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.
And that’s the fundamental joke of Coffee and Cigarettes. These people who seem so wised-up, cutting-edge and flagrantly out-of-the-norm, who have gained celebrity from their idiosyncrasies (or, like French, look like they ought to be celebrities) are doing nothing special in this movie–they’re just killing time. They’re dope fiends whose drugs of choice are the same as everyone else’s. (As Iggy Pop and Tom Waits confess to each other, the coffee’s good at International House of Pancakes.) They’re stars who play at being ordinary and artless (like Cate Blanchett and Alfred Molina), or anti-stars (like Taylor Mead) lost in nostalgia for a glamorous, vanished world–Paris in the 1920s, say, or New York City in 1979.
I could tell you that this adds up to a critique of our celebrity-mad culture, or an ironic conversion of the avant-garde into the mundane, or a multitiered exploration of interpersonal power games. More to the point, though, Coffee and Cigarettes plays like a series of eleven eloquent shrugs, each one more droll than the last. The twelfth shrug is this review, which can’t explain how Jarmusch got such inordinate fun out of the freakishly ordinary.
Maybe the IHOP coffee is worth a try. Maybe it would be OK to see Troy.
All right, then: Let me begin by offering thanks to God, who did not order Mel Gibson to adapt The Iliad. Black ships, rosy dawns, the salt sea and the high walls of Troy itself would have disappeared under his torrent of fake blood–whereas the new Warner Bros. version of the story, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, flings through men’s skulls only the minimum number of spears needed to do justice to Homer, while offsetting these murders with enough panoramic views and manifestations of movie gods to give you a sense of epic sweep, if not poetry.
Chief among the movie gods in Troy is flowing-haired Brad Pitt, whose Achilles is first seen in a prologue episode: a little war in Thessaly, to which he shows up late because he’s overslept with two, um, companions. Although Pitt is now past 40 and has gained the upper-body bulk to go with his age, he’s still the perfect actor to convey the yawning, leave-me-alone attitude of Achilles performing yet another task for Agamemnon (Brian Cox), conceived here as a kind of gross, sarcastic high-school football coach whose star quarterback hates his guts. Long before Pitt’s Achilles has begun to sulk, he’s already radiating the disdain and laziness of a jock who is bored with winning too easily. He impiously beheads a statue of Apollo with one stroke of his sword, then saunters away with a try-and-stop-me slouch. He faces in single combat the biggest, ugliest Thessalonian you can imagine and dispatches him with an efficiency born of contempt–not for the opponent, who is just one more victim in his path, but for Agamemnon, the fat old windbag who orders everyone around. In a world of earthbound batterers, Pitt’s Achilles stands out by his boldness, speed and agility. He leaps and whirls to kill.
You could resist Pitt’s appeal in Troy, although I don’t see why you’d want to. My only regret about his Achilles–and it’s not the actor’s fault–is that I didn’t get to see him disguised among the women. Other performers in Troy, though, are less Homeric. As Hector, Eric Bana (The Hulk) reminded me of a young Victor Mature, though without the bubbling wit and astonishing range. As Helen, shining among women, Diane Kruger succeeds mostly in being blond. This is her first big movie; I question whether she’ll bring to a second her forgettably perfect features and rote line readings. Her Paris, the smooth and likable Orlando Bloom, has almost nothing to play against. Priam, on the other hand, is too much for anyone else in the film. He’s played by Peter O’Toole, who of course is superb, but whose presence has the distorting gravity of a star–the celestial kind–warping space and time around it.
Yet the mere fact that I can complain about the imbalance between O’Toole and the other actors testifies to a strength of Troy. Petersen lets his performers occupy the frame together and interact, instead of isolating them in close-ups. He also provides a real physical setting for these interactions. Although many of his grander images are computer-generated–the swarming armies, for example, or the burning towers–Petersen has been sparing with his digital effects, unlike others among today’s big-budget directors. For a comparison, try looking at Stephen Sommers’s Van Helsing–a patched-together, computer-dominated horror movie so long, loud, leaden and ersatz that it clearly was assembled not by Dr. Frankenstein but Igor.
Troy, though, despite its shortcomings, comes off as a real movie. I will be curious to learn how an America now disastrously at war in western Asia will respond to this picture about an ancient conflict in that same part of the world. How will it strike people that in this telling, the victorious invaders are a rapacious monarch and a self-infatuated killer, while the losers are on the nobler, more humane side?
I’ll tell you this much: The horse is magnificent.
Short Takes: Opening at Film Forum in New York and then going into release throughout the country are two thoroughly remarkable political documentaries: Control Room, an inside look by Jehane Noujaim at the Al Jazeera television network, and S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, an astonishingly restrained and sober account of the Cambodian genocide by Rithy Panh. The latter strikes me as the more accomplished and moving work of cinema; the former is the more urgent movie. Both demand to be seen.
Control Room seems pieced together from whatever material Noujaim was able to grab–which is to say, it suffers from its own strengths. Thanks to a combination of daring and credibility, Noujaim was able to cover Al Jazeera as the network covered the Iraq war, beginning in March 2003. She filmed the headquarters staff at work in Qatar and also managed to follow the correspondents into their briefings and interviews at Central Command in Kuwait–an effort that could not possibly have yielded a comprehensive film, but did generate eighty-four minutes of assorted surprises and insights. Here is senior producer Samir Khader, determined to show the human cost of Bush’s war, yet hoping to send his children to the United States to “exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream.” Here is Lieut. Josh Rushing, a press officer at Central Command, reflecting on how Al Jazeera shocked him into seeing the Iraqi casualties in a new way: “It makes me hate war.” And here, captured on video, is Donald Rumsfeld, complaining of Al Jazeera that “they pretend the bombs hit the women and the children,” then adding, “to the degree that people lie, they are caught lying.” So he’s been right about something.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is an altogether more composed film–a work of art, in fact, which is no less devastating for its elegance. The filmmaker, Rithy Panh, brought two survivors of the Khmer Rouge back to S21, the prison outside Phnom Penh where they were tortured, and had them tell their stories–invaluable testimonies, since these men are among the very few who lived, out of the 17,000 inmates who passed through. The rest had confessions wrung out of them (often blatantly absurd) and were made to give up the names of as many acquaintances as they could remember, after which they were taken off and murdered. What’s most amazing is that Panh also brought back several of the guards, who not only talk about what they did but act it out for the camera, in rooms that are now bare except for the occasional eerie pile of rubble. Since S21 is now a museum of genocide, the only inhabitants of these rooms are the photos of the victims, who stare at you everywhere in this horrific, utterly necessary film.