A fellow film student of mine made a movie about a guy who walks down a lonely, frozen road, stops at a table, warms himself with a cup of hot coffee and a cigarette, and continues down the deserted road, leaving the table, empty cup, and ashtray. Our teacher criticized the movie for being plotless, and the student, as far as I know, stopped making movies.
If only he had trained at NYU he might have been working on Coffee & Cigarettes with Jim Jarmusch.
R for language
Coffee & Cigarettes is a series of little plotless vignettes. The idea came from Saturday Night Live, which hired Jarmusch to make a short film. He used comedians Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright in a little skit about coffee, cigarettes, and a dreaded dental appointment.
Jarmusch later made more of these 5-10 minute films with his friends and co-workers, each one featuring two people talking at a table over coffee and cigarettes. Each time, the actors use their real names and identities. The “rules” are flexible — sometimes it’s tea, and not everybody smokes. But the style is always consistent.
Jarmusch explains (in every interview, it seems) that he likes the non-dramatic moments in life, for example, at a coffee break. He acknowledges that these vignettes are plotless, and he doesn’t apologize for it. In fact, that seems to be part of the point. Anyone going to the movie probably will — and definitely should — know what to expect.
How Do You Take It?
Inevitably, some of these little films are better than others.
The bad ones have rigid editing, mediocre acting, and bad blocking. They seem to get better with time, the better ones being made more recently. The newer ones are often more fluid and engaging, and they often have some interesting conversational seed at the center. At the least, the good ones have a couple of actors who seem to naturally enjoy talking to each other.
Feeding the Celebrity Ego
Many of the vignettes feature actors playing themselves, and thus have to do with the nature of celebrity. Cate Blanchett plays both herself and a non-famous cousin, who in spite of her resemblance, has to live by the rules of society (such as “no smoking”) from which celebrities are exempt. Another film posits that Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan are long-lost cousins, a family tie that’s not tight enough to allow Coogan to give Molina his home phone number, or even the time of day.
This obsession with celebrity is somewhat distasteful. If the idea were to capture nondramatic moments, it seems Jarmusch might have been better off using non-actors, or even actors playing regular folks. (Perhaps he should have hired my fellow student.) But since most of these films feature famous people doing nondramatic things, the whole point of the film seems to be compromised. One could argue that Jarmusch is feeding us tabloid-level details of the lives of the rich and famous.
There’s something dirty about watching Coffee and Cigarettes. Sitting in the audience, it’s hard not to feel complicit in creating a culture that lets celebrities smoke in no smoking areas, a culture that spawns a personality who will not open up to a friend unless there’s something in it for him, and a culture that thinks non-dramatic moments between celebrities are worth charging admission for. I’m sure this wasn’t Jarmusch’s intent, but that just means he missed his mark.
So skip the coffee and cigarettes, and just get back to work.