Directed Viewing: “Coffee and Cigarettes”

Hello and welcome to Directed Viewing, the series where I take a look at the filmography of any given director one movie at a time. So far we’ve been having quite a time with that auteur of the indie 80s, Jim Jarmusch. Not to say it’s all been bad, because it hasn’t, but there’s certainly been way more misses than hits, and all in all I’m a little war-weary.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I turn my attention to what might be the most indulgent film of Jarmusch’s entire career, a movie with a fanbase I simply can’t understand. A movie that tested the very limits of my politeness as I watched it for the 2nd time for this project (having seen it a few years back). A little movie called

Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

I’m going to cut right to the bone here: Coffee and Cigarettes really isn’t a movie. I mean, sure, they put together a 90-ish minute piece of film and sold it on a disc, but in reality this feature is a much different beast. The accumulation of 11 short films Jim Jarmusch had shot between 1986 and 2003, starring a whole slew of interesting people, some of which are old hands at showing up in Jarmusch movies and others who seem almost wildly inappropriate for his style.

Unfortunately, that makes talking about the whole thing a bit difficult, because like all short compilations, the quality of the shorts varies wildly and at such a small size are a thousand times more subjective than a longer piece. Also, I dislike most of them. I mean, few if any are outright awful (the one starring Jack and Meg White talking about a Tesla coil is the huge standout flop) but the whole thing didn’t really work for me. Big surprise. So I’m not going to go through them all individually and belabor the complains I have that could be applied to most of them.

Besides, in reality they’re the same complaints I’ve been having the whole time doing this project. This movie is basically his entire career in microcosm: obsessed with disaffected cool, meandering tangents into American rock history, a disregard for narrative. Some people really like that, and this movie in particular seems to have quite a lot of fans, but man, halfway through this movie I was debating just putting a bullet in the entire thing.

But I feel like I could spin in circles about how bad this movie is for ages and just sound like I’m wasting your time, so let’s talk about some of the highlights. This is probably going to be way shorter than the other movie rundowns, but it’s not as if this one demands a whole lot of analysis. It is deliberately casual, an array of conversations about nothing. And sometimes, I’ll admit, it turns out to be pretty cool. So let’s talk about those.

The highlight of the movie is a short featuring Cate Blanchett playing both herself and a fictional relative named Shelly. They meet in a hotel lobby while Cate is doing a press junket for an unnamed movie. Cate is the picture of poise and polite grace, radiating the kind of Golden Age movie star vibe that makes her awesome. Shelly, on the other hand, is obviously the relative nobody wants. She’s brash, uncultured, greedy in a slimy dependent sort of way. It’s amazing to see the characters play so naturally off of one another, with sharp writing and a cringing sense of sympathy from anyone who knows what it’s like to have a family member like that (I certainly do, and it makes it nearly unwatchable in the best way).

But there are certainly other, equally weird shorts that stand out. There’s a pretty good encounter between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan that plays really weird these days, where Molina presents the fact that he’s Coogan’s distant cousin and Coogan blows him off as some no-name actor trying to curry favor with a star. It’s funny enough, with a long burn that pays off as a huge blow at Coogan’s usual stuffiness, but what makes it even weirder now is I can’t imagine ANYONE today knowing Coogan but not Molina. The guy is everywhere. It feels really bizarro-world to watch him play this relative unknown. I don’t know if that was the case in 2003, but part of me kind of hopes that it was and that Jarmusch is just playing up the juxtaposition with reality for laughs. It seems like a thing he’d do.

The third one I want to talk about isn’t as notable, though it’s certainly a bit weird, and it’s a nice lead into next week’s movie. It’s a short featuring RZA and GZA (again cousins) of the Wu-Tang Clan sitting in a diner talking about the benefits of herbal tea over coffee. Then Bill Murray, dressed in a dirty short-order cook’s garb, sits down and starts talking to them, drinking from the pot of coffee he’s holding. They both recognize him, giving him grief about how bad coffee is for you and then going on about why he’s in disguise. Bill Murray, in typical Bill Murray fashion, doesn’t offer any real answer.

It’s baffling why this exists, but it gets by on being the most Bill Murray thing I have ever seen. It exudes Murrayness. It makes Lost in Translation look like it starred some other, less Bill Murray guy. Because you’re reminded about that weird time in the early aughts when Bill Murray was the magical elf of a certain caliber of indie cinema, appearing in seemingly random projects to be disaffected and shitty in a charmingly Murray sort of way. Not really being funny, certainly not telling any jokes, but just being tired and burnt out in the way you’d expect someone like Bill Murray to be.

And I say that as a major Bill Murray fan.

Which is really all I have to say about Coffee and Cigarettes. It’s fine, some people like it, I think it’s uneven and I’m so tired of Jarmusch’s shtick I find it terrible to even think about. But it’s inoffensive, and certainly if you want a feel for what the man has to offer this is not a bad place to start. I’d rather you see Ghost Dog, but that’s hardly a representative work.

Come back next week when I continue to talk about ineffable Murrayness with Jarmusch’s dour riff on the last 20 minutes of Elizabethtown with Broken Flowers.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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