Saturday, December 3, 2005

Smoke Smoke Smoke Smoke

[Spoiler note: There are no great giveaways in what follows. But if you've not seen Smoke and would prefer to know nothing of its content, read no further.]

I just watched Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's film Smoke (1995) four times. I'm teaching it in a class, and I loathe the thought of using class meetings to show a film in 50-minute installments. So I simply scheduled four consecutive nights for students to watch the film, and I ended up watching four times. And in doing so, I noticed details I'd probably never have caught otherwise.

There's a beautifully-made pattern, for instance, in what happens when Paul Benjamin (a novelist, played by William Hurt) answers the door of his Brooklyn apartment. Recently widowed, Paul lives what appears to be a solitary life. Watch what happens when people come to his door.

1. The buzzer buzzes, three times, and Paul continues typing, or trying to type. He finally gets up from his chair--saying "Shit!"--and goes to the door. He speaks into the intercom: "Who is it?" "Rashid." "Who?" "Rashid Cole." It's the young man who saved pedestrian Paul from being hit by a truck not long before. "Come on up," Paul says.

Paul has offered Rashid a place to stay for a couple of nights, but it becomes clear that this solitary man is not happy about sharing his space. After two nights, he asks Rashid to leave. It's clear though that Paul is worried, or at least concerned. From his window, he watches Rashid (who has "seen something he wasn't supposed to see") walk away.

2. There's fervent knocking (the buzzer's broken). Without asking who's there, Paul opens the door, just an inch. The visitor is Rashid's aunt, "sick with worry." She pushes the door open and inquires about her nephew, whose real name, we now learn, is Thomas.

3. A doorbell rings and Paul opens the door--much wider this time. "Ah, it's you," he says. It's Thomas, as he was hoping.

4. Someone is pounding on the door. Paul opens the door wide only to find two hoodlums in search of Thomas, who, luckily, is not in the apartment.

These four small moments show us Paul Benjamin's increasing willingness to let people in, literally--into his apartment, into his life. He checks to see who's there; he opens the door just a bit; and he opens it wide, twice. His openness brings the chance for genuine friendship with a surrogate son (who is himself in search of his father). His openness brings great danger as well (the thugs leave him with a bandaged forehead and an arm in a sling). Nothing in the film works to call attention to these moments--there's no swelling music, no close-up on a hand momentously turning a doorknob. The moments are just there, for a viewer who's paying attention. Once you notice them, you have some new ways of thinking about what happens when Granny Ethel opens her door to "Roger Goodwin" in Auggie Wren's Christmas story.

It's appropriate that Smoke itself should highlight the practice of paying attention, of looking carefully at the same thing again and again. Auggie says when showing Paul his "life's work," "You'll never get it if you don't slow down, my friend." Auggie has been taking a photograph of his corner at 8:00 every morning for the past four thousand mornings. It's appropriate too that the one Paul Benjamin novel we see is titled The Mysterious Barricades. Repeated viewing won't help you to catch that detail, though, or the content of the newspaper page at the film's end. You'll never get those details if you don't use the pause button, my friend.

I'm not sure how many films will reward extended attention in the way that Smoke does. But try with a film that you like--you might be surprised by what you notice.


February 7, 2015: I’ve been wondering how I failed to mention François Couperin’s harpsichord piece Les Barricades Mystérieuses [The Mysterious Barricades]. Did I not know about it in 2005. Did Elaine not tell me about it? Here is a performance by Bruno Procopio. Since 2005, I’ve come to love Couperin’s music, via Angela Hewitt’s three discs of the keyboard music.

comments: 2

Marc Ullrich said...

I just watched this wonderful movie and wanted to know the title of the book "Rashid" was reading in that scene you mentioned.
The pause button indeed helped, but still I couldn't figure out the full name. And so I searched the internet and came here by doing exactly what you're post is about.

For me it sums up what the movie is really about. Just another little great story it tells.

Kind regards from Germany

Michael Leddy said...

Marc, thanks for writing. I’m always happy to know when something I’ve written becomes useful long after the writing.

The novel, as you may already know, takes its title from a Couperin piece for harpsichord. I’m surprised to see that I didn’t mention that in the post.