Coffee, cigarettes and stages of grief

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Coffee, cigarettes and stages of grief

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Originality is an artist’s most elusive goal. Realizing that one cannot produce something that is truly original is very similar to going through the five stages of grief.
Of course, the easiest thing is to remain in the first stage: denial. That means turning to gimmickry in order to imitate originality, and nowhere is this more evident than in Hollywood, where special effects or twist endings too often stand in for compelling storytelling.
Jim Jarmusch’s response to computer-generated fighting robots and kids who see dead people is to simplify, simplify, simplify. He’s one of the filmmakers who get through all five stages and realize that underneath every film, no matter how stunning its action or alien its characters, lie the ageless devices of human interaction, with irony, that special talent of the omniscient audience, in the driver’s seat.
Jarmusch’s 2003 film “Coffee and Cigarettes,” only now being released in Korea, started as three short films, recorded at various times since the mid-’80s. The final film is a series of only loosely related vignettes, each starring two or three talented actors playing uncomplicated roles. The one thread that connects all of them is right there in the title ― everything takes place over coffee and cigarettes. For Jarmusch, the smoky coffeeshop is the social gathering place of a generation.
Some scenes are stranger than others. Joie and Cinque Lee play black fraternal twins visiting Memphis, nonplussed by the hick waiter’s (Steve Buscemi) preference for conspiracy theories over any negative truth about Elvis Presley. Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes star in another short, the silly and playfully innuendo-laced “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil.” And, in the funniest segment, Bill Murray, who seems to get weirder as he ages, plays himself undercover as a waiter serving GZA and RZA of the Wu Tang Clan. The opening scene benefits from the irrepressible eccentricity of Roberto Benigni.
But the most satisfying vignettes are more down to earth. Perhaps the best is “Cousins?”, a quick lunch scene that becomes an incisive portrait of the vicissitudes of social domination in the entertainment industry. Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, playing themselves, meet over cigarettes and tea (oh, Brits). At the start, Coogan’s clearly the alpha in the situation, but the tables turn when Molina gets a phone call from a Hollywood notable.
Two other fine examples of unfettered drama and humor are an outwardly friendly but actually hostile conversation between Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, and the finale, a dreamlike backstage coffee break with William Rice and Taylor Mead.
Not all of the scenes work. In “No Problem,” Isaach De Bankole mistakes a sudden request to meet with an old friend (Alex Descas) as a signal something is wrong ― it’s an interesting premise, but the two don’t quite pull it off. A scene with Joseph Rigano and Vinny Vella, and another with Renee French, would have benefited from tighter editing.
But for the most part, this is a delightful film. Jarmusch isn’t worried about appealing to demographics or making something new. That’s why, in the hands of great actors and a capable director, one can just relax and enjoy the show.


by Ben Applegate
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