ATHENIAN LOVES OF A SUMMER NIGHT OR A STREETCAR NAMED ROMANCE: RENOS HARALAMBIDIS’S CHEAP SMOKES
laughter more than we need a
a smile more
“I’m one of
those guys who always smoked cheap
Noting the quote above, Larry Gelbart would be proud of Haralambidis’s second feature film, Cheap Smokes (2001) for it evokes a lot of laughter and many smiles, something so few films these days that try for comedy in its broadest sense have accomplished. This is a very good movie produced by Bad Films about a one night romance between a young man with a young woman on a sweltering August night in Athens . The young man is played by Renos Haralambidis who also is director and screenwriter as he was in his first film, No Budget Story (1997). The film cleverly pulls us in and “flirts” with several genres and narratives as well as a small carnival of characters who enter in and out of the main character’s life. Thus the film, like “Renos”, the character who is telling us his life in a first person voiceover, is “almost” a romantic comedy and yet also almost a film noir. Then again, it’s almost an ensemble comedy as well with a definite celebration of the city of Athens on a summer night embracing a nostalgic nod to the past rather than a pointing towards the future.
That the film is actually a kind of monologue to our main character’s “one night” love, Sophia, is clear from Renos’s opening voice over speech:
"I wanted so much to impress you. Our one night was sudden and brief like a storm. I didn’t even have time to begin or to tell you my sole specialty. I’m a collector. I collect the roughest and toughest thing in the world: MOMENTS. When I have the sudden urge to fly and there’s nowhere to fly, I hide myself in my collection.”
He then remarks that “Life KNOWS and I trust it. I’m one of those guys who always smoked cheap cigarettes.”
We hear all of this before we receive the first “moment” which is when he actually meets Sophia with the Acropolis and a phone booth in view. But this monologue well establishes the style/flow of the narrative to follow: Cheap Smokes will be not a chronological or “classical Hollywood ” narrative, but rather a series of “moments”, jumping back and forth from past to present and back again.
Is this structure a failure of Haralambidis to tell one straight forward story in one genre as in Singing In the Rain, Tootsie or Maltese Falcon or M*A*S*H? No, quite the opposite. Finally, as in Cheap Smokes’s closing shot of a very long elaborate kiss on a street car filled with goldfish and pigeons, this contemporary Greek film is a tribute to diversity and potential. Out of the fragments and missed chances of the main character’s life, there can emerge a satisfying “happy ending” that unites all! In short, if No Budget Story is about how to make a movie without money, Cheap Smokes is about how to make a life when touched by love and, yes, cheap cigarettes! Steven Cohan has noted, “How we read film clarifies what we see there and tells us why it matters” (73). My “reading” in these few pages will be to explore how the three levels of the film outlined above intersect and reflect on each other, and leave us feeling we have—for a brief period---come to know a young Greek man better by glimpsing all the characters he meets and gets to know. Thus we can speak of a 4th narrative level as well: the “almost” coming of age of a young man on a midsummer’s night.
character is, quite simply, trying to tie his
pieces and memories together into something
He tells us early on in the film as he takes care
of goldfish in his apartment:
He wishes to tell his problems to the goldfish bur realizes their memory lasts only about three seconds. But they are important to him for he sees his whole life reflected in their eyes and then he gains inspiration and insight. “The world is based on chaos,” he tells us in voice over, “and I don’t look for a logical sequence.” And as the film unfolds, we receive none!
CHEAP SMOKES, COFFEE & LOW BUDGET FANTASIES
At the center of Cheap Smokes is Renos, a handsome but straight-faced Athenian early thirties man, dressed in black, who seems to have no close friends, no family, no real career, no usual modern male materialistic dreams of hot cars, hotter women and lots of money. In No Budget Story our protagonist at least wanted to make movies. Renos in Cheap Smokes has apparently lost all ambition. All we know, as we have seen is that he is a collector of moments and that he tells us: “When I have the sudden urge to fly and there’s nowhere to fly, I hide myself in my collection.”
The Renos character spends a lot of time alone with another collection he has too: goldfish in his apartment. He is completely at loose ends but he is, through voiceover, always thinking about life, about what it all means and thus there is a truly philosophical slant to his character, no matter how absurd his logic appears. At one point he comments:
" I should be subsidized by the Ministry of Culture. Why should they pay someone to make a statue and not pay someone to wander around town like a moving statue. Damn country! It doesn’t appreciate artists!"
I have mentioned in my study of No Budget Story (Horton, “Renos Haralambidis’s No Budget Story: Cinema and Manhood as Radical Carnival”) that Haralambidis does evoke a world of carnival in contemporary Athens (188). With Cheap Smokes, he goes even further in capturing a world of seemingly random figures who actually are constantly intersecting with each other in the spirit that Mikhail Bakhtin has explained is the essence of carnival: “Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people”
Traditionally carnival is a cultural and social experience “in the streets” and thus fully a public event, open to all. Haralambidis reflects this spirit in Cheap Smokes as over half the film takes place at night in the streets of Athens on a hot August night. And yet because it is exactly that—an August night in Athens —the streets are practically empty since Athens is practically empty throughout much of August. Thus what is captured and celebrated on one important level in Cheap Smokes is how Athens in August can become a quiet haven apart from the bustle and crowds of the rest of the year and also from the summer crowds on islands and along the coast. Put more simply, the film captures a private carnival on a summer night acted out in public: in the streets and avenues with the Acropolis often lit in the background, and, at other times in a café.
The café—bar scenes are those in which, throughout the film, we meet a small “carnival” cross section of random characters who share and spill out their personal lives and frustrations for those around to hear. And since we do not meet any family members of Renos, the coffee shop becomes a kind of substitute “family”. We therefore get to know the following characters (all of whom are smoking, of course!):
THE BAR –CAFÉ OWNER who constantly gives us his “philosophy” beginning with: “You drink alcohol to forget and coffee to remember!” He also informs us that “A bar is a psychological toilet.” Thus we meet the other figures who are either trying to forget (and thus are drinking) or trying to remember (thus the coffee). Later on he gives long talks to Renos in English, explaining, like Renos (so who copied whom?!) that he collects “moments” as he shows Renos his collection of cigarette butts of people he’s known. Towards the end, this character lets out his frustration, in English, that he never learned how to DANCE. He then begins boxing with himself.
THE SPERM DONER FELLOW is one regular customer who explains early on that he as decided to “donate my sperm to philosophy” because “sperm should not be wasted.”
OLD BALD MAN who is clearly cracking up and going crazy with lines such as “Plato called me last night,” and a lot of “Fuck you”s yelled at everyone. He speaks of his woman’s infidelity with a guy named Tolis. “Chicks are one big conspiracy,” he says in his growing unhappiness and frustration.
DRUNK FEMALE CUSTOMER who talks about the frustration of breaking up with a body builder who had a large porno collection.
There are a few more characters in the coffee shop as well, but what we come to realize is that their “stories” become, in the spirit of carnival, wilder and crazier as the film goes on. The old bald man, for instance, gives us an involved story about a cousin who broke his neck trying to give himself oral sex. And later on the female customer begins to explain that, “God is fair. He doesn’t screw around,” and then explains to those around her “Why God gave women tits!"
Finally we hear two of the old men arguing about how to date women. Thus in the café Renos frequents we hear mostly talk of frustrated relationships, lost love, and sexual fantasies, with no real talk of politics, careers, money or other themes.
Throughout all of these café scenes, Renos sits,
smokes, and listens, often seen only reflected in
the large mirror over the
Renos also explains early on
why he likes to hang out in his local coffee shop
(“Kafeneon” in Greek):
And yet we the audience can question whether this time is “lost” or “found”, for what we witness and listen to is a carnival of frustrated souls, each feeling perfectly free to express himself or herself within the framework of a “café”.
Finally these outbursts should be seen as a montage of monologues rather than a dialectic of dialogues. Why? It is because no one ever really answers each “café inhabitant’s” outpouring. The result is both comic and absurd as monologue follows monologue over coffee and alcohol. Harry Levin has written that, “Comedy, more readily than tragedy, has been attuned to colloquial speech, but, since it has been more preoccupied with love, it has also produced its own lyricism, musically as well as stylistically” (14). And it is this colloquial world that Haralambidis as screenwriter has caught so well.
Smokes ‘s main plot, however, is the
Renos—Sophia romantic evening, and it is that we
need to document more clearly.
Because of the complex interweaving of Renos’s present and his one night romantic encounter with Sophia, it is important to lay out “what did happen that night” in the order it happened since we are given exact hour/minute coordinates on the screen a la documentaries and old Hollywood film noir movies too.
Here is the chronological history of the evening:
Meeting time at a pay phone in view of the
Renos is smoking
and waiting near the payphone booth as Sophia is
speaking on the phone explaining in angry tones
that her battery
died and she can’t
find a taxi.
SOPHIA UP CLOSE
Who is Renos’s one night love? Sophia (well acted by Anna-Maria Papaharalambous) is attractive, smart (intelligent), clever (which is “streetwise” as opposed to “smart”), lively, and clearly willing to take a chance on Renos and, yes, romance, even if Renos is so standoffish in his approach to women and life in general. After all it is Sophia who asks for the kiss and makes the first move.
And her name comes from the Greek word for “wisdom”, a fact not to be overlooked, for she does appear as wise too.
That she was trying to get in touch with a writer also suggests she is “cultured”. And yet, as a professional stylist as she says, she is clearly quite poor, having no money to buy a new phone card and, let’s point out, not having a cell phone.
Part of the charm of Cheap Smokes is that at a time when Greeks like most people in Europe and, in fact, the world, have become cell phone addicts, appearing to walk and talk non stop from sunrise to sunset and beyond, neither Renos nor Sophia (nor any other character in the film!) uses this seemingly obligatory instrument of this new century!
In discussing Sophia, therefore, and Haralambidis contemporary Athenian romantic comedy, we must also note that there is a sense of nostalgia built into it.
Athens on a summer night emptied of crowds and noise and cars is an Athens of the 1950s. We hear no rap music, see no skate boards, and visit no elaborate shopping malls. Instead, Haralambidis paints a backdrop including Plaka
What has always brought couples together in stage comedies from Shakespeare to the present and in film romantic comedies as well has been lively dialogue expressing two very different individuals, who in part are attracted by being so different. During the 11:49pm sequence we sense she has traveled as well as studied and read, and this makes Renos feel insecure.
What do you think I am, an
She tries to reassure him, but he adds, “I disappointed you, didn’t I?” and we realize that if this relationship is ever to work, it will be because she succeeds in helping Renos emerge from the safety of his own cages, be they the coffee house or his routines of doing “nothing.”
In short, Haralambidis is keeping within the tradition of romantic comedy in which women are generally as smart or smarter than men (Horton. Laughing Out Loud 85). The question then becomes, how do men deal with this. In Preston Sturges’s Palm Beach Story (1942), for instance, Claudette Colbert has to milk a millionaire of his money in order to help her less clever husband, Joel McCrea.
instance, Sophia gets nowhere, however, with Renos
asking why he doesn’t
She tries to explain that by relaxing, he might
have more charm:
Sophia really has everything Renos needs, and yet
he is the one keeping her at a distance. But she
is clearly curious about this non-macho lost soul
and so continues to try to explore his
exchange as they
walk, she asks him what he wanted to be as a
And the scene cuts to the café again before he answers which means, of course, in Renos’s mind, he cuts her off as well as “in person”.
In their last moment together at sunrise (6:47 am) after Renos says there isn’t time for a kiss, Sophia leans forward anyway to get one. But he interrupts saying, “I remember now what I wanted to become as a kid. I wanted to do something useful for manking. Bring a rock from the moon.”
But she starts to
Yet we cut to another voiceover from Renos a week and four days later. Renos has lost his chance at the end of his one night with Sophia, but he has done nothing but agonize about her.
His voiceover continues with his message to her, which, of course, we hear but she does not:
RENOS: It’s been a week and four days since I’ve seen you. Time spent with coffee, boxers, dancers and Manolis. The loneliness of waking up in the morning. Manolis spent his last money on two hookers.
What then follows
is Renos’s final night with Manolis and his vague
obligations to him before he, Manolis, disappears,
leaving Renos with his memories of
MANOLIS AND FILM NOIR
Interweaving with romance is what Renos, the character, comes to call the “film noir” story his life has become working for a shady figure named Manolis. Renos who has no career, no regular job, has taken on an “assignment” from Manolis, a crazed post-modern gangster who wears sunglasses, talks on a white phone, puts matches out inside his mouth and who constantly throws money around. According to Renos, “Manolis’s charm is his hatred of details.” Furthermore, Renos explains he decided to work for him, “lured by my inclination towards film noir knowing I would soon regret it.”
The assignment is to go into a large garage at night and meet two thugs and tell them that Manolis will be late with his payment. Without going into a complete description of the scene, Haralambidis creates two completely nutty, clownish henchmen who argue with each other over the fact that one has taken up ballet instead of karate! This scene is film noir turned into commedia dell’arte and thus pure farce. Mel Gordon has commented in Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia dell’Arte that, “It would be difficult to think of an historical style that has affected twentieth century performance more than the Italian Commedia dell’Arte” (3). And it is a credit to Haralambidis that he can open up his cinematic carnival to such engaging buffoons!
So much the better for Renos, for we fear he would never know what to do if the thugs really were film noir figures. But instead, Renos fools himself in voiceover into concluding from the incident that, “Organized crime yielded to the power of my persuasion.”
If Sophia seems too perfect to be true in so many ways, Manolis is manhood gone insane, bizarre, and out of control. In one scene he is in bed with Renos giving him a kiss on the lips explaining that, “In Santa Clauses arms, the wind blows far,” as he leaves a lot of money for Renos. This leads Renos, in voiceover, to tell us he would describe Manolis as, “A Christmas story in the heart of summer.”
And the final scene with Manolis and his two whores fulfills even a sense of commedia dell’arte stretched to the breaking point. At an elaborate meal set around his table, the two whores and Renos sit as Manolis does a crazy dance on his balcony as he and Renos talk back and forth about an episode from Star Trek. As the evening ends, the prostitutes have neither eaten or been made love to by Manolis.
We are given no
explanation for what has driven Manolis
But as he disappears, we do feel Renos will
certainly wind up a happier man than his now
former “boss”, no matter what happens.
GOLDFISH CONCLUSIONS AND FILM BLANCHE
At the end of Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman ambles down a crowded New York street with Jessica Lange, his love, and he is able to say after his adventure of pretending to be a woman (“Tootsie”!), “I was a better man as a woman than I ever was as a man.” As we fade out we know they are in love and they will work out anything that comes along, given what they have shared and been through.
What we enjoy is how “ordinary” the closing scene is: daylight on a busy city street.
Cheap Smokes is 100% the opposite. It’s night once more, and Renos is alone, smoking cheap smokes of course, and beginning to “dream” about “what if” he filled a streetcar with goldfish and pigeons and stopped to pick up Sophia. We then see them embraced in one of the longest kisses many in the audience may ever have seen on the screen. Thus the ending is complete fiction but what an inviting and carnivalesque one! In one’s dreams one can have what one wants, and Renos has already told us earlier in the film that, “The only profession that really satisfies me is being GOD.”
On one hand it’s possible to say, “This is depressing for he didn’t get what he wanted.” And yet I would argue that instead of ending as “film noir”, we end as “film blanche” to quote a New Zealander filmmaker Gaylene Preston (personal interview), for the POTENTIAL for a reunion of Sophia and Renos is there too. Nothing except Renos himself is stopping him from going after her once more as we fade out. After all, the film could have ended with a fade out from the fantasy streetcar to Renos alone with his cigarette, the Acropolis in the background.
But we do not get this shot. We end with the embrace, the kiss, squarely inside Renos’s dreams, still inside a streetcar named romance. “Happy people don’t pay the rent, “ says Larry Gelbart who just happens to be the screenwriter of Tootsie and who created the long lasting hit M*A*S*H television series as well, referring to how both comedy and drama depend on characters who haven’t yet become what they want to become (26). In this sense, Renos does still pay the rent: his mission of becoming himself and of realizing his dreams has not yet been completed. And there is one final “take” we can make about Renos remaining alone in reality by film’s end. As in Hollywood Westerns, there is a sense as Steven Cohan has pointed out, how, “A hero can gain in stature by refusing the princess and remaining alone” (Screening the Male 14). John Wayne and Henry Fonda ended many of their finest films riding off alone into the sunset leaving the young woman standing by the farmhouse or the school house or church as “THE END” appeared on the screen.
Renos has a cigarette, not a horse, and he stands alone not because, like John Wayne he has CHOSEN to be alone, but rather because he has not yet made the leap to commit to going after his princess.
Only Haralambidis’s next cinematic odyssey will tell what happens when he finishes his cigarette and makes his next move!