Summer and Smoke
By Fernando F. Croce

Jim Jarmusch is to American film what Lou Reed is to rock music, or Jack Kerouac to writing: grungy, restless, a rambling outsider. And invaluable. His art-house hits of the 1980s (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, Mystery Train) provided not only an oasis of sanity amid the decade's soulless commercialism, but also paved the way for much of what went on to become the independent boom of the 1990s. And just as several critics were ready to dismiss his deadpan minimalism as a played-out shtick, he came back with the experimental highs of Dead Man and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.

Coffee and Cigarettes, Jarmusch's latest, may seem a disappointingly slight follow-up to the audacious cultural and genre examinations of Ghost Dog. A series of short vignettes built around smoking, downing cups of coffee and yakking about not much, it is an almost self-conscious throwback to the astringent whimsy that pockmarked his Ozu-meets-The Honeymooners beginnings. And yet, watching it amid the noise and clutter of The Punisher and Man on Fire made for an engaging, purifying ninety minutes, like a break of clarity and quiet in between storms of hackwork.

The opening sketch, a bit of jittery absurdism with Roberto Benigni's overcaffeinated malapropisms clashing deliriously with Steven Wright's low-key monotone, sets the style and tone for the rest of the movie: black-and-white photography (courtesy of four cinematographers, including Robby Müller and Tom DiCillo), a stationary camera, a table, a few characters, tons of bullshit and, of course, coffee and cigarettes. The stories that follow offer only the smallest variations of those elements, yet within this format Jarmusch modulates an incredible variety of textures, moods, rhythms, faces, and cultures. Confined within deliberately hemmed-in spaces, they range from facetious to strange to ethereal, hitting match flare-sized epiphanies along the way. Among the segments: Iggy Pop and Tom Waits trying vainly to hang out in a tacky roadside café "somewhere in California"; sparring siblings getting a lesson in Elvis conspiracy from waiter Steve Buscemi; two old Italian guys cussing up a storm in what looks like a leftover set from The Sopranos; old chums meeting again after a long absence and finding that, since neither has problems, they have nothing to talk about; and the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA blinking in disbelief when their waiter turns out to be an oblivious Bill Murray.

The landscape of Coffee and Cigarettes is one of checkerboard tables and juke boxes, of portraits of 1950s tough guys hanging augustly on walls and people always on the go. The characters' isolation pierces through their wise-ass facades -- in one vignette, scrupulously timed to "Crimson and Clover" faintly heard on the background, a beehived lass sits by herself at a café, nursing her "perfect" cup of coffee, reading a magazine ad for guns, and getting interrupted by a shy waiter. The segment, barely the length of a song, is pregnant with dry wit, quietness and a kind of prickly human privacy. It reminded me that, though often very funny, the movie's humor is basically bittersweet. The theme braiding these stringy anecdotes together is alienation and, despite the many different nationalities, a fundamentally American loneliness. Much of the originality of Stranger Than Paradise and Mystery Train stemmed out of the unique way Jarmusch managed to make American culture seem oddly foreign by filtering it through the dislocated gaze of deadbeats. Beneath the pictures' air of hipster insouciance lies a streak of despair, with people talking without connecting, characters just missing each other and then taking refuge under the blanket of pop culture, which offers them a tenuous connection.

I am probably making the film -- basically a collection of artistic Saturday Night Live skits -- sound much less fun than it really is. After all, when Cate Blanchett pops up in a swanky Art Deco joint playing both a slick movie agent and her darker-haired punk rocker cousin, the bit is as much of an examination of rootlessness as a cheeky gloss on the mystique of special effects, not to mention a salute to the actress' chameleonic virtuosity. It's this odd mix of the playful and the bemused that marks the director's uniqueness, and makes Coffee and Cigarettes, even if minor Jarmusch, still a treat.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on April 29, 2004.

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