Coffee and Cigarettes: Dedicated to the Sunday hangover

Nothing cures the listlessness of a Sunday like coffee and cigarettes. A cup of black coffee demands attention: Shall I add sugar, or perhaps almond milk, this round? Tastebuds eagerly await their caffeine overcoat every weekend.  The combination is a genuine invitation for dialogue, contemplation, silence. Coffee and Cigarettes, a film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, has become a cult classic in the nearly ten years since its original release in 2004. It’s subject matter is an American tradition that has transcended a time and place of appropriateness and owns a diverse demographic. Jarmusch’s film, beyond commiserating with and condemning smokers, illustrates the conflicts that arise in the phenomena’s halted time. 

Personalities and conversational directives are at odds with one another, oftentimes simultaneously, in the film. Each of the eleven vignettes are prefaced by a title screen that summarizes the scene in a key word or phrase. With only two to three people in each scene, Jarmusch allows every character to chime in on a single stream of dialogue. “Delirium” features GZA and RZA of Wu-Tang Clan and Bill Murray, who happens to be the only one drinking coffee in this scene. As he sips from a half-full diner coffee pot, RZA and GZA question him about his disguise as a waiter and prescribe remedies to cure his smoker’s cough and probable delirium. They mention it’s three in the morning and, after Murray wanders off, retire to the studio to smoke blunts rather than wait for Ghostface.  Jarmusch recognizes the casual charm of coffee and a cigarette to balance the pertinent awkwardness. When strangers can provide one another with health advice, an immediate bond has formed.


Each segment is a different environment inhabited by a new situation, reminiscent of the slow build of Raymond Carver’s short stories. Claustrophobic conversations are crammed into the course of one cup of coffee. In ten to thirteen drags of a cigarette, the meetings go from colloquial to confrontational and tense. Characters often find themselves speaking with a stranger, either alone or as an interruption to a coffee with someone they know. In “Twins” a waiter (played by Steve Buscemi) interrupts Joie and Cinque Lee (not actually twins) to recount the conspiracy theory of Elvis Presley’s twin, who is rumored to have stolen the spotlight and career of Elvis himself. The siblings rebut his praising of The King with their distaste for Elvis’s racial prejudices. They sustain a sibling rivalry throughout the conversation, often answering Buscemi’s questions at the same time with contradicting responses. The silent physical cues are indicators of an unspoken language, allowing them to transcend the ridiculousness of Buscemi’s intrusion. The scene ends with Joie accusing Cinque of stealing her sweater, shoes, and style. Without any further context, Jarmusch’s scenes reveal how quickly cues about one’s personality might emerge. Each scene contains one comment or interaction that alters the trajectory of conversation, and thus reveal the colors of those involved.

Coffee and cigarettes provide comfort and relaxation in extreme moments. Each scene retains a casual air amplified by anxiety. “Somewhere in California” situates Iggy Pop and Tom Waits in a bar, meeting for the first time. Iggy, who seems endearingly nervous, offers up several options for Waits to refer to him as including Jim, Jimmy, and Iggy. The gentlemen are stripped to their neuroses from the very beginning. They discuss their revitalized focus after quitting smoking, then agree to indulge in the free pack on their table. Iggy crosses a threshold after discussing the joy of iHop coffee and informs Waits of a quality drummer, a personal and professional recommendation. Waits assumes Iggy must be making a comment of constructive criticism and gets very defensive. The miscommunication  prompts Iggy’s awkward departure. Waits pleads that he stay and even bring his wife, a desperate attempt to maintain his company despite his smugness up until that point. Jarmusch exploits the minutiae, the quirks that reveal a vulnerability in the brightest stars. Like grease on a Slip-N-Slide, coffee and cigarettes are a physical freedom that support folly. “Renee” is situated in the middle of the film (it is the fifth segment of eleven) and preaches the solitary value of coffee and a cigarette. The vignette is a predominantly silent scene with Renee French flipping through a handgun catalogue. An overeager waiter, who is convinced her name might be Grace and that he might know her, questions her identity. She dispels his bait for conversation ceaselessly. The dominant silence and self-righteous purpose of Renee’s flipping and sipping opposes the vulnerability of the characters in the other scenes. She is self-assured, engrossed in her own activities, and regularly rejecting interruptions. Closeups, a regular component of Jarmusch’s style, of Renee’s downturned eyes avoid the viewer’s inquisition. The black-and-white film draws attention to the theatrical scene, which is quaint and predictable: four tables with checkerboard tablecloths and no other patrons. All of the vignettes are devoid of characters beyond those involved in the conversation, further encapsulating the dialogue. Jarmusch preaches the value of tunnel vision in the midst of caffeinated conversations. 

Layers of repetition accompany each conversation, especially toward the end of the film. Some very informative opinions exist on the presence of twins in the film and the constant mention of certain lines or literary references. Aesthetically, the overhead shot is repeated in almost every segment. An assortment of coffee or espresso cups, ash trays, and trinkets are red herrings, visually stimulating yet providing few insights into the characters. Familial relationships, another repetitive component, regularly degrade into tense accusations and eventually rejection. “Those Things’ll Kill Ya” finds Vinny Vella aggressively reprimanded by his father-figure, Joseph Rigano, until he refrains from his last cigarette. In the same scene, Vella’s adolescent son comes in asking for money, which Vella gives him in exchange for a hug that is never received. “Cousins” portrays Cate Blanchett and her badass cousin Shelly (played by Blanchett in a wig) meeting up for the first time in months in a conference room. They attempt to catch up but Blanchett is too busy to care, and Shelly mocks her selfishness. Despite the momentary relief of a cigarette, the cousins ultimately cut their talk short when Blanchett gets called upstairs to an interview by her agent. Jarmusch dwells on the stress of family, people we may not like or respect that demand our time and energy. How fluid is the flow from stranger to acquaintance to friend? Jarmusch exposes the subtleties of these relationships, fueled by the heightened sensory experience of coffee and cigarettes, within a modern psychic obstacle course. Every interaction has a climax, where coffee make our anxieties irreconcilable and completely transparent yet eternally manageable with a cigarette.

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About Lynn Maliszewski, Contributor-at-Large

Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She curated and composed work for ArtWrit, BOMB Magazine, HAHA Magazine, Hyperallergic, LatinLover, Modern Painters, No.3, Whitehot Magazine, and Whitewall. She is currently the Contributor-at-Large for ON-VERGE, an arts journalism blog sponsored by CUE Art Foundation, until 2013. She hosts her own blog, Contemporaneous Extension, as a compendium of aesthetic interests, archived exhibitions and artists, and uncensored inferences. She has contributed editorially to the College Art Association, the Bushwick Film Festival, Like the Spice Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art.
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