"Cigarettes and coffee, man, that's a combination."
While watching the opening scene of Coffee and Cigarettes it became obvious that something was off. Though the release date was said to be in 2003, the style, tone, fashion and vocabulary all seemed strangely 90s-esque. This was noticeable in a few of the film’s most memorable scenes, and it almost distracted me at times. As soon as it was over, I rushed to IMDB to see if anybody else noticed the time lapse. As it turns out, Jim Jarmusch had been filming and editing Coffee and Cigarettes for as long as I have been alive.
The film itself is black and white and cut into several theatric shorts that center on the conversations that people have together while enjoying coffee and cigarettes. The glaring outdated fashion and lingo is explained by the fact that Jarmusch used some scenes for the movie that he filmed as early as 1986. Though Coffee and Cigarettes lacks any sort of flowing narrative, it does feature some working short scenes that star recognizable figures giving great performances. Each miniature movie has a different spin on “table talk” that ranges from private and silent to competitive. The human study that partners with the film is whelming.
My personal favorite short has the humorously self-aware title “Jack Shows Meg his Tesla Coil” and stars Jack and Meg White as themselves. Seeing this early clip of The White Stripes interacting is a testament to their awkwardness. The scene, which perpetuates the band’s “sibling” relationship, is filled with band motifs and almost ventures into feeling surreal. The “brother and sister” are sitting around the table over coffee and cigarettes while Jack pays special attention to a Tesla coil that he has built. After Meg finally acknowledges it, he goes on to spew intellectual over the achievements of Nikola Tesla until his version of the coil mysteriously breaks down. I am not honestly sure how interested The White Stripes really are in high voltage, low current, high frequency alternating current electricity, but Jarmusch would lead the audience to believe that it was very important to the band.
The White Stripes are not the only musicians to star in a Coffee and Cigarettes vignette. Iggy Pop and Tom Waits star together as themselves in the Short Film Palme d'Or winning “Somewhere in California”. Filmed in 1993, it consists primarily of a conversation between the two rock icons in a coffee shop. In a humorous moment, the two agree that smoking just one cigarette is fine because it is a habit they have both kicked. As the conversation escalates, the two begin to act in a bit of a pissing contest over who has the most songs on the diner’s old jukebox. As it turns out, neither is represented at all. The conversation between these two men is epically engaging. Though they seem to be talking about nothing, their interactions tell another story. Here, on screen, the audience has two rock and roll legends goofing off and noticeable having fun with one another. It is certainly neat to see…
But maybe the best of the vignettes is also easily the funniest and features Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina as themselves. In the skit, Molina has invited Coogan to his home in Los Angeles where he learns of a distant connection that makes the two British actors cousins. This means a great deal to Molina as he uses this information to try and make a career connection out of a resistant Coogan. The banter between the two men is perfectly awkward and has a slow pacing that increases the subtle humor. The contrast between the two actors’ emotions is particularly hilarious – with Molina being giddy with joy and excitement over the news as Coogan rolls his eyes and pushes away from the situation.
In the end, Coffee and Cigarettes is a showing of a particular style that may not resonate with every audience. It is black and white, simply shot, slowly paced and features nothing but unimportant dialogue that ultimately tells us nothing about the world. At its core, I think the film explores the concept of conversation between two or more people while using the socially conventional coffee and cigarette as ice breakers.
It is amazing what people start to talk about when they have something to sip or something to put their lips on. In terms of a study on behavior, Coffee and Cigarettes is a fictionalized exploration into the concept. That alone is entertaining enough. With great performances and engaging topics, the film is a formidable option for causal movie fans.
Coffee and Cigarettes: B-