I have a special love and regard for the films of the American director Wayne Wang. I've followed his work since the 1980s, and his low-budget gem Chan is Missing (1982). In many ways he's sort of the underdog of the current American independent scene. When he makes a movie that's commercial and normal in some respects, like the thriller Slam Dance (1987), or the marvellous The Joy Luck Club (1993), he's dismissed as an uninteresting sell-out case. And when he does something oddball and left-of-centre, like his iconoclastic, semi-improvised essay on Hong Kong called Life is Cheap...But Toilet Paper is Expensive (1990) – then his work sinks virtually without a trace in our independent film circuit. But to me, Wang's sensibility as a filmmaker is unique and always very moving. He holds two very different things in a superb equilibrium or tension in his films. On the one side, there are elements of old Hollywood style melodrama or comedy, with an emphasis on the richness and complexity of character and personality. And on the other side, as a counterbalance, there's a very formal, very deliberate sense of narrative construction, of the camera and composition, of pacing and rhythm, of all the representational artifices of cinema – and in this, Wang aligns himself with a certain measured, minimalist, even severe tradition of cinema that goes back especially to the Japanese master Ozu. I'd argue that Wang's style combines conceptual rigour with an understated, deeply moving pathos – just like the photographs that Auggie (Harvey Keitel) takes every day, at the same moment, in the same place, of a Brooklyn street corner in the new film Smoke (1995).
Smoke brings together Wang and the celebrated American novelist Paul Auster. I think this is a match made in heaven. All the experiences which define the magic and terror of everyday life in Auster's books – all the chance encounters, odd coincidences, unexpected detours – all these happenings fit perfectly into Wang's quietly radical and proudly self-conscious form of film narrative.
The loose-limbed, open-plan story of Smoke begins in the cigar store owned by Auggie. Customers come and go, swap stories, exhibit their everyday moods. A few plot threads gradually emerge. A novelist, Paul Benjamin, played by William Hurt, has an enigmatic, off-and-on contact with Rashid Cole, a runaway teenager (he's a striking screen newcomer, Harold Perrineau Jr). The kid casually saves Benjamin's life one day while he's crossing the road. And eventually this kid goes in search of his estranged father, Cyrus, played by Forest Whitaker. Meanwhile, back at the cigar store, Auggie is confronted by his ex-partner Ruby (that's Stockard Channing) and he's forced to meet the daughter he never knew he had.
Among recent releases, the film that Smoke doubles with, is the excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh drama Georgia (Ulu Grosbard, 1995). In both of these movies, the poetry arises from the manner in which all their plots and problems float, with no clean, conventional resolution in sight. Most of the plot lines in Smoke never reach their usual termination point, just as in Georgia, the horrible problems that the central sisters have with each other never work themselves in any dramatic catharsis. In Georgia, the general mood is depressive, morose and downbeat – because it's a film about certain clenched, difficult emotions like shame and embarrassment and dependence. Smoke has a quite different feel. It's imbued with a constant aura of lightness, surprise and possibility. The film is relaxed, and relaxing. That whole plot-thread with Cole, a young black kid entering the life of Benjamin by telling and spreading stories about himself, that inevitably recalls Schepisi's Six Degrees of Separation (1993) – but Smoke is completely free of the paranoia and envy and dirty, transgressive thrill which structures Six Degrees of Separation into a kind of mystery-thriller. Things are more on the ground, less heated and fantasised, in Smoke.
There's an interesting mix of artistic impulses in both Wang and Auster. You could say that, in both, a certain, self-conscious "modernism" or formalism, brushes up against a very direct human content. That's a rare combination in contemporary cinema – you won't find it in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, for example. The clever, playful, modernist side of Smoke expresses itself in its games – games with the artifice of storytelling.
Auster constructs his script a little in the manner of a Georges Perec novel. It's as if the moves and events of the plot are generated from some strange, serendipitous, surreal internal logic. This is the kind of thing I mean. As I watched Smoke, I became gradually aware that there's a queer motif in it regarding physical injuries and disabilities. First we see Ruby, who has an eye patch. Auggie sends her up to referring to her as 'Captain Hook'. Then we're introduced to Cyrus. He has a hook instead of a right hand, and a mechanical steel arm, because of a tragic accident in his past. Then, a bit further in, Benjamin is roughed up by some street crooks, and lo and behold, it's his right arm that gets hurt, and he carries it in a sling for a few scenes. I don't think this is some crazed instance of over-interpretation on my part, and nor do I think that this whole injury-disability business is deeply meaningful. But I do think that Auster gets a real kick out of devising such strange little patterns in his stories.
There's more material like this in Smoke, courtesy of Auster. Certain themes and ideas are endlessly multiplied and varied throughout the film, sometimes in a dramatic key, sometimes in a comic key – like in the old Ernest Lubitsch comedies of the 1930s. There's bag of money, for instance, which gets passed hand to hand in the film in unexpected ways, creating a sort of balanced economy of losses and compensations, of mistakes and favours. It's the very movement of this funny little bag that stitches together the narrative – like the earrings in Max Ophuls' masterpiece of 1953, Madame De ..., or the mysterious box in Barton Fink (Joel Coen, 1991), or the famous "MacGuffin"-objects in many a Hitchcock thriller. And also, there are many kinds of families – broken families, unusual family relations – that pop up everywhere in Smoke. There's Auggie and his daughter, Cyrus and his son; there's the beautiful tale that Auggie tells in which he pretends to be the son of someone he has never met before. And there's a humorous scene in a bookshop where Benjamin and Cole play a game where the younger guy acts at being the father of the older one.
This narrative game with the idea of family takes us straight to the human content of the film. The family is Wayne Wang's great and key subject, as it was also for John Cassavetes. I don't mean the family you have, that you're born into, but more the family or families that you make, that you forge. Both Wang and Cassavetes are very interesting on this topic, because they don't at all reject the biological family, or the existence of blood ties. Indeed, in their films (Wang's Eat a Bowl of Tea, 1989, or Cassavetes' Minnie and Moskowitz, 1971) you get really beautiful celebrations of extended family units, the very young and the very old totally mixed up in each others' lives, with both pleasurable and painful results. But for both of these wise old filmmaking souls, the true sealing of a bond between people must come through shared experience, and through conscious acts of commitment. The bond must come through certain mutually understood rituals and tests and contracts of love. That's what Wang's version of The Joy Luck Club was all about – I don't find it just a sentimental, weepy wallow in mother-daughter relationships, as a lot of people ungenerously claimed. There's a scene in Smoke where Auggie quizzes Ruby as to whether the young woman they visit is really his daughter. She fesses up, "Well, it's a even bet", and then she adds: "So it's your call".
Smoke is not a perfect film. Some of Wang's own formalist games and tricks – his slightly stilted ways of staging scenes, his deliberately contrived way of placing pop-out super close-ups of eyes and mouths – some of these are a touch awkward and unconvincing in their effect. William Hurt is an actor that I have a strong resistance to – he tends to act more with his eyebrows than anything else.
But this is a movie that's lovable and touching in a way that few movies are. Your heart goes straight out to everyone in it, especially Whitaker, Channing and the incomparable Harvey Keitel. And the double ending of the film – which gives us two versions of the same Christmas story offered up by Auggie – is simply the most beguiling and heartrending finale to any movie I saw in 1995.
© Adrian Martin December 1995