I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Jim Jarmusch: Coffe, Cabs, and Cigarettes

According to Jim Jarmusch, Nikola Tesla saw the Earth as a musical instrument, “a conductor of acoustical resonance.” Everything reverberates and resonates, forming echoes of ideas, conversations, and stray thoughts that recur like musical motifs refracted and reflected in an infinite number of variations throughout the world at different places in space and time. Everything, then, is universal and interconnected, and this stands at the core of Jarmusch’s work in general, and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) and Night on Earth (1991) in particular.

Through chronicling how people interact with each other and the unexpected relationships that they form, the writer/director creates a worldwide feeling of kinship and community. These simple moments between characters are unhurried and sometimes clumsy, celebrating the little things that bring us together. Like Jun in the director’s Mystery Train (1989)—who took pictures of hotel rooms and train stations because those are the things he would forget—Jarmusch records the seemingly insignificant details of everyday life that generally go unnoticed and reminds us of their importance and meaning. He finds beauty in odd places at unlikely moments and transforms the visual commonplace into something haunting, mysterious, and new.

Coffee and Cigarettes is an anthology of conversation over, well, coffee and cigarettes, captured in eleven short vignettes. With the exception of Steve Buscemi, all the actors play a version of themselves in the film. However, Jarmusch’s goal is to deglamorize the cultivated image of these celebrities and remind us that underneath the glitzy façade they are actually real people who, like us, deal with the common, numbing onslaught of ordinary, indistinguishable moments that make up the routine of our lives. In many ways, the characters of Coffee and Cigarettes are more “ordinary” and less interesting or strange than their counterparts in Night on Earth. The self-conscious banality and absurd pointlessness of the dialogue is refreshing, and, although Jarmusch is credited with writing the screenplay, much of it seems spontaneous and improvised, infused with an infectious nervous energy. They talk about dreams, music, health, lunch, medicine, family, Tesla’s coil, “cafpops” (popsicles made out of coffee) and other random topics that come up during conversation. They talk about the guilty pleasure of caffeine and nicotine, and, in one instance, agree they have given up smoking and talk about not smoking while they smoke—which is acceptable, since they quit smoking. Conversely, one of the Italian American gentlemen made up of a cornucopia of stereotypes gathered from hundreds of gangster films insists he “ain’t no fuckin’ quitter” but doesn’t get a chance to light one cigarette during the entire scene. Contradictions like this make up Jarmusch’s universe, which seems somehow vaguely similar to the real world, but not quite.

The first part of the movie (starring a wonderfully flamboyant overcaffeinated Roberto Benigni and a deadpan Steven Wright) is titled “Strange to Meet You,” and that could be the title of every one of these stories, and the sequences in Night on Earth as well. Both films feature an odd assortment of people in unexpected combinations and random meetings charged with a sense of strange coincidence. In many ways “the world is a bit backwards,” as Cate Blanchett’s cousin Shelly remarks in a section of Coffee and Cigarettes. Indeed, much of what goes on onscreen is, if not backwards, than decidedly strange. Everything that is seen and heard is vivid and particular, but somehow foreign. Meanings are elusive and the characters and their surroundings remain fundamental unknowns. Jarmusch looks on these people and settings not only as an outsider would—as he does in Mystery Train—but as someone who has never seen anything even remotely like them.

In Night on Earth, the title alone suggests the alien nature of the director’s gaze. His camera focuses in on these unique terrestrial habits and habitats for a frozen moment in time, and moves on without reaching any conclusion. He brings out the distinctive natural weirdness of the five locales in the movie, but also their newness and beauty. Like Edward  Hopper, Jarmusch captures the particular look of this tawdry American—and, in the Night on Earth’s case, international—landscape: an L.A. fake azure swimming pool and battered palm trees, an overflowing garbage can, rundown auto shops, gas stations, fluorescent-lit diners, deserted labyrinthine Roman streets, graffiti-plastered brick walls, Times Square, Parisian tunnels, and snowy house-lined streets in Helsinki. The five world cities in the film, although glaringly different on the surface, seem to flow to a similar mood and incorporate similar events.

Like poetry or music, Night on Earth and Coffee and Cigarettes work according to their own logic and inner rhythm. Jarmusch’s narrative structure is more meandering than systematic, but there is a stylistic wholeness to his work. Events are arranged so as to be at once random and unified. Bridging the gaps between disparate things through narrative and stylistic choices, the director also conquers the divides between different people on the level of context. Night on Earth opens in darkness, at the center of which stands a rotating sphere. As we move closer and closer, familiar shapes appear: seas, oceans, and land masses that are still undivided into countries and cities. Jarmusch makes his way from the universal to the particular, landing in Los Angeles at 7:07 pm, as the world clock dissolves into the globe again, and we are taken from the generality of an entire planet or city to the manifest singularity of the bright pink pop of bubblegum in the mouth of tough young chain-smoking cabbie Corky. At first Winona Ryder’s character and the elegant casting agent (Geena Rowlands) she picks up seem worlds apart, but during the next twenty minutes or so of the film they connect in a way that was almost unimaginable when they met.

In New York, East German driver (an overstatement) Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and exuberant YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) also form a connection as the smiling, eager cabbie becomes a delighted passenger and student of American manners. Helmut and YoYo, two disparate personalities, discover they had more in common than they thought, not the least of which is their unusual names (that each finds hilarious) and their hats, although the young loquacious man insists “no, mine’s fresh; it’s hype” and that only the name Helmut is ridiculous (“It’s like naming your kid lampshade or something”).

Helmut and YoYo share a stronger connection than what exists between the Brooklynite and his highly opinionated sister-in-law Angela (Rosie Perez). In a way, he is more similar to the old clown than his own family. This is a recurrent theme throughout Night on Earth. In Paris, the handsome Ivorian taxi driver (Isaach De Bamkole) has more in common with the blind French woman in the backseat (Beatrice Dalle) than the “extremely important” black Cameroonian diplomats with the fancy manners of white colonials. In Helsinki, the cabbie mournfully shares his most painful story with his passengers, complete strangers, assuring them that “things could be worse.” Jarmusch transcends racial and cultural dissimilarities to show that, even though people might seem different on the outside, if you look past the surface you will find a sameness.

Other characteristics link the floaters of Night on Earth as well: they are all drifters, transients temporarily together for the duration of a cab ride. Like Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, his taxis have no clear sense of destination, nowhere to get to; the director’s just cruising. Hurtling forward in the deserted streets of the city, the cabs are like little couriers suspended in motion between two fixed places, between the past and the future. For the drivers, the windshield represents a window onto the world, their frame of reference, as Jarmusch demonstrates through his use of point of view traveling shots of the empty streets. The characters are loners who have more in common with each other than the inhabitants of their societies. Being strangers to each other, the driver and passengers have more freedom. There is nothing invested in their relationship, and they can afford to be completely honest (or dishonest) because they have nothing to lose. And when they emerge out of the containment of the taxi, they will be, if not changed, then at least shaken up by their journeys and, for one of the characters in Helsinki, no more sure about where he is than when he got into the cab.

The characters of Coffee and Cigarettes are also very diverse, but their conversation and the lush, carefully composed visuals serve as a link between stories. From a bird’s eye view, all the checkered black and white tabletops look the same, and it’s remarkable how similar the production design for the interiors of a dingy bar in California and a posh lounge in Manhattan looks. Snatches of conversation appear, like musical variations of the same theme, slightly altered later on. Roberto talks about how he drinks coffee right before going to sleep so that he’ll dream faster, an idea picked up by GZA in “Delirium” as Bill Murray sips his coffee straight from the pot. In “Somewhere in California,” Tom Waits discusses how medicine and music overlap, which is also a concern of an alternative medicine practicing version of RZA. The elderly gentlemen in “Champagne,” talk about how coffee and cigarettes are not a healthy lunch, as Renée and the Italian Americans in “Those Things’ll Kill You” before them, and about Tesla’s notion of the Earth as an instrument of resonance, which is the main thread of “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil.” These concepts provide a mysterious link between all the characters, which are actually having the same conversation in bits and pieces, as their thoughts and words reverberate through the movie sometimes in harmony, sometimes dissonance.

It seems that some of the people, with a little too much caffeine in them and a bit too much free time, can start getting on one another’s nerves. In “Somewhere in California,” Iggy Pop and Tom Waits play a none-too-subtle game of one-upmanship about their tastes (perhaps Iggy is more of a Taco Bell or Ihop kind of guy, Tom suggests) or about which of them has or doesn’t have their songs on the jukebox (neither do). In “Cousins,” Alfred Molina is all politeness and charm, and Steve Coogan treats him like a pestering groupie. When he finds out they are actually related through a common Italian ancestor, his attitude still doesn’t change: “What do you mean [cousins]? Artistically?” Steve then proceeds to ask Alfred if he is gay, and “is it okay if I say no?” to giving him his phone number. This scene is obviously an exaggerated parody of how fame can make people act towards others, but the concept turns up more realistically in Cate Blanchett’s section.

The duality between caffeine and nicotine—“cigarettes and coffee, man; that’s a combination (…) In the forties is was pie and coffee”—suggested by the pairing in the title of Jarmusch’s movie is also prevalent throughout the different storylines. Twins, siblings, and cousins figure prominently throughout the film, from Cate Blanchett’s double role to Joie and Cinqué Lee, with RZA, GZA, Elvis’ twin brother, Jack and Meg White, and Alfred Molina and Steve Cougan in the middle. This duality is also one of opposites; the characters are different sides of the same coin. Steve Buscemi’s only curiosity is which of Spike Lee’s siblings is “the evil twin,” and the inverse symmetry of colors and patterns in the mise-en-scene of “Cousins” masterfully conveys the idea of opposites: a blond Cate, dressed in black and sitting on a white couch sits opposite brunette Shelly, dressed in white and sitting on a black couch in long, static takes with two silvery lamps on the dark wall in the background. The black and white contrast of the clothes and setting is anticipated in the divergence between the strong black cup of coffee and a white cigarette envisioned by the title.

The velvety black and white cinematography of Coffee and Cigarettes brings all these contrasts into sharp focus, while giving the clouds of smoke and steam their full cinematic effect. The style reflects the content: it is simple, straightforward, almost documentary in its recording of the characters’ interactions, but at the same time more dreamlike and further removed from reality. Monochrome gives the film a nostalgic, almost elegiac effect; it seems like a memory—and we all know the good old days when you could smoke in any coffee shop in America is long gone.

At no other time is Coffee and Cigarettes more nostalgic than in the last vignette, when Taylor falls asleep during his coffee break after admitting he feels “divorced from the world” and that he has lost touch with it. Reality and imagination blur over the sounds of Mahler’s “I’ve Lost Track of the World” and the magic and romance of other times and other places (Paris in the twenties, New York in the seventies). In a movie that is all talk, some of quietest moments like this one are the most endearing, as in “No Problem,” when two friends talk in circles around some undefined emotional problem and everything you need to know is written plainly across their faces.

Contrasted to Coffee and Cigarettes, Night on Earth is often painted in bright colors. The cities in the film take on different moods depending on the palette director of photography Fredrick Elmes chooses. Rome is dark and rendered in warm colors; Paris is cooler, depicted in dark blue hues with sudden bursts of life in red, green, and pink neons which stand out among the otherwise bleak surroundings, while the well-lit frozen-over metropolis of Helsinki is almost colorless in bluish grays. This movie is also romantic and nostalgic, albeit for different reasons than Coffee and Cigarettes. With Night on Earth, Jarmusch demonstrates again that he is a poet of the night, creating the same kind of lonely, romantic mood of the nighttime wanderings in Mystery Train. Things look and sound different at night, and people are more vulnerable and honest. To this cast of disconnected outsiders, the cities seem cold and lonely; even in L.A. “it gets dark early in the winter.” The last word of the movie is, appropriately, “morning.”

Despite their inherent romanticism, Jarmusch’s works are ultimately about simple, but never dull or trite subject matter. He not only includes in his movies what mainstream—and some independent—directors would exclude, he uses these moments to make up the entirety of his films. Like a French New Wave filmmaker, Jarmusch focuses on the perennially commonplace and makes it look new again. In Coffee and Cigarettes, the sounds of ordinary objects and events are heightened: the gurgle of coffee as it lands in a cup, the snap of a Zippo, the scrape of a chair on the floor. Through amplifying sound, he draws our attention to the little things, the common everyday moments that are burned up or sipped away with very little notice. The commonplace is not only made important, but funny and interesting. Jarmusch’s signature dark deadpan humor infuses both Coffee and Cigarettes and Night on Earth. Halfway through laughing out loud, however, we might find ourselves quietly sad, because the lives in the movies cannot be contained in the genre of comedy, in any genre, and what starts out as hilarious might become tragic in a moment. The split-second changes in moods are visually conveyed in Night on Earth by shifting gears.

In the Paris section, we can laugh at the crassness and stupid arrogance of the two passengers in the beginning, but after a while it stops being funny and starts being offensive. In Rome, Roberto Benigni, still as hyperactive as in Coffee and Cigarettes, gives a priest a run around a statue in a brilliantly funny long shot, then lights a cigarette in the taxi and, after the father’s comical insistence that he stop, decides that throwing the “no smoking” sign out the window would be the best solution (“That sign? I keep forgetting to get rid of it. Sorry, father. They put one in every taxi. It’s ridiculous”). He proceeds to confess all his sins to an unwilling listener, and we hear about pumpkins and a “nice, kind, sweet, pretty” sheep, “not an ugly old sheep like the others,” with “a sweet little voice,” and about his brother’s wife. However, Jarmusch draws out this process until it is no longer funny that the priest dropped his nitroglycerine tablets on the floor and is having a heart attack. By the end, when Benigni is propping his body up on a bench in the city, we don’t know whether we should laugh or cry. In the Helsinki section, the two belligerent drunkards sleeping standing up or their argument over who should get dropped off first although they live on the same block would make anyone smile, but their and the cabbie’s stories are less likely to.

In a vignette of the other film, Iggy Pop decides that music and medicine overlap through their “humanity.” The word could define Jim Jarmusch’s work. He is interested, truly interested, in people and their stories and intimate interactions, not only for their singularities and quirks, but for their very plainness. His minimalist writing style and choice of actors reflect his inclination for naturalness and sincerity. The checkered pattern of the tables or cups in Coffee and Cigarettes is reminiscent of a chess board, but such things as calculation and strategy have no place in Jarmusch’s world. Most movies have somewhere to go and try to get there all too quickly; Jarmusch has nowhere to go and takes his time getting there, indulging in detours along the way. At the end of Coffee and Cigarettes and Night Train we have learned no great lessons, nor have we arrived at any thrilling conclusion, but we are glad to have come along for the ride and the smoke.

NEW: Only Lovers Left Alive Review


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