SMOKE (1994) *** 1/2
Plain talk. Barring a surprise, "Smoke," at the Art for two weeks, is the best film in town and one of the top movies of the year. While directed by Wayne Wang ( "Chan Is Missing," "Dim Sum," "Eat A Bowl Of Tea," "The Joy Luck Club") it is presented as "A Film by Wayne Wang and Paul Auster." Rightly so as the script (his first) by novelist Auster is crucial to the movie.
The title must be taken both literally and figuratively. Literally as an anachronistic conceit: nearly everyone smokes in the film, which is something of a challenge today, when smokers are treated like the persecuted early Christians. Figuratively as, to quote Auster " A lot of talk in the movie is a smoke screen, the smoke that obscures vision, that obscures understanding. The film is about how people talk to each other and listen to each other - or don't."
"Smoke" has a GHQ, the cigar store run by Harvey Keitel at a Brooklyn corner. It's a pa and ma store, without ma. The people who come in it and those around it catalyze a series of interlocking events. These involve Auggie (Keitel), who, among other endeavors, for many years has been setting every single day a camera at the same spot and the same hour outside the store, and photographing life as it goes by.
When writer Paul (Hurt) flips through photos that all look about the same to him, Auggie admonishes him :" You'll never get it if you don't slow down." That's when Paul finds a picture of his wife who, later, while pregnant, was killed by a stray gang bullet. Look and learn, learn the differences, learn what's behind the surface.
The movie pioneer D.W. Griffith said: "I want you to see." Decades later, in Antonioni's "Blowup," looking closely at a photograph leads to a major revelation. "Smoke" however, adds listening to looking, like one of those old railroad crossing signs: "Stop, Look and Listen."
Seldom has an actor's name been more apt that here. William Hurt, whose first book was a success, is hurt by the death of his wife and by the resulting new abstraction and inability to write. He might have been fatally hurt by a truck had a 1-year young black, Rashid, saved him. Later, Hurt is physically hurt too, but without lasting effects.
Rashid, complex, confused, cool (in the old sense) yet simpatico and mysterious, eventually becomes the temporary guest of Paul. Rashid is but one of the young man's names. He is, like his host, a myth-maker. He invents facts about himself. A mix of truth and lies will later involve $5,000 in Rashid's possession and, separately, a father who disappeared 12 years ago after his wife had died.
It would be a disservice to the viewer to get into specifics, as the movie, in addition to rich character studies, relationships, atmosphere and tale-spinning, is also something of a suspense tale, not in the thriller mode, but gently ironical.
All this involves Auggie's semi-legal importing of Cuban cigars for connoisseurs; the odd fate of those cigars; a visit to Auggie by his old flame of 18 1/2 years ago, Ruby (a surprising Stockard Channing); some hoodlums; Ruby's perhaps true perhaps false tale about Auggie's grownup, crack-addicted daughter (a wonderfully vituperative Ashley Judd); a one-armed garage owner (Forest Whitaker in a superbly quiet performance); and colorful peripheral types.
The inspiration for the film was "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story." which Paul Auster published in the New York Times of Christmas Day 1990. The film goes well beyond it, but is nonetheless incorporated as a fascinating yarn told by Auggie to Paul, about how he came to own his first camera. It is a warm story, like all others in this affectionate, intelligent movie that is both cinematic and literary. It celebrates, in many ways, the power and beauty of the word along with friendship, bonding, and generosity, which makes it a distant kissin' cousin of the recent "The Postman." And it uses its tales both as stories and as metaphors.
One of them, told to Rashid by Paul, is about a young man who finds, many years later, the frozen body of his father buried in Alpine ice. The father, at his death, was younger than the son is now. In the film this leads symbolically to a subtle yet clear connection with Rashid and his father. Another deals with a World War soldier, a writer who used up all the pages of his book to roll cigarettes in the trenches.
"Smoke" is an entirely original movie, yet not without connections to the yet unnamed genre of films with no traditional plot-line, but with coincidences or simultaneous events, with several characters who criss-cross, affect each other (or not), pick up the story, talk a lot. Among them Whit Stillman's " Metropolitan" and "Barcelona"; several Jim Jarmusch movies, notably "Night on Earth"; "Clerks" (and its convenience store); Richard Linklater's "Slacker," mostly excellent pictures.
There is also some ancestry to one aspect of "Smoke," that of the $5,000 that keep changing hands. A 1993 sleeper, "Twenty Bucks" with that smaller sum going from person to person, comes from a script of the 1930s. Frenchman-in-Hollywood Julien Duvivier made in 1942 "Tales of Manhattan," about a tail coat that has successive owners. But the technique in "Smoke" feels looser, truer and more improvised.
Technically too the film is superior. The photography is (without oxymoron) carefully spontaneous, with a camera that's always on the move, following its subjects as though we were scanning them. In contrast to the stillness and "mise en scene" approach of Auggie's black and white photos, the various rhythms of the color camera and the editing use "montage" but neither pointedly nor exhaustingly. This is buttressed by the topnotch work by the four women who acted as editor, production designer, costume designer and composer.
The direction by Wayne Wang is impressive and never obvious. It is "invisible direction." You feel that Wang harmonizes and supervises the actors rather than give them orders. And that between Wang and Auster there are delicate touches of making Auster-the-person into both the Keitel and the Hurt characters, and bits of others too.
All the performers are exceptionally good as well as (in the main roles) likable. Newcomer Harold Perrineau (Rashid) has, for me, the most touching and effective presence and, perhaps more than Keitel and Hurt, turns out to be the film's epicenter.