I know, you’re too hip to see Troy. Even if you grew up venerating some irresponsibly talented hero, a night-life Achilles such as Charlie Parker or Patti Smith, the warfare of Troy is not for you, no more than is the sober allegiance to an ancient text. It’s a hipster tradition to prefer the contemporary and impromptu to the classic, the humanly flawed to the studio-made.
Not that there are many hipsters around, compared with the audience for Troy–but those few will have a grand time watching their heroes and heroines being cool in Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Coffee and Cigarettes.
As several of Jarmusch’s characters observe, coffee and cigarettes isn’t any kind of lunch. In the same spirit, I might say that Coffee and Cigarettes delivers a buzz but isn’t any kind of master narrative. It’s an unabashedly modest anthology of eleven short films, the earliest of which dates from 1986, when Saturday Night Live invited Jarmusch to contribute to the program. He brought together actor Roberto Benigni and cinematographer Tom DiCillo (with both of whom he’d worked before) and comedian Steven Wright and created a brief, cheerfully pointless sketch in which the performers meet, smoke, abuse espresso and trade places, all the while talking past one another. Three years later, while shooting Mystery Train in Memphis, Jarmusch put together a second, equally shaggy episode, again working with the actors and cinematographer on hand. In 1992 came the third segment, made in a California lounge with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. Although the pace eventually picked up–Jarmusch filmed six segments in 2003, in a two-week stretch–Coffee and Cigarettes still gives you the impression of something personal and casually assembled, like a scrapbook or journal kept over a long period.
It is, however, a journal kept according to rules. All the episodes are shot in black and white and take place in real time, each within a single, sparsely populated setting. All incorporate overhead shots of the table where the characters gather, and all involve the pleasures or hazards of the title substances. As for the variations among episodes: background music and decor change, different brands of cigarettes show up on the tables and the actors either do or do not appear as themselves.
In addition to the performers I’ve already mentioned, the self-impersonators include Jack White and Meg White of The White Stripes, GZA and RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, Isaach de Bankolé, Alex Descas, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and underground legend Taylor Mead. Among those who do not impersonate themselves are Steve Buscemi (very, very thinly disguised as a coffee-shop waiter in Memphis) and, once again, Cate Blanchett (who appears, through the magic of split screen, as her own deeply envious cousin). As this roster will tell you, Coffee and Cigarettes is a kind of no-budget backstage musical, concerned with the lives of entertainers and with the tunes that play around them. I don’t know, however, whether Renée French is an entertainer or is playing herself. A conspicuously attractive and unapproachable woman who is shown sitting alone in a New York coffee shop, poring over a gun catalogue, French is explained in the press booklet only as someone who leads a mysterious life–which makes her, I suppose, the hippest character of all.