For those who do not know – and if you've never seen or heard of either film then there's no reason why you should – Blue in the Face is a companion piece to Smoke, Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's superb hymn to the pleasures of storytelling. Semi-improvised in just six days at the end of that film's shoot, Blue was greeted on its initial release by a sizeable number of Smoke's admirers – of whom there were many – with some disappointment, dismissed as a largely frivolous piece in which the writer and director were just playing around instead of telling good stories. What they wanted, of course, was Smoke, Part 2, but despite featuring many of the same characters and the key location from the first film, Blue in the Face is a very different work, in style, in pace, in tone, and crucially in intention. It may lack Smoke's depth of character and detailed plotting – indeed, there is barely enough plot here to make up a one-line synopsis (Cigar store proprietor Auggie is dismayed when the store's owner Vinnie announces that he plans to sell up). Nonetheless, it is informative, inventive, breezily paced and – this really matters – a whole lot of FUN.
Smoke was set in Brooklyn, but Brooklyn is exactly what Blue in the Face is all about, a cinematic tribute to this much maligned corner of New York City in which Auggie's Cigar Store is located. A cornucopia of style and content, the film is part comedy-drama and part documentary, the performed elements cut with real-world interviews and addresses to camera, shot on a mixture of 35mm film and home video and edited with the gusto and cheerful disregard for formal structure of a particularly smart graduation film. The content ranges from the factual to the fanciful to the anecdotal, and Wang and Auster flit between them with effortless energy and visible purpose. We are given statistics about the area by members of its ethnically diverse populace, while others celebrate the importance of a good Belgian Waffle and describe just what constitutes "The Brooklyn Attitude." Lou Reed pops up to explain, in hilariously deadpan manner, why Sweden scares him more than New York ("Everybody's drunk...everything works"), Jim Jarmush puts off his final smoke by musing on the way film characters throw away empty guns or villains hold their cigarettes, and the ghost of Jackie Robinson (played almost anonymously by Keith David), the first black player signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers (a baseball team whose departure from the district was clearly a sad moment in Brooklyn history), appears before Vinnie to tell him why he is living in the finest district in the city. Elsewhere a breezy local gang girl tells us how the area will take care of her on her birthday, and one man enthusiastically explains why he spends his spare time removing plastic bags that have become stuck in trees. We even get treated to Vinnie's singing and guitar playing and Auggie's girlfriend Violetta (played with fiery enthusiasm by Mel Gorham) launching into an erotic version of the song 'Fever'.
Every now and again a famous face turns up for a guest apperance, apparently drawn by good word of mouth about the Smoke shoot and the reputations of the director and writer, and each keen to improvise a scene in this offshoot. Rosanne Barr (playing the wife of the store's owner Vinnie) forcefully comes on to Auggie and tries to convince him to take her to Las Vegas; Madonna delivers a singing telegram with a mixture of boredom and distaste; an almost unrecognisable Lili Tomlin comes searching for a waffle house; a strangely dressed Michael J. Fox turns up and twitchily runs a questionnaire on an old friend, his behaviour strongly suggesting a man who is rapidly losing his marbles. At the film's core once again is the excellent Harvey Keitel as Auggie, a friendly and approachable neighbourhood figure around whom the other characters orbit. Particularly pleasing here is the elevation of some of the background characters from Smoke to more substantial parts, highlighting the engagingy oddball nature of the store's regulars.
The documentary elements are designed specifically to inform the outside world of some of Brooklyn's more distinctive and quirky elements, but subtextually this is carried through to the scenes played on the surface for their comic value – Auggie's opening encounter with a would-be bag snatcher, for example, though very funny in itself, also touches on issues of youth crime, community and the liberal attitude to street justice. Even the wafer-thin plot has a resonance that is not specific to this locale – Auggie's shop is a more than a cigar store, it is a place for people to meet, debate and exchange ideas, and its possible closure will clearly be detrimental to the sense of community that the film celebrates. (If you want a UK equivalent, think of the demise of the corner shop and its replacement by out-of-town shopping centres – you won't have to look far to find people with an opinion on how that has affected the neighbourhoods in which they previously resided.)
Possibly the film's greatest achievement, though, is its tirelessly and persuasively positive promotion of Brooklyn as the centre of the universe, THE place to be for anyone with any real sense of fun or community. Auster may be on home home turf, but his co-director Wang never gives even a hint of being an outsider looking dispassionately in. Indeed, watching the film it's hard to believe that he didn't grow up just around the corner from Auggie's store, smoking cigars, feasting on Belgian waffles and dreaming of the day that The Brooklyn Dodgers would return to their home turf.
|sound and vision|
As with their Smoke DVD, Mirimax seem awfully coy about the anamorphic status of the transfer – once again the picture is framed 1.85:1. which is mentioned on the packaging, and anamorphically enhanced, which is not. In other respects the transfer is not quite up to the one on the Smoke disk – colour, contrast and especially sharpness are good, but still just a little short of standard set by the companion release. In addition, a temporary blip occurs halfway through Michael J. Fox's cameo, when there is a sudden drop in picture quality – there is some colour drain and print damage, making this section look more like it was spliced in from a cutting copy.
No 5.1 mix here – the sound is Dolby 2.0, but is a clean mix with a good dynamic range and appropriate for the low budget, do-it-yourself feel of the film.
The Smoke DVD was a small treasure trove of unannounced features, so my hopes were high for a similar surprise on the Blue in the Face disc. Unfortunately, this time the DVD packaging proves true – there are none. A real shame, as a little background on the improvisations and guest appearances would have been welcome.
Given the sheer quality of Smoke, it was somewhat inevitable that some would be down on its light-hearted companion piece, but taken on its own merits Blue in the Face is enormous fun, a lively and inventive entertainment that allows a number of familiar performers to play against type and show off their improvisational skills. It also does a great job of selling Brooklyn as a fun place to be and makes you wish that you had a venue just like Auggie's store nearby to hang out in, especially if it had a damned good Belgian waffle shop nearby. The DVD is less of a treat than the Smoke one, lacking any special features and sporting transfer that a notch below the one found on that disc. But if you have the Smoke DVD then you're probably going to want this too, and as it can also be picked up for a ludicrous £7 on-line it still represents a good value purchase.