"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)
Whether you think greed is good, or greed is God, it’s certainly been with us a very long time — from Mammon to the one per cent, and so on. The idea has also been a generous source of inspiration for filmmakers. Add to that list David O. Russell’sAmerican Hustle and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. One film is set in the 1970s, and the other in the vicious 1980s, but both deal with the human impulse to always want more than the other guy.
American Hustle is the first out of the gate. The film reunites the Academy Award-winning team of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Another couple of power hitters, Christian Bale and Amy Adams, bring their A-games, and rounding out the quintet is little Jeremy Renner, packing a pompadour almost as tall as he is. Make no mistake American Hustle is an actors’ movie. There is plenty of “Hey, look at me, Ma! I’m acting here!” But despite the swagger on display, the film’s ample style has a reason and purpose behind it, and dare we say, even a morality.
The film is loosely based on a real scam run in the ’70s by the FBI that involved the mob, fake Arab sheiks, real hustlers and so forth. The truth is even weirder than its fictional retelling. But American Hustle isn’t just about lust for money, sex and power, but the reasons behind that roaring need. What is at the root of always wanting more — more sensation, more emotion, bigger hair, lower necklines, tighter pants and always, more money?
Things kick things off with a statement that reads: “Some of this actually happened,” only to recant, much later in the final credits, with the sentence: “This is a work of fiction.” In all lies there is some truth, and vice versa. The art of the con is just that. Even cinema itself requires a suspension of belief and a willingness to be a sucker.
At first, it seems that all you really need to know about each of the characters is fully on display in hair form. As a physical manifestation of ego, insecurity, pride and false fronts, the hair says it all. This is apparent from the film’s first scene, which captures the ritual of follicular preparation undertaken by one Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Irving’s elaborate comb-over, sprayed and delicately patted into place, is as much a creation as his persona, a careful front designed to cover up the shame and humiliation of a life of hard knocks.
Seems little Irving was a poor kid, who grew up watching his old man get the stuffing beat out of him by bigger, more powerful men. Poverty is a soul sickness. Only those who grew up really poor know what I am talking about. You can never shake it. The taint is with you forever, no matter how much hairspray or fur coats you pile on top of it.
As a kid, Irving took to breaking windows to gain more work for his dad’s glass business, but also as way to expel the impotence and rage that pulsed inside him like venom. As an adult, he has progressed to preying on the desperate and the greedy with equal opportunity. A chain of dry cleaning businesses make for a convenient cover for the man’s less than legitimate dealings, which include art forgery and loan sharking.
One day Irving meets Sydney Prosser, herself a hustler and a sometime stripper, whose biggest ambition is to become someone else. The moment these two lock eyes at a pool party fate steps in and becomes a third player in their romantic triangle. Irving and Sydney were made for each other, and for parting suckers from their money. Sydney cooks up a fake persona she calls Lady Edith Greensly, a British toffee-nose with banking connections, who becomes a huge part of Irving’s business, and the money rolls in like water.
At first their larcenous love is perfect, all hotel sex romps and designer dresses. But Irving’s marriage to a blond firebomb named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) complicates matters. Despite their combustible relationship, Irving can’t leave because he has adopted Rosalyn’s young son as his own, and he genuinely loves the kid.
Meanwhile, back at the office, Lady Edith is bringing in the punters with her flirty ways and auburn hair. When she attracts the attention of a federal agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) the jig is up and the pair end up working for the FBI, bringing in even bigger, richer fish, beginning with a local politician named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). That rarest of creatures, Carmine is a politician who genuinely cares about the betterment of the people of Camden, New Jersey (although he isn’t above a bit of graft and greasing of palms to make that happen). Carmine is ready for the plucking, with a pile of hair so high and ripe it almost begs to be knocked sideways.
Back to the hair metaphor for a moment. Whether it is Richie’s pin-curls, Sydney’s kinked disco mane or Rosalyn’s powder pouf of dippy blondness, everyone here has something to conceal and they do it largely by combing hair over it. The only honest soul in the film just happens to be bald. Louis CK plays a responsible FBI agent and Richie’s much put upon boss. “I have nothing to hide,” says his grizzled, balding head.
You can essentially only watch the tops of people’s heads throughout the film, and pretty much get the entire plot. I say this not as a critique, but as a testimony to the level of detail that the film gets right about the ’70s. From the post-Watergate malaise, when people had just started to trust politicians once more, to the soundtrack of Elton John, it’s all note-perfect. I don’t know why I hate Elton John so much. Maybe because he recalls an era when a certain flavour of plastic despair suffused the air. As a child, I remember the ’70s as a time when adults were chasing one thing or each other, but mostly everyone was depressed. That is the thing that Mr. O. Russell gets most right, that flop sweat desperation to make everything bigger, better and more fabulous to cover up the lie in the centre of things.
But even born liars need to tell the truth eventually. It happened to Nixon and it happens in American Hustle as well. When Sydney drops her fake British accent, strips away the rubric and admits who she is and what she is about, it is a moment of genuine thespian power. Ms. Adams holds the screen hostage for a long moment that screams truth, as hard and unvarnished as her naked face and head full of curlers. You can only really love someone when you know who they are.
Irving learns a similar lesson. After a lifetime of conning people, he finds a genuine friend in Carmine Polito. As a gesture of affection, Carmine gives Irving a microwave oven, a “science oven” as he calls it, and this plain simple gesture changes everything.
At the centre of the film is something fundamentally and deeply human. Honour among thieves is a quaint enough way to put it, but it’s bigger than that. Lust, pride, avarice and coveting various people’s wives — all the stuff that makes for good drama — is here. But deep inside the venal hearts of these crooks, a spark of goodness endures. Sometimes all it takes is a microwave oven to bring it to light.
I won’t explain the complexities of the swindle, save to say that it involves a bunch of politicians on the take, a giant casino, mobsters and a certain smelly nail polish. The rest you will just have to figure out yourself. Like any good con, you surrender to the plot, the machinations of character and scene, knowing full well it’s all a big fiction. The joy comes from knowing you are being bamboozled, and still enjoying the process.
American Hustle has a great deal of affection for its outlaw heroes and heroines, which is why I prefer it to The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s three-hour romp of ’80s nimiety. The films share some superficial similarities including a voiceover narration and an emphasis on the long con, but the differences are critical. For starters, the women in Hustle actually get equal amounts of time to participate in the action, instead of getting humped like so much pretty furniture. A bit of minor squall is stirring at the moment over the fact that Wolf received an R rating, despite being described by its star as “a modern-day Caligula.” Read it and weep here. Meanwhile, other milder films that feature women with any degree of sexual agency are branded NC-17. Cunnilingus is still dangerous in certain parts I suppose, meaning middle America.
This story is perhaps a fitting capo to a year of epic sexism. Throughout 2013 there have been moments so monumentally grotesque that I literally had to stop, rub my eyes and ask, “Is this shit for real?” I am looking at you, Kanye and Kim and your motorcycle. I don’t even really know what to think anymore about these phenomena, except to wonder when young women are going to get angry. I mean really angry.
More on that later…
First back to American Hustle for moment. The film certainly has sex in it, there are plenty of moments of Amy Adams strutting about in dresses cut right down to the navel. But she, along with the rest of the cast, is also given the time, the opportunity and the respect to make fullest use of her abilities. You can see it in scenes as random as a bathroom stall make-out session, where sex is forestalled but our heroine gets to pee like a racehorse and howl like a wolf, all at the same time. I don’t remember the last time I saw that particular combination in a film, but there is something immediately understandable and almost recognizable in it. What woman has not staggered into a bathroom, half-cut and high on her own sexual power, but needing to pee first before she continues to wreak havoc? Jennifer Lawrence is equally a knockout here, whether she is lighting things on fire, seducing the mob, or belting out a rendition of “Live and Let Die” that threatens to ignite the upholstery.
Strivers and liars make for interesting viewing, but it helps if you actually care about what they’re after. It is hard not to have some sympathy for each of the characters in Hustle, especially the women, with their dreams of love and need for reinvention. It is much harder to have any real feeling (other than loathing) for the swindlers of Wall Street, where greed becomes almost separated from its human perpetrators, metastasizing into something monstrous. The story of Jordan Belfort (the Wolf of the film’s title) may be emblematic of our times, but just try reading the book upon which the film is based and see how far you get. I think I read about four sentences, before I wanted to shove Mr. Belfort’s face into an eggbeater.
Belfort has already parlayed his infamy into a career as a motivational speaker, which should tell you something. But it is actually Martin Scorsese’s involvement that I find more troubling. A.O. Scott’s review of the film in the New York Times sums it up thusly: “The movie’s misogyny is not the sole property of its characters, nor is the humiliation and objectification of women — an insistent, almost compulsive motif — something it merely depicts. Mr. Scorsese, never an especially objective sociologist, is at least a participant-observer.”
I think Esther Zuckerman puts it better in her review of the film in The Wire, when she simply called it “A Douchebag’s Handbook.”
In a year of breathtaking sexism, here is a big three-hour helping of more of the same. It’s enough to make you want to throw up in your purse. But maybe it all matters not. The film is making money, fittingly enough for a film about greed. There are liars, and then there is Wall Street. Which is why, perhaps, I return to American Hustle with something almost approaching gratitude. These folks may be outlaws, but they’re human — fallible, broken, lonely and desperate. I understand them in a way that I will never, ever understand the Jordan Belforts of this world.
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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