“You never know what’s going to happen next. And when you think you know, that’s when you really don’t know. That’s a paradox.” -Auggie Wren
Had lunch with any good movies lately? With most of today’s films going around flashing big wads of dough and in-your-face special effects, it’s refreshing to find one that just wants to carry on an interesting conversation with you over the local lunch counter. Wayne Wang’s Smoke is that kind of picture. Here’s a movie you can sit down and share a corned beef-on-rye or grilled pepper and tofu-on-whole wheat with. Yeah, sure, the language gets a bit rough at times (after all, the setting’s Brooklyn). And you run the risk of inhaling secondhand smoke (the main character, Auggie Wren, owns a cigar store). But the payoff is a movie that really makes you want to listen. From the moment novelist Paul Benjamin (played by William Hurt) tells the boys in the cigar store how Sir Walter Raleigh weighed smoke, to the tale of the Russian novelist at Stalingrad who smokes up the only manuscript of his life’s work, to the Christmas story that takes up the last twenty minutes of the movie, you know you’re in good company.
With half a dozen disparate characters, Smoke has a lot of stories to tell. None of them involves car chases, conspiracy theories, sex, brutal violence, twenty-somethings, computers, or alien invaders. Gee, what’s left? Just people. Auggie Wren’s the owner of the Brooklyn Cigar Co., a small shop where people hang out like they still do at old-fashioned barbershops or all-night New York cafes. Every morning since 1976, at 8 a.m. precisely, Auggie’s set up his camera at the same spot on the street corner facing his store and taken a photograph. He’s got 4000 of them, each one of them the same, almost—each photo actually records a unique conjunction of light and weather, of cars and passers-by. Auggie’s only real ambition in life is to cement his shop’s reputation by bringing in $5000 worth of illegal Cuban cigars.
Auggie also knows how to tell a story. When Paul Benjamin comes into the store and says he’s stuck for ideas, Auggie steps right in. A Christmas story? He’s got a million of them. Buy him lunch, and he’ll tell the most amazing, true Christmas story Paul’s ever heard. Lunch is bought, and the story told. And it’s wonderful. The only problem is that the storyteller’s so good it’s impossible to know if he’s lying. Does it matter? Not really. Uncertainty’s a fundamental principle of the universe. Besides, do we want our friends to always tell us the truth? Perhaps sometimes what the heart needs or has to offer is fiction. Charles Dickens, in Hard Times, said we need fictions as well as truths, and he was a guy who knew a thing or two about Christmas stories. Closing the circle, Auggie Wren’s may-be-true-or-not Christmas story is about two people choosing to lie to one another to share a poignant moment that truth would shatter. As Paul and Auggie smile at one another in the closing scene, the residue of Auggie’s story drifts round them like smoke and wraps around them like a hug. Then we get to see the story a second time, while the closing credits roll; this time without words, and withTom Waits’ impossible voice singing “Innocent When You Dream.”
It was great to see Harvey Keitel in the role of Auggie March. Keitel’s trademark characters have been hard, violent men. In Smoke, his dignity and humanity are intact. He’s also home. Keitel was born in Brooklyn. One of the hardest-working, most dedicated actors of his generation, Keitel has never gotten the recognition of contemporaries like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman. Directors, however, have always sought him out, and he’s worked extensively both in America and in Europe. His credits include leading roles in Mean Streets, Fingers, La Nuit de Varennes, Deathwatch, The Last Temptation of Christ, Reservoir Dogs, and The Piano.
Another central character in Smoke is a 17-year-old black kid whose defense against a hostile environment also takes the form of fiction. John Cole, alias Rachid, alias Paul Benjamin, invents identities and lifestyles for himself in order to make reality a little less dangerous and a lot less painful. John’s on the run from a smalltime hood, and searching for the father who’d run out on him when he was a young child. Smoke’s recurring theme of truth versus lies is picked up again when Rachid finally meets his father (another strong performance, by Forest Whitaker). He rebuilds their relationship by not telling his dad who he is. When Paul and Auggie reveal Rachid’s true identity (and even at this moment, when the jig’s obviously up, young Cole can’t help making up a desperately, hopelessly dumb lie to try to dismiss the inevitable) director Wang and screenwriter Paul Austen leave us uncertain whether this revelation has reunited father and son or once again estranged them.
Even the minor characters in Smoke deliver. There’s the expression on the face of the blind old woman Auggie visits, at the moment she realizes he’s not who she was hoping for, but chooses to believe anyway. There’s the incredible look on Ashley Judd’s face as the grotesque wall of verbal abuse she’s thrown at her mother collapses upon her as soon as she’s alone. Her anger, too, turns out to be a another lie. What she hates is not her mother, or Keitel as her mother’s old boyfriend, but her own entrapment in a dead-end life of poverty, addiction, and abuse. Ironically, her very breakdown means there’s still hope. Better that the ugly walls she’s built fall in upon her than that they cannot fall at all.
Praise also to Rachel Portman for her gently percussive score (lots of piano and maybe xylophone or marimba or glockenspiel), and to whoever put Tom Waits on the soundtrack. I’d be a sucker for any movie that had a couple slow dancing to “Downtown Train.” Just one cautionary note: The people smoking in this film are trained professionals—do not try this in your own home.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Smoke is another of those rare films that I have absolutely no memory of having watched and reviewed. I’m sure there’s some sort of deep Freudian import to this forgetting, but I haven’t a clue what it is. I’ve no idea why I would have chosen this film originally, and I can’t say that I was overly impressed with Smoke on my second viewing over 20 years later. Although it’s always a pleasure to watch pros like Harvey Keitel and William Hurt in action, the screenplay for Smoke now strikes me as forced. The individual dramas are low-keyed, but there are too many of them: the pregnant wife who’s the victim of a robbery gone wrong, the estranged father, the stolen money, the lost & drug-addled daughter, the ruined cigars. Fans of Smoke, and there are a lot of them (see the reviews I’ve quoted above) would say that all of those stories are necessary, that they enrich the film. I’m not so sure. One of the problems might be that I came back to Smoke after having just watched Clerks again. The raunchy, high-octane badinage in Kevin Smith’s film is hard to beat, and all of it pulled off with nothing more at stake than simple boyfriend/girlfriend troubles.
I do still enjoy Harold Perrinaud Jr.’s performance as the young man on the run, reaching out to his father. Perrinauld manages to be both an endearing wise-ass and a vulnerable kid. You can see why he’s gone on to be one of the finest Black actors in America. As Keitel’s maybe-daughter, Felicity, Ashley Judd creates Smoke’s most powerful moment. Watch the expressions that play across her face after she’s driven the only two people who care about her out the door, in a display of useless, abusive bravado. She doesn’t cry, but you can see her whole psyche crumpling when Channing and Keitel leave. She knows that now there’s nothing to save her from an early grave, either through addiction or at the hands of her so-called boyfriend. The 30 seconds that we watch the despair wash over Judd’s face is worth a movie all its own.
And you gotta love that Christmas story at the end. Hurt thinks his pal is just a brilliant bullshitter, but ofttimes life is art. That’s the whole point of the movie. You never have to go far to find a great story or memorable characters. Setting Keitel’s Christmas story against Tom Waits’ “Innocent When You Dream” is the most inspired piece of Yuletide messaging since the Pogues’ “Christmas in New York.”
Had Smoke focused on only one or two of its multiple dramatic arcs, it could have been a stronger film. I’d suggest French director Coline Serreau’s Trois Hommes et un Couffin (Three Men and a Cradle) as a demonstration of how to use a simple dramatic incident, spiralling out of control, to create both humor and pathos.
Still, no regrets. Smoke’s Brooklyn isn’t a bad place to be. There’s also a sequel, Blue in the Face, also released in 1995. I haven’t seen it, and it doesn’t seem to be available through iTunes or YouTube. Right now, I’m pulling out a few of my old Tom Waits LPs—Short Change, Blue Valentine, Heart Attack and Vine—and cranking up the woodstove. It’s story time.