Combustible Celluloid
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With: Roberto Benigni, Cate Blanchett, Steve Buscemi, Steve Coogan, Renee French, The GZA, Cinque Lee, Joie Lee, Alfred Molina, Bill Murray, Iggy Pop, The RZA, Tom Waits, Jack White, Meg White, Steven Wright
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 95
Date: 09/05/2003

Coffee and Cigarettes (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Smoke Rings

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Not unlike his cigar-shop patter with Harvey Keitel in Blue in the Face (1995), the great American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has now released a feature length collection of cafe-style conversation. It consists of eleven segments, the first three of which were released as short films in 1986, 1989 and 1993 respectively. In each, various agents of cool meet at cafes for the title beverage and its symbiotic smokes.

The participants can be as well known as Stephen Wright, Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Cinque and Joie Lee, Steve Buscemi, Steve Coogan, Alfred Molina, Bill Murray, the RZA and the GZA, or, like the gorgeous Renee French, they can be unknown to everyone except Jarmusch and a small cache of insiders. No less a talent than Cate Blanchett appears opposite herself, playing both a movie star and the movie star's lesser-known cousin.

Nothing much holds the eleven segments together, other than their luscious black-and-white photography -- shot by several different cinematographers over the years -- that only emphasizes the eternal coolness of smart people sitting around and talking about nothing. Certain lines of dialogue pop up more than once, and more often than not the talkers don't really connect on either a verbal or spiritual level; most of the conversations are lively disagreements. None of the world's problems gets solved.

Occasionally a segment is just so darn odd that it makes you laugh long after the film is over, such as when Jack and Meg White (of the great rock band the White Stripes) meet in a cafe. "Why don't you tell me about your Tesla Coil?" Meg says, and Jack does, producing a working Tesla Coil balanced carefully on a little red wagon.

The majority of Jarmusch's work to date consists of segments rather than narrative flow, and here we get something akin to a jam session rather than a finished masterwork. But few American directors are talented enough to exhibit their bootleg tapes or private journals alongside more polished works by lesser artists and come out ahead.

Coffee and Cigarettes may inspire a shrug from most viewers, but for the initiated it tends to linger, growing sillier and more charming all the time. It offers a kind of Zen state, in which the patter of this meaningless conversation lulls you into a meditative bliss. Nothing is being sold to you and nobody is trying to convince you of anything. Either you get it or you don't and it's too cool to care.

This odd little movie has remained in my memory and continues to improve; it could be one of the year's best films. MGM's DVD is mysteriously skimpy, but that only improves on its detached coolness factor. We get a trailer, the short film "Talbletops," which consists of outtakes from the various segments (shot only from above), set to a great Joe Strummer tune, a one-minute Bill Murray outtake, a four-minute interview with Taylor Mead, soundtrack information, and trailers for Bubba Ho-Tep, Touching the Void, Walking Tall, Intermission and Saved!.

In 2016, Olive Films released a Blu-ray edition, which includes the Mead interview, the trailer, and optional subtitles. The black-and-white transfer looks pretty glorious to me, and the sound is bold and clear. It's probably a minor entry in Jarmusch's canon, but I still like it after all these years.

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