Coffee & Cigarettes
September 18, 2019
The White Stripes
1 Hr., 36 Mins.
offee.” That's the only word Iggy Pop ever uttered in The Dead Don’t Die, his most recent collaboration with the writer-director Jim Jarmusch. In their first project together, the 1993 short film Cigarettes & Coffee III, Pop also invokes coffee a lot. But the situations under which he brings up the beverage are fairly night and day. In The Dead Don’t Die, Pop plays a two-track-minded
zombie who wants some brains to eat but cannot deny that he’d like some Folgers to wash them down with. In Cigarettes & Coffee III, Pop plays himself and drinks the stuff, while smoking a cigarette, sitting across from the gravel-voiced Tom Waits, who too is playing himself. They make conversation; it starts promisingly, then gets awkward. It’s a showdown of egos, though Pop remains pretty puppy-dog amiable. The joke that Pop can talk about nothing else besides coffee (and I suppose brains) in The Dead Don’t Die got old fast, but to watch Pop get to talk about more than that over the drink (and cigarettes, with Waits right there) doesn’t. It doesn’t seem long enough.
Coffee & Cigarettes III lasts for a few minutes. It was preceded by two other shorts in which the concept of two people making conversation over the beverage and the cancerous stick stuck. The premise was one Jarmusch clearly liked, though it’d take him about a decade to return to it. There was a 10-year gap between Coffee & Cigarettes III and Coffee & Cigarettes, a 2003 feature-length movie where Jarmusch pits the original three shorts against eight others. They work with comparable conceits, but the conversations and circumstances are distinctive — sometimes relatively conventional, sometimes teetering on the surreal, even macabre.
You could see it not working. Perhaps one of the conversations doesn’t ring true; perhaps Jarmusch, so committed to his almost tweely simplistic idea, might put out an offering that feels as though he’s just trying to get something to fill the time. Yet every short, though not created equal, is at the very least good. The tacit pang to check the clock never arrives. (If you do get the itch and then scratch it, you’d be surprised to find out how quickly the movie’s chugged along.)
The movie could be accused of stunt-casting. Aside from the Pop-Waits pairing, you’ve got the White Stripes, comprising Jack and Meg White, making an appearance as themselves, with the former waxing poetic on the Tesla coil; GZA and RZA, of the Wu-Tang Clan, drinking tea with Bill Murray, who plays their waiter; Cate Blanchett playing dual roles as a heightened, prissier version of herself and her gritty cousin who seems to mash words up with her teeth. Yet with Coffee & Cigarettes, the stuntier, the better.
I thought, in certain moments, of the sorts of mundanely premised YouTube celebrity videos that sometimes achieve viral status. What if so-and-so answered questions about themselves while eating hot wings? What if so-and-so walked us through their morning routine? And what if so-and-so and another person had a filmed conversation while playing Jenga? In its most celebrity-oriented moments, Coffee & Cigarettes presciently taps into what makes these sorts of videos fun to watch. Indeed, it’s fairly irresistible to watch a star reveal parts of themselves while participating in an albeit carefully cultivated they’re-just-like-us activity. The film is sort of the pre-YouTube version of the phenomenon, before the trend started getting ubiquitous in the late 2010s. I think the basic draw of Coffee & Cigarettes is that it’s an inverse of our compulsive fascination with celebrities participating in quotidian tasks. It's a movie that pulls you in via the prospect that you’re going to see Pop and Waits have a conversation, for instance, only to leave you with actually nothing truly substantial as a result of the contrivances driving it.
Not all the vignettes in Coffee & Cigarettes have that tabloidish intrigue. In the fourth clip, “Those Things’ll Kill Ya,” character actors Joseph Rigano and Vinny Vella, who appear to us the way peripheral characters in The Godfather (1972) would, alternately complain about and underplay the dangers of cigarettes as one of their kids makes trouble. Avant-garde figures William “Bill” Rice and Taylor Mead, who star in the most poignant of the vignettes (it’s also the last), fantasize about what their lives could have been during a work break. And though playing themselves like many of the other figures featured in Coffee & Cigarettes, the part with Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan doesn’t have a paparazzi-ish allure. They partake in a thoroughly uneasy conversation where our interest comes not from seeing them together but how far Coogan can take the aloofness that characterizes this version of himself.
Jarmusch, despite likely not having exerted too much energy in mapping out the movie, instills in the film a strange unity. The feature often moves in unexpected directions, working with a variety of comic tones. And yet not a risk feels like a wasted one, or one that’s been overly labored over. Some of the vignettes might even warrant a rewatch. I can tell that some of these conversations, though arguably not too much more engaging than a somewhat dramatically gratifying confab in an old-fashioned diner, are ones I’ll return to. A-