with all the allure of Currier and Ives.
This doesn’t mean that writers like E.L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and John Updike have stopped selling their books to the movies. Movie sales give many of these writers the financial independence to do nothing but write novels — which then get wrecked in the movies. Besides, it’s the odd novelist who doesn’t harbor the secret wish to see his creations come to new life, replenished and monumental, on the big screen.
But Saul Bellow, the most honored living American writer, has been conspicuously — embarrassingly — absent from the movie adaptation daisy chain. Absent except for the Great Performances TV production of his novella Seize the Day, starring Robin Williams, televised two years ago, and then almost immediately forgotten. Now it’s available for rental in the video stores, at the same time that Bellow’s new novella, A Theft, is in the bookstores. It’s worth an in-depth second look, both as an achievement in its own right and for what it says about his art.
If Bellow’s books have been excluded from filmic adaptation, it’s not, as is commonly supposed, because he’s refused to allow his books to be optioned, in the manner of J.D. Salinger. Actually, according to Bellow’s literary agent, Harriet Wasserman, all of his novels except Herzog and Mr. Sammler’s Planet have been sold at least once to the movies, as has the 1977 short story “A Silver Dish.”
No, the problem lies elsewhere; Bellow is one tough literary nut to crack, and most filmmakers have a difficult enough time with the pistachios and filberts and sunflower seeds that litter the best-seller lists and drugstore paperback carousels.
In the past, Bellow’s distinctive tang could be felt in movies with no literal connection to his work. There was a Bellow moment in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto, with the enraged, evicted Harry spouting King Lear as he’s hauled from his apartment. The movies of Irvin Kershner, particularly Loving, have some of Bellow’s quality of feeling. So do such early Fred Wiseman documentaries as Hospital and Welfare, with their bracing, plangent sympathy for the human predicament.
It’s not surprising that Seize the Day, which is flooded with such sympathy, would become the first and, so far, only Bellow novel to be adapted for the screen. Of all his works, Seize the Day has perhaps the most marvelous movie possibilities. The antic, rapt picaresque The Adventures of Augie March would make a good TV miniseries, but it would probably end up looking like Howard Fast.
Henderson the Rain King, which Jack Nicholson once optioned, is easily the most “cinematic” of Bellow’s fictions; and the least “Jewish.” What a movie pair this novel offers up: the roaring, stomping Henderson, his chest full of wants, and the leonine, metaphysical King Dahfu!
(In an earlier era, Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis could have played them.)
The big books that followed Seize the Day and Henderson, the ones that weighted Bellow’s reputation, like Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift, are less marvelous movie material. Sometimes it’s possible for a filmmaker to scour the intellectualizing from “idea” novels until you’re left with the bare, exposed plumbing of plot. But this scouring only works if there’s a strong plot to begin with (as John Huston discovered to his dismay when he filmed Under the Volcano). It’s certainly not Bellow’s plots that pull you through his books; neither does he have the movie-inspired prose of many of his contemporaries.
Bellow doesn’t impose a visual style on you; he imposes his raucous, ruminative approach to character. And Bellow characters like Moses Herzog and Arthur Sammler don’t really mesh with the surrounding cast; their antennae are tuned to an inner pulsar, so they all seem a bit mad, stenciled against the wash of their own suffering. Obsessive characters can propel a movie, give the flux of images a magnetic core. But Bellow’s characters are at the core of their stories in ways that don’t always translate into action — at least not movie action.
Still, for an actor, there’s strong seltzer in Bellow’s lusty spritz of wants and ideas; and Seize the Day, with its murderers’ row of great roles, is a far more manageable and elegant piece of movie material than, say, Herzog. It also makes sense that it finally came to life in the public-television arena, which has become a gathering place for small-scale, frankly ethnic and racial, actor-dominated dramas. The Jewish material that makes it to the big screen nowadays is often showbiz Jewish; it carries an imprimatur — Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Barbra Streisand. Bellow stands a better chance of being Bellow on the small screen.
The TV Seize the Day, directed by Fielder Cook and scripted by Ronald Ribman, has the faint bloom of “quality” television. But the actors are really on to something. Robin Williams, as the despairing, throttled Tommy Wilhelm, and Jerry Stiller, as Dr. Tamkin, are at each other’s nerve-endings, like a great vaudeville team, and Joseph Wiseman, as Dr. Adler, is on hand to deliver the coup de grâce over and over again. These performers understand the book better than the filmmakers (or most literary critics). For Seize the Day is certainly a species of comedy, of the ancient grievances between parent and child. Wilhelm, big, blond, bearish, in his early forties, can no longer withstand his life. The novel, which the movie follows closely, recounts his day of reckoning.
Born Wilky Adler, Tommy dropped out of college and changed his name when a flim-flamming agent suggested he might have an acting career in Hollywood. (Aside from a couple of walk-ons, he spent most of his seven years in Los Angeles as a hospital orderly.) Now, many years later, he has stormed off his job as a traveling children’s furniture salesman after a row with his boss. Separated from his unconsoling wife, from whom he desperately wants a divorce, and his two boys, whom he adores, he lives in the same Upper West Side hotel as his father, the retired, widowed Dr. Adler, who looks down on his failure of a son with a withering rage. Tommy’s only solace is his adoring shiksa mistress in Roxbury; she’s willing to leave the Catholic Church for him.
Tommy can’t even make rent, but he invests his last 700 dollars in the commodities market, in partnership with another hotel resident, Dr. Tamkin, a psychologist without apparent portfolio, who patents crackpot inventions and claims to have once treated Egyptian royalty. Tommy gives to others the kindness he craves for himself. His father treats him like a patient whose illness is of no consequence. Tommy reaches out to the old man and Tamkin steps in — Tamkin the bamboozler, the healer.
Robin Williams at first seems an odd choice to play Wilhelm; one envisions an aging, husky handsomeness. But, if Williams doesn’t have the look for Tommy, he’s just right for Wilky; he’s brought the inner man, the pained, failed dissimulator, right to the surface. His vulnerabilities are shockingly, comically evident. When Tommy is eating breakfast with his father (a ritual they both abhor), sitting across from the impeccably dressed autocrat, he demeans himself by playing the kid; he lets his voice dip and squeak, as if he were a ventriloquist jamming with his puppet.
Throughout the movie, Dr. Adler is, in effect, imploring his son to comfort him for having such a son, and Williams shows us how Tommy is choked by the indignity. (Their scenes together suggest an assimilation comedy as well, with Dr. Adler playing the Jewish usurer to Tommy’s gentile borrower.)
Courted by Tamkin, Williams slows down Tommy’s words and gives them an extra beat — as if he were thirsting to be mesmerized and brought out of this world. When Tommy speaks to one of his sons on the phone, he can’t find the right tone. He’s fatherly but he’s also beseeching; he’s looking for succor. Near the end, when Tommy is about to be wiped out in the commodities market, he turns to a cranky, wealthy, old trader and entreats, quickly and under his breath, “How do you make money, Mr. Rappaport?” and we can see in Williams’s stung, slack face that Tommy is looking for redemption on the sly — redemption in the form of a hot tip. He’s looking for the one clue that will change things around. Rebuffed, he assumes the warped features, the slat-mouth and inward-burning eyes of a man about to convulse.
Onstage, the montage of Williams’s comic rhythms — like fast-cutting in the movies — often has a delirious, ecstatic quality. Here, he fills those rhythms out, gives them an emotional towline. His acting sometimes lapses into a fussbudget’s fervor; a better director might have encouraged him to trust the quietness of his moods more. But you can respond to what Williams is reaching for. He’s startled, bewildered by his own poignancy.
In the movie’s other major performance, Jerry Stiller, too, seems entranced by the possibilities he’s discovered in himself. Tamkin is a great character on the page; you don’t necessarily think of Stiller as a casting possibility when you read the book, but, in retrospect, his interpretation is indispensable. His performance is like an argument, a communion with Bellow’s inspiration. With his greasy, marcelled hair and blobby, big-ribbed frame, he’s like some dandified sea mammal. He’s reprehensibly, voluptuously hypnotic — a liar who sometimes tells the truth. (That “truth” part is what makes the character great.) You can understand his gravitational pull on Tommy.
Tamkin lives in the money culture and yet speaks of the primacy of feelings — that’s a strategy that would certainly appeal to Tommy. The story’s Upper West Side location is like an urban shtetl, but, for Tommy, the city is full of cynical strangers speaking a code he can’t decipher. Tamkin offers himself as the decipherer. “My real calling is to be a healer,” he says, and Stiller gives the words a ritualistic, matter-of-fact gravity — a con man’s gravity. Tommy recognizes the con; he just can’t accept it. The dark jest in this material is that Tommy has a greater comprehension of loneliness than Tamkin, and yet he can’t do anything with that comprehension, except suffer. He’s grist for Tamkin, whocan do something with it.
Williams and Stiller give you all of this, and that’s a large achievement. And yet the production that pinions them is not transcendent. For one thing, it has no ending. In Bellow’s novel, Tommy, broke and broken, pursues a man he believes to be Tamkin into a Jewish funeral home; stepping outside the line moving past the open coffin, Tommy looks at the powdered skin and formal shirt of the dead man, a stranger to him, and begins to cry uncontrollably. He hears the organ music and sinks “deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.” In the movie, Tommy races into the parlor, does a pratfall, plunks himself down in the gallery while the service is going on, and begins to wail. Freeze frame. The End.
It’s not just that this ending seems rushed and skimpy. It’s that, the way the filmmakers have conceived Tommy, he just isn’t grand enough for a consummation. Williams’s characterization has its deep resonances, but it’s thumbtacked to the posterboard of a quick-fix psychology. There’s a scene near the end where Tommy and Tamkin, taking a break from the commodities market, eat in a nearby cafeteria; and Tamkin, sucking pot roast juice from his fingers, tells Tommy that the reason he punishes himself is for “failing to make your parents love you.” The scene is played excruciatingly well, but you can tell by the camera’s dead-set gaze that this is one of Tamkin’s honest-to-God truths we’re hearing.
But not, certainly, the final defining truth for Tommy? (This bit of dialogue is not in the book.) Fielder Cook and Ronald Ribman, alas, have been taken in by Tamkin. Their Tommy is ultimately an arrested adolescent. And a junior-league Willy Loman, too; we see Tommy turned down by a succession of smiley-callous employers. But it’s wrong for the filmmakers to lay in the meanings for us here, Arthur Miller-style. The meanings in the material are far too harsh and ambiguous and restorative for that.
We can’t “understand” Tommy the way we might understand a case history or a theorem. The highest ambition of this production is to make us feel sorry for Tommy, to make us feel protective. That’s not enough. What’s missing is Tommy the holy fool. What’s missing is the manifestation of Bellow’s love for the sanctity of his foolishness —our foolishness.
Still, the impulse to bring Bellow’s work to the screen is not disreputable. It comes from a desire to bring a new tone, a new range of feeling to American film. The impulse, of course, is booby-trapped. On film, Bellow’s characters, deprived of the novelist’s thick webbing of commentary and insight, risk becoming all-too-easily comprehensible — the reduction of their obsessions.
But what riches some of these characters are! For an actor, their emotional layering is like life-blood. You see Jerry Stiller in Seize the Day, and you are reminded that major actors can give us the same quality of insight, embodied, as major writers; they’re dramatists of the flesh. (Olivier doesn’t merely act Othello, he fulfills Othello.) Think of actors, most of them now languishing, who would be great in Bellow: Bill Macy, Bob Dishy, Alan Arkin, Tyne Daly, George Segal, Debra Winger, Jerry Orbach, Eli Wallach. Think of directors: Kershner, Mazursky, Ivan Passer, Barry Levinson, the Alan Parker who made Shoot the Moon. Think how wonderful it would be if, say, “A Silver Dish” were filmed, and even half of the story’s fierce anguish made it to the screen. For those of us who love literature and movies, why should we be so deprived?
(Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 1989)
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)
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