Unsung Movies: "Smoke"

Posted by Prince Gomolvilas
ON Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Bamboo Nation's new regular features keep on comin'! I have occasionally written posts about "unsung movies"—some of my very favorite films that I bet a lot of you have never seen and maybe have never even heard of. Well, now every Wednesday I will bring you the official Unsung Movies post, highlighting a criminally overlooked masterpiece (or two) that you must immediately add to your Netflix queue since it has now become required viewing. If you have by chance already seen the movie, let me know how much you love it or hurl insults at me for my bad taste. Bring it!

This week's unsung movie is Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's Smoke (1995), a small film that explores big themes such as what truth is; identity as it relates to self and the idea of "family"; and storytelling as a form of protection, survival, and connection. A diverse array of well-drawn yet enigmatic characters—an imaginative shopkeeper, a grieving novelist, a wayward teen, a distressed mother, a duped auto mechanic—revolve around a Brooklyn smoke shop until they all inch closer to self-definition.

Since Wang directed the film from a script by novelist Paul Auster, Smoke is appropriately literate, funny, and deeply affecting. Those of you familiar with Auster's work (I read The Music of Chance—a novel, GASP!—years ago and loved it) will notice that he lifted some of his prose and inserted it into the screenplay, but those words just leap off the screen with vitality due to the uniformly excellent cast, which includes Harvey Keitel (who absolutely does not get better than this), the ever-reliable William Hurt, Lost's Harold Perrineau, Stockard Channing (sporting an unexplained eye patch), and Forest Whitaker (who will break your heart).

It all climaxes with Keitel's breathtaking nine-minute monologue (delivered in a single shot), in which he tells William Hurt's character what he claims to be "the best Christmas story you ever heard." It ain't far from the truth. (The story is actually adapted from a piece that Auster wrote for The New York Times in 1990.) Alas, the trailer:

As a side note, Wang and Auster had so much fun on set that they made a second movie together, Blue in the Face, an entertaining and light series of improvised scenes featuring a bizarre collection of actors, musicians, and personalities (Lou Reed, Lily Tomlin, Madonna, etc.) It's not the masterpiece that Smoke is, but is a perfectly acceptable way to pass the time.
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  1. LAP Said,

    Smoke is one of my favorite movies- I still find it completely captivating. I don't think I can choose one story thread over another, because the ensemble is so good and I really could just look at the way all their faces are framed forever.


  2. You might want to check out "Smoke Signals" if you haven't seen it yet.


  3. Laura, yes, yes! I holds up really well over time too. I saw it again recently and was again deeply moved and intellectually stimulated. It's usually one or the other, but this movie manages to do both.

    Donovan, Smoke Signals is excellent! And funny! And it should definitely one day be an official Unsung Movie!


  4. I loved Smoke when I saw it back when it came out--any movie that combines a love of storytelling and a love of photography is something to be treasured.

    And I really liked Smoke Signals, too.


  5. Alan Goy Said,

    I loved Smoke! I should see it again. It should go on "the list". The thing I remember most about it is the idea of taking a picture in the same spot every day. Brilliant.


  6. Marisela Said,

    I saw this earlier this year. It is a great movie. good call.


  7. Quin Browne Said,

    smoke is one of my favourite films... always has been.


  8. Cris Said,

    Fabulous movie! Thanks for bringing it up. I should watch it again.


  9. Wow! I didn't know how many "Smoke" lovers there were! Yes, yes, the street corner photographs; William Hurt's opening monologue about weighing smoke; his story about the frozen man and his son; the black kid's ruse around his mechanic dad; the B&W closing scene with Tom Waits' "Innocent When You Dream" playing--there's much to love, and I could go on and on!


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