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Blue in the Face

Directed by Wayne Wong

Conceived as a companion piece to Smoke, the movie directed by Wayne Wong and scripted by novelist Paul Auster, which has just finished a long run in The Screen, Blue In The Face is directed jointly by Wong and Auster, with situations created by the same pair, in collaboration with the actors. Smoke wrapped on a Friday, and production began on Blue In The Face the following Monday morning, retaining the available cast members and technical team, and holding on to the chief location, a tobacco shop called The Brooklyn Cigar Company. But while Smoke was serious and low-key, Blue In The Face is funny and upbeat. Unlike Smoke, which was very carefully scripted and involved very little improvisation, this second film is almost completely extemporaneous. Indeed, its title was derived from the proposition that once the cameras rolled and the characters started speaking, they would talk until they were ‘blue in the face’. (Presumably, one also goes ‘blue in the face’ from smoking too much.) While this collective approach to creating drama is usually laden with pitfalls, here it works very well indeed.




Harvey Keitel is still Auggie Wren, proprietor of the tobacco shop, and various wacky, weird and wonderful scenarios, scenes and situations are played out in and around his premises. His conversation with Jim Jarmusch, a man who has decided to quit smoking but have his last cigarette with Auggie, is hilarious. An ex-smoker myself, I still think cigarettes are sublime, and smokers are cool, particularly American ones, considering all the hassle they have to put up with about their habit. If you meet an educated American who still smokes, send out your friendship antennae immediately. Lou Reed is brilliantly laconic when being interviewed about his childhood memories and the city he lives in (did you know that he now considers his future to lie in the manufacture of eyeglasses?), and Mel Gorham is suitably fiery and Hispanic as Violet, Auggie’s girlfriend.
Many people who you wouldn’t expect to turn in good performances, like Michael J Fox and Roseanne, do just that, while others of whom more might have been expected, like Madonna, disappoint. My only criticism of the film is that it’s too traditionally corny the way the said Madonna is held back and only appears towards the end, while talented rising star Mira Sorvino is wheeled out in the first scene and then forgotten.
Given a shooting schedule of less than a week, and made on a modest budget (even by the standards of current American independent cinema), Blue In The Face is a paean to a particular place, Brooklyn, and a particular pastime, smoking. “Why are you still smoking?” the interviewer asks Lou. “I’m not inhaling,” he replies. ‘Feel good’ is, I believe, the phrase.

First published in The Big Issues









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