(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: A series of vignettes that all have coffee and cigarettes in common.
– From IMDB Page
Recently I watched The Station Agent with a friend, and the strange thing was how nervous I felt. It’s a quiet film, and while watching it I realized how much my friends’ tastes have changed over the years. Nowadays film and television are expected to be quick, loud and visually spectacular. Although I gravitate toward the same things I also enjoy films with small stories, and The Station Agent encapsulates that. There are no explosions or witty one-liners, just people living their lives.
The same could be said for Coffee and Cigarettes, which is made up of eleven segments and more of a “slice of life” than a narrative. It isn’t afraid of silences or lack of resolution; all it has is its characters and their brief interactions. Some segments are stronger than others and overall it isn’t a film for everyone. If a viewer is seeking action or edge-of-their-seat entertainment, they would be better off watching something else.
Part of the attraction is the familiar faces having these interactions, and most of these actors, comedians and musicians are playing themselves. The format is familiar as well, since Jarmusch’s Night On Earth follows five different cab drives over the course of one night. Cigarettes isn’t that different; it’s just more prolific, honing in on acts of temporary satisfaction: drinking, smoking, talking to another human being and ruminating during the silences.
To focus on something so simple is a risk within itself, but it remains true to Jarmusch’s style. He once said his goal is to “approximate real time for the audience.” Cigarettes definitely succeeds on that point, enough that critics and viewers are divided on liking it or not. These segments are more about nuance and subtext than plot. I can’t even compare them to a book of short stories, more like anecdotes you have to experience firsthand, and even then you aren’t going to deeply appreciate or remember everything you see.
In my case I appreciate the details, from Joseph Rigano’s unforgettable voice (“Those Things’ll Kill Ya“) to the way Renée French holds her cigarette (“Renée“) or how GZA and RZA always refer to Bill Murray as “Bill MURry” throughout their conversation (“Delirium“). My favorite segment by far is “Champagne,” in which Bill Rice and Taylor Mead sit during a late night coffee break and hear a ghostly rendition of a Mahler song. After a while Mead appears to nod off after finishing his “champagne,” but some theorize he has died (including Mead himself).
What I found interesting while revisiting this film is how most of the celebrities playing “themselves” aren’t presented in a flattering light. In fact, that’s half of the awkwardness and comedy. It’s strange to watch Tom Waits antagonize a well-meaning Iggy Pop or Cate Blanchett play herself and her jealous cousin having a passive-aggressive volley of words. The segment featuring The White Stripes is particularly amusing since it centers on Jack White “mansplaining” Tesla’s technology to his bandmate, Meg, only to discover she knows more about it than he does.
However, the ultimate example of celebrity-fueled pride comes to a fore in the “Cousins?” segment with Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan. Molina is so brashly sincere and persistent in the face of Coogan’s disinterest and snobbery it’s painful to watch. Likewise it’s just as satisfying to watch Molina slowly figure out what’s going on and leave Coogan in the dust. It’s the longest of the segments, perhaps the most solid, and an audience favorite.
Overall Coffee and Cigarettes has a strange place in Jarmusch’s filmography. A year before its release I wrote a profile on his work, and while researching I read critics and scholars designating him as “a perpetual outsider,” or “doomed to obscurity.” He hadn’t released anything since his 1999 film, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai and I was given the impression he wasn’t going to release anything soon (in reality he was suffering a creative crisis in the wake of 9/11). Cigarettes could be considered a testing of the waters, a blend of old and new material. It could also be seen as a return to form, bringing in new fans of his work.
Regardless, Jarmusch has released some of his most revered work since 2003, particularly Broken Flowers (2005) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), and shows no signs of slowing down with two upcoming releases this year.
In spite of the fact that I have no coffee and cigarettes on hand, that’s something I can drink to.