The eve of Elliott Smith’s birthday, there was another screening of Gil Reyes’ documentary ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’ at the Bootleg theater in Los Angeles. I did not go, having already seen the movie and written about it.
The movie focuses on his life but largely on his mysterious death, despite what Reyes’ first intentions were a few years before Jennifer Chiba got involved with the project.
A review of the documentary by Daniel Barnum-Swett, after its presentation at the 2010 Independent Film Festival of Boston, was critical as I was regarding the movie’s view about Smith’s death:
‘A worshipful invocation of the fallen indie god, SEARCHING FOR ELLIOTT SMITH attempts to piece together a man too talented for the underground and too shy for the spotlight. An icon defined by his music’s emotional accessibility and the detached enigma of his public persona, Smith is as quietly compelling in the accounts of his friends and fans as his life and lyrics were. The film’s search is for a complete person amid the stories and associations, to preserve his memory and detail the disturbing uncertainties of his death.
The strange circumstances of Smith’s alleged suicide seem too perfectly and tragically poetic to be real. Reportedly, after arguing with his fiancée, Jennifer Chiba—the secondary center of the film’s latter half—Smith stabbed himself twice in the heart with a kitchen knife. Discovering the scene minutes later, Chiba immediately pulled the knife out of her love’s chest—the absolute opposite of any first-aid recommendation—and instantly worsened the already fatal wound. After Smith died, Chiba’s refusal to speak with detectives left the cause of death undetermined and allowed for the mounting popular assumption that the crime’s only witness was actually the murderer.
The case is not yet closed, but as the mystery is sustained, so is Smith’s spirit. Balancing his darkest depressions and greatest achievements, SEARCHING FOR ELLIOTT SMITH reveals its subject’s kindness, subtle humor, and reserved brilliance, as well as the perfect imperfections of his prolific output—and it testifies to the overwhelming effect his visceral truths had on his closest friends and anonymous admirers alike.’
Yes, exactly, ‘too perfectly and tragically poetic to be real’! Too many times people have applied the Shakespearian-Romeo-and-Juliet treatment to Elliott’s death. Life and death can be dramatic but they are rarely poetic, aren’t they?
Daniel Barnum-Swett is also rightly pointing out that:
– Chiba removed the knife, ‘the absolute opposite of any first-aid recommendation’, ‘and instantly worsened the already fatal wound’, this is so true, especially if she had some first aid training as I highly suspect it.
– She refused ‘to speak with detectives’, this point cannot be denied as it is written in the police report,… even though she told me she has talked to the police ‘over and over’ during the Q&A after the screening of the movie back in May.
– ‘The case is not yet closed’, and it may stay open forever if no new breakthrough info is brought up.
I just wonder whether some of the persons who got involved in this movie, are now regretting it. I was quite interesting that Gus Van Sant, who directed ‘Good Will Hunting’ in 1997, accepted to participate right away into the movie. This is what Reyes said in an interview:
‘I was really surprised at how quickly Gus Van Sant responded. I had emailed Gus’ assistant, she relayed the message, and Gus responded almost immediately. The assistant told me he was sort of moved by the request. He was like, “oh… Elliott…” Like he remembered Elliott fondly and missed him. Gus, of course, is largely the reason for Elliott’s mainstream success. He chose Elliott’s music for Good Will Hunting, which led to Elliott’s Oscar nomination.’
It was a certain accomplishment to get Van Sant’s participation, but is he now satisfied with the result? Is he happy with the fact that the movie focuses so much on Chiba and her claim of not being involved into Elliott’s death at all?
I cannot speak for him, but this movie is definitively not the homage Elliott Smith deserves, nor the film everyone is waiting for.
Originally published on Rock NYC (August 7 2011)