Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

Is Gil Reyes Banging Jennifer Chiba?

with 8 comments

Because that’s the only possible explanation for why Searching for Elliott Smith, a documentary that premiered at this week’s CMJ Music and Film Festival, got made.

The film, directed by Reyes, was one part retrospective on Smith’s life and career, one part did Smith’s former-fiance, Chiba, kill him?, and all parts one of the most poorly-made documentaries I have ever seen. From extreme-close-ups on grainy year-book photos rendered horribly out-of-focus to superfluous illustrative graphics interspersing the interview scenes (thank you, yes, I did need to see an illustrated New York subway map when someone talked about Smith moving to Brooklyn), the quality was just extremely, extremely bad. Shots of Smith’s album covers were seemingly downloaded from Amazon.com—for one cover, Reyes forgot to edit out Amazon’s “50% off” graphic.

Unable to secure rights to any of Smith’s music or performances (“I emailed the record labels, but they never wrote back,” Reyes said after the film), it lacked what seems a pretty crucial element to documenting a musician’s life and work. It did, however, contain an illustrated segment on the similarities between Smith and Matt Damon’s Good Will Hunting character: a blank-screen with the words “Strange Parallels” across the top, accompanied by a picture of Matt Damon that said “math genius” and one of Smith that said “musical genius.”

And then there was Chiba. This was the first time she’s appeared on film explaining what happened the day of Smith’s death. Reyes interviews with her were handled pretty well, but any points that may have garnered for the film were pretty much ruined by a Michael-Moore-esque stunt Reyes included at the end to “disprove” a 2004 police report saying Chiba refused to talk to detectives. Reyes and Chiba show up unannounced, cameras rolling, at the L.A. police precinct years later, brandishing the original report and asking to talk to a detective. The police sergeants are thoroughly confused, and ask Reyes to turn off his camera. This is offered as some sort of proof that their allegations against Chiba were all wrong.

Asked after the film why Reyes wanted to make this movie, he could offer no personal connection to Smith or motivation other than clearing Chiba’s name. Nevermind the fact that the film really did nothing of the sort—anyone who sees her on film, sees her face, hears her story, has to know she didn’t do it, Reyes explained. People never lie on film.*

This, however, may have been one of the most coherent answers Reyes gave during the post-film Q&A. In explaining a shot near the end where he interrupts Smith’s former-roommates somewhat powerful emotional breakdown talking about Smith’s death with a shot of windy bushes, Reyes went on about how the wind seemed to signify that Smith was their with them, how they all felt a presence while making the film, how one time he read about a bar where Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting hung out and it turned out he had been there 2 days earlier, how sometimes Smith wore white suit and, you know, oooh, ghostly.

Hardcore Smith fans (of which I count myself one) will probably still find the film interesting—it does include some funny Smith stories told by former friends and colleagues, and clips from a weird Smith-made experimental film. Just don’t expect anything enlightening or inspiring. I’m still hoping that someday a much better film about Smith gets made.

P.S. Two movies I saw at CMJ that were good? The Men Who Stare at Goats (Clooney, Spacey, Jeff Bridges and Ewan McGregor???) and The Messenger, starring Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster and Samantha Morton. For what it’s worth, I recommend both.

* For the record, I’m not a weird suicide conspiracy theorist, and I have little opinion on whether Smith’s death was a suicide or not, though I’m inclined to believe it was. I’m just saying that Reyes claims about his film “clearing Chiba’s name” are sillily overstated.


Written by Elizabeth

October 24, 2009 at 5:24 pm

8 Responses

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  1. what a headline!! i thought chiba speaking publicly about this for the first time was documentarily worthy…
    who else should have been interviewed but wasn’t?

    Warren Cohen

    October 25, 2009 at 8:06 am

  2. Who else shuld have been interviewed? the list is long:
    His other girlfriends ( JJ Gonson, Joanna Bolme, Valerie Deerin) no Rob Schnapf, Autumn de Wilde, Neil Gust, Sam Coomes, Jon Brion, Slim Moon, Mark Flanagan, Nelson Gary… the list is long

    And of course, nobody from his family.

    And J. Chiba refused to talk to the police it is in the police report! she took a lawyer and he told her to shut up. And going to the police 6 years afterwards and asking to talk to a detective is plain ridiculous!
    “People never lie on film” I can’t even comment on that!!!

    Does Gil Reyes know she sued Elliott’s family for $1 million because she thought she was untitled to get some of his money?
    Does Gil Reyes know she visited Elliott’s recording studio in the middle of the night, just 2 days after it happened, and took some recordings?
    Does Gil Reyes even know they were in the middle of a terrible fight when it happened?
    I don’t know what happened that day, but it is not as simple as this movie seems to badly demonstrate.

    Thank you for the review,


    October 25, 2009 at 12:32 pm

  3. Great blog. I have been a fan of Elliott’s for years now. I am glad a documentary was made about his life, although hopefully a better one will soon be made. This is a half attempt at documenting his life. The fact Chiba was in this film and to this magnitude shows that it’s not about him, but more her story and justification. I am boycotting this documentary and holding out for the real film that gives him the full attention he deserves.


    November 3, 2009 at 8:40 pm

  4. ‘seemed to signify that Smith was THEIR with them’

    he should next investigate your former spelling teachers


    November 24, 2009 at 1:06 pm

  5. Elizabeth, What kind of title is that for a film critique? Here’s my critique. Show more class.


    November 25, 2009 at 5:24 pm

  6. […] blogger de Brooklyn Elizabeth Nolan Brown ha visto la película en el festival CMJ, y ha hecho una crítica en la que destacfa el aspecto […]

  7. […] precisada, ya ha sido causa de algunas opiniones en contra como la de la periodista norteamericana Elizabeth Nolan Brown que, luego de asistir al preestreno en el festival CMJ en Brooklyn, consideró que el documental se […]

  8. i could of made a better movie in 2 minutes. She killed him, The End!


    May 21, 2015 at 11:38 am

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