Teaching Smoke

David T. Johnson


It’s not unusual for friends and colleagues to look at me quizzically whenever I mention the 1995 film Smoke, whether because they have forgotten the film momentarily or, as is more often the case, never saw it in the first place. And that’s understandable. Directed by Wayne Wang and the writer Paul Auster, and based loosely on Auster’s 1990 New York Times publication “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story,” the film saw fairly modest acclaim on its initial release and has received scant attention in the years since, certainly in comparison to the pantheon of other well-known films from that era of U.S. indie cinema. Yet the film has held an important place for me over the years, especially in the context of my teaching. I look forward to its arrival every semester in a course for students who, while bright and curious, are unlikely ever to become majors, since they are usually committed to other degree paths. The class, “Literature and Film,” introduces students to adaptation studies as part of a general education requirement and uses a series of recurring case studies to practice reading, writing, and speaking about adaptation (and along the way, improve those skills more generally). Smoke, like many of the current films and texts I teach, always elicits a critical mass of good engagement precisely along those lines, even if, as with any other selection, responses to the film vary widely. For that reason, it passes a basic test for why it remains on the syllabus. But if I am being honest, what I most value in teaching Smoke, again and again, is a larger impulse the film embodies, one that encourages us to apply the metaphorical brake pedal, gently, to the machine driving us toward semester’s end so that we might briefly take on its central precept: slow down. Such seemingly simple advice has profound implications on two facets of our conversations over the course of the semester: cultivating our close attention to cinematic and literary detail, and deepening our understanding of the writing process.  Furthermore, that adage ends up informing my own pedagogy perhaps more than anything I can impart to them, as these smaller lessons accumulate into something larger, something that informs my day-to-day engagement in the classroom—a reason somewhat mysterious, even to me, and that, in the spirit of this ethos, I’ll take my time getting to.

First off, for those who haven’t seen Smoke, the film follows a group of characters in Brooklyn, in the summer of 1990, as they (yes) slowly form friendships that enable them to resolve various unsettled issues in their separate lives. Although conflicts occur throughout the film, in Smoke, such events usually happen off-screen, and instead, the film devotes much of its on-screen time to characters at rest, in conversation, where so often, one will tell a story as another (or several others) listen. The film in this way celebrates the dynamics of storytelling as social exchange, within a style attuned to that interest, an aesthetics of longer takes and subtle scoring that, because of their relative minimalism, often elicit a great conversation on cinematic style precisely because not much seems to be happening on a first viewing. One of my favorite scenes to teach in this regard occurs in Paul’s apartment, where he tells Thomas a story over breakfast. In this scene, Paul, comfortably seated in his bathrobe, morning coffee cup balanced on the armrest, takes his time telling Thomas a story about a man who is out skiing one day and, stopping to eat lunch, happens to gaze down into the ice, only to see his own father, frozen there, trapped years ago at a younger age than the man is now. A soft piano score and gradual push-in suggest Thomas’s rising attention throughout the tale as Paul finally reaches its summation: “The boy has become a man, and it turns out that he’s older than his own father.” As stories go, the parable isn’t hard to read: Thomas is trying to reconcile with his own father, who is now a mechanic in upstate New York, and Paul is gently suggesting to Thomas that in many ways he is probably already more mature than his father—or certainly more mature than his father was when he was Thomas’s age. And yet the story is told so carefully—so slowly—I have found myself in semesters past leaning into the screen a bit as we watch. Other scenes use a similar approach, whether it’s Cyrus telling Thomas how he lost his arm, this one staged even more austerely in a static long take outdoors, or Paul’s telling Thomas about Bakhtin’s using his manuscript for tobacco paper (“So he huffed, and he puffed, and little by little, he smoked his book”). The film is bookended, in fact, by larger set-piece tales: Paul’s story about “the weight of smoke” at the outset, an anecdote about how Sir Walter Raleigh cleverly answered a challenge from Queen Elizabeth (again shot in a single take), and Auggie’s Christmas story, virtually identical to the original Auster text and told with great relish by Auggie—in yet another long take—at the end of the film.

Smoke Skier Story Push In 1

Figure 1: Paul begins telling Thomas the story about the skier.












These minimalist anecdotes require that we too, as a class, slow down, and it’s only on a second pass, in many cases, that students begin to notice how stylized that minimalism is, as in the case of the slow push-in on Paul and the accompanying score that slowly draw us in—a realization somewhat delayed and thereby a little more powerful as we work through the scene, together, with students seeing and hearing more and more of what the film is doing as the conversation develops. It’s important, as well, that Paul lets the tale unfold at such a relaxed pace, too—I’m not sure I’m quite able to capture here just how deliberately Paul, played by William Hurt, delivers his lines, lingering over details like the “cheese sandwich” the son eats, as he gazes down into the ice. Thus even at the level of verbal pacing, this scene and many others call on us, watching the film, to slow down, so that we might continue to develop habits of attentiveness that can serve us moving forward, as the semester continues.

Smoke Skier Story Push In 2

Figure 2: Paul continues with his story as the camera slowly pushes in with an accompanying score.












Developing and honing that attentiveness to cinematic detail—and, while not discussed here, literary detail, in Auster’s story—makes it a welcome presence in my class every time I teach it. Yet that’s not the only facet of Smoke that I find valuable. The film’s interest in slowing down and being attentive also ties into semester-long conversations we have about the writing process as well, because I have always found it a challenge to convey just how long it takes to produce a relatively straightforward, well-written essay for a class such as this one. At times, I think we need a different term than revision. Re-vision, at its core, indicates a return of the look but in some ways connotes a singular gesture; rewriting might be closer to what I’m after, since writing, a gerund, is a noun in motion, a word that captures a little bit more of what it means to continue returning to the same piece of writing and to be willing in that process to erase whole sections of, if not all of, an entire draft. I had a student recently who was concerned because she had written her entire essay and then realized she had to start over and write something completely new. She said, somewhat frustrated, that this was common for her. And my response was, this is actually a good thing. Sometimes one has to begin again from a new place, which is not the same as starting the assignment from scratch—the old, abandoned draft will inevitably inform the new one, even if it is nowhere present in the new. And so while semester deadlines rarely allow for the more robust kind of revision that I may try to impart to the students, the emphasis on slowing down in Smoke, seen and heard in Paul’s tale to Thomas, among others, encourages these kinds of conversations to take place on a more regular basis and reminds us that writing, put simply, takes time.

A final aspect of slowing down, one that I draw upon perhaps more than the students, relates to another key scene from the film, this one adapted from the original story. Late one night, Paul catches Auggie right as he is about to close the store; Auggie reopens to sell him his regular cigars. At the register, Paul notices a camera, which Auggie says is his; this leads to a scene at Auggie’s apartment, where, side by side, Auggie leads Paul through a series of photography albums, all of them filled with what seem to be the same picture: Auggie’s cigar shop, photographed every morning at the same time—day after day, week after week, and year after year. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Paul says, and admits to finding the collection “kind of overwhelming.” Auggie, patient, watches Paul flipping aimlessly through the collection before intervening, “You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, my friend.” And as Paul begins to slow down, the film does, too, score once again cuing our interest as well, as the still images take over the frame, one after the next. Although the scene culminates in a dramatic and, indeed, moving moment, when Paul sees an image of his late wife in the album, an arresting brush with loss and mortality that has him in tears by scene’s end, the great bulk of the scene—and, for that matter, what precedes and follows it—is about slowing down, taking notice, and registering the details that routine allows us to gloss over. Because, if we don’t, life slips by, Auggie seems to say, repurposing Macbeth’s resignation to sound a more hopeful note when he recites, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow—time creeps on its petty pace.” Of course, as the scene suggests, it’s one thing for the cigar store to be invisible out of familiarity, but what of the people who walk by it—what are the consequences for seeing them in this way, too? Auster’s story alludes to his own process of discovery in this regard when he describes how the figures in the photographs become recognizable: “And then, little by little, I began to recognize the faces of the people in the background, the passers-by on their way to work, the same people in the same spot every morning, living an instant of their lives in the field of Auggie’s camera.” [1] This may be an old lesson for scholars in the humanities, a basic one about needing to break out of perceptual habits on a regular basis, to engage with our environment, and the people in it, more fully, but it’s no less relevant to our current moment.

For the students I teach—day after day, week after week, and year after year—it’s a lesson worth revisiting, rewriting, time and again. And perhaps that’s the reason I end up reminding myself, with every new screening of Smoke, why I like the movie.  In essence, that imperative to slow down is a reminder to me, as well, at the front of the room, to take the time to allow a given group of students to become individuals, ones with interests, concerns, and questions that may change or remain constant throughout a semester, and in that great yet no less true cliché of pedagogy, teach me something along the way too.

“You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down.” That seems about right, Auggie. And I look forward to repeating that lesson again, too, the next time around—with any luck, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.


David T. Johnson is an Associate Professor of English at Salisbury University, where he teaches courses in cinema studies and co-edits the journal Literature/Film Quarterly. He is the author of Richard Linklater (University of Illinois 2012) and co-editor of the manuscript Film, Teaching, Love: Cinephilia in and outside the Classroom.




[1] Paul Auster, “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story,” The New York Times, Dec. 25, 1990.



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