Wayne Wang by bell hooks

BOMB 53 Fall 1995
Issue 53 053  Fall 1995
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The Buddhist concept of “maitri” is translated as loving kindness by many teachers here in the West. In The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodron shares that we are here to study ourselves, to live in a spirit of wakefulness. To that end we need to be curious and inquisitive, alive and open, and it is that path that will lead to “the fruition of maitri-playfulness.” Her words resonate in my mind as I think about the unique magical aspects of Wayne Wang’s work. All his early films—Chan Is MissingDim Sum— and the more recent Hollywood films—The Joy Luck ClubSmokeBlue in the Face—reveal a passion for ordinary detail, the dailiness of life. Wang’s work is not documentary realism, instead he works to capture the meditative spirit of stillness and reflection that is often present in all our lives but goes unnoticed. He takes the fascination with small details, ordinary tasks that hint at a larger metaphysics. It is easy to see why the narrative of Smoke would intrigue him.

So in enclosed space, with not a great deal of attention to a large environmental context, Smoke reminds us of the way in which our lives are shaped and circumscribed by landscapes over which we have very little control. Wang juxtaposes those environments with the inner landscape—that place in the self where we can imagine and thus invent and reinvent ourselves. This spirit of tenderness is awesomely present in Blue in the Face, and is personified in the characters of Jimmy Rose (Jared Harris), who is a mixture of late bloomer, idiot savant, lovable “retard”; the Rapper (Malik Yoba) who is a combination scammer, street hustler, and philosopher; in the passionate and poetic longing of Violet (Mel Gorham), who desires fulfillment in love and cannot find it; and in Dot (a really powerful, moving performance by Roseanne). In Blue in the Face Wang teases out the complex inner layers of the psyche in a way that is marvelous.

This sense of magical complexity and the possibility of playful serendipity, of the beauty in the ordinary, is precisely what is not present in Smoke. When I first read the screenplay of Smoke(by Paul Auster) I found it such a moving narrative. The story’s insistence that we can never really “judge” another person because we do not know enough about the path that they have walked, is a powerful intervention in a culture where we are so socialized to judge by appearances. And Wang’s decision to give racial diversity and identification to the characters, when this was not present in the original story, was all the more compelling. Evil cannot simply be designated as a characteristic of one group, and that which appears to be a lawless act might have a positive outcome. But when I saw Smoke, I was stunned by the way in which all the usual racial and sexual stereotypes are played out: the good guys are white, the bad guys black, loose women are working class or females of color, and on and on… A screenplay that was skillfully deconstructive, challenging of the process by which we make superficial judgments, comes to the screen in a drama that not only does not allow us to really see the inner landscape of the characters, but undermines this radical message.

Intrigued and enraged by Smoke, I longed to talk with Wayne Wang about his filmmaking process. And when I saw Blue in the Face, which really draws upon the themes and environment of Smoke and achieves a level of artistic enchantment, I was eager to talk with Wayne about the collaboration of characters and personalities that led to these films (there were a large crew of big time actors in these works).

Seeing both films sheds light on the process of art created as collaboration, when the mix of marketplace concerns and artistic visions converge and collide. It took four years for Smoke to emerge, and only a few short months for Blue in the Face. The end result reminds us that the act of creating work is always both a manifestation of the individual artistic vision and the way the work acquires a life of its own in the process. Making art, making a film, is still an act of creation that reminds us of the power of mystery, for the outcome is ultimately unpredictable.

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Paul Auster and Wayne Wang. Photo by K.C. Bailey.

bell hooks You started with eclectic work like Chan Is Missing, and you’ve gone on to move between different ethnicities and cultures. Could you talk a little bit about what has been the force behind that movement?

Wayne Wang It was growing up in Hong Kong, being Chinese, living under a British colony, watching Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies, listening to The Eagles… (laughter) I’ve always been, in a sense, on the border, because my parents were always very Chinese. At the same time they wanted me to be more American, more, you know, “Western.” I was exposed to movies, TV, music from everywhere—and I was always dreaming that I would be driving in California with The Eagles…or surfing with Jan and Dean. (laughter) So I’ve really been sort of schizophrenic and torn as far back as I can remember.

bh I dreamed I would be hanging out in New York City with Jack Kerouac, but I never realized that dream. It’s fascinating to me that you were able to stay with yours.

WW When I finished high school, my parents said, you ought to go to America and go to college. It was my chance to get away and realize that dream. So I took a boat, and I remember the trip was really long and boring. Finally we got to the Golden Gate Bridge (this is 1967). I had a little transistor radio and I began to pick up the radio stations—there were like 20, 30, rock stations. I was in heaven. There was only one English radio station in Hong Kong, so to have twenty of them all playing rock music…the dream was coming true for me.

bh Where did African American culture fit in? Was it in the picture yet?

WW Not yet. When I first came, I had no contact with black culture or the black community. I had a lot of stereotypes about blacks because the only exposure I had was really through movies, and most of the representations of black people in movies are really distorted. I went to a junior college in Los Altos, and it was almost completely white. In my second year, my English teacher’s main text for that class was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I almost flunked because I had no idea what Malcolm X was talking about. It wasn’t until I went to the California College of Arts and Crafts and I started meeting a lot more black students that things changed. As they began to explain things about themselves, I began to understand what Malcolm X was about, and what the African American community was about.

bh It is interesting, because a lot of the writing I do is about what kind of mind-set we need to put ourselves in when we do representations of cultures in which we don’t belong. It seems that much more than other filmmakers who cross that line in making great independent films, and successful Hollywood films, you think about the question of appropriation.

WW The question of appropriation is pretty complicated. For myself, I don’t feel possessive of it, so to speak. I mean I don’t agree with people who say that you can only make films about blacks if you’re black, you can only make films about Chinese if you’re Chinese. The criteria for me is for the person to be open-minded, and to do their homework on that culture. As long as there are also avenues and opportunities for the minority cultures to represent themselves. This is very important. Because otherwise, you don’t have any so-called, true representation. For example, as long as Chinese Americans are able, and have the resources to make films about Chinese Americans, then I think it’s fine for a white American director to make a film about the Chinese American community, because it’s another perspective from the outside looking in.

bh The filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha has done this. One of her early films focused on African culture and she was often questioned by African Americans about how she positioned herself. There was often a resentment behind those questions about what her place was in this process. For me, it’s a failure to understand subjectivity, and what freedom is, and to understand that part of our freedom is having the capacity to imagine with other cultures. But the dilemma seems to be, as you touched on, the whole question of when representations reproduce stereotypes. And I actually had such a different sense of this in the two films you’ve done recently, Smoke and Blue in the FaceSmoke, much more, seemed to run the risk of working in very conventional Hollywood representations, both in the representations of gendered relationships and in the representations of ethnicities. I’m thinking of the Latina woman character, Violet, and the character of Rashid, who is a very problematic character for me.

WW How is he problematic?

bh I felt that the script of Smoke was a very compelling story—an incredible screenplay. It was the type of story that had the potential magic of a film that is sentimental at heart, that its thrust from beginning to end is sentimental. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the potential for a powerful impact. The heart of it was questioning stereotypes, saying that the things that you imagine about where a person comes from, you may not actually know until you know their history. Actually this is one of the few films in which I felt the casting actually undermined what was the more subversive power of the screenplay itself.

WW Are you just referring to Rashid?

bh No, I thought the black actors in the film were weak.

WW Including Forest Whittaker?

bh Including Forest Whittaker whom I’m a tremendous fan of.

WW Weak in what ways?

bh In that they seem to be caricatures, they seem to be parodied. You know it’s difficult not to contrast Smoke with Blue in the Face, but Blue in the Face had this really laid back quality, almost as if, “We don’t have to overplay, we can just be cool and it’s like someone filming us right now, we can just be.” But Smoke — I guess it’s what happens when you cast incredibly famous people with people who have not yet made their careers. The black characters were like soda that was flat.

WW When we were auditioning, we saw a lot of good young black actors that were sodas with a lot of hot air. It was like gassed all over—they were really jive-y and rappy, and very modern. I hated that because you see that so often in Hollywood movies. The idea of Rashid was to portray a character who was from the projects, but his aunt brought him up differently. He had a great wit with his language that did not resort to “Hey man, fuck you man, and shit, man.” That was very important to me and Paul. So we picked an actor who fit those characteristics. You may call it flat, but that’s the character, and in that sense it goes against what I think is the worst stereotype of young blacks today.

bh Something was missing. He lacked street savvy. And I was actually deeply fascinated by the film’s whole context of undermining certain stereotypes. This is the hardest type of film to carry off, because there’s not a lot of action.

WW There’s no action! (laughter)

bh But Blue in the Face is just an exquisite example of how you can be deeply moved by very subtle things. Like that moment when Jimmy says, “Do you need a hug?” It’s so perfect and there’s nothing fake about it, you don’t feel that it’s corny. I wonder if it’s the difference between independent filmmaking and when one is pitching to a larger, more diverse audience. How did you experience it as a filmmaker? You made a major Hollywood hit, do you feel like there’s a difference?

WW There’s a lot of difference. It’s very, very difficult for independent films in America to exist today. I believe that the truly independent films are completely financed outside of the studios. It is very hard to raise the money to make true independent films. The filmic representation has to be experimental and interesting rather than recreating the Hollywood language. So the question is how do you create, or recreate the independent movie. In my mind, I don’t even know what independent films are any more, if they exist at all.

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Wayne Wang, Harvey Keitel, and Paul Auster on the set.

bh Do you feel like it would be hard for you today to make a Chan Is Missing, because certainly Chan Is Missing has a lot of those subversive qualities that you just described.

WW I think that I could still do it—but I would have to do it in video or something, because once I pick up a movie camera unions are going to be on my back to say, you know, this has gotta be a union shoot, and all of a sudden it’s a five million dollar movie. So to be subversive and to do it the way I did Chan Is Missing, the only way I could probably do it is on the fly. But whether it gets distributed or not is another story—I made a film called Life Is Cheap, which I had to distribute myself It was a very subversive, very interesting independent movie but I could not get arrested for three years after that. (laughter)

bh One of the magical elements in Chan Is Missing is the way you conceptualize space and detail. The cigar store becomes a world in and of itself. That quality of attention to not just face, but the way details are focused on in space: the way we see the drawing in Blue in the Face when Giancarlo Esposito’s character’s old college friend (Michael J. Fox’s character) is chatting with him and we see by his doodling that he’s not listening. That attention to detail affects how you respond to the scene and has nothing to do with language. Can you talk a little bit about that?

WW A lot of people ask me why I’m so obsessed with the environment, with empty rooms, with inanimate objects. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time by myself at home. I had very little to play with, I didn’t have many games, toys or guns or whatever. So I spent a lot of time sitting in empty rooms staring at the space and working my imagination. I would stare at the dining room where we ate and imagine dinner. So those rooms were what gave me my imagination and my fantasies. I invested them with real emotions and history, too.

bh It’s also the experience of the post-modern, multicultural standpoint that we were describing earlier, and also the immigrant experience. Because I think that space for immigrants takes on different meanings, the details become crucial to your survival.

WW And the details of how they organize that space are really important. A friend of mine used to do research on how the elderly in Chinatown organized their space. They usually put their beds against the wall, the long side of it, and then they would put newspaper along the wall, because the newspaper would somehow cut the cold, the ying chi, that’s coming off of the wall. Those little details are culturally very important to me. When you first see a space it’s not loaded with meaning. You haven’t seen people in it, nothing has happened in it. The first time you see an empty space, it is probably as pure as it can be. But as you see people interact in that space over time it gains more meaning, and a different kind of meaning emerges from that image. It goes back to the whole theory of montage. That’s something that I used a lot in Dim Sum: the dining room, the dining room with people, then the dining room with the whole family, and then each family member leaving until it’s empty again.

bh And we see that with William Hurt’s character’s apartment in Smoke. In lots of films you see these fabulous apartments in New York City, even if the character is supposed to be working-class, the space is incredible. That’s not how any of our spaces really are. And I think that was a really tender space because it had a quality that was very real, for many of us who are writers.

WW A lot of credit goes to William Hurt. After they designed it, Bill went in for many days and tried to work in there, tried to sit, tried to throw things around, you know, so that it became a real, lived in space. That’s really the only way to do it. In Smoke there are the two shots of the Brooklyn trains: one leaving Manhattan going into Brooklyn at the beginning of the film, and the other of that train snaking through Brooklyn at the end. Those were the only two shots of the environment. Normally in a film you establish the place, you shoot the outside of the house, and then you go inside the house. In Smoke, I consciously stripped away all exteriors except for those two train shots, which, in a way, anchor the exterior world in which the characters exist.

bh In Blue in the Face that exterior world is very much foregrounded, not so much by visual space, but by the way people talk about space in an almost magical, surrealist, poetic way. In many ways Blue in the Face is a film which restores to dying American cities some of the integrity of human life in those cities. It seemed particularly poignant that it is New York City at this particular historical moment, when the very idea of the city is under attack—when so many people don’t see the city as a place of magic, or a place of community, only as this place of crime and stereotype. Blue in the Face was very counter-hegemonic in its way of saying that the city still has its integrity and its force.

WW Particularly Brooklyn. When we were location scouting for Smoke, I felt there was a strong sense of a city as a community in Brooklyn. New York City also has it, there are certain pockets of it, but Brooklyn has more of it. It’s more neighborhood.

bh But what’s interesting is that you don’t invoke the conventional, sort of white culture of Brooklyn that has come to stand in the public imagination for what real Brooklyn culture is. You see across so many ethnicities, and across so many immigrant groups, there’s a consistent feeling of passion about the space, about the environment, about Brooklyn. And I thought that was part of the film’s magic as well. Where did the idea to do the documentary pieces come from?

WW When we were scouting around Brooklyn for Smoke, I saw so much of this cross-cultural spirit: the faces, the people, the mix of cultures, the crossing over of cultures, sometimes not really getting along, sometimes sort of getting along. We just went out with a Hi-8 video camera and grabbed a lot of things on the fly. And when we started rehearsing for Smoke, the so-called OTB guys in the cigar store wanted to do some improvisation so they could understand their relationship with each other in the store. And what they did was full of energy, very real, funny, and came from the gut. So I turned to Paul and said, there’s something very vital here—let’s try to capture that. That was really the origin of Blue in the Face. The actors and the place inspired us: let’s make a movie in three days, let’s not worry about the story, let’s not worry about how it’s going to end up. Let’s just do it. So maybe that’s a better way to make a film! (laughter)

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L to R: Harvey Keitel, Malik Yoba, Paul Gevedon, and Giancarlo Esposito in Wayne Wang and Paul Auster’s Blue in the Face.

bh What makes Blue in the Face such a movie of the moment, of our historical moment right now, is that it does raise those questions of ethnicity and identity: who is who; what does it mean to be black; or what does it mean to have a national identity. To me, these are the deep and profound political questions right now. In a very careful way, the film contests all sorts of constructions of pure identity, it reminds the viewer that so much is mixed, and that it’s in the mixing and sharing that the magic arises. What was sort of tickling and funny about Blue in the Face was that while it incorporates icons—Lou Reed, Jim Jarmusch, Roseanne, Madonna—it incorporates them in such a way as to deconstruct their iconic representations. They don’t come across as stars playing characters. They actually come across as very believable characters, certainly Roseanne did as Dot. I felt sad for her, I wanted to jump in and say, “I’ll drive you to Las Vegas!” (laughter) There was this tremendous pain there, about marriage, about desire…

WW Right before that she was going through the divorce with Tom Arnold, and she was full of conflicted feelings about marriage, about men. So we created the character from what was very immediate about her feelings, and what she came up with is, I think, a very real side of her at that time.

bh That is true of the film as a whole. Jimmy’s character, for example…in Smoke he doesn’t have much of a voice, he’s more of a stock character who people respond to because he’s supposed to be funny. But in Blue in the Face, we see this character as incredibly tender. And he’s not solely comic, although all the characters, I think, move like we all do in real life, between moments of seriousness, and moments of comedy.

WW A lot of that had to do with the fact that we didn’t try to make Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch into characters, they were pretty much playing themselves. One of my biggest worries with Smoke is that we have a movie about very down to earth people, and yet we’ve got big stars playing them. But my task was to strip away some of that persona, as much as I could. Sometimes that’s pretty difficult.

bh Harvey Keitel is still Harvey Keitel in Blue in the Face , but there is a way in which he blends more with the other characters in the film. I don’t know if it’s that the narrative in Smoke is, as you pointed out, a much more complex narrative than Blue in the Face in that it’s more directly like written text…

WW It’s more like a play than anything else, and the whole first half of the film is shot with a proscenium around it. We didn’t move in until later on because I wanted that artificiality as a framing device for the film.

bh Smoke reminded me of Vanya on 42nd Street, in that you had so much more materiality around you. So there’s a tension between the part of your brain that’s trying to process all the narrative, and the part that’s trying to process the images. In Blue in the Face there were these perfect moments when the characters were almost not moving—it was very uncharacteristic of American films in that it uses the pause in a very skillful way. There are moments of silence, in which you are actually able to reflect on what is happening. Most films are moving us forward, and you don’t have that space. Was that accidental?

WW In Smoke or Blue in the Face?

bh Blue in the Face. There’s that moment with Harvey Keitel’s character, Auggie, when Dot’s husband first comes in and says, “I thinking of selling the store.” And there’s this pause, like in real life when you hear something and you’re trying to take it in. Not a lot of films give us that usually.

WW It’s probably somewhat instinctual and somewhat accidental.

bh In Smoke the dynamic was much more in the narratives between Auggie and William Hurt’s character. It had much more of that quality of passion. In the narratives between Auggie and Rashid’s Aunt Ethel, you see those moments of pauses and stillness. I was curious about the fact that in the Paul Auster story, the kid who’s stealing is not racially identified.

WW He is not racially identified—even the grandmother is not racially identified.

bh Can you talk about this?

WW I guess it was a presumption, but when I first read it I was imagining a black person. And then I went back, and looked for something that would indicate that this person was black, and there was nothing. And then I called Paul and said, “Is this person black?” And he said, “Well, it’s not specified, but he could be black.” I guess the source for the inspiration came from when he was a census taker, he went around to the projects and this old woman thought he was someone else and he played along with it. I like that idea. I’m interested in dealing with a culture that’s different than mine and yet not so often represented on the screen. So, now in the film itself when Auggie tells the story, there’s also no specification that the character is black. And then at the end, when you see the story, it’s actually through Paul’s interpretation.

bh I was very moved by the central metaphor of smoke, of tobacco. I grew up in a world of tobacco. My first memories as a girl in Kentucky and my family are tied to working both on the fields and the loosening floor where tobacco is cured. And I never thought of tobacco as evil, or associated with cigarettes. I know that some people are raising questions about that, which seems to be a good case of the madness of political correctness. One could say that smoke has all sorts of hazards, at the same time you could also talk about traditions of smoking and around tobacco, particularly in indigenous cultures around the world where it binds people and is part of an emotional and spiritual experience.

WW In the culture I come from, at least in Hong Kong, people still smoke a lot. It’s very much something that binds people together—it’s ritualistic that after a meal, you share a cigarette. Also, people, when they meet, after they present their card they present a cigarette, as a gesture of friendship. Even though they are now much more aware that it causes cancer, people take it as one of the factors, it’s like driving on freeways or whatever. Here in the U.S. there’s such a big thing made out of the political correctness of smoking or not smoking that is just really stupid. There are even people who have written into newspapers asking, how much did the tobacco companies give to finance this film?

bh It seems to be a failure of our cultural imagination that people aren’t able to identify with the idea of smoke as a metaphor. When Paul talks of smoke he says, “It’s something that’s never fixed, constantly changing shape,” in the same ways that the characters keep changing as their lives intersect. But what does it say about our imagination as a culture that we can only take things on one level, that things must exist on one plane only. It seems to be a real indictment that we don’t have the capacity to imagine an experience that we might never have. Our capacity to understand the meaning of smoke in people’s lives and the meaning of sharing tobacco doesn’t have to go along with thinking tobacco is a great thing.

WW Well, also in Smoke, after Auggie tells Paul the story, both of them naturally take out their cigarettes—it’s after they’ve eaten, after they’ve exchanged the story. It’s a ritualistic moment that they share, and to me it represents the friendship that they share with each other. It’s not a lasting moment, it’s like smoke—that ritual is the most lasting thing.

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bh The Joy Luck Club was really a woman’s movie, and many people perceived it as a movie that conveys a very gendered reality, the reality of sisters and women together. Could you talk a little bit about that attempt to image women characters.

WW Well, I try not to think about those things. I didn’t go into The Joy Luck Club thinking, this is a movie about mothers and daughters. It’s the same way that I talked about appropriation earlier, I’m trying to look into the world of mothers and daughters from my perspective. I was always conscious of the fact that because I’m a man I had to do a lot of homework, and really be open, and be sensitive to a lot of the issues surrounding it. When I went to my Chinese herbalist a few years ago he told me that I had a female body—that all my symptoms of illness were very yin, that maybe in another lifetime I was a woman. I feel that there is a yin and yangin every person, and that sometimes, perhaps, the yin is stronger in some people. In that sense, maybe that’s why I work well with women.

bh Many people criticize Smoke for being a boy-bonding movie. In Smoke, we have much more conventional constructions of women as sex objects, both in the character of Auggie’s ex-girlfriend, Ruby, and in the character of Violet. In Blue in the Face, when Violet is angry with Auggie for breaking the date, that is a rare passionate scene of a woman of color not seen much in American cinema. There’s that wonderful monologue where she’s facing the mirror. It’s just an incredible scene, in one sense a balancing of the feminine energy, and at the same time you see that this is a strong woman who’s not a victim, who’s making choices. That does not come through in her characterization in Smoke.

WW I agree. Because in Smoke she was only in one scene and she had practically nothing to do. It was difficult to give her any other sort of shading. So that’s too bad.

bh What I think you’re pointing out then is one of the dangers, whether we talk about gender, race or ethnicity, of not having space to develop certain characters. You run the risk of reproducing a flat or a stereotypical image.

WW I agree.

bh Because her image is such a wonderful image in Blue in the Face.

WW I remember saying to Paul Auster, “You do realize that this Violet character is dangerous, because she’s in this one scene and she kind of represents some of the stereotypes of her culture.” But in the end, I felt that there was so much energy, and so much craziness in her that even though it was a little bit verging on stereotypical, it was worth it to take a risk.

bh A character like Ruby, who I thought was one of the excellent characters in Smoke, has this range of emotionality. And even though she had only a brief appearance in the film, it hit you, you see this whole childhood relationship, the loss of the father, and all of those things were tied up in a very short segment. I thought it was a perfect monological moment.

WW I felt that her character was so complex that you always questioned the reality of her life. You’re never sure if what she’s telling you is true or not true.

bh Since we’ve spent so much of our time talking about border crossing. I think we should talk about the element of collaboration. Both of these films were, unlike your earlier work, not just the product of your single vision, but the product of working together: yourself and Paul Auster and the larger collaboration with the collectivity of actors. Can you talk about that experience of working in collaboration—to what extent does it alter artistic vision or does it illuminate one vision in particular ways?

WW It illuminates my vision for sure. I’m not an auteur in the sense that I have a specific artistic vision and say, this has to be exactly this way. If I wanted to do that, I would go back to painting. That way I would be in a room by myself. My only relationship was to my canvas, and I could manipulate anything that I want, and I could do exactly what I want. Cinema is a collaborative thing. That’s why, in a sense, Blue in the Face is so exciting for me, because there was no authorship, so to speak. As a director, more than anything else, I feel like I’m always a facilitator. A traffic cop. I have a lot of experience which helps me organize and put into focus what I think should be the final product, but I don’t try to make it only my vision. Maybe that’s where my power lies as a director. I’m not a great theater director where I say, “I want you to read this line this way because this is what the subtext of it means, and this is where you should step over a quarter-inch, etc.” I don’t do that. I just help people do their best work by helping them focus and by facilitating a prime working environment.

bh It’s really hard to frame certain questions without contrasting the two films, but Blue in the Face made me think of this R&B song, “Second Chance on Love” where it’s actually about going back to the person you’ve loved, that you lost contact with but you come to them again… The films in many ways are both love affairs. It’s the same love in a sense. There are lots of similar themes and issues. But the second film comes at them in different ways, comes at them with the experience of the first film, mingled in and converging.

WW And that’s why I think they should be seen as one film in a way. For all their different strengths and weaknesses, they belong together. They represent two different processes of working, of creating art. They do represent two different visions of Brooklyn. They do represent two different ways of telling stories about identity, or crossing cultural identity. Why can’t films be made twice that way? That’s the question I keep asking myself. Why does it always have to be a finished script; you rehearse and you shoot it and then you try to craft it as best as you can? Why can’t you make a slightly different kind of film but also maybe about the same subject matter with the same sets and the same people and the same everything; but then, it’s completely different, and yet it’s also similar? It’s almost like when I was painting. I went through a stage where my painting was very realistic, almost photographic, and at the same time I was painting the same subject matter or emotion in Abstract Expressionism. Smoke is the realist painting, and Blue in the Face is, in my mind, an Abstract Expressionist painting.

Paul Auster by Joseph Mallia
Auster01 Body
Harmony Holiday by Farid Matuk
Miles Davis Trumpets

“I don’t want the kind of career where everything is sensible and safe; I’d rather suffer through the anxiety of wondering where I’m going next than suffer the boredom of dancing in the same safe square.”

Stephen O’Connor by Melody Nixon
O Connor Bomb

”In a way, I am like some demented lawyer seeking only to get a hung jury—with the saving grace being that, when the truth is not obvious, people tend to do their most profound and significant thinking.”

Mickalene Thomas by Sean Landers
Mickalene Thomas 1

I met Mickalene Thomas a decade ago at the Yale University School of Art and liked her instantly. She was a standout for her energy, drive, open–mindedness, and raw talent. For this interview I visited her in her Brooklyn studio where we were surrounded by a half dozen or so of her new paintings in various stages of development.

Originally published in

BOMB 53, Fall 1995

Featuring interviews with Jo Baer, June Jordan, Kelly Reichardt, Abel Ferrara, Catherine Murphy, Mac Wellman, Lucie Brock-Broido, Wayne Wang, and Roy Hargrove.

Read the issue
Issue 53 053  Fall 1995