Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

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When are we planning to recognize Jim Jarmusch as one of the greatest cinematic talents of all time? I know that those of us who place him amongst the greatest filmmakers to ever live are small, but passionate, but why is he destined to forever stay the symbol of the underrated independent cinema scene? Is it because he doesn’t want to direct a Marvel film? Or he hasn’t sold out to mainstream Hollywood conventions? If there was any indication that he was a talented filmmaker, it can be found in Coffee and Cigarettes, a small but brilliant study of the human condition.

I love anthology films and think they are very underrated. Wild Tales is a masterpiece, and Body Bags is a brilliantly dark horror comedy. However, none of them hold a candle to Coffee and Cigarettes, a satirical masterpiece of the nihilistic. There are eleven vignettes within this film, filmed over seventeen years, between 1986 and 2003. Each short film is set within a single room, and features two performers discussing topics ranging from life and death to the mundanities of everyday life. I have always love philosophical comedy (well, surely the fact that I believe Seinfeld is the single greatest piece of intellectual television to have ever been produced means something), and it just doesn’t get better than Coffee and Cigarettes, a study of the small parts of life, and how they all add up to the bigger moments that we have to experience. Of course, it is a Jim Jarmusch film – there is no hopeful resolution or moral to the story, there is just simply the facts of life, presented to us in glorious black-and-white photography.

If you aren’t sold on Coffee and Cigarettes yet, then maybe you should learn about the cast. There is no other film that has the likes of comedy legend Bill Murray, independent cinema god Steve Buscemi, legendary actress Cate Blanchett, musical geniuses The White Stripes, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits , British comedic gems Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina and Warhol superstars Bill Rice and Taylor Mead. Find me a more diverse and fascinating cast, and I will retract this statement.

Comparing one segment to the other is not fair, but also one can’t see them as individual segments either – there is a reason they were strung together and not just released individually as short films (some of them were, initially), and while this film does pre-date the totalitarian rise of YouTube and internet videos, a form which I am surprised Jarmusch hasn’t made much use of, considering it matches his style perfectly. However, there is something magical about seeing these eleven segments, one after the other, as they are only connected by the fact that they all contain, as the title suggests, coffee and cigarettes, and discussions around these indulgences, leading onto philosophical brilliance. Not quite connected, but not entirely different, they are more than just short vignettes in a feature format – there are subtle interconnections that take many viewings to see, and Jarmusch plays around with the format brilliantly.

The best part about Coffee and Cigarettes is how universal it is – there is something in this film for everyone. Comedy and drama, sophistication and toilet humor, philosophy and sex jokes. It doesn’t just appeal to one part of the cinematic world, but to most of it. I really doubt that anyone would see this film and not instantly find something special about it and something they can relate to.

The one complaint that people will certainly bring up is that like most of Jarmusch’s work, it does have an air of smug elitism that just appeals to film students making amateur, pretentious faux-philosophical garbage, an implication I resent. Jarmusch’s films just seem like a lot of these pretentious independent amateur films made in recent years because Jim Jarmusch invented the entire idea of this nihilistic independent cinema. Before him, it just didn’t exist in this way, at least not in American cinema. The difference is that Jarmusch is an honest artist who portrays this side of life without actually being smug, and the unfavorable comparisons are just simply drawn from his imitators, and there are dozens I can name off the top of my head. Vaguely similar in structure and story to his earlier work – most notably Stranger than ParadiseCoffee and Cigarettes is Jarmusch’s last attempt at this kind of minimalist filmmaking, and whether he has lost passion for it, or he just can’t find the motivation (making something pointless actually takes a lot of work), I hope he returns to the form soon.

There is no real conclusion to the film, so there will be no real conclusion to this piece either (although I don’t always follow my own rules when writing these reviews, such as the fact that I wanted to write the entire Birdman review in one enormously long sentence, but chickened out at the last minute), however, Coffee and Cigarettes may not be the greatest film we have received from Mr. Jarmusch, but it is brilliant and very funny, and wonderfully quirky, and a great film overall.

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