Hailing from the Puritanical Pacific Northwest, I was a little bemused at a comment made by a German colleague of my father's, with whom I was staying in Leipzig. She offered me a cigarette, and upon my "No, thank you," she remarked that it was her experience that smokers are friendlier and easier to get along with than non-smokers. I have since been alert to socio-cultural trends that can be associated with smoking and non-smoking, particularly the sanctimonious version of the latter that holds sway in Seattle. Despite the fact that I am unconditionally better off in the absence of second-hand smoke, I enjoy making a nuisance of myself to pious non-smokers who are unconscious of the Puritanical fascism that is often exhaled along with anti-smoking rhetoric.
Given Hollywood's Manichean habit of either bowing to trendy political correctness or defiant posing, it was refreshing to see an unapologetic (yet undefensive) embrace of smoking culture in Wayne Wang's Smoke. The screenplay involves threads in the lives of five people, all of whom are in some way associated with a tobacco shop in New York. Harvey Keitel is the shop owner, and gets devote his entire performance to that sensitive side which, when he mixes it in with his usual tough-guy roles, makes for delicious irony. While you can't call Keitel's role as Auggie soft (I'll respect anyone who can run a New York tobacco shop for twenty years), Auggie is one of the most developed characters of any film this year. The scene where he delicately reveals to William Hurt's character Paul that he, Auggie, misses Paul's dead wife too is breath-suspending. This scene is also exemplary in that Wang trusts his actors and the writing (and the audience) to let the camera dwell on the actors' faces, so we can see the entire gamut of emotions that are necessarily present in the scenes required by the stories. The breakthrough actor is Harold Perrineau Jr as Rashid Cole, a black teenager who pulls a distracted Paul out from in front of an onrushing truck. Paul makes an uneasy friendship with Rashid, who obviously has larger concerns than this middle-aged writer who smokes too much and thinks too much. Shortly after his chance encounter with Paul, Rashid discovers that his father (Forest Whitaker), who he hasn't seen in twelve years, has resurfaced. Rashid's struggle to recover his relationship with his father is ironically more difficult than getting along with Paul, who is a chain-smoking white guy, after all. The last thread involves Stockard Channing as Ruby, Auggie's ex-wife of 18 years who returns to humble herself in front of Auggie for the sake of her daughter, who she alleges is also Auggie's. The point of this thread is that not all wounds can be healed.
Smoke is intelligently and wittily written, and superbly cast. I wish we had seen more of Rashid and his father and less of Ruby. But most of all, I want to see Blue in the Face, which is the movie Wang made immediately following Smoke, on the same set, with some of the same actors (Keitel). I heard it was one of those spontaneous, we're-all-here-and-we-don't-want-to-go-home-yet artistic impulses. It's gotta be good.
Copyright © 1995 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.