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Coffee and Cigarettes

dir: Jim Jarmusch
[img_assist|nid=1013|title=Go on, Tom and Iggy, drink yer coffee and smoke yer smokes|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=449|height=325]
The amazing, contradictory nature of art is that much of the time it
is simultaneously crucial and pointless. Even at its best art is
ultimately superfluous. Blasphemy, you think. Hypocrisy, as well,
especially from someone who styles themselves an artist (by way of
being a writer). But hear me out: no-one having a heart attack ever
had their life saved by having the Mona Lisa applied to their chest
instead of those electrical things that they use yelling 'Clear!'
before they do so. I know they're called defibrillators, but I didn't
want to show off. No drowning child was ever pulled out of the water
using the Sistine Chapel. You can't put a fire out with Picasso's
Guernica. And no girlfriend ever chose not to leave you because you
had a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in
your hand. Trust me it doesn't work. They just keep walking.

With that in mind, the films of Jim Jarmusch have been no exception to
this rule that I just made up. Both pointed and pointless at the same
time, you could simultaneously damn him and praise him by saying that
his films have all been exercises in cool. This collection of short
films, made over the course of seventeen years is an even more
elaborate proof of that premise; that small flashes of humour and wit
can justify the running time, where something can have both profundity
and disposability at the same time.

The link between the scenes, as the title would suggest, is the
relationship between coffee and cigarettes, which as many of us know
to our misfortune, they are complimentary. But beyond that is the
element that is a mainstay of Jarmusch's films: the cinema of
discomfort. Every scene is about people communicating mostly poorly
with each other, and the chuckle-worthy humour that arises from that
failure to communicate. If we accept that these are akin to
experiments, then we can observe how contained and rarefied the
atmosphere in each scene is. Jarmusch has always produced scenes as
mannered and formalised as anything from Hal Hartley, Ingmar Bergman
or David Lynch, and the majority of the scenes here exemplify that.
The better scenes of course seem to break out of those strictures
enough to let the actors and the premise breath.

Starting with the oldest of the shorts filmed, or the filmed shorts
for that matter, is Roberto Benigni and deadpan comedian Steven
Wright, communicating as only two people who have no language in
common can communicate. A prized ham like Benigni, having the
propensity for slapstick that he has fills the scene with his lunatic
intensity, whilst Wright plays a far more energetic version of his
stage and screen persona.

'Somewhere in California' sees two legends of American music getting
together to smoke cigarettes (though they've given up), drink coffee,
and get offended at the most innocuous comments. Tom Waits and Iggy
Pop, both of whom have worked with Jarmusch before (Down By Law, also
with Benigni, and Dead Man respectively).

'No Problem' sees two old friends sit down to coffee and basically
continue to ask each other if everything is okay until they both get
sick of it and part ways.

'Cousins' sees Cate Blanchett brilliantly play dual roles as ‘herself'
the movie star and as Shell, her resentful ‘poor' cousin. The issues
of star treatment, and even the new aristocracy that celebrities
represent is beautifully sent up. And Cate even has enough humility to
poke fun at herself, which makes it even sweeter.

'Cousins?' (note the question mark) has Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan
of 24 Hour Party People fame deliver one of the single funniest scenes
I've seen in film all year. Molina in particular does a superlative
job pulling off what is essentially a simple sketch comedy sequence,
where the discomfort and smarminess do indeed waft off the screen.
This short alone is virtually worth the price of admission, with the
kudos going to Molina for doing the lion's share.

The last short is probably the only one of any deeper emotional
resonance, having as it does a conversation between two characters
straight out of a Beckett play nattering on during their lunch break,
as one talks of Mahler and a profound musical sadness that links us

There are plenty of others, even more pointless than the ones I've
mentioned, some that work and some that definitely do not, but they
don't usually stick around long enough for the audience to be filled
with murderous rage. That is, audiences that don't mind a lack of
anything actually happening in a film, which some people might find
disconcerting. As a fan of Jarmusch's film I enjoyed it reasonably
enough, but I can't imagine there is a massive market for people who
want to watch terrible actors like brother / sister rockers Meg and
Jack White from The White Stripes talking about Tesla coils, or
watching two old Mafioso types clucking on like mother hens for about
fifteen minutes. And dialogue and sequences are repeated with
different people, showing that not only is it in part an experiment,
but an experiment within an experiment as well.

Still, it's an interesting document of Jarmusch's skill as a director
and how it has matured over the years (if indeed it has). And as
cigarettes and coffee will always remain inextricably linked for many
people, so too will he remain wedded to his idea of what cool is:
smoking is cool; Lee Marvin is cool; hot women reading gun magazines
is cool; black and white is cool; and the confusion, the eternal
confusion that persists between us all no matter how hard we try to
correct it, is cool, man. And who are you to argue?

6 times Roberto Benigni would have been diagnosed with
Tourette's Syndrome or ADD had he a decent doctor and grown up in our
chemical generation out of 10.

'I wish I had an evil twin
because evil's not my cup of tea.' - The Magnetic Fields