Saskatoon is in the throes of introducing a bylaw to prohibit smoking in public places. The province of Saskatchewan has forbidden smoking in prisons. You can see the headline now--Smoking Forbidden on Death Row.
Then there's Smoke, the movie. In a scene of possible reconciliation between a father and a son, two adults light up big cigars. In Smoke that's the peace cigar. The setting is the Brooklyn Cigar Company, a neighbourhood smoke shop where almost everyone smokes. I asked students in my film class if they wanted a cigarette during the film. Oh yeah, the smokers said; they could hardly wait to get out and light up. One of them is going to rent the film and indulge his habit with gusto.
Smoke likes smoke and doesn't much like new technology. Paul the novelist has a computer but uses his old Smith Corona manual. He also has a black-and-white TV, which goes on the fritz. Cyrus has a garage in the country that looks as if it's left over from the 1920s. The neighbourhood in Brooklyn, at the corner of 3rd and 7th, is all low-rise and built before the First World War. People in the neighbourhood mostly walk. If they drive, their cars are ten-year-old beaters. When we leave the neighbourhood for the Projects (site of Spike Lee's Clockers), we go indoors and avoid the high-rise alienation. Smoke wears technology like an old sweater.
In the middle of Smoke there's a scene that tells us how to watch the movie--and the world around us. Every day for eleven years, Auggie has been taking a photo at the same time, eight in the morning, from the same spot, kitty-corner from the cigar shop he manages. It's his life's work. Paul flips through an album, saying they're all the same. "You'll never get it if you don't slow down, my friend," Auggie says. They're all the same, sure, but each one's different: "It's a record of my little spot." So is the movie. The screen fills with the black-and-white photos. Paul, moving slowly, sees his own dead wife, Ellen: "Look at my sweet darling."
Smoke is a regional film. It says any corner of the world is the world. Slow down and look. It's a friend of people who value neighbourhood, of people who value heritage, of people who value staying put. And of people who smoke and get along with old machines.
Paul tells Rashid the story of the man whose father was lost in an avalanche. Years later the man is skiing and sees his father, preserved in ice: he's older than his own father. Rashid lives fictional lives all the time--he sketches as well. Paul tells smoking stories. Cyrus tells the story of the black moment in his past. Auggie's life work is photography. Is Ruby fictionalizing Auggie's fatherhood? Everybody is an artist. Smoke is a film that loves stories and finds them everywhere, as a folklorist would.
SMOKE IS THE RESULT OF A COLLABORATION between Brooklyn novelist Paul Auster and filmmaker Wayne Wang. Auster wrote a Christmas story told to him by the manager of the store where he bought his cigars. Wang liked it and the two of them talked back and forth for three years, developing the story: Smoke is the result. Then they decided to use the same set and give the OTB (On the Bench) characters more space, added some stars on scale (Roseanne, Madonna and so on), filmed some solos (Jim Jarmusch, Lou Reed, Mel Gorham), interviewed Brooklyn denizens, and made a six-day add-on movie, Blue in the Face, that I liked as much as Smoke. That makes them the two best movies I saw last year.
The story of Smoke expands slowly outwards. Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) runs the Brooklyn Cigar Company where writer Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) buys his cigars. There are two loops outward from there. Paul is saved from traffic by a black teenager, Rashid (Harold Perrineau, Jr.), whose story leads to drug villains and to his father (Forest Whitaker) who doesn't know who he is. Auggie's old flame Ruby (Stockard Channing) returns to his life to say his daughter ("Whatya mean my daughter?") is pregnant and living with a drug dealer. They visit and she's awful. The two story halves come together. Rashid has $5,000 he swiped from a heist that went wrong. Working for Auggie he accidentally destroys Auggie's investment in Cuban cigars, gives him the money, and Auggie gives it to Ruby.
It's not a narrative that's going anyplace in a hurry or in a straight line. Other recent movies like Money Train or Sudden Death are always in a rush and on one line to get to their big-time extravagant and expensive endings. They give us no freedom. We are caught up in their good and evil, in hype, in the lines of the story. Smoke and Blue in the Face are almost un-American. There's no open road out. There's no car chase. There's no rush. There's no gun. There isn't a single spectacle. They're like foreign films made inside their own country. We don't watch for the ending because we have no idea what it will be, so we watch what's going on before us.
Here's how Smoke ends. Paul needs a Christmas story and Auggie tells him one. For ten minutes we watch Harvey Keitel tell the story that led to the film in the first place. At the end the camera moves in on Auggie's mouth, then Paul's eyes: the teller and the listener. It's the only moment in the film when director Wang announces his presence. To me it's thrilling because it says Story. Then Paul tells Auggie he's a good bullshitter--he's not sure he should believe him. Auggie replies, "If you can't share your secrets with your friends, what kind of friend are you?" Paul says, "Exactly, life just wouldn't be worth living, would it?" I can't tell for sure the words mean face-value friendship. After all a man's a man--and the sentences are framed as questions. But the smiles aren't. I felt a moment of pure joy in love realized. Then they light up and smoke at each other as the film ends.
BLUE IN THE FACE (AS IN TALK UNTIL you are) is a movie that happens all over the place. It has its own structure but it could as easily have others. The expansion on Smoke is this: the owner of the cigar store, Vinnie (Victor Argo), is going to sell the store to a health food company. Some Saskatoon city councillors would approve. Auggie says, "Think about it first Vinnie," and in his speech love expands outward to the neighbourhood:
"Sure, it's a dinky little nothing neighbourhood store. But everybody comes in here. I mean, not just the smokers. The kids come in, the school kids, for their candy...old Mrs. McKenna comes in for the soap opera magazines...Crazy Louie for his cough drops ...Frank Diaz for his El Diablo...fat Mr. Chen for his crossword puzzles. I mean, the whole neighbourhood comes in here. It's a hangout, and it helps keep the neighbourhood together. Go twenty blocks from here, twelve-year-old kids are shooting each other for their sneakers. I mean, you close this store and it's one more nail in the coffin. You'll be helping to kill off this neighbourhood."
Jackie Robinson appears to Vinnie in a dream, a vision of the best of Brooklyn (the Dodgers, Ebbets Field) and the worst (the team sold to a bigger market, terrible high-rise apartments built on the site of Ebbets Field). Jackie says Ebbets Field lives on in the mind now. As do our own memories of neighbourhoods or towns, if they've been obliterated. In Saskatoon it's the Capitol Theatre of the mind, torn down for higher assessment.
If the heart is often under attack in life, it's whole and well in Smoke and Blue. What's also alive for me in Blue, though I can't say it happens at this moment or that, is the joy of creation, the joy of imagination. There's so much that happens in each of these films, so much fabric, so much life, that what I've said won't spoil them at all.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld