B y Z a c h a r y W o o d r u f f
IT'S FUNNY HOW movies end up getting made. We often think of them as products of the studio machine, borne of screenplays that swam their way through the system like agile sperm earning a deserving arrival at a well-financed egg. Yet this can be a deceptive picture. Some movies are as coincidental as the merging of chocolate and peanut butter. Some movies are the result of nothing other than pure chance.
Smoke is an excellent case in point. The movie's beginnings trace back to December of 1990, when The New York Times hired novelist Paul Auster to write an inspiration piece for Christmas. Auster's story, about a cigar-shop owner who accidentally ends up spending the Yule with a shoplifter's blind grandmother, just happened to catch the eye of director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club). Wang phoned Auster and they got along well enough that they agreed to make a film together, working backward from the incident described in the paper. Sporadically, over the next four years, they devised a small storyline that would follow the article's basic themes and allow them to work it into the final frames of the film.
This would be an unremarkable tale of a movie's creation but for the fact that Smoke is based on how chance occurrences, rather than being the basis for tragedy and disappointment, can bring about happiness. The story is a celebration of the uncertain nature of life; but considering its conception and the random, patchwork feel of the story, the film manages to celebrate the uncertain nature of art as well.
Structurally, Smoke has the form of a jigsaw puzzle not unlike Pulp Fiction or Atom Egoyan's recent Erotica. The narrative pulls together a number of characters whose only connections are blurry pasts, mishaps on the street, or the occasional purchase of cigars at a Brooklyn smoke shop. It's the sort of assemblage that leaves you with the sense that since the movie could just as easily have tied together some other handful of people, you're lucky to be viewing the ones that are there.
The characters may seem random, but the story links them in two very important ways. First, they all have some past, chance incident that has determined who they are now and who they are becoming. Second, they all reveal themselves to others through their own forms of storytelling. Some of these forms include metaphorical anecdotes, the presentation of photos, joshing and even outright lies. Hence the title, which leads to such terrific, wry moments as a scene when two friends, having finally come to understand each other's methods of communication, look at each other across a table and blow smoke in each other's faces, smiling.
Those two storytellers are Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), the good-natured owner of the smoke shop; and Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), a writer who lost his passion for work after his wife died, leaving him a friendly but broken man. As the film begins, they reveal themselves to each other in a most touching way: Auggie shows Paul his massive collection of photographs, taken in the same spot outside the shop at the same time of every day for 14 years, and explains that to understand them-all you have to do is "slow down" and look carefully. Paul responds by weeping when he catches sight of his now-dead wife passing by in one of the frames.
The other lives stirred into the mix are that of a drifter named Thomas (Harold Perrineau), who saves Paul's life; a one-armed mechanic (Forest Whitaker), who may be Thomas' long-lost father; and a burnout (Stockard Channing) who comes into the cigar shop one day to tell Auggie they had a child together 18 years earlier. Somehow, a package containing five thousand dollars passes among all of them throughout the course of the film.
What's remarkable about Smoke is its ability to make us care about each of its characters with no major plot--and hardly any sub-plots, for that matter--to bind them. The director relies on his ability to sustain long passages in which people tell each other stories, whether about themselves or nothing in particular. As such, the picture would fall flat on its talkative face if it weren't for its talented ensemble. Keitel is better than usual, not only because he's not playing one of his usual sensitive/scary tough guy roles, but because he seems, like his character says, to have learned what it means to slow down. Hurt once again plays a man who is hurt, but it must be said that he's much more appealing doing his shtick in low-key independent films, where he has the chance to bring subtle shades to his performance. Channing's presence recalls her performance in Six Degrees of Separation, only she's on the opposite side of the class fence this time (and she gets to wear a ridiculous eye patch). Ashley Judd has an impressive cameo as a young addict whose self-denial has left her with only one form of expression: a sooty, black smoke called cruelty.
That all of Smoke's characters somehow end up better off as a result of their chance association is testament to this film's quiet good nature. The story may at times seem as slight as a wisp of smoke dissipating upward from a cigar, but you have to respect the filmmakers' joy of working outside the studio system, doing what they want at their own pace. It's utterly consistent with the theme of happy accidents that in the final days of Smoke's shooting, Wang and Auster took three of their incidental characters--some guys who hang out at the smoke shop telling stories--and whipped out a quickie improvised movie (titled Blue in the Face), on the same set.
Smoke is playing at Catalina (881-0616) cinema.
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