Film

JAVA WITH JARMUSCH

With his new work, the rebel director offers a kind of big-screen symphony

JONATHAN DURBIN May 24 2004
Film

JAVA WITH JARMUSCH

With his new work, the rebel director offers a kind of big-screen symphony

JONATHAN DURBIN May 24 2004

JAVA WITH JARMUSCH

Film

With his new work, the rebel director offers a kind of big-screen symphony

JONATHAN DURBIN

JIM JARMUSCH is an enfant terrible of American cinema, known for such films as his Elvis elegy Mystery Train, the distended punk western Dead Man, and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, in which Forest Whitaker plays a lumbering martial arts assassin who communicates only via carrier pigeon. Not exactly mainstream stuff. Still, the director’s deft touch for idiosyncratic storytelling and his relentlessly independent spirit have earned him a devoted following of hipster urbanites and art film buffs. He finances his productions himself and works out complicated international licensing deals on his own; given the market’s penchant for hit-makers like Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon) and things that go boom, that’s probably a good thing. Things do not go boom in Jarmusch films, although relationships tend to fizzle and, very occasionally, people get shot. The director says that if he depended on the studios for money, chances are he’d never make another movie. He doesn’t think like Hollywood. And if he wants his films done right, then he’ll do them himself.

That’s the attitude in his latest work, Coffee and Cigarettes, a collection of 11 black-and-white comic shorts that Jarmusch wrote and filmed sporadically over the past 17 years. He shot the first vignette for Saturday Night Live in 1986— “They closed the door to freelance filmmakers afterwards,” he says with a wry grin—and completed the last in early 2003. The scenes often feature actors and musicians playing themselves; in each, the characters converse while drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, hence the title. The film stars name-brand performers Bill Murray (in the short Delirium) and Cate Blanchett (in Cousins), and Jarmusch regulars Steve Buscemi (in Twins) and Roberto Benigni (in Strange to Meet You). There is little in the way of character development, and Jarmusch appears to eschew the boring old tropes of plot, cli-

max and denouement. Instead, Coffee and Cigarettes is a commercial experiment in avant-garde filmmaking.

“I never think about what a film’s going to look like when it’s finished while I’m working on it,” Jarmusch says in his deep Midwestern drawl. “I only care about what I’m doing right then, in that moment.” As a result, the 51-year7old director claims not to know what, if anything, the film means, and demurs when asked to speculate. (“I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean,” he says unequivocally.) Instead he prefers to compare Coffee and Cigarettes to music. “It’s an exercise in variations, like Bach’s work, or Warhol’s silkscreens, or even Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould!’ Since the film also stars piano-man-of-doom Tom Waits and protopunker Iggy Pop (in So?newhere in California), Detroit rock duo the White Stripes (in Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil), and WuTang Clan rappers RZA and GZA (in Delirium), the analogy is appropriate. “Music is the most beautiful form of expression to me,” the director says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s punk or country or jazz, I love it. Well, except for show tunes. I never really liked them. When I went to my local record store the other day and asked for the new Ghostface Killah and Loretta Lynn records, they didn’t even look at me twice.”

‘TOM WAITS plays a doctor too, and he’s the last person I’d want giving me an emergency tracheotomy’

It’s not just the casting in Coffee and Cigarettes that reflects Jarmusch’s musical bent. Terse dialogue between the characters builds from scene to scene like movements in a symphony. While repetitive phrases like “the world as a conductor of acoustical resonance,” along with similar shots, string the segments together, their real cumulative effect is to create a sense of style. The mood, as per usual with Jarmusch, is gritty and cool, and like his other works, the film is slowly paced but doesn’t bore. The atmospheric stuff is suited to actors who are more comfortable in front of a microphone than a camera.

Jarmusch has made musicians into actors before, most notably hiring now-deceased Clash front man Joe Strummer to play a drunken redneck in Mystery Train. “It’s not done in a calculating way,” he says. “It’s more organic. I know them, and saw that they had acting potential.” He’s also responsible for Year of the Horse, a live concert film of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1996 tour. And he’s obsessive about his soundtracks. The disc that accompanies Coffee and Cigarettes includes songs from the Stooges, Funkadelic and Gustav Mahler.

The roots of his eclectic tastes are in the ’70s. Born and raised in Akron, Ohio, Jarmusch moved to New York City in 1971 to study literature at Columbia University. After graduating, he studied film at New York University’s School of the Arts, where he worked as a teaching assistant for Nicholas Ray (director of Rebel Without a Cause), and landed a job as a production assistant on Wim Wenders’ Lightning Over Water. In the meantime he’d become a staple of New York’s downtown art and punk scene, and played in a band called the Del-Byzanteens, which he describes as “Middle-Eastern influenced.” He hung out with future icons of cool like John Lurie (later of the Lounge Lizards, and star of Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise). Even now, Jarmusch looks the part: tight black jeans, wallet chain, Motörhead T-shirt under his button-down. Only the names have changed in his films—they’re more famous these days. “The actors were all into improvisation,” he says, “which is good, because that’s what Coffee and Cigarettes required. Plus they all knew these films would only take a day at most to film, with the exception of Cate Blanchett, who took two [because she plays both herself and her fictional cousin]. So it was a quick hit. I hope it’ll strengthen the way I direct features.”

‘WHEN I asked at my local record store for the new Ghostface Killah and Loretta Lynn, they didn’t look at me twice’

Though it might seem difficult to acquire smooth, unstilted performances from people playing themselves, Jarmusch says his actors were able to extemporize because the scenes required them to engage in some self-mockery. For instance, Blanchett plays a stuck-up movie star, as does Steve Coogan; the director says that neither is an accurate portrayal of the real person. Rather than feeding the celebrity ego machine, Jarmusch is, in part, sending it up, which he says made the filming fun. “There are a few elements that I repeat,” he says. “The RZA plays a doctor, but he’s not one in real life and I wouldn’t let him near me if I was sick. Tom Waits plays a doctor too, and he’s the last person I’d want giving me an emergency tracheotomy.” lil