Smoke By director Wayne Wang (1995)
Screenplay: Paul Auster
Auggie Wren: Harvey Keitel
Paul Benjamin: William Hurt
Rashid Cole: Harold Perrineau, Jr.
Ruby McNutt: Stockward Channing
Cyrus Cole: Forest Whitaker
In 1995, together with Paul Auster, born in 1947, director Wayne Wang,
born in 1949, (The Joy Luck Club, Dim Sum, Eat a Bowl
of Tea) created a touching movie about people whose stories converge
in a small tabacco store in Brooklyn, hence the title Smoke. The
danger of this type of film is that all the different stories fall appart,
that the movie disintegrates. A lot of the credit for Smoke therefore
goes to the brilliance of Paul Auster's story-telling which prevents this
type of failure.
Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) is the small shop's owner. A lot of people
with different destinies meet in his tobacco store. Among them is the writer
Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), who had lost his wife in a tragic shooting
a few years ago. Auggie tells some of his clients and friends that Benjamin's
wife had been in his shop just a few moments before she was killed. She
bought some cigars for her husband. If she had just stayed a few moments
longer in his shop, if she had not found the exact change immediately,
if there had just happened to be a few more people in his store, she would
not have been killed and her baby - she was five months pregnant - would
be alive today. Since that tragic incident, Paul Benjamin has not been
able to finish another novel.
In the scene, Paul Benjamin, deep in thoughts, tries to cross the street.
At the last moment, a young African American (Harold Perrineau, Jr.) pulls
him off the street, to prevent him from being run over by a lorry. The
writer offers his saviour, Rashid Cole, an eloquent young man, a place
to stay, since he seems to be in trouble, but making clear that he has
no homo-erotic feelings for him, Rashid declines the offer at first.
Auggie Wren is just about to close his tobacco shop as Paul Benjamin
drops by in order to get his usual cigars. Friendly Auggie opens up again
and says that he is not in a hurry, he has no rendezvous at the opera anyway.
Paul's attention is caught by a camera lying on the counter. Auggie explains
him that taking pictures is his hobby. In fact, for years, he has been
taking pictures from the same place at the same corner at exactly 8 a.m.
He shows a sample of the 4000 photographs he has alredy taken to Benjamin.
Auggie remarks to Paul that he does not take the time to look at the pictures.
All the photos are similar and still not the same. People are dressed differently,
other people are on the street or the light changes with the seasons. Paul
happens to see his wife on a picture and becomes overwhelmed by his grief.
Wayne Wang and Paul Auster describe a lot of stories and destinies which
are finally related in one way or another through the different characters.
There is the story of Rashid Cole who finds his father, Cyrus Cole (a brilliant
Forest Whitaker). His father had left him when he was a small child after
a car accident. Cyrus, drunk, drove the car into a tree. His wife died
and he got an arm ripped off, just in order that he will never forget what
happened. Cyrus tells this story to Rashid, working in his small run-down
garage outside of NYC, without knowning that Rashid is his son. There is
also the relationship between Paul and Rashid. Rashid happens to get his
hands on $5814 after a robbery, as the thieves lose their haul in their
hurry. There is the story of Auggie and his former girlfriend Ruby McNutt
(Stockward Channing) who shows up after years, asking for help in her relations
with "their" drug addicted daughter (the young woman could almost be Auggie's
daughter too, as Ruby puts it later).
The charm of the film lies in the different characters who all have
their positive and negative sides. They all fight with their weaknesses
and past errors that lead to present-day problems in the relationships
between the different characters. They are people like you and me, no heroes
- played by a great cast.