"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)
“That day’s Boston Globe has run a story about the nurses at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital who took care of Jahar [Tsarnaev] those first few days after his capture [for the Boston Marathon bombing]. They were ambivalent, to say the least, about spending too much time with him, for fear of, well, liking him. One nurse said she had to stop herself from calling him ‘hon’.”- Janet Reitman, “The Bomber: How A Popular, Promising Student Was Failed By His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam And Became a Monster,” Rolling Stone, July 2013.
One Friday afternoon, back in 1987, I set off to review a new suspense film called The Stepfather, a skilfully smart thriller that nobody at the time wanted to see. Directed by Joseph Ruben (Dreamscape) and written by crime novelists Donald E. Westlake (God Save the Mark) and Brian Garfield (Death Wish) with assistance from Carolyn Lefcourt, The Stepfather was about a bland suburban family man, Henry Morrison (Terry O’Quinn), who murders his whole family without anyone noticing, changes his identity to Jerry Blake, moves away, and marries into another single family. Although the story was largely fictional, it actually had its roots in something quite true. At the time of The Stepfather‘s release, a New Jersey husband and father, John List, had been a fugitive from justice for over sixteen years for the crime of murder. In November 1971, he had killed his wife, his mother and his three children and then immediately vanished. For nearly a month, after the crime was committed, nobody noticed his disappearance, or were even aware of the carnage he left behind. That whole month, while his neighbours in Westfield went about their business, John List assumed a false identity and moved to Colorado where he soon remarried. (List was finally apprehended in June 1989 when the story of his murders had been broadcast on America’s Most Wanted to his new wife’s horrified surprise.)
The length of time it took for the investigators to find List was due to the fact that no one could positively identify him. Most witnesses informed detectives that List was ‘too ordinary’ in both his looks and his behaviour for them to make a clear identification. Not only was he not what many in the neighbourhood would suspect as a mass murderer, List was also a devout Lutheran, who taught Sunday school, and had once served in the U.S. army during World War II. (List had also been given an ROTC commission as a Second Lieutenant.) While attending university in Ann Arbor, Michigan, List had earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration with a master’s degree in accounting to follow. He met his wife in 1951 and then quietly blended into suburban American culture for over twenty years before he went on his bloody rampage. For a nation raised on the idea that killers are only recognizable as the slobbering and stubble-faced monsters of B-suspense dramas, the bland and colourless face of a suburban accountant didn’t ring any alarm bells in his neighbourhood.
When he made The Stepfather, Joseph Ruben saw a decade that had been dominated by Ronald Reagan’s Moral Majority and their fundamentalist idea of conservative family values. The virtuous qualities of Reaganism, according to Ruben, were rooted in those quaint TV sitcoms of the Fifties like Make Room for Daddy and Leave it to Beaver. So Ruben and his screenwriters envisioned their own version of John List, and they created a character who patterned his life and family expectations on those bland suburban shows. But when his current family didn’t conform to those expectations, he would massacre them and move on to seek another. In The Stepfather, Terry O’Quinn plays a stridently optimistic real estate agent who sells his idea of the American dream, but he becomes a living nightmare to his stepdaughter (Jill Schoelen) who quickly suspects the violent intentions that are hidden beneath his façade. With her mother completely blinded by her husband’s sweet attentions, the stepdaughter is left to uncover the darkness that has invaded her home. The picture plays with familiar themes developed in earlier movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), where the charming Joseph Cotten plays a serial killer invited to a sleepy American town by his unsuspecting niece; and Charles Laughton’s atmospheric Night of the Hunter (1955), where Robert Mitchum, a bogus minister with ‘LOVE’ tattooed on one hand and ‘HATE’ on the other, bamboozles the adults who look up to him, but terrifies the children who suspect his motives.
The Stepfather, however, was also on to something new. By 1987, we’d had a glut of horror movies (and their sequels) like Friday the 13th and Halloween, which were the kind of dread-inducing thrillers that gave us masked killers in the guise of faceless bogeymen, allowing movie audiences to project their worst fears on to them. Despite the bloodshed always provided in these pictures, there was no daring in the violence. Quite the contrary. The movies asserted a mainstream morality rather than challenging one. By having promiscuous kids as the killer’s victims, the adolescents were being made to pay for their erotic transgressions. That’s why the heroes of these movies almost always tended to be virgins, the ones who resisted sexual temptation, which gave them the moral will to vanquish the monster (until the next instalment). The Stepfather subverted that genre staple by throwing a curve ball at the audience. The killer was not only recognisably human this time, he could well have been the man next door. He might even be your own stepfather.
When The Stepfather opened it was released without the benefit of a press screening, which sent a signal to critics that the picture was probably no more than a run-of-the-mill trashy slasher flick. The television ads didn’t help, either, by featuring thrusting knives and cutting comments that guaranteed gruesome thrills for the initiated, but likely scared off the adult audience that might have otherwise responded favourably to the movie. What there was of an audience that Friday afternoon were largely teenagers waiting for the latest Jason or Michael Myers to spook them. But those predictable shocks didn’t arrive. The opening scene instead found us confronting Terry O’Quinn, who was staring into the bathroom mirror and cropping his bearded and bloodied face, a visage that otherwise would have given him the look of a tenured English professor. Within moments, we watched him transform into the clean-shaven real estate salesman he’d soon become. After he shortly descended the stairs, we slowly and deliberately bore witness to his vicious crimes as if they rose out of some forbidden imagination. The kids at the screening, who were initially chatting excitingly, waiting for the killings, now became deeply quiet and disturbed. I knew then that the movie was doomed. (Despite two ridiculous sequels and an equally stupid 2009 remake, the original picture tanked commercially.) Since the educated audience was already set to ignoreThe Stepfather as a crude thriller (and they did), the teenagers would likely tell their friends to avoid it because it wasn’t one. What sent them into true dismay instead of their anticipated state of dread was that the face of the stepfather wasn’t the mask of a bogeyman, but the face of a charmer like Ted Bundy.
Those distressed teenagers came into my mind when a heated debate started to percolate recently on Facebook. Like many in the last week, I’ve been following the outrage of those responding to Rolling Stone magazine putting the young Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, on their cover. The image, a grainy self-taken photograph by now familiar to us from a variety of news stories on the bombings, is there to draw attention to Janet Reitman’s portrait of Tsarnaev in a piece of investigative journalism called “The Bomber.” Her article delves into how deceptive the face of terrorism is, just as The Stepfather stirred ambiguity into an audience prone to killers in goalie masks. But rather than be struck by what the Washington Post calls the look of “evil in soft focus,” many chose to see the cover instead as the second coming of Justin Bieber. In their mind, Rolling Stone was making a celebrity out of a killer. So stores began to refuse to stock the magazine, the Boston mayor became outraged, and petitions were drawn up to boycott Rolling Stone. All over social media people were complaining that Rolling Stone has “prettied him up,” turning Tsarnaev into just another rock star, as if the magazine freed him from custody and posed him in a room for their star-making shot. (No one seems to mention that Reitman’s story on Tsarnaev doesn’t ‘glamourize’ him, or turn him into a rock star.)At first glance, the relaxed handsomeness of the adolescent Tsarnaev is indeed quite a shock, but I think for reasons much different than the outraged are claiming. Magazines have always put disturbing psychopaths on their covers, not just to sell magazines (as many this week have argued) but to grapple with the notion of what makes a killer. But when they’re the Columbine shooters (who were featured on the cover of Time magazine) or Charles Manson (who was also in Rolling Stone back in the Seventies), the images comply much more properly to our perceptions of who psychopaths are, so no one gets upset. The face peering out from the July cover of Rolling Stone doesn’t accommodate those perceptions. Mark Joseph Stern writing recently in Slate nails the controversy right on the head with a sobering insight. “By depicting a terrorist as sweet and handsome rather than ugly and terrifying, Rolling Stone has subverted our expectations and hinted at a larger truth,” he writes. “The cover presents a stark contrast with our usual image of terrorists. It asks, ‘What did we expect to see in Tsarnaev? What did we hope to see?’ The answer, most likely, is a monster, a brutish dolt with outward manifestations of evil. What we get instead, however, is the most alarming sight of all: a boy who looks like someone we might know.” As in Terry O’Quinn’s recognizably human stepfather, Tsarnaev looks like anyone we might have gone to school and hung out with.
The photo Rolling Stone used was, in fact, also published earlier in a New York Times story on Tsarnaev. This prompted the newspaper to address the Rolling Stone controversy. “[S]ingling out one magazine issue for shunning is over the top, especially since the photo has already appeared in a lot of prominent places, including the front page of this newspaper, without an outcry,” the paper said in an editorial. “As any seasoned reader should know, magazine covers are not endorsements. Time magazine, for example, had quite a few covers featuring Adolf Hitler during the war years. Less than a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Time featured a less-than-demonic photo of Osama bin Laden. Charles Manson appeared on Rolling Stone’s cover 40-some years ago for a jail-house interview that was as chilling as it was revealing. We could go on.” So could I. But why does this same photo, that does not cause a whisper of complaint when the New York Times runs it, prompt a public outcry when it appears in Rolling Stone?
Perhaps the answer lies in Rolling Stone‘s identity as a pop culture journal aimed at youth. Pop culture magazines are generally looked down upon by educated adult readers because they’ve already declared them as superficial due to their subject matter. The magazine’s motives are therefore considered suspect before people even examine the context for the photo – the article itself. In the minds of those readers who cling too earnestly to their Harpers (or National Review), Rolling Stone has no business doing current affairs (even though the magazine has included credible current affairs coverage by serious journalists – from Hunter S. Thompson to Michael Hastings – throughout its existence). While Rolling Stone may no longer be the cutting edge of alternative journalism, many now perceive the magazine as part of a tabloid world they choose to ignore. The picture of Tsarnaev, with his soft, inviting eyes, has a way of drawing attention to the fact that the face of a murderer can hold the same overpowering beauty as that of a movie star or model. When we are drawn to Tsarnaev, it reveals something about why we are so often fooled by the Ted Bundys and the John Lists – these people who use charm in order to disarm us and draw us into their evil intent. Rather than confront our vulnerability in the face of that charisma, we project our fears of attraction outward. We blame the media for ‘glamourizing’ a terrorist. No doubt this is why people are spending so much time getting into knots over the cover (and it’s alleged meaning) rather than bothering to read and discuss the content of Janet Reitman’s piece. Talk about people not getting past the cover.
There are others who complained that Rolling Stone‘s decision to run the photo is part of the sick and obsessed celebrity culture we live in. They look back fondly on Oliver Stone’s 1994 Natural Born Killers, a hyperbolic crime drama about Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), two mass murderers who become lovers and whose exploits get glorified by the mass media. In it, they see Stone pegging the national malaise that leads to magazines putting terrorists on their covers. It’s hard to say what Oliver Stone pegged in this overwrought satire except for an evangelical contempt for the very culture that created Mickey and Mallory (the very opposite of what Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde did in the late Sixties).With the blunt force of a very small hammer, Stone blames TV sitcoms, mass media and the ‘stupidity’ of our mass culture for the glorification of the killers (which ends up implicitly celebrating their murderous exploits since we get what we deserve for our emptiness). Stone’s film shrieks loudly, but it’s hardly bold, or even truly controversial (like the Rolling Stone cover). It expresses nothing more than self-righteous hysteria about the moral emptiness of America. (Natural Born Killers features the kind of tub-thumping you used to hear from Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell when he held America in contempt for its ‘depraved’ behaviour.) Stone likes working over the audience in his films because he doesn’t trust us any more than the late Frank Capra did. When Natural Born Killers came out, film critic Hal Hinson of the Washington Post got it right when he said that the picture degenerates into the very thing it criticizes.
What The Stepfather did in 1987, and what Rolling Stone has done now in 2013, is to confront the kind of complacency and cynicism that Oliver Stone caters to in Natural Born Killers. Unlike in Stone’s picture, they show us the seductive side of evil and then implicate us in the act of seduction. We are trusted to see the discrepancy between the alluring face of the celebrity and the act of a monster. As opposed to all the shrill moralizing about our debased media and celebrity murderers in Natural Born Killers, what Rolling Stone and The Stepfather are saying is that maybe if we could recognize those monsters with two faces, we could also see that there’s a huge difference between the art that tells you what to think and the kind that allows you to think.
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)