Director: Wayne Wang
Production: Miramax Film presents an NDF/Euro Space production in association with Peter Newman; color, Panavision; running time: 108 minutes; length: 3180 meters. Released 9 June 1995 in USA. Cost: $7 million.
Producers: Greg Johnson, Peter Newman, Hisami Kuriowa, Kenzo Horikoshi, Bob Weinstein (executive), Harvey Weinstein (executive), Satoru Iseki (executive); screenplay: Paul Auster, based on his short story "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story"; photography: Adam Holender; editor: Maysie Hoy; production design: Kalina Ivanov; music: Rachel Portman.
Cast: Harvey Keitel ( Auggie Wren ); William Hurt ( Paul Benjamin ); Harold Perrineau ( Rashid Cole ); Forest Whitaker ( Cyrus Cole ); Stockard Channing ( Ruby ); Ashley Judd ( Felicity ); Michelle Hurst ( Aunte Em ); Malik Yoba ( The Creep ).
Awards: Silver Bear (Wayne Wang), Berlin International Filmfestival, 1995; Danish Film Critics Bodil Award for Best American Film, 1995; German Film Award for Best Foreign Film, 1995; Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay (Paul Auster), 1995.
Auster, Paul, Smoke and Blue in the Face: Two Films , preface by Wayne Wang, New York, 1995.
Svendsen, Erik, "Fortællingens nødvendighed," in Kosmorama , no. 213, Autumn 1995.
Felperin, Leslie, and Chris Darke, "Smoke Opera," in Sight and Sound (London), April 1996.
Nichols, Hayden Bixby, review in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1998.
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As Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) finally tells Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) his Christmas story, we get the only ultra-close-ups of the film Smoke . We see Auggie's mouth in ultra-close-up, and the camera then cuts to a corresponding shot of Paul Benjamin's eyes. As it ends the film thus pays tribute to the spoken word and the moving image: next we see Paul Benjamin writing Auggie's story, followed by a visual version. Wayne Wang's film comes alive through its pictures and its many stories, cultivating digression with affection in its superabundance of successful attempts to capture something as volatile as smoke and as weightless as the human soul.
The fulcrum of the story is Auggie's tobacconist's store and in five chapters, named after the five characters of the story, a series of plots unfold that reflect on one another, interweave with one another, and together become the music of the happiest of chances. The characters all are more than meets the eye. The three men, Auggie, Paul, and Rashid (Harold Perrineau), are everyday people, but artists, too. Paul is an author, but with writer's block; Rashid sketches; and Auggie turns out to be an artistic soul with the unique photographic project of taking a picture of the same street corner every morning, every day of the year. Auggie has taken 4000 photographs so far, and although Paul thinks they look the same at first, closer examination reveals the rich variety of people, situations, and by no means least, light. This little corner of the universe is replete with stories if one listens properly, and Auggie does so, transforming everyday life into poetry by his almost meditative project. In his photographs people are captured at a specific moment in their own stories, which take place outside the photographs, just as vital parts of the narrative unfurl off-frame and beyond the plot we are following—in the pasts and futures of the characters, for example.
The three characters all have stories behind them, problematic pasts. Paul has lost his wife, the tragic victim of a robber's stray bullet that took her life just outside Auggie's tobacconist's store. If only she hadn't had the exact change, Auggie meditates, it would not have happened. The black lad Rashid, who saves Paul from being run over, has not only many identities but also many stories he uses to conceal his identity. Perhaps the vagueness of his identity is due to the loss of his mother in infancy and the disappearance of his father when he was young. The same may be true of Auggie, who is sought out by a former girlfriend, Ruby, who says he is the father of Felicity, now a pregnant junkie. Felicity's mother lacks an eye, Rashid's father an arm; both lack proper relationships with their children. Interwoven with this story is the tale of the $5000 Rashid hid in Paul's bookcase. The money changes hands several times in the film, ending in Ruby's possession and disappearing from the plot. We are not told how this story ends any more than we hear who begins to take an interest in Paul's health or what happens to Rashid and his newly-found father. In this way, too, important parts of the plot are played out after the film ends and the film assumes more and more the character of a cross-section of life than a story, narrated with a light-headed facility like the smoke that has given the film its title.
It is the long, inexplicable arm of coincidence that makes the world appear to hang together and which directs its characters towards a resolution of their traumatic pasts. Rashid chances upon the trail of his father, but must be forced by his friends to reveal himself to his father. Auggie has a daughter foisted on him, and Paul learns to reconcile himself to his loss and become a productive author again. Through the examples and support of the others each comes to terms with his thorny past and becomes more complete as a person.
Auggie dates and times his photographs, which he asks Paul to take the time to examine properly. We must take our time over the film, too, and watch it carefully: running across the chapter divisions, which may seem somewhat random, is a wealth of nuances and facets of technique so peculiar to screenplay author Paul Auster that Smoke urges itself upon us as actually being his film. Yet it is the director, Wayne Wang, who has imbued it with the pleasure and intangibility of smoke. Smoke is a tangible, intense narrative in words and pictures, perhaps a fairy tale played out in the same time frame as Auggie's Christmas story: from summer to Christmas. If so it is a fairy tale full of little stories from one corner of the universe, a film that opens our eyes to the wonderful variety of the world and the music of chance.