‘Searching for Elliott Smith’ documentary and Q&A

If you are like me and have any interest in Elliott Smith, you have probably already watched most of his interviews available on YouTube, the Carson Daily MTV one, the Janeane Garofalo one, the VH1 one, etc,… and the one when he says : ‘Playing things too safe is the most popular way to fail. Dying is another popular way. Killing your emotions with drugs or alcohol is another popular way. Those would be types of failure.’

So if you have seen these, you have seen the most interesting part of Gil Reyes’ documentary ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’, because the movie does not go deeper than that. The rest is a collection of interviews of fans and people who knew him, more or less, such as Smith’s high school teacher David Bailey, Cavity Search Records co-founders Denny Swofford and Chris Cooper, Jackpot! Studios founder Larry Crane, video directors Steve Hanft and Ross Harris, friends and musicians Mary Lou Lord, Robin Peringer and Jason Mason, musician and producer David McConnell, In Music We Trust editor Alex Steininger, film director Gus Van Sant, Portland musicians Tony Lash, Pete Krebs and Sean Croghan (yes you see A LOT of him), and of course, girlfriend Jennifer Chiba.

I went to a screening of the documentary on Saturday afternoon at the Hayworth theater in Los Angeles, but, the fact that there was a Q&A after the screening was certainly the main attraction. The documentary pretends to be about a musician but there is actually very little use of his music, for the good reason that Gil Reyes did not get the authorization to use Elliott Smith’s music from the estate: Jennifer Chiba being involved, the family declined him the rights and all you can hear during the movie was ‘Miss Misery’ and ‘Plainclothes Man’ — because Ross Harris, who participates in the movie, made the videos for these songs — and ‘Between the bars’ because it was used in ‘Goodwill Hunting’, Gus Van Sant’s Oscar wining movie.

Past this disappointment, the portrait built along the movie turned around Elliott’s depressive nature, and right away, when Reyes interviews his high school teacher at the beginning of the movie, it is about young Smith’s angst. Although Mr. Bailey says he did not see more teenager anxiety in him than in any of his other students, there is much more talk about depression with Sean Croghan, and this has a tendency to become more than annoying after a while.

I know that Elliott Smith had problems, that he suffered from depression, but was that all they could say about him? There’s a little bit question of how funny he was, and how much he wanted to challenge himself with music, but a few minutes in a 80-minute movie is barely enough.

After a very brief description of his career, from the Heatmiser days to Roman Candle, to his Grammy award nomination for ‘Miss Misery’, illustrated by pictures seen everywhere on the internet (I even recognized one I took at a concert!), Sean Croghan talks about the depressive nature of Portland, ‘the doom town’ and Smith’s taste in music (Dylan, the Beatles,… a big scoop!), and literature (James Joyce), Pete Krebs describes an anxious Elliott telling him he may one day succumb to drugs because of his addictive nature, and there is an awkward ‘strange parallel’ drawn between Smith, the ‘music genius’ and Matt Damon’s character, the ‘math genius’ in Goodwill Hunting.

Whenever Sean Croghan opens his mouth, it is to talk about Elliott’s suicidal thoughts (the New York subway story, the cliff story), and his self center nature ‘he was always talking about his problems’ … Whenever David McConnell is on screen, it is to talk about Elliott’s abusive step-dad, the source of all his problems, and his heavy use of drugs,… the movie seems to be built around this idea that Elliott had always thought about killing himself.

At this point I was boiling on my seat because McConnell was presenting himself as Elliott’s savior: ‘he was safer in my house in Malibu’, rather than getting scared by street drug dealers, but not once he made an allusion to the fact that he was probably taking as much drug as Elliott at that time, in this safe Malibu place!

There was actually very little talk about how Elliott was composing for example and from that moment, the documentary focused almost entirely on his death with Chiba in the middle of the action, crying when narrating the timeline of the events of the day he died. She presented herself as someone who dated Elliott on and off before he went on tour in Europe and came back with… a girlfriend. Since ‘it did not work out with his girlfriend’, she said he called her to get some help after his detoxification treatment. Starting there, she painted a terrible picture of Elliott, and if some of it is probably true, all she was talking about was that taking care of him at that time was ‘a lot of work’, and that he had a cutting behavior because he had stopped taking his meds.

Then she described what happened on October 21st: they were arguing about several things, among them the fact that she had an appointment to see a doctor and some plans for the day. She described a paranoiac Elliott who believed the house was bugged. After locking herself in the bathroom, because she was ‘going crazy herself’, Elliott was knocking on the door, saying he was sorry and loved her, but after she stayed there for 5 or 10 minutes, she heard a terrible noise coming from the kitchen: he was standing at the kitchen sink, his back facing her and when he turned around she saw the knife and pulled it out. ‘It was real’ she said, ‘Elliott was gasping for air’, and she was afraid he would jump from the balcony. Finally she called 911 after he had collapsed.

The end of the movie focused on justifying Chiba’s action and finding logical things to explain the weirdness of the case. Robin Peringer heated up and defended her saying that people who are suspicious because she removed the knife are basically idiots who don’t know what they would have done in her ‘fucking position’. The ‘possible defensive’ cuts were once again explained by Elliott’s cutting behavior and there was even a strange Steve Hanft’s intervention suggesting that Elliott was wearing leather bracelets to cover something on his wrists…. Err  may be Mr. Hanft should have read the autopsy report, Elliott’s wrists were totally intact, he may have been a cutter but not a wrist-cutter. Ross Harris described him in physical pain the week he died, Sean Croghan ironically guffawed he was ‘in shock’ when he learnt about Elliott’s suicide…. Only Larry Crane declared he was 100% surprised as he was supposed to fly to LA in 10 days to help him with his album.

The movie concluded with two sentences, one telling about Chiba’s lawsuit, one saying that a LAPD detective had confessed to Reyes he believed it was a suicide. And I am still bewildered about that one, because I know that the police cannot say anything about the case since it is an open case. Another person and I have spoken to 2 different LAPD detectives about the case and I know what I’m talking about.

During the Q&A with director Gil Reyes, Jennifer Chiba, Shon Sullivan (Goldenboy) and Jennifer Cuellar (who did the illustrations in the movie), I had the chance to ask J. Chiba a question. I asked her how she explained to the police she had removed the knife since she had been a therapist (and so known CPR) since 1995, and what she may have done, and will you do to help the police close the case. Of course I did not get much from her, as she said that she had already explained everything about the knife in the movie (all she says is that she did not know and wanted to help him), that she had already talked to the police over and over, and that they were a lot of false rumors on the internet,….like her refusal to talk to the police. Except that this is stated in the autopsy report, I am gonna quote it: ‘Additionally, the girlfriend’s reported removal of the knife and subsequent refusal to speak with detectives are all of concern’. So I don’t know about these ‘internet rumors’.

Another person also asked about the editing of a scene, as the part when Chiba and Reyes go to confront the LAPD to kill this ‘rumor’, has been edited out. To what Reyes answered it was both a question of ‘not looking good’ and a question of the length of the film,… also he was not sure about the legality of filming inside the LAPD office.

I also learned that Chiba did not go to the hospital with Elliott but got there an hour later when he was already dead, and that she is currently working on a book focusing on her memoir about her life with Elliott Smith (She lived with him less than a year). She looked fragile, answering to the questions very kindly, looking like a sad and mourning widow, saying that ‘horrible things had been said about her’, whereas she ‘had lost the love of her life’. And sure it can be very convincing.

I have many problems with Elliott portrayed this way, but may be the most disturbing thing is her double talk: Jennifer Chiba suddenly had forgotten she was a therapist, with a specific training, and did not know she could not remove a knife stuck into a chest. But when Elliott was ‘into the drugs’ when he was with her, ‘he was flaky and isolated’, and she was doing all she could ‘to keep him social, … being a therapist’.

Elliott was depicted as someone who was ‘suffering from a serious mental illness’ (her own words) and paranoiac, but lucid and rational enough to promise her that ‘she would be his manager and agent responsible for booking and scheduling his appearances for musical performances, and that she would be entitled to 15 percent of the proceeds earned and received on all of Smith’s performances and album sales’. I am just quoting her deposition testimony when she sued the estate in September 2004, and it is a lot of details from a mentally ill person.

After the screening and Q&A, an anonymous person sent this to me: ‘He edited his film because it made Chiba look worse than she already does?? So much for artistic integrity! Which thought is more indicative of mental illness: that he thought the house was bugged, or that he thought he was going to have children with her?!!!’

I could not agree more, a proof that not everyone is buying the image of the deplored widow.

This Q & A told us a lot about this documentary, it was not that much about Elliott, more about Chiba, and his death,… no I mean his suicide, because it is difficult to imagine something more bias than this painful demonstration that Elliott was a depressed suicidal individual who was always talking about killing himself. I don’t deny that part of him, but if you call your documentary ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’ and all you are finding is this overused cliché, this sad sack cartoon figure he despised so much when he was alive, well, I am not sure you have accomplished anything.

Originally published on Rock NYC (May 9 2011)

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