Monday, February 28, 2011

Coffee and Cigarettes. (2003) Jim Jarmusch

My fourth Jim Jarmusch B&W in the previous five days takes things further than the typical nobodies going nowhere and walking dead men tossed into his films before -- this is a plot-less film, a film not about nobodies or nowhere, but about nothing in and of itself. It's a rare achievement, a film that goes nowhere purposefully, aiming to accomplish nothing and succeeding.

A simple obligatory description: twelve short films woven into a pastiche creating one big film, Coffee and Cigarettes. All twelve scenes are shot in one take involving two or three characters chatting over the title's main course, and no two scenes have any crossover whatsoever. It's like reciting the alphabet: A, B, C, D... A has nothing to do with B which has nothing to do with C, etc., ad Z.

I've heard of those less enthused with the premise, in fact I've heard about people at original screenings eight years ago getting bored or tired and finally quitting, giving up and walking out. I can't say that I blame them. This one won't be for everyone. But I think fans of Jarmusch were happy with the film, and it continues to add fans today. (I'm an addition.)

I tried to watch it years ago and don't remember if I made it through or not. With the number of films I actually see (five or six a week, minimum) this one slid to the nether regions of my brain where no memories care to exist, or if they do exist they certainly don't tell. It's the event that I know I was at, but don't remember names or faces; the gig I only know from a scribbled schedule found on crumpled paper.

It's funny how timing and the way we perceive things can change if we allow it to. Having just seen the previous three Jarmusch B&Ws in chronological order -- Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Dead Man -- having spent a little time in Jarmusch's brain and witnessing his vision of the world and all its stream-of-fog-conscious features (the often overlooked simple parts of daily life, the strange coincidences that pop up in an average day), I must admit that the final film on this particular trip in the land of Jarmusch was rewarding, and felt like the perfect ending note in a small sonata.

All actors play themselves, or at least a version of themselves, perhaps the version they think that we think they are. And while all the scenes are solid, with dry undertones of a laughable yet melancholic humanity, three clearly stand out:

The first scene stars Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright. Has there ever been a more odd pairing of individuals? Benigni seems to be recapping his "Bob" role from Down By Law, essentially him playing himself but amped up to Italian with a capital "I", and Wright cracks jokes from his usual routine, stuck in stand-up mode at a sit-down diner with Bob. They fidget with their coffee cups, their nerves shot from all the caffeine, their fingers shaking as they drink, like addicts relapsing. The plan they wryly come up is the perfect entry into the rest of the shorts, and all it involves is a trip to the local dentist. If you don't find the first scene funny, or interesting at the very least, you might as well give up now. It's not for you.

Cate Blanchett gets the most fun playing herself in conversation with her jealous sister (also Blanchett). Don't know how this scene was pulled off, but the gimmick itself wouldn't work without a stellar actor in the part. Blanchett is one of my favorites, and here she doesn't let down in either character. In so many of these scenes we know exactly what's being said without either character actually saying it. Here, Cate's sister seems to be saying, "I wish I were you," and Cate just wants to connect.

Then there's Bill Murray as a waiter, again -- playing himself, taking care of a table where RZA and GZA (Wu-Tang Clan) recognize him, and as he drinks his coffee straight from the pot they tell him how bad caffeine and nicotine really are. They know the chemicals and the biological implications, they know of its danger for poor Bill Murray. At the end of the skit they head out to their studio to further enjoy the day and smoke some pot.

Iggy Pop and Tom Waits also have a hilarious scene together, as do Jack and Meg White, but if I continue I'll just have to name all of the actors and all of the scenes, and really there's no bad scene in the film.

And the fact that there's no bad scene in the film just goes to show you that if this one is not for you, then it's not. It's the final resting place of the initial thought I shared regarding Stranger Than Paradise -- this film is more about the viewer than it is about the actual film. Coffee and Cigarettes takes this idea to the extreme, where upset viewers will eventually just walk out.

Were I to deny the film is entertaining I'd be lying. Perhaps that's what its original goals were, to simply be a piece of fun, an entertainment. But it might have also been to just hook up a camera and see what happens when short films are strung together. Regardless, the series of shorts, shot over years of time, seems fine with simply Being. It's OK with sight and sound personified, and that's all. The fact that it's entertaining feels like it surpassed its goals, so there's more bang for your buck then even intended.

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