I’m Gonna Tell You a Story – Smoke (1995)

“So you’re not just some guy who pushes coins across a counter.”

“Well, that’s what people see, but… that ain’t necessarily what I am.”

smokeThere are some movies that shout at you. You know the kind of movies that I mean. We see them mostly in the summer, and they tend to be talked about as though they have exclamation points at the end of their titles even when they don’t. The Avengers! Die Hard! Transformers!

There are other movies that want to whisper in your ear just enough to creep you out. These tend to get lumped into the horror or suspense category. Movies like the recent Mama or The Lady in Black.

Then there are movies that want to talk at you, maybe even flash open their raincoats and expose themselves to you. I’m thinking of movies like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Compliance.

Some movies want to preach to you, to show you just how important they are. In this case, as far as recent movies go, I’m thinking about ones like The Master or Life of Pi.

Now, of course, not all movies fit neatly into these little categories. Some would be hard to characterize into any of these little boxes. Others, of course, would fit into many of them. In some ways, I suppose, how you “hear” a movie also depends on what you bring to it.

Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) behind the counter of his Brooklyn smoke shop
Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) behind the counter of his Brooklyn smoke shop

So which kind of movie is Smoke? Actually, I’d say it’s none of the above. It’s a movie that just wants to sit across the table from you, share a beer and a cigarette, and have a nice long conversation. Maybe share a story along the way. And maybe, just maybe, if you give it enough time, it’ll let you know what it’s really all about.

Smoke is, on it’s face, a story about two (or maybe, depending on how you count them three) people, the moments they share, the people around them, and how their lives intersect. But it’s not one of those movies that lives for those “Aha!” moments. You know the ones. Their the ones where at the end you want to (or feel a need to) go back and watch them again to piece together just how the screenwriter or director, in all their cleverness, pointed all along the way to something that at the end changes the relationships of the characters or your perceptions of what they have been going through. No, it pretty much lays its cards on the table as it goes. giving the viewer all the information they need either as it introduces each character, as they choose to reveal themselves, or even as they find out more about themselves through the course of events.

Auggie and Paul share a moment over Auggie's photo albums.
Auggie and Paul share a moment over Auggie’s photo albums.

Auggie Wren, played by Harvey Keitel, runs a tobacco shop in Brooklyn. It’s a small shop, and he has a number of regular customers who either come in just to buy things or, just as often, simply to spend some time chatting back and forth with Auggie himself. One of those customers is a writer, Paul Benjamin. William Hurt portrays Benjamin in a contrast to Auggie. Whereas Auggie is one of those guys who seems able to relate to just about anybody, and seems to have a ready, if often wry, smile for anyone who pops into his shop, Benjanin is a broken man. He has, we learn, lost his wife and unborn child as they were caught in the cross-fire of a gang shooting. I mentioned earlier that there is a possible third main character, and that would be Thomas Jefferson “Rashid” Cole, a 16-turning-17 year old African-American kid (Harold Perrineau Jr, who many will know as “Michael” from Lost) who winds up interjecting himself into both of their lives, and is to an extent the catalyst for much of what is to come.

As I said before, this is a story that reveals itself in the telling, and I don’t want to take that away from it, so I’m not really going to go into much more of the plot, leaving you to discover that as you watch it. Suffice to say that it is a movie that definitely rewards the viewer for the time he or she spends with it, and by the time its story is finished, much like Paul Benjamin once he has heard Auggie’s Christmas story, will be left with a few questions still to be asked and answered, but at the same time, satisfied to, for the moment at least, leave it where it lies and just be taken in by that wry sweet smile of Auggie. Or, as Auggie and Paul themselves close things,

“If you can’t share your secrets with your friends then what kind of friend are you?”

“Exactly… life just wouldn’t be worth living.”

So here’s where I’d usually leave you with a trailer or a clip, but honestly, I think this is one of those cases where I think the trailer really both tries too hard and givs too much away. And really, if you want to watch it, it’s not hard to find on YouTube. Instead, I think I’ll point you to this 2011 segment from NPR’s All Things Considered where you can hear author Paul Auster read his short story “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story” upon which he based the screenplay for Smoke. But even here, I’m going to suggest that if you haven’t seen the film yet and plan to, you hold off until you have.

Yeah, it’s just that good.


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