ICYMI: Smoke (1995)
One of my favorite tropes in film and television is the “neighborhood hangout.” You know, that place where everybody knows everybody. That mythical haven where characters can spend countless hours, away from their loved ones and be sassed and supported by their surrogate family. The world of TV has given us Sam Malone’s Cheers, Luke’s Diner (Gilmore Girl), MacLaren’s Pub (How I Met Your Mother) and Monk’s Café (Seinfeld). Additionally, the world of cinema has presented Joe’s Diner (Waitress), Vianne Rocher’s shop in Chocolat, and Stan Mikita’s Donuts (Wayne's World), to name a few.
Each of these fictional locales tap into a perceived need to escape from our actual lives to a proxy oasis of sorts. A place where we can be our true selves, embrace our chosen camaraderie and ease ourselves back into reality on our own terms – or when it’s closing time. In the current state of the world, I am sure more than a few of us have daydreamed about such a place, real or imagined. As for me, even though I haven’t smoked a cigar since college, I’d be more than happy to while away a few hours at the Brooklyn Cigar Store from 1995’s Smoke.
Director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Anywhere But Here, Maid in Manhattan) delivers a charming, and sometimes sobering, slice of life film with a myriad of colorful characters amongst intertwining stories. The screenplay written by renown author Paul Auster plays like a fine and layered short story anthology with numerous human insights discovered amongst the film’s cinematic vignettes. Front and center of the action is Harvey Keitel, in one of his most endearing performances.
It probably seems fitting that Keitel stars since he was something of a “poster boy” for independent film in the early 90’s. From Reservoir Dogs to Bad Lieutenant to The Piano, Keitel was both fearless and relentless in his choices of role and the ensuing performances. And here he adds to his remarkable canvas of characters as Auggie Wren, the owner-proprietor of a Brooklyn smoke shop. He has his fair share of regulars and casual passer-byers in the type store that you can see being a local institution but has probably been turned into a Starbucks in Brooklyn’s recent gentrified Renaissance.
Every morning, at the same time, Auggie takes his camera out to “his corner” and takes a photograph. Why? A) Because its his corner and B) as a way to document time and more importantly his life. He shows his unique album to his most “regular” regular, a writer named Paul Benjamin (played effortlessly by William Hurt). The pair have something of a bromance and Paul is at first perplexed by his friend’s hobby until he sees a photo that haunts him. I’d rather not spoil too much but suffice to say, Paul’s life has seen tragedy and later on a very touching scene ensues when Auggie explains how he could have made a small choice to alter certain events of a certain day.
In addition to this key relationship we also meet Rashid (Harold Perrineau), a young man who plays a fateful role in Paul’s life as well, while trying to outrun his own demons. We also meet an old flame of Auggie’s played by the incomparable Stockard Channing. She stops by when we she needs to get help the daughter that Auggie never knew about. And this troublesome offspring is played by Ashley Judd (in one of her first star making roles). There are a few other characters that drift in an out, played by other notable character actors like Forrest Whitaker, Giancarlo Esposito and Jared Harris in a film brimming with talent.
But in the end, it’s all about the friendship of Paul and Auggie: Writer and the guy that supplies his smokes. The film concludes with a wonderful “story within a story.” Paul explains that his latest assignment is to write a Thanksgiving story. Auggie weaves him a tale of a chance meeting full of heart and compassion that again, I’d rather not spoil. Watching Keitel tell this story, which may or may not be true, with such grandeur and nuanced details as Hurt listens with the right balance of interest and skepticism is the height of the film’s charm.
Smoke may fall into a certain category of late 90’s/early 00’s indie films that were either seen as too hip for their own good or skated by with a fortuitous cast. But I always felt there was something more. Here’s a film that is both about the art of storytelling and is artful in its storytelling. Director Wang navigates this world with ease and never lets us linger too long in any story. And Auster’s screenplay is masterful in giving us glimpses into interesting characters without getting too gimmicky or cliched. In conclusion, Smoke is a reminder that we are all authors, in the way we live and tell the stories of our lives. The question is who we can get to listen and who can get to buy in.