Coffee and Cigarettes Review

Coffee and Cigarettes is a collection of eleven short films, each being a conversation piece taking place somewhere where cigarettes are smoked and coffee is drunk. Jim Jarmusch has made something of a speciality of such films, with the five-part structure of Night on Earth and the three interlocking stories of Mystery Train. Even his second and third features, Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law, though full-length films involving the same characters throughout, fall naturally into three distinct sections. Jarmusch has been making a series of Coffee and Cigarettes shorts in between his features, and the first three of the eleven here had previous cinema releases in 1986, 1989 and 1993. (The third one, “Somewhere in California”, starring Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, won Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival.)

Jim Jarmusch’s films are an acquired taste, but if you have acquired it you’ll need no recommendation from me to check this film out. The pleasures of his films are a laid-back, deadpan, often quirky sense of humour. In most of the short films, “nothing” seems to happen on the surface, but like Eric Rohmer and Richard Linklater amongst others, Jarmusch knows that two people sitting and talking can be entirely cinematic in the right hands if the talk is good enough. It’s a film about quirky observations on life. It’s about the beauty of black and white photography. And it’s about the intake of caffeine and the smoking of tobacco in great quantities.

One thing’s for sure, Jarmusch must have an address book to die for. Some of the duos or trios in these films are inspired: Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright in the opening film, with Wright drinking coffee before bedtime so he can dream faster and Benigni solving Wright’s dental problem in a way I won’t spoil. Next we have Joie and Cinqué Lee (siblings of Spike) as argumentative twins who have to listen to waiter Steve Buscemi’s theories about Elvis’s twin brother. Cate Blanchett meets her (fictional) resentful cousin Shelly, also played by Cate Blanchett in an acting tour de force. Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan – who, being Englishmen abroad in L.A., both drink tea – discover that they’re related. And RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan meet a caffeine-addled Bill Murray. Many of the cast are playing themselves, or rather fictionalised versions of themselves – in some cases, I sincerely hope they’re fictional!

Inevitably, not all the short films work as well. A couple in the middle (“Renée” and “No Problem”) seem less worked out and slight, meaning the film sags a little. But at its best Coffee and Cigarettes is very funny, and if one sketch doesn’t hit the spot there’ll be another along in a few minutes. It’s maybe not Jarmusch’s very best work, and I’m quite aware that people not on his wavelength should avoid this or risk boredom, but the writer/director’s many fans won’t need much prompting from me.

During the watching and reviewing of this DVD, five cups of coffee were drunk. On the other hand, I’m a non-smoker.

Coffee and Cigarettes, which is encoded for Region 1 only, has an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 1.78:1. This opens the matte up slightly from 1.85:1, which is the ratio that Jarmusch has used for all of his 35mm films. (I haven’t seen his very first feature, Permanent Vacation, which was shot in colour 16mm.) Jarmusch is one of the few modern directors to have made – or be allowed to have made – films in black and white, and Coffee and Cigarettes shows that if the medium is a dying art (few features use it these days and many of them are shot on colour film stock), then it’s one worth upholding and a thing of beauty. Most of the shorts were photographed by Frederick Elmes, except for “Strange to Meet You” (the original 1986 Coffee and Cigarettes short) which is the work of Tom Dicillo, “Twins” (originally released as Coffee and Cigarettes: Memphis Version in 1989) by Robby Müller, and “Renée” and “No Problem” by Ellen Kuras. The latter two are noticeably softer on this DVD transfer, but that may well be down to the use of a different DP and lighting style. On the whole, the transfer is sharp and detailed. There’s some minor shimmering of the walls behind Benigni’s head in the opening section, and some noticeable grain in the quite darkly lit “Somewhere in California” section, but nothing too untoward.

The sound mix is Dolby Digital 5.1 but it says something when the United Artists logo at the front makes more use of surround sound than anything in the feature. As you’d expect for such a dialogue-driven film, this is almost entirely centre-speaker. Even the song over the opening credits (Richard Berry and the Pharaohs with the original version of “Louie, Louie”) is monophonic. There’s nothing at all wrong with the sound mix, which copes well with varying timbres of voice and smalls sounds like the clinks of coffee spoons and cups. But you certainly wouldn’t use this to show off your set-up. The only places where it does anything more is when Jack White demonstrates his Tesla Coil, and Iggy Pop’s raucous cover/update of “Louie, Louie” over the end credits. Any subwoofer usage was barely detectable, except maybe the bassline of Iggy Pop’s song.

There are twelve chapter stops: naturally, one per section plus the end credits. Subtitles are provided in three languages. However, non-French speakers should note that “No Problem” begins with a short exchange in French which is not subtitled. I haven’t seen the film in the cinema – it has yet to be released in the UK as I write this – so I do not know if this is meant to be untranslated. However, if you switch on the English subtitles, you will find this dialogue translated into English. There does not appear to be a default subtitle track which only translates this French dialogue.

The disc is somewhat light on extras, though MGM have padded it out with promotions of other releases, of which more in a moment. However, we do get the theatrical trailer, which is 1.85:1 anamorphic and runs 2:03. It contains most of the best lines in the film, and does a reasonable job of a film which can’t be easy to sell to a general audience. “Tabletops” is a short film by Adam Bhala Lough, mostly consisting of overhead shots from the film and outtakes, set to “Midnight Jam” by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. It is non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and runs 3:42. There is an outtake from the Bill Murray segment – an alternate ending, which is also non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and runs 0:53. Taylor Mead, whose presence in the film is Jarmusch’s nod to the 60s New York avant-garde which influenced him, gives a brief interview (4:10) in which he states that Jarmusch had promised him a film role for some twenty years. He also praises Cate Blanchett’s double role and he suggests that Coffee and Cigarettes might make him better known. Rather slight, one-watch stuff. It’s 4:3 and in colour. “Coffee and Cigarettes soundtrack” is exactly what it says, covering two pages of text.

MGM begin the DVD with trailers for Saved! and Intermission, though fortunately you can skip past those. But if that were not enough, “Other Great MGM Releases” takes you through to a page of links to trailers for Bubba Ho-Tep, Touching the Void, Walking Tall and the two on the start of the disc. “More Great MGM Releases” simply shows us the covers of other DVDs, ten of them over three pages.

Coffee and Cigarettes is a must-see for Jarmusch’s fans, though the unconverted probably will remain so. The DVD’s picture quality is fine, the sound entirely acceptable if lacking in multi-channel jollies, and the extras a little sparse.

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