Blue in the Face

(Wayne Wang & Paul Auster, USA, 1995)


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.


Many 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 production.


The 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 Expensive (1989). 


So, 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.


Here, 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!)


To 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.


Everything 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.


This 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.


It 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!”).


One 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.

MORE Wang: Anywhere But Here, Slam Dance, Strangers, The Joy Luck Club, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart

© Adrian Martin June 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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