Coffee and Cigarettes (2003 dir. Jarmusch) is a portmanteau of shorts about characters sharing coffee, cigarettes and conversation.
Individually Jarmusch’s shorts have little story or narrative, but Jarmusch creates a loose narrative structure through the way he sequences the film, creating tension and release in the way each short responds to those that precede it. The recurring instruction to ‘dream faster’ is a perfect representation jarmusch’s film, as fragments of strange, caffeine induced dreams, tangentially connected by subconscious strands.
Despite their seeming lack of a defined story, all of the shorts explore a clear theme. The film revolves around the power balance in relationships and the games people play to test where that power lies. Jarmusch communicates his theme through the visuals, the high contrast, black and white style intimates the contrast and conflict between the characters on screen. And it only seems to further highlight the chequerboard motif that runs through the film (another obvious hint at the ideas Jarmusch explores).
Jarmusch layers in other, subtler visual touches; Cate Blanchett’s fishnet tights under her business suit, hinting at the darker side of her character represented by her cousin; the perfectly laid out, but untouched plate of biscuits on the table shared by Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, representing Alfred’s urge to please and Steve’s desire not to engage; and the slowly rotating disco ball casting its light over Iggy and Tom, which gives their moment together a gentle hallucinatory quality.
Jarmusch also excels in drawing out apparently spontaneous, naturalistic performances from his actors. There are obviously scripted elements to the shorts, but it feels like this elements were very much the scaffolding onto which the performers were allowed to construct their own narrative. It seems that Jarmusch gave his actors the freedom to improvise, setting the rules for their bubble and then letting them play within it.
The spark of spontaneity reflects a variant on Jarmusch’s theme. The repeated talk of Tesla, electricity and frequency is reminiscent of the spark and resonance between people. An indefinable quality that nevertheless has a powerful effect on how we interact. It’s this spark that decides the initial power balance in a relationship between two people, and their resonance changes as this power shifts. The clearest portrayal of this is the moment when the power drifts from an aloof Steve Coogan to a newly self-assured Alfred Molina, transforming the energy of their scene.
Jarmusch also repeatedly scripts the line of the titular coffee and cigarettes being an unhealthy lunch. A reference to the often psychologically unhealthy games we engage in, but continue to play, perhaps?
But as much as Jarmusch has his characters playing games with one another, he’s also playing a game with the audience. By casting the actors to effectively play themselves, he invites the audience to question what they are seeing and to play his game. He makes them look for connections by putting the same lines of dialogue in different, apparently unconnected vignettes. He sets his scenes in ambiguous locations and times, so that we can’t help but wonder when and where they are playing out. The overhead shots almost always highlight more coffee cups than drinkers at the table, and props move between shots; is this an accident or an intentional decision of a director fondly toying with his audience?
Jarmusch, J., (2003) Coffee and Cigarettes, Asmik Ace Entertainment