Chance Encounters

Smoke

When Smoke was released in 1995, it received generally good notices as an intriguing but slight art-house film. Critics noted the literary sensibility of novelist Paul Auster, but they didn’t appear to understand how the movie fit into his body of work.

The acclaimed author — best known for The New York Trilogy — wrote the screenplay for Smoke and was also given, at the insistence of director Wayne Wang, an unusual credit: His name was included with Wang’s in the “A film by ... ” title card.

Well, it’s unusual only in the context of Hollywood, where the Directors Guild of America believes that directors alone author films. Which makes sense, because we can all name dozens of great movies with shitty scripts salvaged by the infinite wisdom of the person who frames the shots and guides the actors.

Auster deserves his credit because of his intimate involvement in the production of Smoke beyond the screenplay, but there’s a bigger reason: The movie couldn’t have been made without him. By that, I don’t mean the obvious — that the movie wouldn’t exist with his screenplay, or the story that is its source — but that Smoke is pure Auster, and it could not have sprung from anybody else.

While it has a lighter feel and is more nimble than his novels, it’s chock-full of Auster motifs and themes, identity, storytelling, and coincidence chief among them. To those the movie adds a generosity of spirit that’s surprising for a spare and largely unsentimental author whose books tear down their protagonists to see what they’re made of. You can see that M.O. at work in the film version of The Music of Chance, faithfully adapted from Auster’s novel by Belinda Haas and director Philip Haas, and in the Auster-penned and -directed curiosity Lulu on the Bridge. In the former, a gambler and his traveling companion are imprisoned and forced to build a wall to pay off a gambling debt, and in the latter, a musician is shot and forced to build a different life.

Smoke is a collection of interconnected plots concerning long-grieving writer Paul (William Hurt), cigar-store owner Auggie (Harvey Keitel), and duplicitous teen Rashid (Harold Perrineau Jr.). Paul is a customer at Auggie’s store whose wife was shot and killed just after buying him cigars there. Rashid pulls Paul out of the way of an oncoming truck, and in gratitude Paul puts him up for a while and gets him a job at the cigar store. Rashid is avoiding a guy called The Creeper and trying to make a connection with his long-absent father (Forest Whitaker). And Auggie is visited by a lover from many years ago while he tries to sell some contraband cigars.

Each of these characters is at some point stripped of his dignity, health, or wealth, but more gently than in Auster’s other works. Both Paul and Rashid’s father are broken men before the movie starts, and they suffer further indignities in the film because of Rashid. Auggie’s business deal falls through, leaving him broke, and Rashid is eventually revealed when the walls of lies he’s built around himself are torn down. What softens the blow of these events is the humanity of the other characters; everyone in Smoke is fundamentally decent and giving, and the characters’ selflessness and kindness make the film seem much sunnier than a plot description would suggest.

Two quiet scenes are particularly important to understanding the movie. In one, Auggie shows Paul a collection of photographs. The cigar-store owner, every day at the same time for years, has set up a camera outside his shop and taken a picture of it. Paul complains that all the photos are the same, and Auggie admonishes him to slow down or he’ll never see how they’re unique.

Later, in what serves as the movie’s epilogue, Auggie is telling Paul a story. The camera is fixed on Auggie’s face as he unfolds his narrative, inching closer over the course of minutes until, at the end of the story, it is tight on his lips. These scenes plead for patience. The first is explicit in its instruction to Paul and the audience, and both are expected to obey it as Auggie tells his tale.

Auggie’s closing story, about how he came to own his camera, emphasizes that Smoke is more concerned with words than visuals or action, and people who like to follow a strong story will be disappointed with this film’s ambling, roundabout way. Auster’s novels are focused on a single narrative strand, but this screenplay finds the author much looser, in both the structure and the tone of the movie.

Most difficult for people to accept, though, is the level of contrivance and the crucial role that chance plays in the story. But criticizing Smoke for these things is like faulting Celine Dion for singing ballads; it’s what she does, a given. When Paul Auster is involved in something, it will fundamentally deal with the question of the protagonist’s constitution, and it will prominently feature coincidence and chance.

While many people prefer drama to be driven primarily by characters’ decisions, Auster is a strong believer that strange things happen, and how we react to them reveals who we are. Character is still essential, but it’s ruled by circumstance. The New York Trilogy’s “City of Glass” begins with a wrong number that sets into motion the entire plot; if the phone doesn’t ring, there is no story.

I came into Smoke knowing all these things, and as a longtime Auster fan, it’s difficult for me to assess what value Smoke has for people unfamiliar with his work, or how they watch it and react to it. I hope it’s an entrée into one of the more distinctive voices in contemporary American literature.

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