Volume 16 • Issue 50 | May 7 - 13, 2004

Java, Smokes, Family, and Fame

Jim Jarmusch brings artistry to a conceit also full of big names


Meg and Jack White in a scene from Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes.”

Indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch challenges the notion that anything in life is “larger than life” with “Coffee and Cigarettes,” a series of short films on a unified theme: the humble coffee break, with its requisite small talk, accompanying cigarettes, and absolute normality.

Bringing together an all-star cast including Iggy Pop, the White Stripes, Bill Murray, Roberto Benigni, Steve Buscemi, and Wu Tang’s GZA and RZA, Jarmusch treads over the same ground with featherlight precision, each new set of players extolling the virtues or damning the vices of coffee and cigarettes, conspiracy theory, Nikola Tesla, and more.

Much identical dialogue also carries over from one short to the next, including the obligatory toast that punctuates each scene. Yet Jarmusch resists letting “Coffee and Cigarettes” become a sight gag; a skilled magician, he distracts the viewer with this fun pretense while delving into deeper issues like the meaning of family, and the idea of fame as something that both opens doors and creates prisons. A clever turn by Cate Blanchett playing both herself and her free-wheeling cousin illustrates this dichotomy to tragicomic end.

Cinematically, Jarmusch’s use of black (coffee) and white (cigarettes) photography is too effective to be mere ploy. Those with a close eye will revel over the small details like the high art arrangement of objects of everyday use, and will note that each player flicks a different brand of cigarette into a different, unremarkable ashtray.

Andy Warhol was once quoted asking, “Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?” Jarmusch answers, “Does that make it any less beautiful?”


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