Roberto Benigni & Steven Wright. Iggy Pop & Tom Waits. Bill Murray & RZA (of the Wu-Tang Clan), Jack & Meg White, Cate Blanchett & Cate Blanchett. These are just some of the delightful onscreen pairings in Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Coffee and Cigarettes.
Comprised of nothing but coffee breaks, the movie began as an assignment for Saturday Night Live. In 1986, the producers asked Jarmusch to make a short film, and he took the opportunity to create a little black-and-white movie with Wright and Benigni. Playing themselves, or at least versions of their public personae, the two men meet at a café where they drink coffee and smoke, and even though the six-minute short is scripted, their conversation is casually, spontaneously funny.
Jarmusch enjoyed the experience so much that for the next 18 years, he continued to make shorts between his feature films, sometimes using the actors from his movies and sometimes roping in musician friends like Waits or actor friends like Steve Buscemi. But he always followed the same structure: two people chatting over coffee and cigarettes.
Having collected “enough songs for a record album,” as Jarmusch likes to say, he
recently combined all 11 shorts into a feature-length movie appropriately titled Coffee and Cigarettes. He claims he doesn’t take this “strange little film” very seriously, but it’s clear that even in these quick projects, Jarmusch can’t hide his fascination with human nature. When the shorts are placed back-to-back, subtle themes emerge from this clever amalgam of fragile egos and interchangeable identities.
Recently while Jarmusch was in San Francisco for the opening of Coffee and Cigarettes at the city’s film festival, we sat down and I asked him about its surprising cohesiveness.
“Well it’s just an organic thing,” he says. “It just starts growing and you try to pay a little attention to which way it’s leaning. To be honest, I didn’t know whether they would work better as separate shorts or if they would have a cumulative effect that was stronger than the individual things. And when I first started putting them together, I felt very strongly that they did. So I went that way.
“But I still don’t know. It’s impossible for anyone who makes a film to see it as a film, because the beauty of seeing a film is seeing something for the first time and entering a world, and you’re robbed of that.”
Despite that lack of gestalt and Beginner’s Mind, Jarmusch has fashioned a wildly idiosyncratic, stylish and coherent body of work. In the early ’80s, right out of film school, Jarmusch inadvertently helped define the American independent movement when his second feature, Stranger Than Paradise, found an audience of people who enjoyed its hip-but-relaxed pace, deadpan humor and apparent awareness of world cinema. The film is stylistically simple, with even fewer shots than the film he made during school, Permanent Vacation, and it seemed to satisfy a hunger for movies that eschew Hollywood formula. That hunger didn’t go unnoticed by the industry, which has since created specialized subsidiaries of major studios, festivals like Sundance and cable channels that champion “independent” filmmakers.
But few of those filmmakers, even the most famous ones, have the sort of independence that Jarmusch has enjoyed throughout his career. Since that first burst of success, he’s followed his muse without pressure from studios. He finds financing outside of the Hollywood system and sells the American distribution rights only after his films are completely finished. Even the most powerful distributors have been unable to wrest final cut from his grasp.
“I feel very lucky, but there’s no other way for me to do it. It’s just who I am. It’s not a calculated thing. I don’t want to be a director-for-hire. I’m not attracted by the money, you know, so—I just feel really lucky, and I really love cinema. I love all forms of expression that people leave us and give us and will give us.”
Jarmusch has a voracious appetite for the work of creative people. “I saw this Jafar Panahi film, Crimson Gold. What a jewel. I like filmmakers who do it because they love the form, so I love Aki Kaurismäki and Emir Krusturica and Claire Denis and Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien. I think Sofia Coppola is really a poet of cinema. Lost in Translation is a beautiful film. You know, it got over-hyped and too much weight put on it for its own good, because it’s kind of a fragile film, but I liked it a lot.
“I get in certain obsessive states of seeing older films where I have to see all of Budd Boetticher’s Westerns, or I have to see every film Steve McQueen was in, or I have to see all the shorts that Kiarostami ever made. I think good things stay good, you know? And people find them. And now we’re lucky because we have access to DVDs and we have the Internet and you really can find out about something you’re interested in much more easily than you could 10 years ago.”
This broad appreciation of human expression drives Jarmusch’s work. Even in his earliest movies, his characters take time to read and listen to music. In an industry where pop songs are slapped onto film soundtracks just to sell CDs, it’s refreshing to see a love of music so deeply embedded in Jarmusch’s films that many of them make no sense without it.
His characters, in addition to sharing many of his appetites, often seem to exist at a point where cultures collide. This frontier isn’t without its problems—his characters deal with language differences and misunderstandings—but just as often they value the fresh perspectives that someone from another world may have. In 1995, after making a string of light comedies, including Down By Law, Mystery Train and Night On Earth, Jarmusch made Dead Man, a formal, stunningly beautiful, almost experimental Western starring Johnny Depp as the eponymous white man who is befriended by a Native American (played by Gary Farmer) who prefers to be called Nobody. While following the men through a slow, mysterious journey, the movie shows equal reverence for the poetry of William Blake and the culture of indegenous peoples, and approaches death as life’s natural coda, something to anticipate. Jarmusch is careful to respect Nobody without idealizing him—essentially treating him as a human—while vilifying only those characters who seem unwilling to do so.
In Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch puts hip-hop gangstas and Italian-American mobsters in the same world. It’s a humorous, inspired depiction of how knowledge and culture get transmitted from person to person. Sometimes ideas blend, and sometimes they butt heads. It’s an intriguing picture of America at a crossroads, a transitional melting pot, a single society of varying codes, languages, races and genders.
Jarmusch’s style is recognizably his own, but his work has sometimes been overly identified with the films of Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese filmmaker whose style became simpler and yet more profound as his career advanced. But he and Ozu clearly share many of the same interests, both stylistically and in the way they observe human behavior, and nowhere are those interests more apparent than in Coffee and Cigarettes.
“I love Ozu. What a master. I’m not really able to analyze my films. I mean there are no quotes from Ozu in this film, although the camera doesn’t move, which is Ozu-like, but I do that in a lot of other films, too. So in this particular film, I don’t know what’s directly Ozu-like about it except that it’s kind of static and minimal. And also, I visited his grave in Kamakura outside Tokyo where he lived and filmed. And there’s a single Chinese character on his gravestone that’s called ‘mu’ which is a philosophical concept that you can’t really translate into English, but an approximation would be ‘the space between all things’. And I think of Coffee and Cigarettes like that. It’s made up of these little spaces in the day, little free zones where you’re not doing what your structured day is supposed to be.”
Jarmusch highlights the interstitial nature of the segments not only with dialog—characters talk about where they’ve been or where they’re going—but also with sounds that hint at a world outside of the camera’s narrow focus: music plays from a jukebox; Iggy Pop’s motorcycle rumbles softly in the background as he pulls away, off-screen; and Taylor Mead cups his hand around his ear when he thinks he hears Mahler resonating through the hallways. If you asked these characters later to describe their day, the part we’re seeing wouldn’t likely be mentioned. “No, I hope it wouldn’t,” Jarmusch agrees. “Because this isn’t their dramatic thing.”
It’s easy for those of us who grew up in the United States to spot the ritual and ceremony in Japanese movies. It stands out because it’s foreign. But we don’t often notice the patterns that we follow in our own culture. In Coffee and Cigarettes, the rhythms of people lighting cigarettes, pouring coffee, adding sugar, adding cream, stirring, sipping, clinking cups, blowing smoke become almost abstract.
“Even in the one where they drink tea, they’re like, ‘Shall I be mother? No, I’ll be my own mother’—you know, negotiating who’s gonna pour. Or the one with Renée French, it’s like her little chemistry set. She had the right milk, the right sugar; the waiter f---ed it up. Then you see her adding sugar but it’s so little. She’s so meticulous about how she wants it that it is ceremonial, in a way. Or the fact that people laugh when Shelly—Cate [Blanchett]’s cousin—stirs with her finger, because that’s sort of a ceremonial taboo. But really, why? If you saw that in some other culture, I don’t think people would laugh. Here people laugh because it’s not acceptable ceremonially. They’re kind of weird, these little things we do. … All the tiny nuances of human expression are incredible to me. I really value people who are just amazed by their own consciousness. They’re like my new heroes.”
In Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld, a priest asks his young student to name the parts of his shoe. The boy hesitates but eventually identifies the sole and the laces. After some prompting he locates the tongue, but there he stops. The priest goes on to name all the other parts of the shoe, pointing them out: the eyelets, the grommet, the welt, the cuff, the counter, the vamp, the aglet. Once you know their names, the details that surround you every day become visible.
“Yeah, it’s the same thing,” Jarmusch says. “Exactly. An appreciation of the ideas and expression and all the strange little details. If you just take a walk, you can ignore it or your head can swim in the fascination of it all.”
An appreciation of the quiet details is exactly why an off-beat comedy like Coffee and Cigarettes resonates with such interesting patterns, interlocking like puzzle pieces on a checkerboard tablecloth. And it’s why Jim Jarmusch, even when he’s just having fun, remains one of the most fascinating directors working today.
To read unpublished excerpts from Paste's interview with Jim Jarmusch, click here.