Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Smoke (1995)

“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.

Movie Information

Genre: Comedy | Drama
Director: Wayne Wang
Actors: Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Harold Perrineau, Stockard Channing, Ashley Judd
Year: 1995
Original Review: December 1996


52 Movies That Are So Clever They’ll Have You Thinking For Days

From the site: “We asked members of the BuzzFeed Community to tell us what movies actually make them think, you know, the ones that stay in your head for days long after they’ve finished. Here are some of their best answers.”  As might be expected from such a wide-open casting call, this list includes some obvious choices (Life of Pi, The Matrix), some surprising ones (Requiem for a Dream [2000], The Prestige), and some dubious ones (The Karate Kid [2010], Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?).  The best part of a list such as this one is following it up with one of your own.  Alphaville?  Koyaanisqatsi?  The Exterminating Angel?


Tarzan Cannot be Rebooted

A ‘Tarzan’ With a Few Twists in the Hollywood Vine

What can we do with Tarzan in the 21st century?  Here are two points of view on one of the original, problematic superheroes.  Both reviewers draw attention to George Washington Williams, the fascinating historical character played by Samuel L. Jackson, and critic Manohla Dargis also draws attention to Adam Hochschild’s harrowing book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.  Also from Dargis’ review: 

“Part of Tarzan’s appeal — at least to some — is that he inhabits a world that resembles ours, but without the unsettling distractions of real suffering. It’s become trickier for pop entertainments to gloss over historical traumas, which may be why so many modern colonial struggles involve deep space or an alien invasion. Perhaps it’s easier to rewrite history through futuristic fictions, where worlds can collide before everyone moves on. There’s something touching about “The Legend of Tarzan,” which as it struggles to offer old Hollywood-style adventure without old Hollywood-style racism, suggests that perhaps other fantasies are possible — you just need some thought and Mr. Jackson.”—A Tribute to the official Dogme95

A website dedicated to one of the most significant movements in contemporary cinema, started in 1995 by the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.  Includes manifestoes, interviews, lists of films, reviews, and trailers.

Films Worth Talking About:

Casino, Waterworld, Underground, Batman Forever, The Brothers McMullen, Shanghai Triad, Babe, Mallrats, Braveheart, Rob Roy, Land and Freedom, La Haine (Hate), Leaving Las Vegas, The Usual Suspects, Clueless, Goldeneye, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Before Sunrise, The Horseman on the Roof, Mighty Aphrodite, To Die For

The Bigger Picture

Films:  Clerks (1994), Trois hommes et un couffin (1985)

Music:  Tom Waits, “Innocent When You Dream,” “Downtown Train”; the Pogues, “Christmas in New York”

Books:  Paul Auster, “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story”

The Word on the Street

I have seen this small masterpiece many times, but I keep watching it because I love its celebration of the simple pleasures of life: friendships, good conversation, and, of course, smoking a good cigar. Smoke is not a complex or experimental film, just a beautiful and simple delineation of humanity….Everyone ends up in a better place than when they started, including myself as viewer.  [howard.schumann]

Although there’s nothing particularly special about each of several main characters, seemingly picked at random off of a New York street corner, they come off as noble, even heroic, in spite of the fact that their collective problems amount to nothing more than the usual garden variety. The main character, for example (Auggie Wren, played by Harvey Keitel) is a tobacconist around whose shop the main characters revolve. He has an unusual habit: every morning, at the same time of the day, he photographs the same street corner, and puts the pictures together in a series of albums. It’s time-lapse photography on an enormous scale. He can’t explain why he does it. He just needs to do it. And it’s a really marvelous device for delivering the movie’s main theme: everything that matters, all the meaning in the world that can be condensed from holy books and vows and catechisms and poems, is right there before us. We just need to have the eyes to see it. The things we tend to dismiss as prosaic, out of familiarity, emerge from the pages of his album as special, wonderful, enchanted.
There’s a great line in the movie about how Sir Walter Raleigh measured the weight of smoke. He took a cigar, weighed it, smoked it, and weighed the ash. The difference between the cigar and the ash was the weight of the smoke. Although he new nothing of the chemistry of combustion, he did the best that he could, based upon what he knew. Likewise, Smoke is a movie about people with limited knowledge and perspective. Their assumptions are often wrong; but, they do the best that they can. A small, seemingly insignificant piece of information can, and does, change everything.  [csm23]

Wayne Wang’s “Smoke” is one of those perfect little movies that knows not to aim any higher than it needs to. Like Mike Leigh’s “Life is Sweet” a few years back, it closely observes the day-to-day lives of a handful of people, in this case the patrons of and workers in a Brooklyn cigar shop, and leaves it at that. Don’t expect The Moral to come creeping into the dialogue; the fact that the lives of Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel, in another example of why he’s the best actor working today) and his friends are compelling IS the point. Writer Paul Auster, basing his script on his op-ed story in The New York Times, keeps on chugging out smartly-written people even up to the seventh and eighth character. It’s a rare treat to have an ensemble movie in which there isn’t a single weak performance, and even rarer to have one supported by writing and directing that are up to the task. All of these elements come together come together in “Smoke,” an artful story about the art of storytelling.  [cinecism-2]