"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)
When, in August, Warner Bros. announced that Ben Affleck will play Batman in the upcoming sequel to Man of Steel, a chorus of groans resonated across the Twitterverse. Affleck already tried his hand at superhero flicks in 2003′s atrocious Daredevil, and seems to lack the depth required by the Cape and Cowl.
He does. Yet Affleck’s casting as the Dark Knight is actually a blessing in disguise, because his very implausibility as Batman will mitigate the character’s fascist subtext, which recent films have embraced.
Batman has always been a bit fascist, as are all superheroes to some extent–their raison d’etre, after all, is fighting evil, not ameliorating dysfunction. As Noah Brand writes in “The Dark Knight Rises Is a Pro-Fascist Movie“:
“These stories, which I have grown up on and still love, are predicated on creating a situation of such exaggerated threat that fascist solutions, i.e. strongmen acting outside due process to restore order by violent force, become not only plausible but desirable. To put it another way, citizens of Metropolis might be uncomfortable with having a nearly-omnipotent alien living in their city, answerable to no authority but himself, but when a week can’t go by without a giant robot trying to level the city, you’ll accept the alien as preferable to the robots.”
However, as Brand goes on to note, artists in the superhero genre can choose to embrace or oppose this underlying tendency toward glorified social violence. The original Batman TV series, for instance, uses camp to turn the character’s “crime fighting” into one long, self-referential joke, while directors Tim Burton (Batman, Batman Returns) and Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever, Batman and Robin) apply surrealism and extravagance to create an ironic distance between the viewer and the film. This distance prevents viewers from mistaking the extraordinary situations and strongman-solutions they’re watching as accurate depictions of the real world. An Affleck Batman, under the direction of perpetual adolescent Zack Snyder, could similarly diffuse Batman’s authoritarian worldview via unbelievability.
Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, in contrast to other Batman films, is in no sense ironic or self-effacing. In Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan gives us a“realistic” superhero movie, set in a “relatable” world. Formally beautiful on a level to which none of their predecessors aspire, the Nolan films present viewers with a Gotham City that, but for the minor stylizations of capes and kung fu, looks and feels like real-life New York City. This aesthetic realism (Nolan calls it a “tactile quality”) relies heavily on the acting chops of Christian Bale, who takes his work so seriously that he lost a third of his body weight for 2004′s The Machinist and then nearly doubled it in six months for Batman Begins. The combination of Nolan’s plausible world with Bale’s excellent performance draws the viewer in, so that in her gut, she believes she’s watching a more-or-less accurate portrayal of the world she inhabits.
Having seduced viewers into a deep suspension of disbelief, Nolan’s trilogy goes on to present them with a narrative which implicitly endorses a pro-fascist framing of contemporary human life. In this world, crime is not a symptom of social ills, but the natural consequence of weak law enforcement. Cleansing a complacent society of such corruption is a major theme throughout the films. Two examples will illustrate this point. In The Dark Knight Batman performs an extraordinary rendition on a Chinese citizen before trying to beat information out of a handcuffed Joker while the Gotham Police Department watches. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman joins an army of police in a Braveheart-esque battle against a brutal caricature of Occupy Wall Street. Throughout Nolan’s films, external others endlessly threaten the good citizens of Gotham, and the only real solution is always shown to be a few strong men.
Of course, Nolan’s formula only works if the audience can take it seriously. This is why Affleck is such a serendipitous choice for Batman. In conjunction with director Zack Snyder’s penchant for style over substance, Affleck’s Batman is likely to be shallow and wooden enough to remind audiences that they’re watching escapist fiction, not stylized reality.
Reminding audiences that the convoluted threats to which Batman responds are vehicles for fantasy and not faithful depictions of reality is important in 21st century America, where the War on Terror has been used to to justify kidnapping, torture, domestic spying, secret courts, and indiscriminate slaughter. When we believe in Batman’s moral universe, where strong men are the only thing standing between civilization and a vast hoard of evil oOthers, we’re accepting a framing of the world in which drone strikes and “enhanced interrogation” are just and necessary. When we applaud Batman torturing criminals, we’re implicitly endorsing torture at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.
When we disbelieve in Batman’s moral universe, on the other hand, we are more able to adopt a critical stance toward government, society, and force. This is the redeeming quality of an Affleck Batman: his very implausibility will help to undermine Batman’s authoritarian mythology. Here in the real world, there’s too much at stake for us to be seduced by fascist tropes clothed in cinematic “realism.”
We need a Batman we cannot believe in — and Affleck will deliver precisely that.
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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