Cover Story: Still Smoking

Independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch reaches back to past work for Coffee and Cigarettes

Director Jim Jarmusch (center) confers with Coffee and Cigarettes co-stars Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan.

Jim Jarmusch doesn't drink coffee. The table in his hotel room in Los Angeles has several teacups and a handsome white ceramic pot. There also are no cigarettes present — no butts, matches or ashtrays.

Odd for a director whose newest film is Coffee and Cigarettes, named in celebration of a worldwide communal exercise in which people take a break from their work to share conversation and ideas, fantasies and jokes as well as, yes, coffee and cigarettes.

"I'm a tea drinker since 1986. I haven't had a coffee since then," Jarmusch says in a deep, flat, matter-of-fact voice that connotes a confiding straightforwardness. "I used to drink 10 cups a day, and I got kind of jagged out on it. I quit a lot of things as an experiment in 1986 — like alcohol, sugar, meat — because I wanted to see which things would come back.

"Coffee never did, and I'm still a vegetarian. Nicotine came back, although I smoke way less than I used to.

Caffeine came back in the form of tea. I have a very strong English working-class tea every morning and green tea in afternoon."

So Coffee and Cigarettes isn't advocating the use of coffee and cigarettes. Rather, it's a playful movie consisting of 11 short, often-comic black-and-white films in which actors and musicians, offering up exaggerated versions of themselves, engage in conversation in bars, cafes, restaurants and other places.

Sometimes, like the segment when Iggy Pop meets Tom Waits in a fetid juke joint, they're cantankerous. Some vignettes are loudly bizarre and surreal, others quietly melancholy and emotional. Some are inscrutable.

Other actors in the movie include Alfred Molina benignly trying to convince a contemptuous Steve Coogan that they're related; Cate Blanchett playing both herself at a promotional junket and her angry, punkish cousin; the White Stripes' Jack White hauling his Tesla coil to a café to impress a mischievously amused Meg White; and, in an improbably hilarious vignette, Wu-Tang Clan's GZA and RZA advising a slovenly Bill Murray on alternative-health techniques as the latter drinks coffee straight from a pot.

"I'm attracted to the non-dramatic moments of life in my work," Jarmusch explains of his approach. "I made a whole film called Night on Earth about people in taxis and not about their destinations at all. Having a coffee break is the most un-dramatic moment of the day. It's taken out of everything you think of as your schedule. That makes it a little free zone where people use narcotic substances that are very strong but use them in a relaxed way as a break from other things.

"I don't take this film seriously. I don't expect the audience to. But hopefully there are some insights into human behavior. Hopefully, there are some laughs in there for people. I think we need some about now."

Jarmusch laughs a little at his response, underscoring a quiet concern about the world affairs dominating the news. At 51, the Akron-born independent New York filmmaker has the look of a fighting-trim, post-rockabilly Lee Marvin. His silver-white hair has a sculpted, brushed-back look. He wears a black-striped cowboy shirt, black slacks and some demure bracelets and rings, one in the shape of a skull. He has the coolness of a longtime Alternative rocker, and he's as much a fan of music as film.

His first Coffee and Cigarettes short, "Strange to Meet You," was originally made for Saturday Night Live in 1986 — a grungy and chokingly smoky vignette featuring Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright discussing dentistry and other subjects. Slowly over the years — while making such frequently deadpan minimalist features as Down By Law, Mystery Train and Night on Earth — Jarmusch made additional shorts.

Last year, he decided to expand Coffee and Cigarettes to feature length. Working at a feverish pitch, he filmed six separate shorts within two weeks.

"First I'd think of people I wanted to get together, then I'd contact them," he says. "If they agreed to it, which they all did, I'd write a script for them. I tried really hard to write really fast without thinking. I tried to hear them speak and channel it and write it down as if transcribing a conversation I'm hearing in my head. And when my rational brain started asking, 'Why would they say that, what does this mean?' then I'd stop."

Yet some vignettes do relate obliquely to Jarmusch's own experiences and observations. In "Cousins," shot last year with Blanchett, the cousin character named Shelly is disgusted to learn that the actress has given her some of her own swag as a gift. And "Shelly" can't understand why a rich movie star gets free stuff while she struggles. Sometimes the world just works backwards, "Cate" says.

"I remember when I was waiting in line to get into (New York's) Mudd Club in 1978, and I had just enough money to get one beer and then I'd have to walk home all the way for two miles," Jarmusch recalls. "And I'd have to wait and wait to get in. And then a few years later I'd made a few films and I'm sort of known, at least on the East side, and they'd bring me in first and give me free drink tickets and maybe a CD. I'd think, 'Wow, when I couldn't afford this I had to pay. Now that I can, it's free. How does this all work?' So that's always stayed with me, and I've seen it more and more. Man, they give people some expensive stuff."

The last Coffee and Cigarettes short has a lyrically elegiac, emotional impact surprising for Jarmusch. In "Champagne," two veteran and now-elderly actors from New York's alternative film and theater world, Bill Rice and Taylor Mead, play workers in a cavernous armory building on a break.

"Taylor," with a gentle yet ineffably weary smile, tells "Bill" he wants to hear Mahler's "I Have Lost Track of the World." He then holds a hand to his ear and it starts to play, and he's transported to reverie before it stops and he returns to his isolation. When it's finished, he offers a toast to life with imaginary champagne.

'That's such a delicate, sad, beautiful piece of music to be resonating through a building called 'Armory,' " Jarmusch says, adding that he was scheduled to shoot at the New York Armory but had to shift locales when it was needed for military purposes. But he kept the references in the script. "That's the final film we shot, and that's the most personal one for me because Bill Rice and Taylor Mead are stars for me — underground stars. When I started to make my own films in the late 1970s, I used to see them on the street in the East Village. To finally get to work with them was really great for me."

In the 1990s, Mead and Rice made a series of silent, black-and-white films for Gary Goldberg, who died last year. Jarmusch gives a "Respect" to him in the credits.

"Their two characters are working-class janitors," Jarmusch says of "Champagne." "But they're so delicate, so the idea of them being in this heavy place and talking about losing track of the world fit. I don't know really what the hell it's supposed to mean, but that one's very personal for reasons I can't analyze."

And yet Jarmusch, now visibly moved by expressing his regard for these actors, pushes himself to analyze his motivations for the piece. When this writer suggests it might be a tribute to the forgotten, now old, people who helped create his beloved "alternative arts," he responds affirmatively.

"I've thought about that a lot lately, and I've been trying to check in with people who meant so much to me, like (filmmaker) Jonas Mekas and (photographer) Robert Frank and other people I've had the great fortune to encounter in my lifetime. Man, you've got to check in with these people and let them know in some little way what they mean.

"The real gifts rise from the margins, at least for me. I'm not against mass culture or mainstream stuff, but that doesn't speak to me the way the more marginal things do."

COFFEE AND CIGARETTES is playing art house theaters nationwide and is scheduled to open in Cincinnati in June.

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