Director Wayne Wang may have been born in Hong Kong and educated at Oakland’s California College of the Arts and Crafts, but judging from his 1995 feature Blue In the Face, he’s a New York boy at heart. A sequel to his earlier Smoke, Wang’s heartfelt love letter to Brooklyn screens 7 p.m. Saturday at the Pacific Film Archive as part of the series “Wayne Wang in Person.”
Only 83 minutes long, Blue In the Face stars Harvey Keitel — then at the height of his fame and/or notoriety after headlining Abel Ferrara’s controversial 1992 cop drama Bad Lieutenant — as Auggie, a salesman at a corner cigar store. On a typical day Auggie shoots the breeze with guitar-strumming shop owner Nick (Victor Argo, delightfully gruff as ever), Nick’s Las Vegas-obsessed spouse Dot (Roseanne Barr, long before her MAGA days), girlfriend Violet (Mel Gorham) and Jimmy (Jared Harris), the store’s socially inept gofer.
Other visitors are played by Michael J. Fox, Lily Tomlin, Giancarlo Esposito (amusingly cast as a Black man with an Italian name), jazz musician John Lurie, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (who comes in to smoke his “last cigarette” with Auggie), RuPaul, and Keith David (whose greatest claim to fame may be his epic fistfight with Rowdy Roddy Piper in John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi classic, They Live) as the ghost of Jackie Robinson. You even get Madonna delivering a singing telegram and Lou Reed expounding on his miserable Long Island childhood.
Blue In the Face doesn’t tell a story, it’s simply a series of improvised vignettes and shaggy dog stories inter-cut with footage of real-life Brooklynites expounding on plastic bags and birthday celebrations. Shot in the waning days of old New York — Rudy Giuliani had just been elected, and gentrification awaited — it’s an utterly charming and warm-hearted salute to one of the most diverse places on the planet. If you have happy memories of the (Brooklyn) Dodgers, Ebbets Field, and Belgian waffles served with pistachio ice cream, this is your film.
I have to admit that my first encounter with Federico Fellini’s sophomore feature Lo sceicco bianco (1952’s The White Sheik, screening 6:30 p.m. Friday at PFA as part of the series “Federico Fellini 100”) left me thoroughly confused. The film’s setting — the world of fotoromanzo fumetti — was baffling, and 30 years ago there was no Wikipedia to enlighten me about the wildly popular “photo comics” of post-war Italy.
Fellini’s film tells the story of newlywed Wanda (Brunella Bovo), who’s traveled to Rome with husband Ivan (Leopoldo Trieste, bearing the countenance of a flustered goose) to meet his family. Wanda, however, is more interested in meeting Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), the actor who portrays the titular fotoromanzo character; sneaking out to find him while Ivan naps, she gets more than she bargained for, while Ivan is compelled to tell his family risible lies to excuse her disappearance.
Presaging what lay ahead for Fellini — including the circus setting of La Strada (1954), Giulietta Masina’s character in Nights of Cabiria (1957), and the grotesqueries of his ‘60s and ‘70s output — The White Sheik is a minor comic gem. It’s no Juliet of the Spirits (1965), but it’s still worth seeing.