The Weight of Smoke (and Blue in the Face): The Magic of Paul Auster | MZS

The first movie based on one of his books was Philip Haas’s “The Music of Chance,” an absurdist tale perched right on the edge of fairytale/metaphor about a couple of unlikely buddies (Mandy Patinkin and James Spader) who become pawns and slaves on the estate of a couple of rich men (Charles Durning and M Emmett Walsh). I hadn’t read the novel when I saw the film and was genuinely surprised by all the different modes it contained and how matter-of-factly it jumped between them. 

Spun off from a short story Auster wrote for The New York Times, “Smoke” is tonally more even but just as far-reaching and playful in its storytelling. Directed by Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club,” “Chan is Missing”) from a script by Auster, it’s an ensemble movie about daily life in a changing neighborhood: Park Slope, Brooklyn, which was predominantly black and poor in the 1960s and ’70s (in Hal Ashby’s 1970 debut film “The Landlord,” a rich Connecticut trust fund kid impulsively decides to buy a house there, and his horrified mother exclaims, “But that’s a ghetto!”). The area started to gentrify in the mid-eighties and was beginning to turn yuppie by the mid-’90s, when the film was shot. The characters talk about what’s happening to their community and many other things.

The main characters of “Smoke” are a cigar store owner named Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), who takes photos of the neighborhood from the same spot at 8 a.m. every day, and a scruffy, philosophical writer named, er, Paul (last name Benjamin) who recently lost his wife. A young, poor teenager named Rashid (an early knockout performance from Harold Perrineau) enters Paul’s life, and it seems for a while as if he’s going to become a surrogate son to him. But life is complicated. 

There are all sorts of neighborhood eccentrics circling around Auggie, Paul, and Rashid, including a gas station owner named Cyrus (Forest Whitaker) who denies that Rashid is his son; Auggie’s ex-girlfriend Ruby McNutt (Stockard Channing), who shows up to tell Auggie that he has a teenage daughter who’s on drugs and needs money for rehab; and a couple of off-track betting parlor regulars (Giancarlo Esposito and José Zúñiga) who are named Tom and Jerry after the cartoon cat and mouse. 

There were a lot of small films like “Smoke” being made in the 1990s in the United States: ensemble comedies or dramas (or some combination) that told a story but were mainly about capturing the peculiarities of the human personality and the vibe of neighborhoods and/or subcultures. A shockingly high percentage of them were good to excellent: “Barcelona,” “Walking and Talking,” “Sling Blade,” “Trees Lounge” and “Big Night” are a few examples. “Smoke” is one of the best. 

Many of the most memorable scenes just put a camera in a space and watch people talk to each other, like when Paul goes into the store to buy some cigarettes and ends up telling the other guys a story. It starts when Auggie tells Paul that when he entered the store, he and Tom and Jerry were just talking about “women and cigars. Paul asks, “Ya ever hear of Sir Walter Raleigh?” and Tom says, “Yeah, sure, that’s the guy who threw his cloak down over that puddle.” “I used to smoke Raleigh cigarettes,” Jerry offers. Then Paul tells the story of how Sir Walter Raleigh introduced tobacco to the court of Queen Elizabeth II, leading to a bet on whether it was possible to measure the weight of smoke (a wonderful phrase that could’ve been the title of yet another Paul Auster book).