As the story goes, Wayne Wang's Smoke, that fascinating loaf of life set in and around a Brooklyn cigar store, got such a grip on its authors and actors amid last year's shooting that no one wanted to let go. So they didn't. With just six more days of filming (and an additional 2 million bucks) Wang, novelist Paul Auster and an ever-changing cast made a highly extemporaneous second movie called Blue in the Face. If it generates some of the excitement of improvised jazz, it also shows us the grandiose ego trips actors will take when given free rein to ham and mug. In fact, when word about this project got around artistic New York, it suddenly became fashionable to drop by the party and contribute a ten-minute sequence, as in those freewheeling, Warholian times of yore.
Thus does this plotless "instant movie" feature a monologue by rocker Lou Reed comparing the relative social safety of Sweden with the Big Apple, an over-the-top singing telegram delivered by Madonna and a turn by Lily Tomlin as a scruffy homeless man obsessed with Belgian waffles. Roseanne, still a bad fit for the big screen, pops up as (what else?) a carping housewife about to split for Las Vegas. So long. Don't forget to write.
Does the whole business sound a little like Interpretation 101? It is. No one impersonates a swan or sticks a lampshade on his head, but you better bring your deathless love of actors with you to the multiplex.
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It also helps if you're crazy about Brooklyn. Working with rough scenarios--something Robert Altman has done to better effect--Auster and Wang (The Joy Luck Club) also pepper their experiment with scraps of music, local maps and charts, and little verbal riffs by ordinary citizens-in-the-street about ethnic diversity in the borough, stolen-car statistics and other assorted minutiae. Brooklyn-born Harvey Keitel, who anchored Smoke as Auggie, the cigar-store proprietor who took a new photograph of his street corner every morning, is still around, but he's upstaged by the film's stubborn celebrity hunt. Who's coming on next? Giancarlo Esposito? Fellow filmmaker Jim Jarmusch? Hey, there's Michael J. Fox as a pollster who may also belong to a cult. And get a load of RuPaul, New York's most famous drag queen.
Wang and Auster got their title from the notion that if you put a character in front of a camera, that character will talk until he or she is "blue in the face." Don't worry. It happens. Even the taciturn horse players from Smoke get their chance to emote here.
Years from now (maybe weeks from now), the best way to see the superb Smoke and its loose-limbed companion piece will probably be a double-feature binge. Maybe then all the exquisite interconnections of the two parts will become apparent. For the moment, though, the ship remains far more impressive than the dinghy.