18 May 2002 | csm23
The beauty of the commonplace, if we can see it
Every once in a while, a film comes down the pike that is so refreshing, so rich, you'd swear it was inspired by some immortal spirit who condescended to take human form in order to share her perspective with us. Smoke is one such film.
Although there's nothing particularly special about each of several main characters, seemingly picked at random off of a New York street corner, they come off as noble, even heroic, in spite of the fact that their collective problems amount to nothing more than the usual garden variety. The main character, for example (Auggie Wren, played by Harvey Keitel) is a tobacconist around whose shop the main characters revolve. He has an unusual habit: every morning, at the same time of the day, he photographs the same street corner, and puts the pictures together in a series of albums. It's time-lapse photography on an enormous scale. He can't explain why he does it. He just needs to do it. And it's a really marvelous device for delivering the movie's main theme: everything that matters, all the meaning in the world that can be condensed from holy books and vows and catechisms and poems, is right there before us. We just need to have the eyes to see it. The things we tend to dismiss as prosaic, out of familiarity, emerge from the pages of his album as special, wonderful, enchanted.
There's a great line in the movie about how Sir Walter Raleigh measured the weight of smoke. He took a cigar, weighed it, smoked it, and weighed the ash. The difference between the cigar and the ash was the weight of the smoke. Although he new nothing of the chemistry of combustion, he did the best that he could, based upon what he knew. Likewise, Smoke is a movie about people with limited knowledge and perspective. Their assumptions are often wrong; but, they do the best that they can. A small, seemingly insignificant piece of information can, and does, change everything.