Blue in the Face
Blue in the Face is the
companion film to another Wayne Wang/Paul Auster collaboration, Smoke (1995).
To recap on the relationship between the two works: they are actually very
different, but with some overlapping elements. Smoke is essentially a drama, scripted by novelist Auster. Starring
Harvey Keitel as Auggie, it is about everyday life in Brooklyn – a bittersweet
tale woven from chance encounters and coincidences.
people described Smoke as a film
about storytelling; certainly, there were many stories told by its characters.
But it had more to do the idea of family: family ties and loyalties brought
about not so much by blood, but bonds of shared experience. The main setting in Smoke was Auggie’s corner cigar
store; that was the site where various characters met up or intersected.
In Blue in the Face, we have Auggie and
the cigar store again, and a few (but by no means all) of the same characters
from Smoke. Blue in the Face is not in the least bit a drama; it is, in fact,
more of a raucous comedy. It’s a movie that some cultural theorists would call carnivelesque – like a circus revue with
a parade of skits and attractions, and more richly so than the contemporaneous Four Rooms (1995), another Miramax Films
story of the making of Blue in the Face has become legendary. At the end of shooting Smoke, Wang wanted to keep going, to use the energy of workshopping
the actors to quickly create another film. It is something Wang has done
before; when he made his beautiful Dim
Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985), he shot extra material on video, which
he he later edited into a short tape called Dim
Sum Take Out (1988). This is another example of Wang’s modernist, experimental
impulse, surfacing in even his most seemingly conventional works. Any closed
form – like the closed form of a story – begs to be broken open, somehow. Wang
seems happiest when he can play with a diversity, a collision or contradiction
of forms, as he did in his queer, low-budget essay-film on modern Hong Kong, Life is Cheap … But Toilet Paper is
in one week at the end of shooting Smoke,
Wang generated the material for Blue in
the Face. The finished film uses a large mass of material – improvised
scenes with actors, interviews with various celebrities and citizens of
Brooklyn, off-the-cuff vox-pop stuff captured on the street with a video
camera. And since this is a carnival, there are also songs and dancing, and a
street party as well. This time around, Auster is credited as co-director,
because he was on the set with Wang, feeding the actors cues and ideas. And it
clearly all found its final, unforeseen form in the editing room.
too, the Auster touch is evident. In Smoke,
there were strange little motifs – like physical injury – that jumped from
character to character and formed curious narrative patterns. Blue in the Face also seizes upon
certain odd refrains that pop up in different contexts: such as references to
Brooklyn obsessions including the Dodgers and Belgian waffles. Instead of being
about family, Blue in the Face is more
about community, a communal spirit created
and maintained through daily ritual – and also through nostalgia for a shared,
lost past. And, naturally, it’s still and always about the sublime, daily joy
of smoking. (I myself don’t smoke, and have never done so in my entire life, but
I understand its attraction for others!)
give this project a more familiar of kind of shape and coherence, Wang and
Auster have also contrived a vague storyline. This thread covers a whirl of
days in Auggie’s life in which he has romantic problems, and also faces the
prospect of losing his cigar store. This plot can be taken as just as some
scaffolding, some pretext to tie everything else together. But, for me, one of
greatest pleasures of Blue in the Face comes from the unusual interplay or movement between the narrative scenes and
other types of material.
I had read about this film before seeing it (a practice to avoid, in truth)
suggested that it was simply a collection of monologues, improvised gags and
circus– turns, all completely raw, live material. But that is not the case;
there are a number of obviously carefully scripted and staged scenes. Wang and
Auster have cultivated an unusal, variegated texture for this movie: it keeps
jumping from very formal moments to completely informal ones – and, meanwhile,
it keeps dancing in and out of a strict narrative line. There are full
narrative scenes, then non-narrative scenes, then what you could call (after
Raymond Durgnat) notional scenes,
where a narrative element is, maybe, half-there.
is the kind of movie that some people used to dream about in the 1970s: full of
vibrant difference between its constituent elements, a heterogenous collage of
diverse styles and surfaces, and various ways of engaging or alienating the
viewer. These days, when such a film actually manages to get a commercial
release, reviewers tend to call it (somewhat patronisingly) “rough around the
edges”. Oh boy! Don’t you just love film reviewers? But it is the very idea of
edges – the edges separating, say, fiction from documentary or acting from
simply being – that Wang and Auster
are questioning and breaking down, in their own impuslive, rambunctious way.
reminds me most of Chantal Akerman’s The
Eighties (1983), a sort of pre-film for her wonderfully goofy musical, Golden Eighties (1986). The Eighties incorporates,
pell-mell, all the stages of preparation for the big film to follow, from auditions
shot on low-band video through to rehearsals and the recording of the
soundtrack, through to one proper musical scene staged in a set and shot on 16
millimetre. It’s a wild, rebellious, fragile hybrid of a movie.
Blue in the Face is,
finally, not an especially memorable film, and it never builds up much steam.
But in its low-key, rambling way, it’s good. Like any carnivalesque collage, it
has hits and misses. Every viewer will have a different scorecard as to which
scenes, jokes and performers amused or charmed them. I especially loved Mel
Gorham as Auggie’s fiery Latino lover, with her tremendously intense monologues
into a mirror, climaxing in a quite hysterical version of the song “Fever”
(including these spoken words: “I’m glad you like Spanish women because I am a Spanish woman!”).
last note before Blue in the Face slides from my immediate cine-consciousness. Jim Jarmusch appears in a
wonderful sequence that slides between being a celebrity monologue and a
notional scene about Jim giving up smoking. He talks, seriously for a second,
about smoking cigarettes as being about life and death – a reminder that one
extinguishes, fades away, dies at every moment of life. Obviously, Jarmsuch
must have had his own film, Dead Man (1995), in his head at the time – because
that’s a fine, very apt account of it. And, come to think of it, there’s a
great deal of harping on the subject of tobacco in Dead Man, too.
© Adrian Martin June 1996