Smoke / Blue in the Face

Directed by Wayne Wang

There’s no way you can ever explain the significance of a cigarette to someone who doesn’t smoke. In fact, when I started smoking I didn’t even realize I’d started smoking, I just found that the friends I was making, the most interesting and creative folk I wanted to hang around with, were smokers. I soon realized that there’s a ritualistic bonding that happens over a slight sliver of tobacco that in these fascistic times may be seen as merely a nervous habit or as a disgusting way to treat your body however self-righteously one cares to look at it, but the things you learn, the secrets you hear, the confessions you’re a witness to over a smoke can be so spiritually nourishing that the health risks have a tendency to pale in comparison. (Think of Nat "King" Cole’s voice. That’s not natural. That is the timbre of a man who had smoked JUST ENOUGH cigarettes to achieve that rich, sonorous tone.) Sometimes a cigarette is the only friend you’ve got; sometimes it’s the only thing you have available to offer to show there’s no hard feelings, or to offer solace in a time of despair. In Europe when someone reaches for a cigarette everyone else you’re speaking with is offered one before the person offering takes their own cigarette. Smoke is a film about this sort of bonding, exploring how a half dozen lives intersect at the Brooklyn Cigar Co., at the corner of 3rd Street and 8th Avenue in New York City.

For Auggie Wren, who owns it, the store is the center of the world—so much so that every single morning he stands across the street from it and takes a photograph. He shows his photo albums to Paul (William Hurt), a writer who is a regular customer: "That’s my project. What you’d call my life’s work." Paul observes that all the photos are the same. "They’re all the same," Auggie says, "but each one is different from all the others."

Then Paul sees someone he knows in one of the photos: His wife, who was pregnant when she was shot and killed one morning on the street outside the store. "It’s Ellen," he says. "Look at her. Look at my sweet darling." And he begins to cry. Now all the photos do not look the same any more.

One of the subjects of "Smoke" is the way lives are changed by small details. Auggie sometimes reflects that if Ellen hadn’t given him exact change on that sad morning, if any little thing at all had slowed her by a second, she would not have walked into the path of the bullet.

Paul, too, has his life changed. One day after buying his Te-Amos at the store, he is walking absentmindedly down the street when he almost steps into the path of a truck. He is pulled back and saved by a young black man named Rashid (Harold Perrineau). Paul insists he do something for Rashid; it’s a universal rule, when someone saves your life, that you just repay them. Rashid resists, but finally settles for a lemonade. What with one thing and another, Rashid eventually ends up living in Paul’s apartment for a few days, to the indignation of Rashid’s aunt, who doesn’t understand the situation.

Life goes on. Auggie’s old girlfriend from years ago (Stockard Channing) materializes with the news that Felicity (Ashley Judd, who can do more in five minutes of film than Drew Barrymore can in two hours.), who may or may not be his daughter, is pregnant. Rashid, who speaks in careful, intellectual terms, turns out to be another lost child: After his mother’s death years ago, his father disappeared. Then Rashid (whose real name turns out to be Thomas Jefferson Cole) tracks his father (Forest Whitaker) down to a small-town gas station, where ...

Well, where yet another coincidence reveals that life does not unfold by plan, but by chance, often assisted by coincidence, irony and luck—both good and bad. Even though the entire cast is strong on many different levels, William Hurt and Harvey Keitel make this film their own. When we first meet William Hurt’s character he looks and acts just like your stereotypical alcoholic writer whose life is just one long inexorable wait for the inevitable, but through the course of the film he begins to realize that suffering solo is an indulgence he really can’t afford when the people he finds himself encountering don’t have the luxury of self-pity, as they each stick their necks out however awkwardly or gracefully as they can to try and connect with each other.

When it comes to Harvey Keitel, however, I can think of no other working actor in America right now who has the talent and self-assurance (and the prodigious pace) to handle the kinds of roles he’s been tackling in the past few years. He works all the time, in big roles and small, and throughout his career he has always made himself available for projects that are risky or experimental or just plain goofy. Here he is as the cigar store philosopher. Look back at his recent films and he is the vile "BAD LIEUTENANT," and Mr. Fixit in "PULP FICTION," and the outcast neighbor in "THE PIANO," and a crook in "RESERVOIR DOGS," and as a filmmaker in the yet-to-be-released "ULYSSES’ GAZE" which was lauded at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Best known for his edgy, intense and sometimes unnerving characterizations, Keitel has made a career out of bringing to light the gears at work in the mind of an embattled regular guy.

Keitel came to prominence in the early films of Martin Scorsese and went on to become Scorsese’s second most important acting collaborator after Robert De Niro (both Keitel’s and De Niro’s careers were jump-started with Scorsese’s 1973 masterpiece "Mean Streets,") and something struck me as I was watching Keitel in Smoke. I started to think about the similarities and differences between Keitel and De Niro, of the macho, streetwise undertow they each mine for their performances, why De Niro doesn’t excite me like he used to, why my admiration of Keitel keeps growing, and whether or not De Niro could have done as effective a job in Keitel’s role in Smoke. I think it has to do with the fact that with De Niro, no matter how much of an incredible actor he is, I always know he’s acting. Don’t get me wrong. He has left me transfixed countless times over the years, but I never get the feeling he’s dealing on as many different levels as Keitel.

Keitel has a stage presence that is that much more worldly wise than De Niro’s, and for the roles Keitel tackles you always feel as if he actually has lived that particular role at one time or another. With De Niro you can just tell that he’ll never tell you his last secret no matter how chummy he appears. Ever. But, with Keitel, he wants to tell you his last secret (no matter how long it takes for him to reveal it) as not only a way of unburdening his own soul, but to also serve as a precautionary tale of how you, too, could learn from his mistakes.

Maybe De Niro’s incessant limelight and Keitel’s comparative obscurity has something to do with this. For so long when I was growing up De Niro was this silent enigma who just happened to show up in practically every significant American film released in a fifteen year stretch. But for Harvey Keitel, originally cast in the leading role in Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), the actor had a falling out with the director because he wouldn’t sign a contract that would hold him to Coppola for seven years and was fired on location in the Philippines. Keitel was replaced by Martin Sheen (who has never made another film with Coppola). Instead of starring in one of the most publicized films in recent history, he was featured in Ridley Scott’s considerably more modest (and commercially unsuccessful) directoral debut, THE DUELLISTS, adapted from the story by Joseph Conrad. This marked the beginning of a very busy but unsatisfying period during which Keitel appeared in 20 films and three plays in ten years. Though he continued to give strong performances, many of the films were mediocre and/or little-seen. Because the word got around that he was "difficult" simply because he didn’t care to be beholden to a director, Keitel became a regular in minor fare from once major international directors, while former co-star Robert De Niro went on to glory in some of the most respected films of the decade. The role of Judas (irony of ironies) in Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST marked the beginning of Keitel’s Hollywood comeback. Though the film was a commercial flop, it brought the actor back into the eye of the general public. Keitel starred in several more flops before the banner year 1991, when he had meaty roles in three major motion pictures: MORTAL THOUGHTS, THELMA & LOUISE and BUGSY. Since then he has been reinstated on the industry’s A-list.

The fact that Harvey Keitel perfectly captures the spirit of Auggie Wren in SMOKE is indicative of the way the tide is turning in film these days. The oral tradition is making a comeback. Words and storytelling are beating out car chases and explosions, and when Keitel sits down with Hurt at the end of the film to tell the greatest Christmas story of all time you’re absolutely mesmerized in the TELLING of the story. You’re watching his every gesture. The director even gets closer than just a close-up: suddenly all you see is Keitel’s mouth, right at the point when you’re hanging onto the story so much that you notice, again, that a perfectly told story is a wonder to behold. It doesn’t matter what shirt he’s wearing. It doesn’t matter what his haircut is. What matters is the depth of wisdom he’s relating that can only be told in the guise of a story that someone chooses to reveal to you.

When the story is over, Hurt thinks he’s been had. Hurt thinks he’s just heard the best bullshitting job ever. Or does he? He isn’t sure. He WANTS to believe Keitel’s story, but he doesn’t think a story so perfect could actually have happened. With open arms Keitel affirms that "what is a good story unless you can share it with a friend?". The difference between a well told story and a poorly told one hinges on the minutiae of timing and detail and nuance and inference and all those things that differentiate your favorite uncles from your lackluster uncles. These aren’t films made by computer geeks or couch potatoes. These are films made by artists who understand the lost art of conversation, and illustrate that the plot of a story is sometimes the least interesting part. Sometimes it’s what is not revealed, what dared not be said, or must be said, but excruciatingly carefully, with a smile and a nod. In Smoke Keitel is the spirit that holds everything together: not only the actors, but the audience, listening to the stories of the others and wondering how it all fits in.

Just before both Smoke and Blue In The Face begin, each film has a different music video starring Jerry Garcia. Before Smoke Garcia performs Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Before Blue In The Face he performs Coffee & Cigarettes. Both videos are shot in the same dark, come here, big boy, red upholstered dive that could give the Federal Way Elks Club a few style tips. The feel of the videos is so rooted in 1970’s timelessness that you can practically hear the sports announcer on the TV set interview Tom "The Mongoose" McEwan and Don "The Snake" Prudhomme as they get out of their funny cars at the Winternationals. It all evokes such another time and place, especially now that Garcia’s gone, when the smoke caked on the walls of a lounge was seen as a fermented over time badge of character and coziness, not as an excuse for a new lick of paint. As is commented on in Blue In The Face, in the same place that glamorized smoking in the first place, Hollywood, now you can’t light up in a public place at all.

The story goes that when director Wayne Wang and writer Paul Auster were making "Smoke," they felt such a richness in the characters that they were reluctant to stop after the filming was completed. With Keitel, as a ringleader, they talked Miramax out of enough money to make another film, right then and there, on the same location, with some of the same actors, plus various celebrities they talked into doing walk-ons.

The new film, called "Blue in the Face," was shot in six days, and sometimes feels like it. Keitel provides a benevolent and stabilizing presence as characters wander into the shop, light up and interact. Some of the bits work and others don’t, but no one seems to be keeping score, and that’s part of the movie’s charm. If Smoke is the main course, than Blue In The Face is the gravy leftover that you scoop up with what’s left of your French loaf. I don’t see how one could appreciate Blue In The Face if Smoke wasn’t seen first, because the feel of the film relies on the fact that you already know, love and trust these characters enough to continue being themselves regardless of the standard production values the film ignores. There’s no continuity, the editing is slipshod, but all is supposed to be forgiven in the name of improvisation and posterity. The best thing about it is the spirit that brought it into being, and the love of film that it reflects.

I won’t reveal any of the scenes that take place in Blue In The Face because improv is best witnessed fresh. Improvisation is not a gift that all actors have. More people think they can do it than actually can. The trick is not to be brilliant and funny during every instant of an improvisational sketch, but to seem relaxed—to inhabit the character’s time. Watch Keitel and you will see an actor who knows that. He is comfortable when nothing is happening. He isn’t afraid of silence. He looks on, bemused.

In between the guest shots (Lou Reed, Jim Jarmusch, Mira Sorvino, Lily Tomlin, Michael J. Fox, Roseanne), a narrative of sorts begins to emerge. The store’s owner (Victor Argo) reveals to Keitel, his manager, that he plans to close down the cigar shop and sell out to a health food chain. Keitel tries to explain that the store is a valuable part of the neighborhood—that people use it to touch base and stay in touch, and that when enough places close, a neighborhood dies. And that’s precisely the feeling one is left with after watching these films about the significance of hanging out, fate, destiny and cigarettes, bracketed by videos starring perhaps the most influential hippie of all time.