Salute Your Shorts: Coffee and Cigarettes
Salute Your Shorts is
a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any
other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.
Writing about Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes in this space is cheating a little bit, since its 11 shorts do comprise a full-length feature. But it’s an nontraditional feature, to say the least, and it would be wrong to say that the shorts do something as simple as linking together to create an overarching plot or positing different ways of looking at a character or situation. Other features, such as Pulp Fiction and Run, Lola, Run, do that, and despite their divisions, these films are still unified. The segments that make up Coffee and Cigarettes work instead as a series, more akin to something like the Cremaster Cycle than episodic features.
Jarmusch has been working in a similar fashion in many of his films, and even his more traditionally narrative works (such as they may be) are extremely episodic in nature. But Coffee and Cigarettes really takes this to the endpoint, segmenting things as much as possible and removing any trace of narrative outside of the particular situations. If Dead Man is just a dreamy drift between set pieces, Coffee and Cigarettes effectively removes the drifting and offers us only the set pieces. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum identifies the work with collections of short stories that are composed to be read next to each other, like Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time or James Joyce’s Dubliners, which is a good rubric for examining the work. It is a series of shorts, but while individual works may be better or worse, understanding the themes and motifs of the work add new depth to what each one means.
To understand the relationships between these films, you have to understand the rules that Jarmusch is abiding by. "Coffee" and "cigarettes" are not just words in the title of the film; they’re also a subject mentioned in each short. There’s also an overhead shot of these items on a table in each short, and seating and framing for the shorts are always very similar. Little details like background music are a part of every short, and even the film’s black and white palette seems related to the minimalism Jarmusch subjects his film to, having said that the black represents coffee while the white represents the cigarettes. It’s hard to say which of these were by design and initially planned out, but in any case it’s an impressive display of restrained filmmaking. Other stylistic motifs, such as checkerboard table patterns or even more obvious elements such as never showing anyone besides two patrons and one waiter/passerby are essential to making each short fit in with the whole.
From here Jarmusch takes the same situation and tells 11 different stories. These range from Tom Waits and Iggy Pop’s inability to have a conversation without offending each other to Jack White’s odd explanation of his tesla coil. Taken just as it is, the anthology covers a wide swath of topics and each short has a bit of a narrative incident to give the coffee-store conversations a little tension, even if, like in "Renée," it’s just barely enough to be worthwhile. In and of themselves these situations are often generally pretty great, though they’re surprisingly rather Tarantino-esque, with heavily stylized dialogue and a leisurely way of approaching conversation naturally rather than trying to cut through the chaff. In the better-acted shorts, there’s a real sense that while it’s clearly not a documentary, this probably is how these people would talk to each other, movie or no.
These conversations are also the collection’s most obvious draw. Jarmusch fan or not, most are initially lured into Coffee and Cigarettes through its casting. The shorts feature an eclectic group of actors, musicians and others from the hip New York crowd that Jarmusch is familiar with. But even this is actually another minimalist device. By drawing dialogue and situations from its celebrities’ personalities, Coffee and Cigarettes is able to exist without any real characterization. Instead of seeming poorly developed, this is only noticeable in the few cases where characters are unknown to the general public, and even then, sometimes Jarmusch is able to pull things off seamlessly. In fact, the film only contains six actors who don’t play themselves, which includes Cate Blanchett’s role opposite herself. The only one that ends up jarring is Steve Buscemi’s character in “Twins,” and I suspect that it’s because at the time it was made (1989), Jarmusch hadn’t decided to flesh out the project as he would much later.
If you’re interested in only checking out a few of these shorts, or seeing what they’re about before checking out more, I recommend watching “Cousins?” The short posits a meeting between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, where Molina reveals that through a distant ancestor they’re, in fact, related. Coogan isn’t particularly concerned, though, and tries to brush Molina off without even giving his newly discovered cousin his phone number. “Cousins?” is distinguished by a more acidic tone than most of the shorts, where something seems at stake despite the short run time. It also contains some great acting by both Coogan and Molina, which can be choppy and off in the shorts with untrained actors.
Almost as good is the similarly titled “Cousins,” where Blanchett meets with her fictional cousin Shelly, and the two reveal ambiguous attitudes about both Blanchett’s fame and her cousin’s jealousy. That both cousins shorts touch on the same theme is no coincidence, though, and while each of these pieces is good on its own, together they flesh out more fully Jarmusch’s ambiguous attitudes about his work and the film business. Combined with the rest of the anthology, even more comes out, as cousins is but a subset of the larger motif of family relationships. Twins interact with cousins and then play upon families and names. It’s the kind of well-orchestrated symbols that’s more typical in literature than in film, but used in this context it works just as well on the screen as it does on the page.
Admittedly, there’s probably not so much meaning to the play upon the Lee family name, nor many of the other devices, but so what? hat doesn’t mean it’s any less fun to see how they’re worked into the different shorts and then to figure out the relationships between them, especially as each viewing reveals new details that link Coffee and Cigarettes together. Some of these recurring elements are extremely important, though, even if it requires repetition, which the films offer in spades. The idea of “the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance,” for instance, seems more meaningful than simple wordplay. Oddly enough, even though this repetition is the film’s primary method of emphasis, since its stylistic constraints make it impossible to do so any other way, the repetition itself even becomes a theme, with implications of a world built upon similarity and universal human relationships.
Coffee and Cigarettes ends up offering the type of joy indebted to aesthetic brilliance, where style and substance converge to become one and the same. It’s a lot like reading something by Nabokov or Barth, and many of the joys it offers are of the same sort. The shorts don’t go into as weighty material as Dead Man or Broken Flowers, but despite the impersonal style, Coffee and Cigarettes still manages to do things with film rarely seen and to impart a personal message—not a bad feat for a film that never has more than three people in the same scene.