Coffee and Cigarettes, a 2003 movie written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, is a compilation of eleven vignettes shot in black and white, in which two or three people have conversations over coffee and cigarettes.
The scenes feature actors and musicians, usually playing themselves, but in fictional scripted (or sometimes improvised) encounters. Although the vignettes don’t seem to be connected, there are some common motifs, references, and even repeated lines that loosely unite the segments. Most of the conversations occur at tables with checkerboard tabletops — a unifying motif that subtly reinforces the theme that the people seldom connect with one another in a straightforward way.
The individual stories were filmed over a number of years beginning in 1986. Three of the eleven were released separately as short films. The third one, “Somewhere in California,” starring Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, won the 1993 Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival.
Here are brief synopses of the eleven vignettes that make up the film:
“Strange to Meet You,” starring actor Robert Benigni and comedian Steven Wright (pictured in the screen shot above). Benigni is seated alone in a cafe smoking a cigarette, with multiple cups of coffee in front of him. Wright arrives and joins him. Clearly the two have never met before. They engage in some awkward conversation, which isn’t helped by Benigni’s rudimentary command of English. When the jittery Benigni asks Wright if he likes coffee, Wright tells him that he likes to drink a lot of coffee before he goes to sleep, so that he can dream faster. Benigni understands little of what Wright says, but he’s eager to please and ends up making him an unexpected offer.
“Twins,” starring Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee (actor siblings of filmmaker Spike Lee) as the twins and actor Steve Buscemi as Danny the waiter. The Lees are smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in a Memphis coffee shop. They disagree about everything. When Danny asks if they’re twins, Joie says yes and Cinqué says no. Danny sits down with them and shares his theory about Elvis’s evil twin brother. When it comes to Elvis, it turns out that the twins are in agreement.
“Somewhere in California,” starring musicians Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. Iggy’s waiting in a restaurant when Waits arrives. Waits apologizes for being late, explaining that he was busy delivering a baby in the middle of a four-car pileup on the highway. When Iggy is incredulous that Waits is a doctor, Waits says he does music and medicine: his thing is combining the two, and “living in that place where they overlap.” Both claim that they’ve quit smoking, make fun of suckers who still smoke, and then smoke cigarettes to celebrate the fact that they’ve quit. Waits says they’re the “coffee and cigarettes generation.” No matter the topic, the conversation is awkward: Waits is offended by just about everything Iggy says.
“Those Things’ll Kill Ya,” starring character actors Joe Rigano and Vinny Vella, with Vella’s son Vinny Vella, Jr. Joe and Vinny are in a restaurant having coffee, arguing, and insulting each other. Joe is berating Vinny for his smoking. In return, Vinny tells Joe he drinks too much coffee and he should quit. No, says Joe, “I ain’t no quitter.”
“Renée,” starring actress Renée French. French is seated alone at a table with a checkerboard tablecloth. She’s drinking coffee, smoking, and looking at a gun magazine. The waiter (E. J. Rodríguez) asks if he can get her more coffee — and starts pouring it before she answers. She says she wishes he hadn’t done that: “I had it the right color, the right temperature, it was just right.” He apologizes but then returns several more times, clearly trying to strike up a conversation. During the entire scene, the repetitive “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells (“now I don’t hardly know her / But I think I could love her”) is playing “over and over” in the background.
“No Problem,” starring actors Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé. Alex and Isaach are two friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time. Alex has invited Isaach to meet him at a restaurant. Isaach suspects that Alex’s call was prompted by a problem that his friend was having, and he keeps asking Alex if something is wrong. Alex denies it, but his constant rolling of dice on the table before Isaach arrives and after he leaves may hint at a different truth.
“Cousins,” starring Cate Blanchett in a dual role as herself and as her fictional, non-famous Australian cousin Shelly. Cate is on tour and meets Shelly for espressos in a hotel lobby between press conferences. Cate’s efforts to connect with Shelly seem sincere, but between Cate’s preoccupation with her movie-star life and Shelly’s jealousy of her cousin’s fame, the gulf between them is wide. Cate gives Shelly gifts, but Shelly knows they’re free “swag.” As she leaves, Cate tells Shelly she looks forward to meeting Shelly’s boyfriend the next time, but she gets his name wrong despite the fact that Shelly was just talking about him.
“Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil,” starring Jack White and Meg White of the band The White Stripes. This story opens with Jack and Meg drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes at a checkerboard-topped table. “Down on the Street” by Iggy Pop’s band The Stooges plays in the background. Meg asks Jack to tell her about the “Tesla coil” that’s parked in a wagon next to the table. Jack says it’s an air transformer that he built based on Nikola Tesla’s designs. He then goes on to rhapsodize about Tesla’s genius, and how the world would be a better place if people had paid attention to him. “He perceived the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance,” Jack says. When Jack demonstrates the coil, it works for a short time, then stops. Meg suggests what went wrong; Jack agrees and they clink their coffee cups.
“Cousins?” starring actor Alfred Molina and actor-comedian Steve Coogan. When Molina learns that Coogan is in Los Angeles, he invites him to join him for tea (not coffee this time). After several minutes of awkward small talk, Molina reveals why he wanted to get together: he has done genealogical research and discovered that he and Coogan are distant cousins. Coogan clearly doesn’t share Molina’s enthusiasm and puts off Molina’s overtures for further connections — until he finds out that Molina has a film industry connection that Coogan would love to share.
“Delirium,” starring hip-hop artists (and cousins) GZA and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan and actor Bill Murray. GZA and RZA are drinking herbal tea in a restaurant that features not only checkerboard tablecloths but checkerboard wall sconces. This scene contains multiple references to earlier vignettes. Like Tom Waits in “Somewhere in California,” RZA claims to be a doctor, specializing in alternative medicine. As they discuss the dangers of caffeine, their waiter comes over with a coffee pot and drinks some of the coffee straight from the pot. When GZA and RZA realize that the waiter is Bill Murray, he asks them to keep it between them. GZA tells Murray that before he gave up coffee, he used to drink it every night so that he could dream faster (echoing Steven Wright’s line in “Strange to Meet You”). Then Murray comments that he knows a guy who freezes coffee and makes caffeine popsicles (another idea that Wright suggested). Before they leave, RZA warns that Murray’s heavy caffeine and nicotine use might cause paralysis or delirium, and he suggests a cure that, as GZA says, is alternative — as in “not from this planet.”
“Champagne,” starring painter-actor Bill Rice and writer-actor Taylor Mead, both of whom were prominent in New York City’s avant-garde arts scene. Bill and Taylor are workingmen, obviously old friends, taking a coffee break in the New York Armory. After Taylor says he’s listening to Mahler, Bill recites Jack White’s line, “Nikola Tesla perceived the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance.” Taylor says he has no idea what Bill is talking about, and Bill admits he can’t explain it. Taylor wants to pretend that their coffee is champagne, while Bill says he prefers coffee, “simple workingman’s coffee.” They both agree that the coffee is terrible, but they toast with it nonetheless.
Jim Jarmusch’s movies are not everyone’s cup of tea — or coffee, as the case may be. But Coffee and Cigarettes is a very entertaining film that makes insightful observations about human interactions and connections.
The vignettes in Coffee and Cigarettes are often humorous, sometimes sad, often ironic, and sometimes profound. The cast is extraordinary: it’s a real treat to see these performers, many of whom are well known, struggle to connect with another person as we all do.
So pour yourself a cup of coffee or two — or five or six — and watch Coffee and Cigarettes. (You can skip the cigarettes.) It’s available from Amazon on Amazon Instant Video and on DVD or Blu-ray. After you’ve seen it, post a comment to let me know which vignettes are your favorites.
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