Reel Time Short Stories: Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story / Smoke
Posted December 18, 2011on:
There’s no let-up here from the tinittus jangle of sleighbells and Chris Rea: our series on the short story in cinema continues with a Christmas special. As with Graham Greene in an earlier post, this is a case of the story’s author, Paul Auster, adapting his own work for the screen. Whereas Greene’s screenplay for The Fallen Idol was reasonably faithful to the structure, if not the ending, of his source, The Basement Room, Auster’s little Christmas fable from 1990 snowballed into plots and characters big enough for two movies, both of which were directed by Wayne Wang and released in 1995.
As long as there’s one person to believe it, there’s no story that can’t be true.
Auster wrote Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story as a short story commission for the New York Times. As a novelist who doesn’t particularly deal in the regulation sentiments of Christmas, he was finding the commission something of a poisoned chalice. We know this because, in the course of telling the story, Auster tells us about his difficulties. The story he ended up with, and the means by which he came about it, forms the conclusion of Smoke, which stars William Hurt as “Paul”, a writer living and working in Brooklyn. Knowing his friend and loyal customer is stuck for a good idea for his commission, the proprietor of Paul’s neighbourhood cigar store, Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), offers to tell him “the best Christmas story you ever heard” which concerns an episode from Auggie’s own past. He takes Paul for lunch and tells him the story and then we see Paul’s typewriter set to work.
The layering of stories upon stories, the act of writing commenting on the act of writing, is a common feature in Auster’s work. Influenced as a young writer by hardboiled detective fiction, Samuel Becket and existentialism, and passionate about his home borough of Brooklyn, Auster spins out narratives that revolve around mystery, mortality and the simple, social act of telling a story. This is the meaning of life and death as chewed over with a guy in a bar. Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story is possibly a true story given to Auster by his friend, to whom he’s given the name Auggie to protect his identity; it’s possibly a complete fabrication by Auggie; and it’s possibly Auster’s invention from start to finish. Like the story itself, it’s all about which story you want to believe.
In Smoke, and its companion piece, Blue In The Face – a largely ad hoc sequel made because everyone was having such a great time making the initial feature (or is that another story we’d like to believe?) – Auggie is given that name for keeps, and also given a life, a set of regulars at the cigar store, and a past, all of which meanders into view to be observed by Paul, the writer. Both films, whether through Auster’s facility with character or Wang and his cast’s unapologetically loving treatment of the script, deal with the idea of story as a thing experienced. We learn about the characters by spending time with them, just as Auggie learns about the characters who pass his storefront by taking a photograph of the same view every morning at the same time. This way, the short story’s mannerism of being a narrative stumbled upon or picked up from somewhere or someone is maintained. While some of Auster’s tales – Leviathan, The Brooklyn Follies, Mr Vertigo – are driven by compulsive page-turning narratives, others are more entwined in the storytelling act. It’s this latter Auster that’s in charge here.
Auggie’s story is told twice in Smoke. There’s the straight re-telling in the diner that replicates the exchange in the original story, down to Auggie’s enigmatic smile at the end to sow doubt in Paul’s mind as to the veracity of what he’s just been told. Then, after we see the first moments of the typescript that will end up in the New York Times, we are taken back to a silent, monochrome 1972, where Keitel’s Auggie (wearing a hairpiece that conjures up more 70s memories of Dick Emery’s idiot bovver boy character, Gaylord), is shown in montage chasing a young shoplifter and finding the boy’s wallet containing the address of his blind Granny Ethel. Tom Waits’ Innocent When You Dream rumbles, rasps and soars over the images of Ethel feeling Auggie’s face and choosing to recognise him as her wayward grandson; Auggie playing along with the role and sharing Christmas dinner with the old lady in a soft-hearted deception similar to that of the narrator’s mother in Frode Grytten’s Sing Me To Sleep; and then stealing one of the stolen cameras that the grandson has stashed in Ethel’s apartment.
Although handled with love, Auster’s original short story is not treated with excessive care in its expansion and adaptation for the cinema. It works on the basis that to read is to re-tell and to hear a story is to steal that story and pass it off, in some dimension, as your own – so it’s natural than an adaptation will embellish, and improvise upon, the original material. It also understands that even the truest story is a adaptation of memory and that, in the stories we tell ourselves and each other, ‘true’ is rarely the prime consideration: this Christmas will be different; next year’s going to be our year; this smoke is definitely going to be my last…
‘…Every time she asked me a question about how I was, I would lie to her, I told her I’d found a good job working in a cigar store. I told her I was about to get married. I told her a hundred pretty stories, and she made like she believed every one of them. “That’s fine, Robert,” she would say, nodding her head and smiling, “I always knew things would work out for you.”…’