Coffee And Cigarettes
Talking of narcotics, as we are this week, there is a scene in Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's free-for-all, Blue in the Face (1995), where hipster indie director Jim Jarmusch extols the praises of the cigarette. It's a long and brilliant monologue: 'Coffee and Cigarettes', he says, smacking his lips, 'Breakfast of champions!'
At the time, Jarmusch had been working on his collection of short films, Coffee and Cigarettes, for nearly ten years, off and on. It's taken the best part of another decade to get it up to feature length. Over that time, Jarmusch has assembled quite a cast list: Cate Blanchett, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Steve Buscemi, Jack and Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, RZA, GZA, and last but not least, Bill Murray! Bill Murray! (as RZA calls him).
The 11 films vary in length between one and two cups, but they are all minimalist, monochrome conversation pieces shot in the corners of cafes or diners, and they indulge the director's fondness for slow burning, deadpan humour and what Mia Wallace called 'uncomfortable silences'. To be blunt: there's an awful lot of nothing much going on.
Paradoxically, that's less of a problem in longer pieces. In the feature films Down by Law (which featured Benigni and Waits), and the tri-part Mystery Train (which featured Buscemi and Spike Lee's siblings, twins Cinque and Joie, who also figure here), you have time to adjust to the pace and get under the skin of the characters. But in these short vignettes, as often as not you find nothing comes of nothing. It's not clear how much improvisation was going on, or to what extent Jarmusch scripted them, but it is noticeable that the later, more clearly constructed pieces are more successful.
Even then, it's surprising how much these filmettes rely on star power, and indeed, the best are about celebrity, ego, and isolation - the episode in which Cate Blanchett meets her unknown cousin (also Cate Blanchett) being the most extreme example. Meanwhile the shorts with Joe Rigano and Vinny Vella, and Renee French and EJ Rodriguez (none of whom I've heard of) are the least watchable.
The good news is, this is DVD - so you can always skip the dud episodes. The bad news is, you may not know which is a dud until too late. Personally, I would score them as follows:
Coffee and Cigarettes is a must-see for Jarmusch fans, and if you're into any of the cult rock stars, comedians and movie stars, it's worth a look, just to see them with their hair down. But be warned, it's definitely a side project for everybody involved.
One last caution: for some reason I felt compelled to drink coffee throughout the movie, and hardly slept a wink all night. My advice, follow the example of the Wu-Tang boys. Drink green tea.