Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

Directed by Jim Jarmusch


The only other film by Jarmusch that I have seen so far is his first film, 1980’s Permanent Vacation.  This film, like that one, spends a lot of time wandering.  You begin to wonder what the point is or whether or not there even is one.  Silence usually means something, though, and in Permanent Vacation the aimlessness felt like a reflection of Allie’s isolation. That same silence and pacing allows you to get a glimpse into a character’s life.  Since there are no sudden plot turns or heightened drama, you are offered a chance to see that character’s most boring moments.  Maybe you can learn a lot about a character by what they do when there’s nothing to do just as you can learn a lot about them through instinctive and time-sensitive decision making.

Coffee and Cigarettes contains eleven vignettes about conversation over the titular coffee and cigarettes, though occasionally tea comes into play.  These vignettes often have no real clear story beyond being an experience.  They’re moving portraits, and they tell stories the way portraits tell stories.  Instead of learning about a character through the way he or she acts, you have to rely more on how they talk, dress, drink and where they are.  Tom Waits and Iggy Pop, for example, play themselves in one scene, in a small dive bar kind of place.  The lights are low, and the place is empty.

Most of these sets are empty, though, so that relative isolation feels more like a product of the film’s style than as an individual detail about a person.

Each vignette is different in tone, though similar in style.  They all begin with shots just wide enough to include the table at which one or more characters sit, and in each portrait, the camera at least once cuts to an overhead shot of the table, forcing us to examine what this person drinks, how they sit, how the table is arranged, etc.  It’s like looking at a finger print.

So the framing is very similar in each story, and the only differences are not the situations but the people.  I may be wrong, but each story feels highly influenced by the people involved.  I read that there was a good amount of improvisation in this film, but some scenes feel much more improvised than others.

The first scene takes place between Roberto Benigni and comedian Steven Wright, an odd pairing.  Benigni is comically caffeinated (maybe 4 or 5 glasses of espresso around him) and Wright, with his trademark deep, drawn out voice, feels much more reserved.  Their scene feels like a slapstick comedy, with all the coffee and talk about Benigni going to Wright’s dentist so Wright doesn’t have to.  The next film, though feels much more like a Spike Lee film, and maybe I only say that because the two actors (minus Steve Buscemi the waiter) are his siblings.

You have a scene in which Cate Blanchett plays two characters (one of them is herself), that feels very scripted and precise.  Then you have one with two members of the Wu Tang Clan and Bill Murray playing a waiter, like Buscemi, but also playing himself.  This feels very much like the legend of Bill Murray that you occasionally read about when people bump into him in various public places.

In other words, each of these stories is about a character or a real person or both.  They’re highly collaborative, and they’re an impressive marker of time.  If you don’t know what to say about a film, say that it’s about time, because everything is about time.  This film was released in 2003, and when I first saw Wright and Benigni in the first scene, I was incredibly surprised by how young Benigni looked.  Then I read that it was filmed in 1986.  Knowing that Jarmusch sat with this project for 17 or so years shouldn’t make it better or worse (the art should speak for itself) but to me it did seem more impressive.

I suppose it’s because the film feels so natural.  I imagine the hardest part of making this film was getting the actors to be available, and knowing how spread out these shoots were, I imagine Jarmusch borrowed the actors when they were working with him on other projects.  So what I’m saying is that a lot of this film felt convenient.  He was already near these actors, they’re filmed in controllable, small settings (rather than in public or in a series of locations), and the dialogue often rambles on, highly improvised.  I picture Jarmusch just standing there watching like a lifeguard rather than a swim coach.

And that’s the beauty of it.  These are personalities brought to life or simply captured.  I like that Murray plays himself and that Buscemi doesn’t.  Murray always seems to be Bill Murray, and Buscemi often seems to disappear into roles (though you always know it’s him).  I’m sure this film wasn’t so convenient as I imagined it being, and the amount of time between shoots suggests how much Jarmusch cared about this project.

While films take a while to make, and as a writer/director you might sit with a project for years, they are still a singular process of preproduction, production, then post-production.  Then it’s over.  What I like about this film is the way it was made (like Boyhood) more than the film itself.  And maybe that’s not fair to other films that I don’t like, but who cares.

I like that this film was constantly being produced, constantly or occasionally but still consistently being written and edited.  I don’t know why, but I suppose it just feels like it was done out of love.

My favorite scene was the one between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, both playing themselves.  This short very much felt like Coogan’s sense of humor, and it’s much more scripted, structured and heightened like a comedy than other sketches.  It appeals more to my sensibilities, and I just found it funny.

There’s also a scene with Jack and Meg White from the White Stripes, and while this one at first felt like it suffered from poor acting, that same acting became endearing by the end as Jack and Meg’s relationship in the scene felt much more childlike, but good childlike, with a sense of awe and optimism.  Jack shows Meg his Tesla Coil, and it’s both absurd and charming.

I’m still learning about Jarmusch, but whenever I think of him, I think of Andy Warhol.  That might be because of their appearance (hairstyle) or because I know Jarmusch was friends with Basquiat, hinting at a life centered more around art in general than purely film.  Warhol similarly dabbled in film (though very experiment, challenging films).  When Jarmusch uses musicians, it feels like he knows they have another side to them that they can show off.  Or he sees something inherently interesting about people who perform, no matter how they perform.

And this film is built on performances.  Not all of them are showy, in fact none of them really are.  They’re muted, humiliated, defensive and prideful.  People argue about drinking and smoking habits, they reunite after years apart, they try to get things from one another, they make plans and they reminisce.  These are all depictions of how people work on each other, but maybe that’s too vague an idea and every film is like that.

The film ends with a scene of two old guys talking.  There are a couple mentions that have been discussed in earlier scenes (like the idea of coffee helping you dream more quickly from the first scene), and this shows a connection among people as a whole.  Sure it might’ve just been thrown in there, but the way they talk demonstrates a possible througline in humanity.  There are patterns in how we think and talk and act, whether we’re aware of it or not.  Most of what we do is hardly unique, but it doesn’t have to be.  The beauty is in the accumulation of details, not necessarily any single detail.  We’re all built from the same parts, but we’re built in different ways.  No one is right or wrong or anything absolute, and we’re all more alike than we realize.  For example, a lot of us drink coffee and still a lot of people smoke cigarettes and still a lot of people fret about smoking too many cigarettes or drinking too much coffee.

The film ends with one of the old men appearing to either fall asleep or pass away, and the film quietly fades to black.


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