Lucky Three, directed by Jem Cohen,
1996, 11 mins. Portland Art Museum, NW FilmCenter at the Guild
I have become an Elliott Smith junkie.
His songs are as addictive as the things he sings about (heroin,
alcohol) and happily have fewer damaging long-term side effects,
dont interfere (usually) with your interpersonal relationships,
and require a much smaller financial investment. Nevertheless,
if deprived of his music, withdrawal is inevitable and often
desperate; it usually finds me on my knees in front of my CD
collection, throwing albums left and right in a hopeless attempt
to find anything to ease the desire to hear a perfectly-crafted,
simple, gorgeous, understated, subtle, honest song right away.
(Perhaps my persistent inability to find anything says more about
the state of my CD collection, though). And he's got other things
working for him too: the slightly ravaged voice, the tattoo of
Ferdinand the Bull, the somewhat reserved demeanor, the anti-rock
star attire (he tends to wear the same shirt, it seems, for every
album cover/interview photo)...its all quite charming.
So when I found out that Jem Cohen (director
of a hopefully-soon-to-be released documentary on Fugazi) had
made a documentary about Elliott Smith called Lucky Three, I
had to see it. Of course, actually finding such a documentary
was another matter. In fact I had almost succumbed to a dull
state of resignation, convinced I would never see more than the
brief clip of Elliott playing Big Star's "Thirteen"
on an internet site that took about an hour just to download
onto my computer, when I find out that there's a showing of "Lucky
Three" and something called "Strange Parallel,"
(Elliott Smith: Strange Parallel, directed by Steve Hanft, 1998,
30 mins) in Portland, tonight well, a few nights ago now but
I'm using the present tense to heighten the tension...
Nothing could stand between me and a
full forty-five minutes of bliss. (Actually, there were complications,
but that's irrelevant now). The important thing is, I got to
the Guild Theatre, I didn't end up getting lost in the rain on
I-5, and I waited patiently in a line that stretched halfway
around the block to see two films that I guess I hoped would
shed some light on the enigmatic Elliott Smith (whose name, I
hear, is actually not his name, though this is only what I hear).
But the odd thing is that after seeing them, he appears to be
even more of an enigma than before.
Something struck me while watching "Lucky
Three", a beautiful film shot in black & white back
in 1996 when the only people who had heard of Elliott were probably
from Portland: this man is going to be famous. Or *is becoming*
famous. I kept looking at these images of him projected on the
screen-- his hat pulled down to his forehead, old jeans, scuffed
shoes, old t-shirt-- and wondering if that was a good thing or
not, and what he thought about all of it.
Then again, the thing about his songs
that is so rare is that they are genuine in the midst of countless
fabricated (or at least poorly expressed) emotions that clog
up the airwaves; eventually they'd float to the surface-- I don't
see how they couldn't. Still, you wonder, (or I do) what it's
like to be still in your twenties and have people paying so much
attention to you (documentaries, interviews, Academy Award nomination)
and not really have gone out of your way for this to happen.
Of course, such a question never gets
asked, let alone answered, but despite its lack of biographical
information (which should be superfluous, anyway), "Lucky
Three" has its moments: Elliott looking shy under the highway
in Portland; Elliott standing, hands raised, apparently posing
like the image on the poster behind him for god knows what reason;
Elliott playing "Between the Bars" in a bathroom, a
bottle from The Body Shop perched next to the sink; the ending
shot, a piece of film run backwards so that it looks like he
is catching what is possibly an
umbrella as it lifts itself out of a puddle and spins into his
hands. He looks like some rougher, more melancholy version of
Charlie Chaplin just then. There was something amazingly touching
about this film, like it was about someone young and talented
who had died--it was that carefully made.
There were also moments that seemed
somewhat pretentious, particularly in the beginning: shots that
held a little too long on some empty landscape, trying to back
the songs, I guess, with some imagistic punctuation. It seemed
too heavy because the songs don't need it. They do all the work
they need to do on their own, and the film worked best, I think,
when it was most direct, merely documenting Elliott playing a
song, concentrating on the music.
Despite the fact that both these films
were 'documentaries' about Elliott Smith, nothing you learn from
watching them is necessarily verifiable, or true. He barely even
speaks in either film. Like I said, it shouldn't matter: it's
the songs that are important, and it seems they are the only
way to get to the person behind them. The friend I went with
said later that what was most amazing was the complete silence
in the theater while Elliott played "Thirteen". No
one moved; it felt like everyone was holding their breath. The
only complaint I have is that the film was too short, only three
songs long--"Between the Bars", "Thirteen",
c. 1999 by Allison Dubinsky