Street scenes

Usually, Harvey Keitel isn't a man who enjoys promoting his movies. But he seems positively eager to talk about Smoke--even if that means having to talk about himself.

By turns gregarious and evasive, thoughtful and emotional, he comes across in private conversation as more nimbly intelligent and self-effacingly mellow than most of the characters he plays on screen.

But when Keitel begins to speak about Smoke, he invokes the spirit of another character--his character in the film. Slowly, surely, he becomes Auggie Wren, the laid-back, story-spinning cigar store proprietor, slyly sharing secrets as if he believes no one but you will ever understand what he's talking about.

A collaboration between writer Paul Auster (The Music of Chance), director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), and more than a dozen gifted character actors, Smoke outwardly concerns the people whose lives revolve around a small Brooklyn cigar store. But it's actually about more complex things: redemption, forgiveness, responsibility, the unexpected delight of a new friendship, the allure of a great cigar.

The project's microcosmic attention to human life is what attracted Keitel in the first place--the idea that, in his character's endearingly formal words, "If one observes the people around in one's own neighborhood, in those comings and goings will appear everything one needs to be informed about how to live a good life."

Does Keitel share that view? He pauses, as though surprised by the question--then even more surprised by the answer forming in his mind.

"You see," Keitel continues, "I still feel I grew up in an environment where there is as much as you need to know to live the life as you will discover anyplace else on the planet. I suppose what I'm still pondering is, where do you go after you have learned what there is to be learned in that neighborhood environment? What do you do on the journey beyond that?"

Auggie Wren, the character Keitel plays in Smoke, would not know the answer to such questions. The gregarious owner-operator of the Brooklyn Cigar Co. knows little of life outside his own city block.

His world is rigidly circumscribed, but he loves it nonetheless--so much that he goes to the trouble of keeping a photographic record of its history as seen from the sidewalk of his shop. Each morning at 8 o'clock for the past several years, Wren has taken a single photograph from precisely the same spot of the neighborhood street scene outside his corner store. By now, he has 14 albums full of these pictures, each containing a year's work.

One evening, Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), the blocked novelist who is Auggie's favorite customer, is a guest of honor for a very private exhibition of these photos. As Paul impatiently pages through Auggie's albums, he tries very hard to be polite. But all the photos--hundreds and hundreds of photos--of the very same corner, at the very same time. What gives?

Auggie smiles the conspiratorial smile of someone sharing a deep secret with a fellow artist.

"You'll never get it," he tells Paul, "if you don't slow down, my friend."
That is both the message and the method of Smoke. The closer Paul looks at Auggie's seemingly similar photographs, the easier it is for him to recognize revealing details, subtle shadings--and, in one heart-wrenching instance, the sort of immortality in art that is cruelly denied in life.

The longer we remain in the company of Auggie, Paul, and all the vividly drawn and robustly acted characters who populate Smoke, the easier it is for director Wayne Wang and novelist-turned-screenwriter Paul Auster (The Music of Chance, Mr. Vertigo) to enchant us with their pure-bred shaggy-dog story.

The movie is loosely based on "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story," an acclaimed short story that Auster originally wrote for--no kidding--the op-ed page of The New York Times. Wang and the author have artfully expanded the original narrative, significantly adding to the cast of characters without diluting the quirkily anecdotal appeal of the original. The movie is an episodic ensemble piece, tartly spiced with a touch of William Saroyan here, a dab of Eugene O'Neill there--don't worry, it's never that heavy--and a light sprinkling of Damon Runyon throughout.

Auggie's cigar store and the apartment upstairs are just two centers of interest. The narrative also shuffles over to Paul's apartment, where the author offers a safe haven to a loquacious teen runaway, and a service station in upstate New York, where the runaway tries to make contact with a father (Forest Whitaker) who may hate himself more than he could ever love a son.

The easygoing Auggie might seem much more capable of handling par-ental responsibilities. But the cigar store phil-osopher is caught entirely off-guard when his brassy ex-wife (Stock-ard Channing) shows up after 18 years to announce that he has a daughter he never knew about. (At least, she thinks Auggie is the father. That's her story, and she's sticking to it.)

In any case, the troubled young woman (Ruby in Paradise star Ashley Judd, in a vivid one-scene cameo) is a full-blown crackhead who's down and out in an inner-city tenement. And she is none too eager to be saved by anyone-- especially a father she has never met.

In synopsis, Smoke sounds like it has too much plot for two movies. (Actually, there is a second film--Wang, Auster, and Keitel enjoyed working together so much that, after completing Smoke, they dashed off a companion piece, the largely improvised Blue in the Face, in just five days.) On screen, however, nothing seems forced or schematic; everything feels relaxed and natural.

The very randomness of what happens--which, to be sure, is more apparent than real--provides the suspense and narrative momentum. The story's various strands are ingeniously looped and intertwined, and the characters continually surprise the audience and themselves while they sort through the tangles. Much like the current Bridges of Madison County--a picture that it resembles in no other significant way--Smoke is the work of filmmakers who aren't afraid to take their time.

The movie abounds in grace notes and small pleasures. The two best moments are practically dialogue-free: Rashid, the runaway and budding con artist, and Paul, the newly unblocked writer, sit together watching a baseball game on a battered TV set, silently enjoying each other's company. Later, in the wake of an emotionally and physically violent confrontation, the two men cap off a picnic lunch and quietly end their hostilities with a couple of good cigars.

In a summer movie season in which pell-mell pacing and instant gratification are all that most commercial movies have to offer, Smoke attempts nothing less than to speak directly to our hearts and minds about the things that really matter.

Harvey Keitel's story would not be out of place if told by a character in Smoke.

He was born in 1939 to immigrant parents--father from Poland, mother from Romania--who operated a luncheonette on Avenue X in Brooklyn. One of three children, Keitel lived in a second-floor apartment in Brighton Beach. It was a different, more trusting time, when a family wouldn't think twice about going down to the beach with blankets and sleeping by the sea on summer nights.

Even so, not all of Keitel's Brighton Beach memories are happy ones."In my neighborhood as a boy," he recalls, "I used to go down to this bakery and buy bread. And there were men and women there with numbers tattooed on their arms. "Yeah," Keitel adds, sighing, "it's like I said: there was a lot to learn in that neighborhood."

As a boy, Keitel nurtured an active imagination and affected a poolroom bravado. But his best attempts at maintaining a sub-zero panache were repeatedly undone by his chronic stutter.

High school was torture. His grades were poor, and he dreaded being asked by teachers to speak in class. So Keitel transferred to a vocational school. And when that didn't work out, he joined the U.S. Marines.

"Fortunately," Keitel says, "Vietnam didn't happen until a few years after I came out. But I have to admit guys join the Marines looking for a war. So, at the time, as a young man, I regretted missing out on it, and pondered reenlisting.

While in the Marines, Keitel lost his stutter and gained a high school equivalency diploma. As a civilian, he sold shoes for a while, then studied to become a court stenographer. While working at Manhattan Criminal Court, he was encouraged by a fellow court reporter to join him in signing up for acting classes. Keitel agreed--then spent the next few months wrestling with his old insecurities before he dared to go onstage.

Fortunately, Keitel was taken under the wing of Frank Corsaro, a patient and encouraging mentor who subsequently became artistic director of the Actors Studio, a wellspring of Stanislavskian "method" acting in the United States.

By 1965, Keitel was ready to make his professional debut, in an off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard's Up to Thursday. Later the same year, he answered an audition call for a movie to be directed by a New York University film student. The movie was a semi-autobiographical drama titled Who's That Knocking At My Door? Its director and screenwriter was a 22-year-old boy wonder named Martin Scorsese.

"Marty and I had a very similar sense of humor," Keitel says. "And we seemed to possess a certain common denominator...I think we saw each other as being brothers of a kind, belonging to some secret society which I haven't got a name for."

The two men clicked as friends and collaborators while filming on weekends during the winter of 1965-66. (During the week, Keitel says, "We had to earn money to buy food and pay the rent.") When Who's That Knocking finally made it to a few theaters in 1967, reviews were mixed: Variety dismissed it as "sexploitation," but Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert dubbed it "a new American classic."

Because of its nudity and relatively frank treatment of sexuality, the movie ran mostly in adults-only cinemas. Still, it enjoyed at least some theatrical exposure. Even less was seen of the second Scorsese-Keitel collaboration, a 1970 student protest drama called Street Scenes.

But then came Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese's audacious and electrifying tale of Catholic guilt and self- destructive posturing in New York's Little Italy, in which Keitel played an apprentice loan shark who fears the wrath of God, the wages of sin, and the recklessness of his best buddy, Johnny Boy, played by an up-and-coming actor named Robert DeNiro. The movie made Scorsese a red-hot property and ignited the stardom of DeNiro, who garnered top billing.

Unfortunately, the movie and all the glowing notices it generated did relatively little for Keitel. Buoyed by rave reviews, Keitel went to Hollywood, did some TV guest spots, and waited for the next big movie offer. Nothing happened.

Through Herculean efforts in a series of good, bad, and indifferent movies, Keitel earned the reputation of being an actor's actor. Trouble is, he did a lot of his acting in minor movies by major directors--Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch, Brian De Palma's Wise Guys, Tony Richardson's The Border, and, most humiliatingly, Stanley Donen's Saturn 3. (Donen hated Keitel's Method-style line readings so much, the director hired another actor to dub the actor's dialogue.)

Between 1976, when he made a chilling impact as Jodie Foster's surly pimp in Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and 1991, when he scored the hat-trick of triple triumphs in Mortal Thoughts, Thelma and Louise, and Bugsy, Keitel made nearly 30 movies. Maybe six or seven of them are worth a trip to your neighborhood video store.

But to hear Keitel talk, he regrets none of them. He's not bitter about having to wait more than 20 years before being "discovered" by mainstream moviegoers.

"Look," he says with a wide grin, "America was quite old when it got discovered.

"Really," Keitel continues, "I just look at it like I've been in the process of being. And now, it's right. I don't think there's any one time for one to be--quote, unquote--discovered. It's up to us to discover ourselves.

"Right now, I feel blessed. And I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth. When I look back at my 20s...those were great times, those were miserable times. But either way, they were right times. And now--this is the right time, too."

The good times began in earnest in 1991, when Keitel, long a favorite of critics and cultists, broke out into the mainstream. He earned his first Oscar nomination (as Best Supporting Actor for Bugsy), and endeared himself to audiences by almost managing to talk Thelma and Louise out of their Grand Canyon free fall.

By the following year, his critical and financial success began snowballing. He was considered "bankable" enough to get Quentin Tarantino's debut film, the low-budget heist picture Reservoir Dogs, financed almost entirely on the strength of his name above the title.

Keitel is enormously proud of his no-holds-barred work in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, which came out that same year--a garishly symbolic drama in which he plays a burned-out New York cop who uses too much cocaine, bets too much with loan sharks, and imagines he sees Jesus Christ in a church where a young nun has been raped by two crackhead kids. (Keep this one away from Bob Dole.) Many critics--including some who should have known better--shared his enthusiasm for the film.

But ticket buyers and Academy Award voters vastly preferred the following year's The Piano, Jane Campion's extraordinary tale of eroticism and transcendence in 19th-century New Zealand. Holly Hunter earned an Oscar for her mesmerizing portrayal of a mute mail-order bride from Scotland whose straitlaced husband (Sam Neill), a New Zealand colonist, can neither control nor understand her. As her frankly worshipful lover, an illiterate settler who recognizes (and is turned on by) her enigmatic magic, Keitel offered a brilliant performance of uncommon sensitivity and slow-burning sensuality. For this, and for the uninhibited lovemaking scenes he shared with Hunter, Keitel was dubbed "the thinking woman's sex symbol" by more than one appreciative viewer. Asked about this dubious compliment, Keitel looks slightly uneasy. "I have nothing to say about that," he says. "All I will say is, The Piano was written and directed by a woman I consider to be a goddess."

Keitel will say even less about his private life, especially when the questions stray too near the still-sensitive subject of his divorce from actress Lorraine Bracco, with whom he broke up nearly five years ago. On the other hand, Keitel is willing--even eager--to talk about his nine-year-old daughter, Stella.

"I'm concerned about what she thinks of me," he admits. "I'm concerned about what she thinks about my principles, of my ethos. Those things concern me greatly. They are a joy to teach her: what her father thinks, what her father believes in. That's such a delight."

From such simple things, Harvey Keitel insists, one gains the kind of knowledge that Wayne Wang and Paul Auster impart in Smoke.

"I feel that Paul wrote this story asking us to look at what's right in front of us," Keitel muses. "Because right in front of us is everything that one needs to know. Now, whether that's true or not doesn't really matter. What matters is that there is a lot for us to know right in front of us. But only if we avail ourselves of the opportunities."

Joe Leydon, former movie critic for the Houston Post and Dallas Observer, is a free-lance writer based in Houston.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >