The International Writers Magazine:DVD Review
If John Sayles is the Stanley Kubrick
of the American Independent film scene, able to get his sundry,
tightly wought, but distinct films to reach a sizable market,
then Jim Jarmusch is its Martin Scorsese- whose restive films
ever seem to probe the boundaries of form. Or, at least in Scorseses
case, up until his last few attempts at blockbuster melodrama.
The latest Jarmuschian experiment is a series of eleven black
and white short films that spanned a seventeen year range.
Coffee And Cigarettes
started out as a small black and white short that aired in 1986, on
Saturday Night Live, and featured Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni
in a rather pointless, unfunny, and forced piece in a shitty café.
In this compilation, which takes its name from that original short,
the first piece is retitled Strange To Meet You. Regardless,
it is no better nor funnier under the new title. Luckily, Jarmusch decided
to work on variations of the theme. His next attempt, and the next filmlet,
is 1989s Twins (originally Coffee And Cigarettes, Memphis
Version), which is a marginal improvement. Here, the real life siblings
of filmmaker Spike Lee, Joie and Cinqué Lee, are arrogant pricks
who are annoyed by and at waiter Steve Buscemi, who give a rambling
defense of Elvis Presley against charges of racism by propounding an
evil twin theory. The third entry is 1993s Coffee And Cigarettes-
Somewhere In California, now just Somewhere In California. Its
the first of the pieces that moves beyond mere gimmickry, as rockers
Iggy Pop and Tom waits play themselves in a sly game of one-upsmanship
at a café dive. Its the first of the films where the actors
are actually playing themselves.
Then there are eight more short films that were done in the few years
before the 2003 release of the whole film Coffee And Cigarettes.
The first of these is Those Thingsll Kill Ya, wherein character
actors Joseph Rigano and Vinny Vella (who have appeared as mobsters
inTV and film) profanely converse over coffee about the dangers of smoking.
Vellas son, Vinny Vella Jr. plays a deaf mute wiseass who begs
for money. Renée stars actress, illustrator, and musician Renee
French as herself looking in an arms magazine as waiter E.J. Rodriguez
simply annoys her. After the last two films that showed insight it seems
a slip back into self-conscious pointlessness. The same can be said
of No Problem, wherein two Jamaicans- Alex Descas and Isaach
De Bankolé - are friends who meet after one calls the other.
One of them cannot help but feel the other is hiding a secret problem
from him and the whole piece is about the evasion of this supposed secret.
The best piece yet in the film cycle is Cousins, where Cate Blanchett
is herself and her cousin Shelly. They meet at a hotel lounge, and both
women try to up the other - Shelley by claiming Cate lost a CD she mailed
her, but really didnt, and Cate by pretending to care for her
cousin by giving her a bag full of free film promotion perfume that
she doesnt want. The film star is then bound by her schedule,
and Shelley is scolded when she tries to light up in the no-smoking
lounge. Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil is another fairly pointless piece
in which Jack and Meg White, of the rock duo The White Stripes, have
a very forced conversation about Nikola Tesla and his life and theories,
including the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance. Cinqué
Lee reappears as a waiter in this piece.
The next segment is Cousins?, the longest film of the
eleven, wherein British actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan find out
they are distantly related. Molina wants to be pals, but Coogan rejects
him until he sees that knowing Molina could be good for his career.
His attempts at re-ingratiation fail. Not surprisingly, this and the
similarly titled Cousins, with Blanchett are by far the best
pieces, and the only ones wholly shorn of amateurism. The same is not
true for Delirium, where rappers GZA and RZA drink herbal tea
and warn Bill Murray of caffeine and nicotine as drugs as bad as that
found on the street, even as he disses the very essence of rap underneath
the noses of the clueless duo. The final segment, Champagne,
follows Bill Rice and Taylor Mead (one of Andy Warhols legendarily
untalented superstars) as janitors on their coffee break, and waxing
nostalgic about life and Nilkola Tesla, until Mead either falls asleep
or dies, in a very Beckettian twist.
Ok, critics either loved or hated this film, and the truth is its
not as bad nor good as either side says, because there is a great deal
of amateurism involved, as well as daring. When really good actors and
situations are put forth, there are gems of moments, such as in Cousins?,
where Molinas slight shift of tone after Coogans rebuff
of his seeming sycophancy perfectly illustrates the fact that he knows
hes higher in the Hollywood pecking order than his distant cousin.
In Somewhere in California a similar moment is reached when Iggy
Pop first tries to tell Tom waits to call him Iggy and waits, without
missing a beat, calls him Jim - his real name. When not there is nothing
distinct its plotlessness really shows - as in Jack Shows Meg His
Tesla Coil. Yet, there are segments like Those Thingsll
Kill Ya and No Problem where the utter barrenness of diurnal
existence are both emulated and satirized by the aging mooks and the
none-too-bright Jamaicans, whose conversations are so painfully weak,
awkward, yet real, that the filmgoer attuned to even the slight falsehoods
of the minimally enlightened dialogue of Hollywood tripe can feel it,
and wince. This film, at its best, avoids the needs to be boring to
convey the power of boringness trope that affects much modern art, but
its very hit and miss nature also undermines the cumulative effect that
the best of it has to offer. In short, the film may be said to recapitulate
Jarmuschs whole career
.interesting; which is just the term
I most often use when a work hits that middling ground that knows no
name. There may be something to it, after all.
© Dan Schnieder November 2005
Poetry and Soul
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