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Film Review: Smokin' & Smoulderin'

Stephen Reflects on Wayne Wang's film 'Smoke'

"Smoke", made in 1994 by director Wayne Wang, followed closely on the heels of such indie blockbusters as Altman’s "Short Cuts" and Tarantino’s "Pulp Fiction". Although, admittedly, both pictures were masterpieces of their genre, Smoke’s delicate dialogue and warmth provided a breath of fresh air.

smoke.gif (10332 bytes)As is often typical these days for daring, imaginative movies, 'Smoke' was ignored in the 1995 Academy Awards. Instead the Academy chose to honour the manipulative Australian movie, Babe, and, disgracefully, Il Postino (a brazen piece of sentimentalist, Italian Communist propaganda aided by a sweeping sympathy vote). In truth, Harvey Keitel should have been rewarded as Best Actor for his enigmatic performance as Auggie Wren, a rugged cigar-shop owner, who - initially - appears bored, laden down by daily routine.

However, as the audience grows into the movie, his depth becomes apparent. A soul emerges…. a keen philosophical spark. We learn of an interest he shares with novelist Paul Benjamin (sensitively portrayed by William Hurt ), a character who finds life difficult to cope with after his wife’s untimely death. The movie portrays how Hurt gradually regains his love of life, by aiding a young runaway and accepting Auggie’s friendship. Indeed the scenes shared by Keitel and Hurt are immensely moving.

The movie is leisurely paced, the direction sensitive and compelling, but it’s the writing - wistful, insightful, and beautiful - that is the film's strength. Adapted by Paul Auster from his New York Trilogy, the audience is presented with a different, an alien New York (as opposed to, say, Woody Allen’s analytical, paranoid New York ). Auster’s New York is a spiritual place, a human place. There is little plot line in the movie… indeed it is little more than a collection of linked, mingling stories. But this minimalist, literate structure is oddly harmonious with Brooklyn life.

Poignant dialogue. Marvelous acting. A richly rewarding experience for the viewer and, evidently, the cast and crew! This was apparent in another movie Wang, Keitel and most of the crew  shot – a sequel, almost - in three days after wrapping "Smoke". Called "Blue in the Face", the movie feels more like a documentary and has many star New Yorker cameos (most of whom play themselves) including Madonna, Lou Reed, Jim Jarmusch, Michael J. Fox.. An amusing, if slight, curiosity.

Stephen McNulty

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