written by allison dubinsky
lucky three, directed by jem cohen, 1996, 11 mins. portland art museum, nw filmcenter at the guild theatre, 1.9.99
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”, & “angeles”.
c. 1999 by allison dubinsky