Coffee and Cigarettes is a 2003 collection of eleven comic vignettes which were all written and directed by Jim Jarmusch over a period of 17 years. The first three of these were made in 1986, 1989 and 1993, and the latter eight were made specifically for the collection’s 2003 release. All eleven are strikingly shot in black and white and feature two or three characters meeting for a chat (often an awkward one) over the two vices named in the title. They are loosely linked together with recurring but somewhat random motifs and feature 27 cast members in total, including a number of musicians and comedians in addition to those whose primary profession is acting. Many of the latter can also be found in earlier films by Jarmusch (and one or two in his more recent ones).
The cast is certainly intriguing, and includes performers as diverse as Iggy Pop, Bill Murray, Steven Wright, Roberto Benigni, Cate Blanchett, Tom Waits, Jack White, RZA, GZA, Steve Coogan, Isaach De Bankolé, Alfred Molina and Steve Buscemi. Most of the bizarre pairings work well together, which you might well expect given the number of talented actors in that list; perhaps the surprise comes from just how well some of the musicians perform in their segments. Tom Waits has been acting for a long time and has put in some fine work over the years in supporting roles, but the likes of Iggy Pop, RZA, GZA and Jack and Meg White from the White Stripes are also able to hold their own despite their relative lack of experience. A good endorsement of Jarmusch’s directing ability, it would seem.
After finishing work on Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai Jarmusch apparently suffered a fairly-serious creative block, which might explain why he returned to the three short films he had already made in the late 80s and early 90s for inspiration. He had played with an episodic structure years before he shot the majority of Coffee and Cigarettes, most notably with the films Mystery Train and Night On Earth, the latter of which also features de Bankolé and Benigni. It’s a format that he is able to manipulate well, and he seems to delight in gradually linking the pieces together.
The director’s preferred style is evident throughout the vignettes here, which are moody, contemplative and wonderfully offbeat. He makes space in the dialogue and lets the camera pause over the minutiae of the rituals associated with drinking coffee and smoking: the striking of a match, the addition of cream, the stirring of the sugar, the pouring from the pot, that first drag of a freshly-lit cigarette. It’s fetishistic, but enjoyable to see a film that takes a step back and revels in these simple, small details. Jarmusch, that part-jazz, part-punk, part-rockabilly hipster, celebrates the acts of hanging around drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in the film’s visuals, and then ruefully admonishes both through the dialogue (several characters talk about the associated health risks).
All of the episodes include shots of the coffee drinkers and their tables from above, which often give (very) subtle clues about the characteristics of those involved. There are other recurring visual themes, including off-camera glitter ball lighting and chequered patterns, all of which help to keep a nice flow despite the different coffee house settings and wide variety of characters that are introduced during the film’s 90 minutes.
Certain themes appear across the different conversations, as well, such as the suitability of coffee and cigarettes as a healthy lunch option, medical work (particularly musicians doubling as medics), industrial music, Spike Lee, the Tesla coil, delirium, celebrity, miscommunication, siblings and cousins and the notion that drinking lots of coffee before sleep accelerates dreaming.
This latter point is first raised in the opening vignette, featuring laconic comedian Steven Wright and a twitchy Roberto Benigni, which Jarmusch filmed in 1986. Benigni chain smokes and chain chugs his coffee throughout, and the theme of awkward conversations that follows is set by his inability to understand the mumbling Wright. It is an odd get-together, reflected in the title of the short (‘Strange To Meet You’).
Inevitably, some of the episodes work better than others. Of the 27 actors involved, 21 play versions of themselves, and generally speaking the more willing or comfortable an actor or musician appears to be with the self-mocking, the better the scene. Waits and Iggy Pop are superb: their hilariously uneasy conversation stutters as Waits, playing an overly-grumpy uptight version of himself who also moonlights as a doctor, takes offence at almost everything his counterpart across the table says. Iggy is great fun as the eager-to-please fellow musician that simply can’t say anything right, remaining polite throughout even when accused by Waits of being ‘a Taco Bell kind of guy’.
Cate Blanchett also has fun. She plays a distracted version of herself, meeting a punk-rock cousin whom she has very little in common with (also played by Blanchett) in an exclusive hotel. It’s a stilted, dutiful conversation, and we can see that both parties would prefer to be elsewhere. That goes for Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina too, meeting up in Hollywood at Molina’s request to discuss the fact they might actually be cousins. Molina is the uber-polite and friendly conversationalist trying to maintain cordiality, Coogan’s the unlikable careerist unable to hide his disdain and disinterest, and both seem to be trying to establish themselves in the acting pecking order in this foreign land. (Coogan has since gone back to this idea, playing a similarly competitive version of himself in the BBC TV series The Trip. It’s also a nice touch too that English actors Coogan and Molina drink tea in this segment, though they are not the only ones in the film that eschew the wonders of coffee.)
Jarmusch has wittily described Coffee and Cigarettes as a ‘series of short films disguised as a feature (or maybe vice versa)’. With its lovely coffee-house sets, the patterns that emerge short-by-short, and the ensemble cast, it certainly has a degree of coherence and therefore builds into something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Certain scenes and certain exchanges do feel a little shaky (possibly due to improvisation), but there’s certainly enough snappy dialogue across the eleven films to make this an interesting way in to Jarmusch’s world for newcomers.
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and many more
Running Time: 95 minutes