Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Film: Smoke

Wayne Wong, Hong-Kong-born, USA-educated, is the director you have to pay attention to. He made films in switching between indepedent USA production and Hong Kong (being just one of exponents of Hong Kong cinematography – a cinematography that, not so long ago, gave Bruce Lee and Jacky Chan, half-dancers, half-warriors, now brings up some of the most interesting film authors, such is Wong Kar Wai). When watching his movies, I seem to see a strong hint from the director that I am not watching an ordinary film (even though themes or settings might be ordinary), but instead a piece from a profiled director who always goes for a bit more than just telling a story. But it’s small, minimalist, cheep (in most possible positive sense of the world) where he’s at his best. One of such films is “Smoke”.

Well, I had a chance to see “Smoke” quite a lot of times. Our TV stations used to run this movie over and over. I’d see it most often on local, half-volunteering channels, as if they were giving a thumb up to their colleague in dedication to make as much as they can with little to no resources. Wang is, however, more successful in that dedication (reprising the same movie three times in a month is not a good programming decision, no matter how good movie was) and he acts that way when he finds it suitable, not because he musts.

Now, hanging around, making small talk, knowing your tobacco seller by name – those are probably activities ordinary people like to engage in everywhere in the world. They do here, that’s for sure. That is actually what’s happening in “Smoke” most of the time. It’s one wonderfully laid back film, in which stories behind characters get known to us through seemingly unimportant stories and hints, rather than stunning revelations. It also has some of the best small-talk lines.

Any why not, the script is by Paul Auster, one of the most acclaimed writers today. Wang’s choice of film language, therefore is interesting: he chose in favor of long, total, still shots, fixating on the entire room with the entire crew in the frame, as if they’re all important even if just one is talking; Only in more emotive scenes, he turns to a more conventional scenes, with emotionally rich close cuts given by actors such are Harvey Keitel, William Hurt and Forest Whitaker.

Now, such choice might not be in favour of those who prefer hard-boiled action or heart-throbbing drama, and there are indeed hurtful parts of the movie that Wang could’ve directed as someone would “Wuthering heights”, but Wang rightfully decided that that is not what script is about. Thus, this movie is decidedly lacking in movement for most of it’s parts. I once had a chance to see it right after “Pulp Fiction”. After the thrilling action of “Fiction”, its unstoppable tempo at the second half of the movie, and a whole lot of hand camera, “Smoke” as the opposite extreme did seem too still. But if I was watching the “Smoke” first, I would’ve probably thought that “Pulp fiction” is just a bit too fast. I don’t really favor any of these two styles.

I said that Wang always makes it clear that he is an intelligent director. Take “Smoke” for example, favouring of wide, still shots might seem like laziness or decision made for financial reasons. But then again, there is a final scene in the movie, where Agguie Wren (Keitel) tells a story to his friend Paul Benjamin (Hurt), a story of one of the most influential moments of his life.

But we don’t see a story. Camera fixates to the Keitel all the time. It is only strength of his acting performance that makes characters of the story alive in front of our life. Story takes long to be told. Camera still fixates Auggie, but slowly zooms up meanwhile. Almost unexpectedly, we see that we are now gazing at his mouth, or at some other detail of his face now. And meanwhile, he still talks. Movement of camera is almost invisible, it doesn’t take stage lights from the story, yet it searches Auggie’s face, expressive face.

That takes one long, uncut shot. A long story that Keitel has to tell flawlessly, because any mistake can’t be cut out. And all the time, he has to keep his face at the edge between calmness and cry. Seems to be no problem for this actor.

Oh, that’s before Wang surprises us once, before the end. As the credits roll, and Tom Waits sings “Innocent while you dream”, we see a kind of mock-up play of the entire story that Auggie told, a kind of poorly-crafter, black and white silent film sketch, that puts a little bit brighter light to what we just heard. Sketch ends up as closing credits do too.

Now, after I spent a little more time to “Smoke’s” film language, I will try to retell a story, although there isn’t much to tell. Central figure, not so much active participant in events as the perpetual lurker, is a tobacco shop owner Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel). His standard customer is Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), a writer with a writing block (go figure. One could think that the whole “Smoke” script was a product of one fruitful writing block). In one of the first scenes we see Auggie taking a photo of the street in front of his store. He takes his time; it seems unusually long for taking one single photo. Thing is, Auggie does this every morning, in the exact same moment, on the exact same corner, for years. He has albums of photos of the same corner, each photo different for as much as people were different that morning.

A bit later, he shows albums to Paul. On one old photo, Paul sees his deceased wife passing by. Whirl of emotions comes in, and he realizes why all photos aren’t the same: Take this one; A person on them will never walk by that corner again, she’ll never appear on any of those photos again.

Now you get a hang of what this movie is like. It’s inhabited by such inspired small life stories, little lessons, bits of unusual, yet understandable behaviour. But let’s go on.

Saving him from a car accident (in a laid back style, of course), in Paul’s life enters a young man Rashid (Harold Perrineau Jr.). Rashid seems to be without a place to stay so Paul offers him to stay with him a couple of days. Later in the movie, it turns out that Rashid does have his aunt’s place to stay at, but he is hiding from a cup of local crooks from whom, by accident, he has snatched a large sum of money, and intends to keep it. Rashid’s mother died in an accident long ago, and his father disappeared after that, Rashid is a liar to the extent that limits with pathological, and his name isn’t even Rashid.

Rashid tracks down his father Cyrus (Forest Whitaker) owning a gas pump out of the city. He applies for a job there, under the fake name (he uses name Paul Benjamin) with no real idea what to do next. He snatches a half-broken TV from Cyrus’s attic and gives it to Paul. He is exposed as Paul and Augie come to visit him. What follows is a hopeless fight, well, more struggle than a fight, in which Cyrus attacks Rashid, repeating: “You’re lying!” Hurtful memories and his own shame won’t let him believe at the first moment. What follows after that is a peaceful, silent scene in which they all sit around the picnic table. But it’s not uncomfortable silence. Sometimes, greatest misunderstandings are resolved in silence; This film definitely likes that kind of resolution rather than yelling and screaming. A scene in which Paul watches game on tv, then picture disappears in snow, Paul rises up, knocks it a few times on top, then resolves that the TV is definitely broken, illustrates the tempo with which the movie is going.

Another more important story of the film relates to Auggie whose old girlfriend Ruby (Stockard Channing) comes to the city, telling him of his daughter he never even knew about. His daughter Felicity (Ashley Judd) is a junky, and Ruby needs all the help she can get to get her out of it. In the loudest scene of the movie, Felicity literally kicks Auggie and Ruby out of the house. At the end, Auggie gives Ruby money that should help her get Felicity to treatment, and he asks her “Is she really my daughter?”, to which Ruby, after a pause, replies “I’m not sure”.

In the last part of the movie, Paul comes to a tobacco store with a task to write a Christmas story to the newspapers. Auggie promises that he’s tell him the best Christmas story and what follows is a scene that I described earlier so thoroughly; At least one bit of a movie that I will sustain from re-telling.

That Christmas story, along with a few other small stories, almost digressions, told along the movie, are specialties. The movie itself starts with Paul telling to a bunch in tobacco store of how first European smokers tried to measure the weight of a smoke (to which I always remember of similar story of scientists trying to measure soul). Later, he tells a story of a writer who is forced, in lack of paper, to wrap up tobacco into pages of his just written novel, only copy; Listeners question whether any writer would ever do that. One of the most interesting stories he tells is of a man who went skiing in the mountain but gets in a way of avalanche and dies buried in snow; He leaves his wife and a little son behind him. Twenty years later, his son visits the same mountain; Gets his skies off to take some rest and have lunch; And while he’s sitting on a block of ice, he looks down and for a moment thinks that he’s looking at the mirror. What he’s looking at is actually a face of a man who is looking exactly like him, frozen in ice.

These stories, interesting by themselves, are related closely to the main stories of the film. If the story about measuring the weight of the smoke rises tobacco to the level of a dedication, of a centerpiece of a culture, this last one is referring to Paul who, after the death of his wife, remains frozen in time, letting events pass him by.

So what’s the movie about? Sitting and doing nothing? Hardly, that would make an interesting movie, but not a great movie. “Smoke” is about how small events determine your life: both accidental death of Paul’s wife, or of Rashid’s mother, Rashid’s entrance into Paul’s life, and, of course, Auggie’s Christmas story, the seemingly small event that he might’ve hardly remembered it, but from which day on he takes a photograph of his corner every morning; Small events that pass by hidden by the calmed sea of what makes the rest of the life; It’s about people’s mistakes and forgiving them; Auggie gets all that. He, if anyone, understands the poetry of ordinary life. That’s why those pictures are never the same for him.

Initially released, “Smoke” unanimously took all the critics praises with its subtle messages. Did it take audience too? Well, some might’ve rather went to see “Things to do in Denver when you’re dead” made that year – you know, the kind of films where you’re overwhelmed with information non-stop, so you don’t really have time to stop and think about what you’ve seen. Not that I necessarily have anything against dynamic films – it’s just that there are certain emotions that can’t be achieved that way and certain themes that can’t be explored that way; Particularly themes of life; Because life doesn’t keep you entertained every minute.

“Smoke” is a lovable film, a solid masterpiece, a film that achieves in every segment it attempts to. Wonderfully and deeply written by Auster, with Wang’s direction that most of time flatters the script, in some moments levels it up to a very emotive experience; Hurt is honestly confused, Whitaker deeply sad and Keitel, with little visible resources, delivers a role that glues all pieces together, a role of a man who knows a little bit than the next guy. Did I mention that I love this film?

Strangely enough, soon came a sort of sequel, “Blue in the face”. Having left with a bunch of characters they couldn’t have left alone that easily and with some extra footage that didn’t make into the movie, Wang and Auster decided to add to the mix: A lot of improvisational scenes by a lot of odd people including Roseanne, Michael J. Fox, Mira Sorvino, briefly (thank god) Madonna and, of course, cast of the original movie, all that fueled by just a few lines of script; To which actors were allowed to even go hysterical, which they often did; Following half-interviews by people like Jim Jarmush or Lue Reed, contemplating a lot of small things; Jarmush, for instance, quits smoking so he wants to smoke up his last cigarette in Augie’s company: He talks of the joy of smoking, of how they were addicted to it in the first place, of how view of smoking has quickly changed from “cool” to “uncool”, of how people in war films always throw away empty gun instead of refilling it... Next a lot of documentary footage of Brooklyn, it’s people and their life stories. The result was more an homage to Brooklyn as a homey place with your favourite tobacco store on the corner near your house, than anything else; Interesting movie to see, although it loses its grip several times during its run.

But “Smoke” was great.


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