Coffee and Cigarettes Review
Just under 20 years ago, in 1986, Jim Jarmusch filmed the first of his series of comic vignettes entitled Coffee and Cigarettes. Half a dozen feature films later, and now one of America’s top independent filmmakers, Jarmusch has finally released his diverse collection of 11 conversations. All are filmed in black and white, the former representing the coffee, the latter the cigarettes, and all feature various celebrities conversing and philosophising with each other. And so whilst they are all variations on the same theme, each vignette is, aside from a few recurring topics, entirely isolated from the rest. As a result, I have reviewed each of the vignettes individually.
Strange To Meet You: A fitting opener, this skit with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright was originally filmed when Saturday Night Live asked Jarmusch to make a short film for them, all the way back in 1986. With Benigni known for his animated and expressive nature, and Wright at the other extreme of the comedic spectrum, there is unlimited potential here. One of the more interesting encounters, the two attempt to fill awkward silences, resulting in even more awkward conversation. The ending is also great, with Roberto agreeing to go to Steven’s dentist appointment on his behalf. It’s also one of the best when it comes to the cinematography, with Tom DiCillo providing some memorable shots, looking down at the café table.
Twins: Advancing chronologically, this next skit was filmed three years later in 1989. Here, Cinqué and Joie Lee are joined by waiter Steve Buscemi who, being a little more social than his Pulp Fiction equivalent, sticks around long enough to provide his theories about Elvis’ evil twin brother. Buscemi delivers his lines flawlessly, showing sparks of his unusual humour that would later make him so popular. The twins have less dialogue, and instead exhibit a natural rhythm, picking up their coffee in time with each other, and replying to Buscemi’s questions in unison.
Somewhere In California: In one of the highlights of the collection, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits meet up in a restaurant to discuss the merits of giving up smoking, gradually attempting to one-up each other as the conversation progresses. Iggy Pop’s performance is one of the best of his (limited) acting career, far superior to his longer roles, such as that in the abysmal Crow sequel, City of Angels. He clearly shows his comparative vulnerability, and appears genuinely sympathetic; no mean feat in such a short time. However, it is Waits’ performance that is most impressive: quick to intimidate - ”Call me Iggy…”, “Look, I’m sorry I’m late Jim” - and keen to relate his tales of roadside surgery and mastery of both music and medicine. Their petty competitiveness is easy to believe, with so many musicians having such similar attitudes in real-life, even when Iggy and Tom reach the point where they boast about jukeboxes’ holding their records.
Those Things’ll Kill You: And here’s where things begin to go downhill. Wholly uninteresting from start to finish, this shows stereotypical mobsters Joseph Rigano and Vinny Vella discussing cigarettes, with a brief appearance from Vella’s son.
Renée: Thankfully one of the shortest of the vignettes, Renée follows actress Renée French as she tries to make her ideal cup of coffee whilst the waiter feels obliged to top her cup up regardless. The dialogue is minimal, and the only laughs to be had are from the titles of the articles she is reading in her magazine, although coffee enthusiasts will undoubtedly find her character the easiest to sympathise with so far.
No Problem: This short features actors Alex Decas, and Isaach De Bankolé (who would go on to feature in Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai), as Decas tries to convince his friend Isaach that there is absolutely nothing wrong. Entirely forgettable, this short provides nothing noteworthy at all.
Cousins: In this vignette Cate Blanchett shows her versatility as an actress, playing both herself and her bitter cousin. Unfortunately, although her performances are undeniably impressive, the premise is dull, with the famous family member simply trying to be polite to the jealous one, and the dialogue is tedious. At least the set, the lounge area of an expensive hotel, provides a break from the monotony of the previous few, and the table is also the only one not to be covered with a chequered mat, or have a chequered design itself.
Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil: Faux-sibling divorcees, the White Stripes, get the film somewhat back on track here. Jack White, with only a brief part in Cold Mountain to his name, is a surprisingly competent actor, telling Meg about his high-powered step-up transformer which he built according to the notes of scientist Nikola Tesla. The sheer improbability of such a conversation is entertaining in itself, but the wholly serious intent with which Jack delivers his lines make this all the more enjoyable. If acting talent does indeed run in the family, then this is surely proof that the two are most definitely not related, as Meg proves why she should stay behind her drum kit. Not that she spoils it in any way – she only has a few lines – and this skit is all about Jack. Also not to be missed are the wonderfully bad special effects at the end, when Jack finally demonstrates his tesla coil in action.
Cousins? The longest of the segments, and arguably the best, Jarmusch is joined here by British actors Alfred Molina and a post-24 Hour Party People Steve Coogan. The length allows for the development that most of the other skits lack – in the characters, and their relationship with each other. Coogan is portrayed as arrogant and egotistical, that is until Molina receives a phone call from Spike Jonze. Then there is somewhat of a role reversal, as Coogan quickly proceeds to act as sociable as possible, but by then its too late. As one might expect, both actors play themselves to perfection, discussing their relationship as cousins, and potentially playing themselves in a film – not quite meta-cinema, but thoroughly entertaining nonetheless.
Delirium: In the only really laugh-out-loud short, Wu-Tang Clan rappers RZA and GZA find themselves being served coffee by the one and only Bill Murray. The beginning is a partial parody of Somewhere In California, with RZA, like Waits, proclaiming he was held up by an emergency situation. Seemingly heavier on improvisation than some of the others, this is no bad thing, with the dialogue becoming increasingly amusing as the topics range from herbal remedies to gargling with oven cleaner for a smoker’s cough.
Champagne: Finally, William Rice and Taylor Mead slow the pace down, providing a touching, even philosophical ending to the collection. Subjects such as Nikola Tesla’s perceptions are brought up again, but it is the silence that is the most effective here.
Laid out not dissimilarly to an album, Coffee and Cigarettes provides several memorable moments but ultimately contains too much filler, which is a real shame considering its unparalleled assortment of cast members. Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil, Cousins?, and Delirium are all excellent, showing the musicians and actors to be the most successful with their time-slots. The high-contrast black and white approach compliments its subject matter perfectly, and on the occasions when music is used, the soundtrack is also just right. An interesting experiment without doubt, but ultimately a disposable one at that.
The anamorphic transfer is nearly flawless. The level of contrast, one of the most important factors in any black and white film, is excellent, with strong blacks and whites, and a wide range of mid-tones. Detail levels are also consistently high, with only the first few, chronologically earliest, shorts appearing soft. Grain is also evident in the earlier ones, but after these first few, the image is impeccable.
With the entire film focusing on dialogue and silences, somewhat undemanding aurally, it is surprising that this is one of the occasions where the DTS track is distinctly superior to the Dolby 5.1 mix. Neither track is lacking, but it is the DTS track that provides remarkable clarity, free from background noise and hiss. There is also a stereo track which is perfectly acceptable given the nature of the film.
The first of the special features is entitled Tabletops: Short Film with Music by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros (3’51”) - a music video consisting of all the shots from the film where the camera is looking down, providing a bird’s eye view of the tables.
Next is Billy Murray: Wu Wear (0’55”), an amusing outtake where Murray reappears, sporting the Wu-Tang Clan apparel which GZA hands him at the end of Delirium.
There is also an Interview With Taylor Meade (4’11”), who discusses both the existential nature of Champagne, but also offers his thoughts on some of the other shorts.
Finally, there is the Original Theatrical Trailer (2’11”), which unfairly presents the film as an all-out comedy. It should definitely not be approached as one, and it is a shame that some viewers may be disappointed because of such false expectations. A Tartan Trailer Reel also offers trailers for other of the label’s DVDs, including Super Size Me and The Machinist.
Coffee and Cigarettes will not be to everyone’s taste, much like the objects themselves, but most people should find a few shorts on here that they will enjoy. As such, the DVD is the perfect format for the film, allowing for easy viewing of any of the vignettes. Tartan’s release sports a great transfer and high quality audio but few special features.
Last updated: 11/06/2018 07:03:12