As often happens, I have fallen behind--about two-years behind--in posting my Twelve Days of Holiday Movies. Here I sit a week away from Christmas Eve thinking about a movie I first wrote about in 2011. Though as much a "Christmas movie" as the original Die Hard (1988), in my mind it still counts. While the original Mighty Joe Young (1949), and King Kong for that matter, will always be Thanksgiving movies for me, and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) is must-see viewing for Lent, today's film, and in particular the closing credits, is must-see Christmas viewing.
Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's Smoke (1995) is one film I rewatch during the Christmas season every year since I first saw it. Though not a family film (it's Rated R for language), Smoke is an ensemble piece starring Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Harold Perrineau, Stockard Channing, and Forrest Whitaker, among others. A quirky film, it speaks to such powerful holiday themes such as the many faces of redemption, the power of family and the quiet power of compassion.
Back-in-the-day, Smoke, and it's follow-up Blue In the Face (1995), were frequently promoted as slapsticky, New Yawk comedies (such as on the most common, and goofy, DVD packaging seen here). Promoted with (then) celebrity cigar smokers and an emphasis on the more humorous moments, this film and it's characters have much more going on below the surface. The slipcase developed for release in Japanese(?) markets (pictured to the right) offers a more evocative (not to mention holiday themed) image: this is a moving multi-character piece.
I can't recall exactly how I first got turned on to this film, almost twenty years ago now, but I do remember buying a VHS copy of it in a supermarket one day on my way to work. At one magic point in our culture, rare and unusual movies could be had on VHS for two bucks as the marketplace was transitioning to DVD). Up until our VHS player went the way of the dodo six years ago, I would watch this film each year at just around this time. Taken as a whole, Smoke is not easily pigeon-holed as a “holiday film” (which is a good thing), but the values it eschews do seem to hit home, especially at this time of year.
The final five minutes are more overtly holiday-themed which contributes to its easy selection as a holiday film, much more so than Die Hard. Originally published as "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story" by writer (and the co-director and screenplay writer for Smoke) Paul Auster (a version of which is available here), the final moments of the film show what is told earlier in the movie. The set-up is this: two of the primary characters, Auggie and Paul, are having lunch. Paul is a columnist who needs to submit an essay to the New York Times for its holiday edition. Auggie (the cigar store owner whose own story is intertwined with those of the other characters) has a story he'll share for lunch. The emotional impact of Auggie’s story is further punctuated by the Tom Wait’s song, "You Dream," which accompanies it.
The story acted out and set to "Innocent When You Dream" by Tom Waits.
Unfortunately, hard copies of Smoke in DVD/Blu-ray are difficult to come by. Nor is it available on Netflix or Amazon Prime for direct streaming. Thanks to the magic your local public library (in my hometown of Rochester, New York, there are two copies for borrowing), Smoke is worth seeking out.
Great stuff, and just one of many evocative scenes from an excellent film.
Originally posted on December 24, 2011