Coffee and Cigarettes

| June 4, 2004

Jim Jarmusch’s dry wit is well showcased in the eleven short films that comprise Coffee and Cigarettes. He pares his already spare style down even further for the short film form, relying on sidelong glances and stilted dialogue to depict an array of awkward encounters. The films were developed independently of each other over seventeen years, and though there are many similarities between them, they stand well enough on their own.
In each, the subjects sit at a table, smoke, drink coffee, and muse about life. The conversations frequently drift into misunderstandings and confusion, and they strain painfully to recover. Jarmusch revisits strange familial relationships, Nicolai Tesla, alternative medicine, and the politics of fame, among other topics. The bars, cafes, hotel rooms, and basements interchange easily, since none are revealed with any depth, and each is shot in high contrast black and white. His shot structures maintain simple two shots with over the shoulder close ups and overhead views of the table. Rhythm and pace are developed solely by the actors and the editors; music creeps in only occasionally from an unseen jukebox. All of this produces a slow, idle quality one might associate with a smoke break; aimless, quiet, and existing simply for the reprieve of caffeine and nicotine.
Despite the basic setups, the films are rarely straightforward. Each film opens up with the questions, who are these people, and who are they to each other? Since the context remains the same throughout, the characters exist within a vacuum. Nothing is gained from their actions or setting. So the films play on this process of discovery, both ours and the characters, which quickly leads to more questions: what do these people want? What are they doing here? The answer is often “nothing.” But sometimes the question is left unanswered, and other times there is something more. Motives are introduced and discarded. Identities are revealed and changed. Jarmusch continually teases these expectations, twisting them by adding or subtracting pieces of information, looks, gestures, or tweaking the tone of the conversation.
In “Strange to Meet You,” Roberto Begnini and Steven Wright are strangers who barely understand each other. In “No Problem,” French actor Alex Descas calls his friend Isaach de Bankole to come join him, and Isaach arrives thinking something is wrong. Taylor Mead and Bill Rice try to decide what to toast to in “Champagne,” but the reason they’re together remains unclear.
Adding to the confusion are the actors’ personas themselves. Many of the films are built around the actors, who are addressed by their first names but are portrayed as fictionalized characters. The question of who these people are resonates with who they might be to us. Celebrities portraying actors portraying celebrities adds a layer of mystery and humor, since it deals directly with the actor’s mystique, then proceeds to displace it, and break it down.
In “Cousins,” Cate Blanchett plays both a grossly modest version of herself as well as a foul-tempered cousin who can see right through her. In “Cousins,” when Alfred Molina tells Steve Coogan they might be related, Coogan tries to keep his distance without coming across like a total asshole. In “Somewhere in California,” Tom Waits tells Iggy Pop he has a side gig as a doctor and had spent the afternoon performing emergency roadside surgery.
Steve Buscemi, E.J. Rodriguez and Bill Murray all portray waiters, but only Murray is identified as himself. In “Delirium,” RZA of Wu Tang Clan exclaims, “Bill Murray, what’s a guy like you working in a place like this, Bill Murray?” Steve Buscemi imposes himself on his customers Cinque Lee and Joie Lee (who all performed in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train in 1989), and refers to them as “Heckyl and Jeckyl.” E.J. Rodriguez continually tries to warm up Renee French’s coffee, but she conveys that he’s only interfering with her solitude. Rodriguez and French are the least identifiable of everyone here, and the mystery surrounding both of their motivations (maybe solitude and romance?) bring a certain sweetness to their scene. The thinnest of all the films, theirs fills a gap for the purpose of coffee and cigarettes, to savor one’s own company, and the final moment is the most sublime of all.
The series began in 1986 with Coffee and Cigarettes made for Saturday Night Live (retitled “Strange To Meet You” in the feature). “Twins” followed in 1989, shot during the production of Mystery Train. In 1993, “Somewhere in California” won the Golden Palm for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival. “Renee” and “No Problem” were shot in New York shortly afterward. The remaining six were made within two weeks in early 2003: “Cousins,” “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil” staring the singer and drummer from the White Stripes, “Cousins,” “Delirium,” and “Champagne.”
As a collection, Coffee and Cigarettes is remarkably satisfying. There isn’t a stinker in the bunch, and it attains a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is full, fluid, and repetitive enough to emphasize common themes without becoming redundant. Like a good album or book of short stories, the authorship firmly imprints a nuanced, developed language that is always interesting, and whose variation suggests how the communion with substances and friends has many ways to touch the strange grit of daily life.

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