At first Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, made over a span of 17 years, looks like a departure for him. It consists of 11 entertaining, mainly comic short films in black and white that show people mainly sitting around in coffeehouses mainly drinking coffee, mainly smoking cigarettes, and mainly talking. But four of Jarmusch's seven previous fiction features were built out of similarly isolated episodes, and the remaining three—Permanent Vacation (1980), Dead Man (1995), and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)—are all episodic. Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down by Law (1986)—also in black and white—each concentrated on three characters seen in three separate settings. Mystery Train (1989) had three separate sets of characters and three episodes set during the same day in Memphis. Night on Earth (1991)—focusing, like Coffee and Cigarettes, on what might be called downtime—had five separate episodes featuring cabdrivers and their passengers, occurring simultaneously across the globe.

The short form looks like a genuine alternative in Jarmusch's hands because of what he does with it. He's a master of minimalism, and his close attention to the form contrasts sharply with the isolated and detachable sequences that have become the calling card of film technique, the be-all and end-all of movie art. The fondness for fragments can be traced back largely to Sergei Eisenstein in the 20s, when famous set pieces began to define the "art of cinema" in many minds—the Odessa steps sequence in Potemkin (1925), the bridge-raising sequence in October (1927), and the cream-separator sequence in The General Line (1929), all eventually supplanted by the shower-murder sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). This tendency was further institutionalized by popular magazines such as Premiere and by countless "the making of" TV documentaries, which applauded the notion of separating sequences from their contexts.

The fragmentation of narrative form in current movies encourages the disassociation of the parts of a film. This may be fine when putting together a trailer, presenting a clip on a TV show, or making a point in a film class, but it undermines any sense of classical proportion or harmony. Few people would call Jarmusch a classicist, yet his fiction features show a concern for these qualities that isn't shared by many of his contemporaries.

A few critics have shrugged off Coffee and Cigarettes as slight and inconsequential, calling it an exercise in style, done in Jarmusch's usual "hip" idiom. But I think its form and content are much more notable and consequential than its style.

The film is certainly less ambitious than Dead Man or Ghost Dog, though it's by no means less personal. The main themes are the ethics of celebrity, the tensions and irritations that can arise between close friends and family members, and two Jarmusch standbys, shyness and loneliness. These themes and the recurring formal elements—ranging from inserted overhead shots of coffee cups and checkerboard tablecloths or tabletops to abstract patterns in the dramaturgy—give Coffee and Cigarettes an overall artistic coherence that's far from common in current movies.

Having known Jarmusch for over two decades, I think his celebrity status—he can't walk down the street in many cities around the world without being recognized—is something he both likes and dislikes. He loves the attention, but he's bothered by the inequities that arise from stardom. A lot of this movie is given over to some very funny observations and ethical reflections on that subject. In the segment titled "Cousins" we see Cate Blanchett playing in the same shots herself during a movie junket and her fictional punk cousin Shelly, who's seething with jealousy and resentment when Cate meets her in the lobby of her luxury hotel. It's a technical tour de force, flawlessly executed by Blanchett, Jarmusch, and his crew. I've heard that when Jarmusch posed for publicity photos during the shooting of this sequence he chose to be photographed with Shelly rather than Cate, a telling indication of whom he feels more allied with.


Twenty-one of the 27 actors play some version of themselves with the same name, and most of these actors are at least minor celebrities. (For the record, the six who don't play themselves are Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee in two separate parts, Blanchett when she's Shelly, Steve Buscemi, E.J. Rodriguez, and Mike Hogan.)

The project started when Jarmusch was invited to contribute a comedy sketch to Saturday Night Live in 1986, shortly after shooting Down by Law, and he cast one of that film's three stars, the then relatively unknown Roberto Benigni, along with stand-up comic Steven Wright. He shot the film's second sketch in Memphis (where he was shooting Mystery Train) three years later, and the third one four years after that. The remaining eight were all shot recently over a relatively brief period, meaning that Jarmusch had had plenty of time to plan these episodes individually and develop them as an ensemble, letting them echo and interact with one another and build a whole that's much greater than the sum of its parts. In this respect Coffee and Cigarettes resembles a cumulative, organically interrelated short story collection such as James Joyce's Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time, or Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, rather than an assortment of loose pieces rattling around inside a common container, such as Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, Nelson Algren's The Neon Wilderness, Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge, or Thomas Pynchon's Slow Learner.

One of the more mysterious aspects of Coffee and Cigarettes is whether the form creates the content or the content suggests the form. A good example of what I mean can be found in one of the most provocative, though not best-known, stories of Franz Kafka, "Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor." The first part of the story recounts a comic fantasy: the grumpy title hero comes home to his sixth-floor walk-up, and "two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes" begin playfully following him around the room, coordinating their moves with his and with each other's. They bounce after him for the remainder of the evening, then resume their teasing play in the morning—until he lures them into his wardrobe and locks them inside. The second half of the story prosaically recounts his dull morning at the linen factory where he works, dominated by his irritation with the two assistants who share his tiny office. This story is remarkable not just for the fantasy that precedes the depiction of everyday normality, but for the playful form itself—the subtle and disquieting rhyming of the bouncing balls and the two assistants. One wonders whether Kafka's concept began with the bouncing balls, the assistants, or the echoes between the two.

There's a similar ambiguity in Jarmusch's playful two-part inventions. His second episode, "Twins," features Joie and Cinqué Lee, two of Spike Lee's siblings, playing twins (which they're not in real life); their petty bickering consists mainly of each contradicting and echoing the other. Their dialogue with a waiter (Buscemi) concerns the legendary twin of Elvis Presley who died at birth and the siblings' charge that Elvis ripped off the music of black musicians such as Otis Blackwell and Junior Parker (another form of duplication).

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