Thursday, June 19, 2008

Jim Jarmusch and the vice squad: sitting down for a hot dose of Coffee and Cigarettes

Addictive, unhealthy and socially unacceptable, the twin vices that inspire and give shape to Jim Jarmusch’s
Coffee and Cigarettes are, like cinema or conversation, capable of providing the purest of pleasures when experienced in the simplest of circumstances and with minimal distractions. Jarmusch has always been one of our finest practitioners of comic minimalism; although his films never seem bound by a rigourous, predetermined structure, they rely on formal constraints and carefully chosen repetitions to give them shape, tone, humour and, most rewardingly, meaning. The 11 short films that make up Coffee and Cigarettes give me such meditative pleasure because they feel loose enough to potentially slide off in any direction at any moment, and yet they whirl around within a tight enough thematic and visual landscape to allow me to participate vicariously in their subtlety, wit, cheeky philosophizing and finely-honed charm.

The films were shot between 1986 (the year Jarmusch made
Down by Law) and the present, though most were made fairly recently, a sign that Jarmusch took plenty of time discovering the most appropriate context in which to create and present them, picking up a gag from one piece, a stray idea from another, until the final work felt like much more than just the sum of its parts. Each piece, naturally enough, centres around a table and two or three individuals, many of them familiar from Jarmusch’s previous works, smoking, talking and riding out a caffeine buzz. And nearly all, photographed in lovely black and white by some of the world’s finest cinematographers—like Frederick Elmes, Tom DiCillo and Robby Müller—feature eloquent overhead shots of checkered tabletops, dingy espresso cups, grimy ashtrays and scattered spoons that amount to the most painstaking fetishization of diner/café culture I’ve ever seen. (And as a connoisseur of the greasy spoon, I write this with absolute affection.)

The first piece, though by far the most overtly absurdist of the bunch, sets the tone nicely, with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright meeting at a café, their familiarity with each other not especially clear, but bonding over their love of caffeine and nicotine before arranging a bizarre trade-off of personal duties, sort of a playful, banal version of
Strangers on a Train. The young Benigni is oddly handsome and hilarious, while the cooler Wright provides one of the film’s funniest recurring notions: drinking lots of coffee before bed makes you dream faster. This is just one of several epiphanies surrounding consciousness, health and bad habits that build in silly sophistication over the course of the film.

In most of the pieces the actors essentially play themselves rather than characters, and the tension between these loners, eccentrics and famous or semi-famous people that we see in the scene between Benigni and Wright is echoed throughout: Tom Waits and Iggy Pop meet "Somewhere in California" and seem incapable of getting past their discomfort with each other’s peculiar celebrity; waiters struggle to balance the implied familiarity of their roles with customers; Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and GZA are so starstruck by Bill Murray (clumsily and hilariously disguised as a cook) that they continually refer to him by his full name; a glamorous Cate Blanchett, in the film’s most technically impressive piece, squirms in the company of her resentful cousin (also played by Blanchett, in a rock-chick get-up that makes her look like Kate Bush). And in what is perhaps the all-around best piece, Alfred Molina sets up a meeting with fellow British actor Steve Coogan (the brilliant star of 24 Hour Party People) that becomes utterly stripped of conventional niceties by the two men’s mid-level celebrity status and the ridiculous hierarchy they perceive between them. Jarmusch is something of a dramatic purist in his ongoing interest in the follies of everyday communication (witness the role of linguistic barriers in several of his films) and the episodic nature of Coffee and Cigarettes allows him to attend to such scenarios with greater focus then ever.

Coffee and Cigarettes closes with a surprisingly poignant and beautiful piece featuring Taylor Mead and Bill Rice, who sit in a dim and dusty warehouse of inky shadows, drinking bad coffee, apparently on a break from whatever sort of paid work these two old guys could possibly be doing. A man sweeps the floor laconically somewhere behind them as Mead begins fantasizing about being somewhere else, explaining that, like the title of Gustav Mahler’s melancholy song (which the two catch a few bars of somewhere in the ether), he feels that he’s "lost track of the world." Mead suggests they pretend the coffee is champagne and they share a toast to better times. And at that moment the toast seems shared by all of us, a toast to the space that Coffee and Cigarettes inhabits, a place of refuge from the noise of the world and the demoralizing effects of modern life, a place where someone like Jarmusch can produce films outside the oppressive box of narrative commercial filmmaking. A place where things can move along with the ease of great conversation or sweet music and we have the freedom to indulge in the simple pleasures of life.

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