Wayne Wang’s criminally underseen 1995 film Smoke begins with Harvey Keitel’s Auggie Wren character telling the patrons of his cigar shop a yarn about a man from the seventeenth century who’d claimed to find a way to weigh smoke, to which everyone promptly calls bullshit on. But, says Auggie, it wasn’t bullshit. Slight of hand, maybe. But, not bullshit.
Through Wang’s quiet lens, this is a film about the stories we tell each other, in confidence or when we’re just searching for something to say. Every character in this film has his or her own story to tell, and some, like Rashid, have more than one. The only professional storyteller of the group, William Hurt’s character Paul Benjamin used to be a successful writer, but went into seclusion after the death of his wife. Instead, most of his time is occupied telling anecdotes to others – about Mikhail Bakhtin and how, in a nicotine fit, he smoked the only copy of his life’s work, or about the son who discovered that he was older than his father. Cyrus, Rashid’s biological father played by Forrest Whitaker, has his own story to tell, as well – of his missing hand, of the fate that he feels god bestowed upon him for getting behind the wheel of a car while inebriated, which resulted not only in his prosthetic limb, but in the death of Rashid’s mother, as well.
And, then there’s Harvey Keitel’s Auggie Wren. Auggie, who’s one-eyed wife comes back into his life to tell him about a daughter that he may or may not be the father to. Auggie, who has a trunk of scrap-books filled with pictures of what looks like the same street-corner. But, he tells Paul Benjamin, “You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, my friend.” And, it’s his story that provides the film with my favorite scene, which occurs near the very end – in fact, I think it’s the last scene, if you don’t count the black and white montage over the credits – where he relates to Paul Benjamin the circumstances of why he began to take those pictures. It’s a monologue conveyed in one long, continuous shot that subtly closes in on Keitel’s weathered face until only his mouth fills the screen.
“So, this is the story of how it happened. Okay. It was the summer of ’76, back when I first started working for Vinnie. The summer of the bicentennial. A kid came in one morning and started stealing things from the store. He’s standing by the rack of paperbacks on the far wall and he’s stuffing skin magazines under his shirt. I didn’t see him at first, ’cause it was crowded around the counter. But once I noticed what he was up to, I started to shout. He took off like a jackrabbit — zzzshh — by the time I got out from behind the counter he was already tearing ass down 7th Avenue.
I chased him about half a block; then I gave up. He dropped something along the way and since I didn’t feel like running anymore, I bent down to see what it was. It turned out to be his wallet. There wasn’t any money inside, but his driver’s license was there, along with three or four snapshots. I suppose I could have called the cops and had him arrested — I had his name and address and license — but I felt kind of sorry for him. He was just a measly little punk, and once I looked at those pictures in his wallet, I couldn’t bring myself to feel very angry at him.
Roger Goodwin. That was his name. In one of the pictures, I remember, he was standing next to his mother. In another one, he was holding a trophy he got at school and smiling like he’d just won the Irish Sweepstakes. I just didn’t have the heart. A poor kid from Brooklyn without much going for him. Who cared about a couple of dirty magazines anyway? So I held on to the wallet. Ummm…every once in a while I’d get a little urge to send it back to him, but I kept delaying; I never did anything about it.
Then Christmas rolls around. I’m stuck with nothing to do. Vinnie was gonna invite me over, but his mother got sick and he and his wife had to go down to Miami at the last minute. So I’m sitting in my apartment that morning, feeling a little sorry for myself. And then I see Roger Goodwin’s wallet lying on a shelf. I figure, what the hell, why not do something nice for once? I put on my coat and I go out to return the wallet.
The address is somewhere in Boerum Hill, somewheres in the projects. It was freezing out that day, I remember, and I kept getting lost trying to find the right building. Everything looks the same in the place and you keep going over the same ground, thinking you’re somewhere else. Anyway, I finally got to the building I was looking for, the apartment I was looking for, and I ring the bell. Nothing happens. I assume no one’s there. I ring the bell again, just to make sure. And just when I’m about to give up, I wait a little longer, and I hear someone shuffling to the door. An old woman’s voice asks, “Who’s there?” and I say, “I’m looking for Roger Goodwin.” “Is that you, Roger?” she says. And then she undoes about fifteen locks and opens the door.
She’s gotta be at least eighty, maybe ninety years old, and the first thing I notice about her is she’s blind. “I knew you’d come, Roger,” she says, “I knew you wouldn’t forget your Granny Ethel on Christmas.” And then she opens her arms as if she’s about to hug me.
I don’t have much time to think, you understand. I had to say something real fast. And before I knew what was happening, I could hear the words coming out of my mouth. “That’s right, Granny Ethel,” I said, “I came back to see you on Christmas.”
Don’t ask me why I said it. I don’t have any idea. It just came out that way. Suddenly this old lady’s hugging me there in front of the door and I’m hugging her back. It was as if we’d both decided to play this game without having to discuss the rules. I mean, she knew I wasn’t her grandson. She was old and dotty, but she wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t tell a complete stranger from her own flesh and blood. But it made her happy to pretend. And since I had nothing better to do, I was happy to go along with it.
So we both go into the apartment — we spend the day together. Every time she asked me how I was doing, I would lie to her. I told her I had found a good job in a cigar store. I told her I was about to get married. I told her a hundred pretty stories and she made like she believed every one of them. “That’s fine, Roger,” she would say, nodding her head and smiling. “I always knew things would turn out for you.”
After a while, I started getting hungry. Since there was no food in the house, I went out to a store in the neighbourhood and I picked up a whole bunch of stuff. A precooked chicken, vegetable soup, a bucket of potato salad — a whole bunch of stuff. Granny Ethel had a coupla bottles of wine stashed in her bedroom and so both of us together managed to put together a pretty decent Christmas dinner. We both got a little tipsy from the wine, I remember. And after the meal was over, we went out to sit in the living room, where the chairs were more comfortable.
I had to take a pee, so I excused myself and I went to the bathroom down the hallway…and that’s where things took another turn. It was ditzy enough doing my thing as Granny Ethel’s grandson, but what I did then was particularly crazy and I’ve never forgiven myself since.
I go into the bathroom and stacked up against the wall, next to the shower, I see a pile of six or seven cameras, brand new, 35mm cameras, still in their boxes. I’ve never taken a picture in my life, much less ever stolen anything, but once I see those cameras sitting there in the bathroom, I decide I want one of them for myself. Just like that. And without even thinking about it, I pick up one of the cameras, tuck it under my arm, and go out to the living room.
I wasn’t gone more than three minutes, but in that time Granny Ethel had fallen asleep. Too much Chianti, I suppose. I went out to the kitchen and washed the dishes. She slept through the whole racket, snoring away like a baby. There was no point in disturbing her, so I decided to leave. I couldn’t even write her a letter to say goodbye, seeing that she was blind and all. So I just left. I put her grandson’s wallet on the table, picked up the camera again, and walked out of the apartment. And that’s the end of the story. ”
And, after a minute, Paul Benjamin asks: “Did you ever see the woman again?”
“Once, maybe three or four months later, I felt so bad about stealin’ the camera – hadn’t even used it yet, I finally made up my mind to return it, but granny Ethel wasn’t there anymore. Someone else had moved into the apartment, and they couldn’t tell me where she was.”
Paul Benjamin replies: “She probably died.”
“Which means she spent her last Christmas with you.”
“Guess so, hadn’t thought about that.”
“That was a good deed Auggie, that was a nice thing you did for her.”
“I lied to her, I stole from her, how is that a good deed?”
“You made her happy. Camera was stolen anyway. Not as if the person you took it from really owned it.”
“Any deed for a heart, eh Paul?…And, now you got yer’ Christmas story, dont’cha?”
“Yes, I suppose I do.” And, after taking a puff from his cigar, he continues: “Bullshit is a real talent, Auggie.”
“What do you mean?”
He pauses, and considers his words, and chuckles – “It’s a good story, Auggie.”
“Well, shit. If you can’t share your secrets with your friends, then what kind of friend are ya?”
In all good sense, I probably should have saved this for Christmas time. But, it’s my birthday. I’ll do what I like, dammit.