Coffee and Cigarettes

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Published in the Austin American-Statesman

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When Manhattan maverick Jim Jarmusch brought his latest film, "Coffee and Cigarettes," to South By Southwest this spring, he was a walking, talking disclaimer with incredibly cool hair: This is not a "magnum opus," the filmmaker warned. It's the hard-to-classify fruit of almost two decades' worth of diversionary tactics, eleven short films with much in common but no unifying narrative.

As the film trickles out into national release, audiences are divided: One critic calls it "greater than the sum of its parts," another says it's "smaller than the sum of its parts." Why not stop worrying about sums and start looking at the parts?

For film buffs attuned to Jarmusch's slowed-down wavelength -- it's measured not in megahertz but kilohertz, maybe even decahertz -- these eleven episodes (filmed in the downtime between his features) are a welcome opportunity to spend some time in the world of a frustratingly unprolific artist. He has often said that he builds his movies out of the moments other filmmakers would edit out, so it should come as no shock that each segment here is a coffee break: Two or three people, photographed in rich black and white, perch at a table for a cup of joe while a motionless camera records their conversation -- which ranges from banal to lyrical, haunting to hilarious.

Almost all of the people on screen are celebrities playing fictional versions of themselves. Some -- like NYC cult figures Taylor Mead and Bill Rice -- are celebrities only to the hipster elite, but others -- the White Stripes, Tom Waits, Cate Blanchett -- are instantly recognizable. If for no other reason, the shorts are fascinating for the way they play with personalities we think we know.

The pairing of Tom Waits and Iggy Pop, for instance, envisions the latter as practically starstruck, eager to please an aloof Waits. Blanchett plays herself as a glamorously self-involved diva; rock star Jack White affects an intimate familiarity with the work of inventor Nikola Tesla. In the most entertaining sequence, Alfred Molina ("Spider-Man 2") and Steve Coogan ("Around the World in 80 Days") dance an awkward, status-conscious two-step.

With each, the actor is confirming or refuting our presumed answers to the question, "what's he like in real life?" This is the overt subject of an outrageous segment pairing Wu-Tang Clan members RZA and GZA with Bill Murray: Murray shows up at the rappers' table, coffee pot in hand, and admits that he has taken a moonlighting gig as a waiter. Throughout, the Wu-Tangers address him by his full name, and he displays a surprising knowledge of their music; for two musicians who regularly employ aliases and a famously private actor, the strange interaction is both a comment on and a refusal to address the public's curiosity.

Inevitably, the film's components do begin to adhere to each other. Bits of dialogue and thematic elements recur -- the repetitions are often funny in a deadpan way, but in the film's last episode, a combination of performer, music, and dialogue generates a poignancy that comes as quite a surprise. As in so much of Jarmusch's work, what first seems inconsequential becomes key. This moment of transcendence doesn't attempt to inject much meaning into the pleasant moments of pure diversion that have preceded it, but it does tie a nice bow on the package. "Coffee and Cigarettes" may be a platter of hors d'oeuvres instead of a steak, but they're treats whipped up by a master.


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