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Reviews in Retrospect: Smoke

Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's 1995 indie comedy drama explores the interconnectivity of personal stories and the prospect of recovery through community and connection.

Smoke bw still 004

Smoke’s setting is a cigar store on the corner of a street in Brooklyn. Owner Auggie (Harvey Keitel) has taken photos of his store from across the street every day for 14 years, capturing his part of the world in different seasons.

The observer and the listener is also the director, since his store is a hub for the confluence of stories. There are stories within stories as the film examines credibility in storytelling and the function of pretence through a finely-tuned ongoing metaphor as art and life reflect each other.

Novelist Paul Auster delivers pitch-perfect, witty dialogue as the film explores this interconnectivity of stories and the relationship of coincidence and chance with human agency.

The excellent ensemble cast ̶ William Hurt (Paul), Harvey Keitel (Auggie), Forest Whitaker (Cyrus), Harold Perrineau (Rashid/Thomas) and Stockard Channing (Ruby) ̶ give performances that override any artifice as their stories meet.

‘The Weight of Smoke’, told by Paul in the opening scene, is a haunting metaphor for all that has been lost and it becomes a crucible for the stories of the five grieving protagonists.

Paul and Cyrus have lost their wives; one has lost his ability to write, the other a part of his arm. Ruby has lost an eye and her connection with her daughter. Rashid has lost his relationship with his father and later loses his job. Auggie’s loss, apart from a bargain consignment of Russian cigars, is less evident. A fragment is revealed with touching sentiment in ‘Auggie’s Christmas Story’, in the closing scenes. We are left uncertain as to its veracity.

Most of the characters find the possibility of recovery and redemption as they move from the liminal spaces they inhabit towards integration. The exception is Felicity. Ashley Judd gives a heart-breaking cameo as a heroin addict who isn’t recovering. The rupture with her mother is also seen as unlikely to repair, her unborn child a sobering reminder that not everyone can save themselves, or others.

Smoke raises the question of what sense we make of the stories we tell ourselves. The narrow framework of our personal narratives is it would seem insufficient for this task. When individuals’ stories are interwoven, within the fabric of community, only then perhaps can they be experienced in a way that brings purpose, meaning - and healing.

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