Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Smoke (June 9, 1995)

I may have missed the boat on Smoke, released fifteen years ago today, on June 9, 1995. Written by Paul Auster and directed by Auster and Wayne Wang, the film is an ensemble piece, centering around, for the most part, the owner and customers of the Brooklyn Cigar Company.

I remember the film getting quite a bit of buzz in 1995, some of which was rekindled by the release of a sequel of sorts, Blue in the Face, the following year.

The film is set in 1990. Harvey Keitel stars as Auggie Wren, the owner of the cigar store, which is frequented by Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), a novelist and widower still grieving the loss of his wife to gun violence. A thirty one year old Harold Perrineau, Jr. appears as Thomas Rashid Cole, a sixteen year old good samaritan who saves Paul from a grisly fate by preventing him from inadvertently walking in front of a passing vehicle. Thomas is on a journey of sorts, as well, as he is seeking out his father, Cyrus (Forest Whitaker), who Thomas has discovered working at a gas station far from the city. Old flame Ruby McNutt (Stockard Channing) resurfaces in Auggie's life after a two decade gap and tells him that he has an eighteen year daughter, Felicity (a very young Ashley Judd), who has fallen victim to drug addiction and needs a father to rescue her.

There are some nice character moments. Auggie shares with Paul a photo album of thousands upon thousands of photographs of his business front, each taken from the same street corner at 8:00 a.m. on each consecutive day. This task, Auggie tells Paul, is why he can't take a vacation. A nice touch: Paul, when flipping through the many pages of the album, spots a photograph of his wife, which affects him deeply. Auggie explains there are several photographs of her in the book.

There are also some interesting stories told by the characters, most of which take the form of monologues related by one character to another. Paul relates to Thomas a story about a man who comes across the lost and frozen body of his skier father, who vanished so long ago that the son is now older than the father, whose corpse is perfectly preserved in the frozen snow.

By the end of the film, writer Paul, previously suffering from writer's block and depression, finds his voice again, so much so that the New York Times asks him to write a Christmas story. He agrees and asks Auggie for advice. For his part, Auggie relates what he says is the finest Christmas story ever, featuring himself as a protagonist who, in an attempt to return a lost wallet to a shoplifter, ends up impersonating that shoplifter for his sad, blind, octogenarian grandmother on Christmas Day, which Paul views as a noble gesture.

As good and interesting as some of the stories are, it does seem at times like the stories predated the script, and the screenwriter really, really wanted to include them in the narrative, wherever they might possibly fit. But, in 1995, talkie indie movies were en vogue, and that is part of the film's charm, even fifteen years later. There do also appear to be some unnecessary subplots, including Thomas' indirect participation in a robbery (he robbed the robbers) and Paul's encounter with those robbers, who are looking for Thomas. (Thomas spirited away with nearly $6,000, most of which he gives to Auggie after inadvertently flooding the cigar store and ruining several boxes of Cuban cigars.).


The League said...

I did manage to see the movie in the theater during its release, and have seen it again a few times in subsequent years. Of the talkie indie films of the 90's, its a favorite.

The "sequel", Blue in the Face, was shot over a few days when, as so rarely happens, "Smoke" had come in under budget and before schedule. The actors were sort of hanging around, so they decided to just shoot a whole bunch of stuff on the fly. I have no idea what was scripted or improvised. Not a great movie, but a kind of remarkable add on.

It also features some great cameos, my favorite of which was Michael J. Fox.

J.S. said...

So weird. I was just last night lying in bed (fighting some insomnia). For some reason Smoke came to mind, a movie that I really liked back when it first came out, and I was thinking about doing a blog post about it. But you beat me to it.