Monday, July 12, 2004

Coffee and Cigarettes

Last night Mrs. Meridian and I, along with about a dozen other people, went to see Jim Jarmusch's new film, Coffee and Cigarettes, at what passes right now for an arthouse here in Wichita.  I had heard of Jarmusch before, but this was the first film of his that I've seen.  Um . . . "plot-driven," this is not.
A (for me) helpful link for the as-ignorant-as-I follows here.
Because this film consists of several distinct vignettes, there's no storyline or plot twist to spoil.  Also, because I had read somewhere that these scenes were improvised (though surely that couldn't have been the case with Cate Blanchett's vignette in which she plays herself AND her rather scruffy Aussie cousin), I went in expecting something like skits with famous people that, by film's end, wouldn't add up to anything--rather like those short fiction collections in which a group of writers is given an image to write about and each is asked to produce his/her own story about that image.  I can say, though, that by its end, we realize that Coffee and Cigarettes is, in part, more like a meditation on a phrase that gets said about midway through the film and then repeated in the film's last vignette--but we (well, okay--I) won't be aware of that until that end comes, or maybe a couple of vignettes before, perhaps, in which earlier phrases and interactions reappear in these.  But that phrase's theme has its origin in a surprising source.
It has been in the course of thinking back on this film today that it has gained in coherence for me.  Its black-and-white photography and very similar settings in diners and lounges immediately give it visual coherence, of course (indeed, I wonder what effect shooting this in color would have had on its cohesion).  But in retrospect I see now (and I don't think I'm spoiling anything here) that each vignette is, in some way, about missed connections between people, and that coffee and cigarettes, functioning as secular stand-ins for the elements of Holy Communion, this time aren't enough to unite the people we meet . . . that is, within the immediate context of the vignettes.  But we in the audience have a larger, even a cosmic view: we see the failure of connections the vignettes, but (taking our cue from the repeated phrase) when we expand our gaze to incorporate the entirety of the film, we jump the boundaries of the vignettes to link between and among them (as in fact happens with the repeated checkerboard tablecloths and when a man (whose name escapes me) is a patron in one of the vignettes and a busboy in a much later one).
In the piece I linked to, Jarmusch says that in most movies, you see a character hop into a taxi and then have a jump cut to when the same character hops out of the cab, but that his films are about that cab ride.  It's the moments in which we're in transit between Big Moments that he's interested in.
Maybe he should consider filming Ulysses.  In Coffee and Cigarettes, he's already filmed his version of the "Wandering Rocks" episode.
Those who wish to read the comments from the original LiveJournal post can go here.

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