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Five episodes later we get "Cousins" (one of my three favorite episodes), followed by "Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil," which features musicians Jack and Meg White, a former couple who pose as siblings. Then we get the hilarious "Cousins?" (one of my other favorites), in which Alfred Molina and British TV star Steve Coogan meet for tea in an LA restaurant, and Molina, hoping to establish some intimacy with Coogan, says he recently discovered that they're cousins. (In more ways than one, this is the most brilliant episode in the movie–an acute examination of showbiz and celebrity pecking order.) And in the episode after that, "Delirium," GZA and RZA, members of the Wu-Tang Clan, introduce themselves to Bill Murray as cousins.

Did Jarmusch think first of using twins, siblings, and cousins, or did he start off aiming for rhyme effects? I'm not sure it matters, but the pairings and doublings don't stop. Many lines of dialogue recur, and the movie opens and closes with separate versions of "Louie Louie" (whose title is already a repetition). The sixth episode, "No Problem," begins and ends with Alex Descas taking a pair of dice from his pocket and rolling them three times; the results we see are all doubles. The ninth and tenth episodes both have two characters who order tea instead of coffee.

That Jarmusch's film registers as loose and offhanded despite so much formal control is one of the characteristic achievements of his minimalism. As in Eugen Herrigel's book Zen in the Art of Archery, he doesn't appear to care whether he hits the target, though he seldom misses. The only episode that strikes me as being undernourished is the fifth, "Renee," which lingers over a young woman (Renee French) smoking and drinking coffee while looking through ads in a gun catalog. She's interrupted by a waiter (Rodriguez) giving her an unasked-for coffee refill and later trying unsuccessfully to make conversation. Yet even this relatively meager segment manages to repeat some lines of dialogue and some formal elements from other sketches, and by focusing once on a character who prefers solitude to conversation, Jarmusch offers a meaningful contrast to the other episodes.

I assume one reason Jarmusch decided to home in on electricity pioneer and maverick Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) in another offbeat episode is that Tesla represents so many "alternatives"—not just alternating current and an alternative to Thomas Edison, but an alternative, utopian history that encompasses Tesla's ideas about free electricity, free transportation, and free communications. This also occasions what is probably the most poetic of the movie's recurring lines: "He perceived the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance."

The many self-referential details increase the clubhouse atmosphere, and some of the reviewers who dismiss the film may be responding to this. For example, we get blackouts at the end of each section, as we did in Stranger Than Paradise. In the fourth section—which features Joe Rigano and Vinny Vella, who played aging Italian gangsters in Ghost Dog—there's a framed photo on the wall of Henry Silva, one of their colleagues in that film. And in the eighth segment, with Jack and Meg White, there's a framed picture of Lee Marvin; Jarmusch and some of his friends once founded a jokey, semisecret club they called the Sons of Lee Marvin.

Other gags can be traced to allusions of one kind or another. (Two that appear to have been studiously avoided: Jarmusch once played a coffee addict in Alex Cox's 1987 comic western Straight to Hell, and in Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's 1995 Blue in the Face he ruminated on what he claimed would be his last cigarette.) Jarmusch has noted in an interview that Tom Waits's speech to Iggy Pop in the third episode—about having just performed "roadside surgery" by delivering a baby and about combining "music and medicine" in his life—was improvised; when Jarmusch later discovered that RZA was into alternative medicine, he decided to duplicate parts of Waits's monologue in the episode that focuses on RZA and GZA. This mixture of improvisation and formal patterning justifies Jarmusch's description of Coffee and Cigarettes as "series of short films disguised as a feature (or maybe vice versa)," as well as his formally pitched remark that the film is photographed "in black (coffee) and white (cigarettes)."

People who object to the in-jokes should consider that they might be just part of a dialectic with what could be termed the out-jokes—the more populist and obvious bits of humor. There's a close parallel in the dialectic between celebrities and nobodies that runs throughout the film, and there's the suggestion that inside every apparent improvisation is an element of determination, that juxtaposed with every conspiracy theory is an abyss of meaningless absurdity and chaos, and that next to the political incorrectness of the addictive coffee and cigarettes are politically correct demonstrations of social etiquette. Paradoxically, a certain kind of social chaos becomes most apparent whenever the characters are being most polite: when Isaach (Isaach de Bankolé) meets Alex for coffee at Alex's request, he can't believe he's been summoned just for the pleasure of his company, even though they're supposed to be best friends. This paranoid misunderstanding is played for comedy, but the fear of a gaping void remains.

The wistful and moving final episode, "Champagne" (my third favorite)—featuring Bill Rice and Taylor Mead in a dimly lit SoHo hangout called the Armory, drinking out of paper cups during their coffee break—seems at first to be at the farthest remove from Jarmusch's universe, yet it's a kind of tribute to his roots in the underground filmmaking scene of downtown Manhattan. Rice and Mead are closely associated with those roots through their roles in films by Scott and Beth B., Eric Mitchell, Amos Poe, and Andy Warhol, and they drink a toast at one point not only to "Paris in the 20s" (Mead's suggestion) but also to "New York in the late 70s" (Rice's suggestion), which is when these films were being shot.

Certainly there's no better evocation of chaos in the film than the title of the beautiful Gustav Mahler song heard in this episode, "I Have Lost Track of the World." The overall abstractness of the location and the absurdist dialogue—including Mead's when he's periodically forgetful—call to mind Samuel Beckett's doleful tramps in their own sketchy settings. Curiously, Rice and Mead seem more settled and "placed" than any other characters in the film, perhaps because they seem older and wiser than everyone else—and perhaps because knowing who you are often entails knowing where you are.

Jonathan ROSENBAUM
first published in
http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2015/05/short-cuts/

 


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