DVD Review of
Coffee And Cigarettes
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/1/05
If John Sayles is the Stanley Kubrick of the American Independent film scene, able to get his sundry, tightly wrought, but distinct films to reach a sizable market, then Jim Jarmusch is its Martin Scorsese- whose restive films ever seem to probe the boundaries of form. Or, at least in Scorsese’s case, up until his last few attempts at blockbuster melodrama. The latest Jarmuschian experiment is a series of eleven black and white short films that spanned a seventeen year range. Coffee And Cigarettes started out as a small black and white short that aired in 1986, on Saturday Night Live, and featured Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni in a rather pointless, unfunny, and forced piece in a shitty café. In this compilation, which takes its name from that original short, the first piece is retitled Strange To Meet You. Regardless, it is no better nor funnier under the new title. Luckily, Jarmusch decided to work on variations of the theme. His next attempt, and the next filmlet, is 1989’s Twins (originally Coffee And Cigarettes, Memphis Version), which is a marginal improvement. Here, the real life siblings of filmmaker Spike Lee, Joie and Cinqué Lee, are arrogant pricks who are annoyed by and at waiter Steve Buscemi, who give a rambling defense of Elvis Presley against charges of racism by propounding an evil twin theory. The third entry is 1993’s Coffee And Cigarettes- Somewhere In California, now just Somewhere In California. It’s the first of the pieces that moves beyond mere gimmickry, as rockers Iggy Pop and Tom waits play themselves in a sly game of one-upsmanship at a café dive. It’s the first of the films where the actors are actually playing themselves.
Then there are eight more short films that were done in the few years before the 2003 release of the whole film Coffee And Cigarettes. The first of these is Those Things’ll Kill Ya, wherein character actors Joseph Rigano and Vinny Vella (who have appeared as mobsters in tv and film) profanely converse over coffee about the dangers of smoking. Vella’s son, Vinny Vella Jr. plays a deaf mute wiseass who begs for money. Renée stars actress, illustrator, and musician Renee French as herself looking in an arms magazine as waitron E.J. Rodriguez simply annoys her. After the last two films that showed insight it seems a slip back into self-conscious pointlessness. The same can be said of No Problem, wherein two Jamaicans- Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé- are friends who meet after one calls the other. One of them cannot help but feel the other is hiding a secret problem from him and the whole piece is about the evasion of this supposed secret. The best piece yet in the film cycle is Cousins, where Cate Blanchett is herself and her cousin Shelly. They meet at a hotel lounge, and both women try to up the other- Shelley by claiming Cate lost a CD she mailed her, but really didn’t, and Cate by pretending to care for her cousin by giving her a bag full of free film promotion perfume that she doesn’t want. The film star is then bound by her schedule, and Shelley is scolded when she tries to light up in the no-smoking lounge. Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil is another fairly pointless piece in which Jack and Meg White, of the rock duo The White Stripes, have a very forced conversation about Nikola Tesla and his life and theories, including the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance. Cinqué Lee reappears as a waiter in this piece.
The next segment is Cousins?, the longest film of the eleven, wherein British actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan find out they are distantly related. Molina wants to be pals, but Coogan rejects him until he sees that knowing Molina could be good for his career. His attempts at re-ingratiation fail. Not surprisingly, this and the similarly titled Cousins, with Blanchett are by far the best pieces, and the only ones wholly shorn of amateurism. The same is not true for Delirium, where rappers GZA and RZA drink herbal tea and warn Bill Murray of caffeine and nicotine as drugs as bad as that found on the street, even as he disses the very essence of rap underneath the noses of the clueless duo. The final segment, Champagne, follows Bill Rice and Taylor Mead (one of Andy Warhol’s legendarily untalented superstars) as janitors on their coffee break, and waxing nostalgic about life and Nilkola Tesla, until Mead either falls asleep or dies, in a very Beckettian twist.
Ok, critics either loved or hated this film, and the truth is it’s not as bad nor good as either side says, because there is a great deal of amateurism involved, as well as daring. as I said, when really good actors and situations are put forth, there are gems of moments, such as in Cousins?, where Molina’s slight shift of tone after Coogan’s rebuff of his seeming sycophancy perfectly illustrates the fact that he knows he’s higher in the Hollywood pecking order than his distant cousin. In Somewhere in California a similar moment is reached when Iggy Pop first tries to tell Tom Waits to call him Iggy and Waits, without missing a beat, calls him Jim- his real name. When not there is nothing distinct; its plotlessness really shows- as in Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil. Yet, there are segments like Those Things’ll Kill Ya and No Problem where the utter barrenness of diurnal existence are both emulated and satirized by the aging mooks and the none-too-bright Jamaicans, whose conversations are so painfully weak, awkward, yet real, that the filmgoer attuned to even the slight falsehoods of the minimally enlightened dialogue of Hollywood tripe can feel it, and wince. This film, at its best, avoids the needs to be boring to convey the power of boringness trope that affects much modern art, but its very hit and miss nature also undermines the cumulative effect that the best of it has to offer. In short, the film may be said to recapitulate Jarmusch’s whole career….interesting; which is just the term I most often use when a work hits that middling ground that knows no name. There may be something to it, after all.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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