All laurels eventually become resting grounds, and with Coffee and Cigarettes, Jim Jarmusch rides his own coattails, with none of the panache that defined his earlier work.
Back in the early 1980s, Jarmusch deployed boredom in a way that very few American filmmakers had before—as a narrative technique and as a cinematic device. Avant cats like Andy Warhol created deliberately dull movies (Kitchen, for example), often treating audiences clamoring for structure or visual appeal as bourgeois schmucks who didn’t deserve narrative life preservers. And fare from certain ’70s filmmakers may have moved slowly, but with a massive grace that suited their weighty topics. No one in their right mind could really call Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Altman’s Nashville boring so much as uncomfortable.
In contrast, nothing really happened on a grand scale in any of Jarmusch’s movies. His first few drew more on a European filmmaking tradition, excavating real-life glamour in sources we still considered unlikely—formica tables and cruddy Lower East Side apartments serving as his equivalent of the Europeans’ cheap garrets and streetside cafes. Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law were the good kind of boring, the kind that afflicts our attention span-impaired generation when confronted with a new, complicated idea or a leisurely pace.
Jarmusch is a product of his working-class background in industrial Akron, Ohio, but he is also informed by the East Village scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, along with the likes of Deborah Harry and Basquiat. It was a cultural moment when retro was just beginning to stand on its own as an idea rather than a recycling of past movements. Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1983) swells with the devious howls of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ 1956 hit "I Put a Spell on You" and the protagonists stalk their apartments in fedoras and ’40s suitcoats, but more than that, the director invests the mundane details of day-to-day, then-modern life with an instant retro appeal, too.
Jarmusch’s was a fertile, lovely boredom that told a story in and of itself, wearing down our resistance to experiencing life more slowly with his films’ strange sex appeal. When Jarmusch lingered over the most quotidian of details—TV watching and TV dinner-eating, for example—with often unspeakably gorgeous, perfectly framed black-and-white shots, he wasn’t suggesting that ordinary people’s lives were kitsch or noble so much as that they were simply worth savoring. Using that European attention to minutiae, he slowed down scenes or images that normally would be edited out or scurried past: his camera halted over the curve of a woman’s leg, the dirt on a car window, the glare of a streetlamp.
But Coffee and Cigarettes is a retrospective of Jarmusch retro. A series of black-and-white shorts in which people sit around doing you-know-what at pretty checked tables, it could have been great in a hyper-talkative, My Dinner With Andre capacity, though it’s unlikely given that coffee and cigarettes have always been the last refuge and the chief accessories of the truly bored—and boring. It was filmed over the last 18 years with a veritable who’s-who of the Jarmusch universe—Roberto Benigni, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and GZA, Meg and Jack White, Cinque and Joie Lee, Steven Wright, Bill Murray and imports Cate Blanchett, Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan—using such tricks as a repetition of verbal and visual details from skit to skit to loosely tie them together. Like many star-studded ensemble pieces, Coffee and Cigarettes is better in idea than in execution (think Blue in the Face). Watching this cast improvise badly on already Benigni-thin premises agonizes in parts, though amuses in others.
In a scene between Tom Waits and Iggy Pop (in which Iggy genuinely resembles a Thorazine-addicted witch), Waits bullies Iggy with a barrage of passive aggression and terrific lies ("I was giving someone CPR and delivering a baby; some people say they can hear the marriage of music and medicine in my work," is how he excuses his lateness) that he drawls with a Midwestern, droll sincerity. In another, Alfred Molina shows Steve Coogan that they’re related on a family tree before asking him to "just love me" with a deadpan only the British have truly mastered. And herbal tea-swilling, alternative health-practicing RZA and GZA hammer at their waiter, "Bill Ghostbusting-ass Murray," about the dangers of toxins as the actor swills coffee right out of the pot and hacks a rattling smoker’s cough for which they recommend gargling oven cleaner. (He dutifully obeys.) But many more of the scenes, including a really misbegotten skit with a racist Steve Buscemi and the peevish Lee siblings, are not artfully or deliberately boring so much as boring the way any badly developed idea holds a viewer hostage.
Perhaps Jarmusch’s moment has passed. There’s no shame in that given how much he’s already contributed to the annals of cinema. His early films infused a European and a punk rock aesthetic into American filmic storytelling that has become part of its permanent vernacular, and his maverick film production and distribution methods paved the way for many indie filmmakers to follow. But the director may have become as much a relic as the esthetic he’s trying to pass off as hip. Just winking at the viewer while contributing to the very boredom that his earlier movies served to splinter is inexcusable in a time when what we need is more culturally engaged and engaging filmmakers—after all, not even punk rock is very punk rock these days, and even retro seems retro when you walk down Bedford Avenue or up Avenue A.
The cultural relevance of being a character while knowing you’re a character has diminished, and yet for Jarmusch and many members of his stock troupe, it’s the only trick these bleach-blonde, leather jacket-wearing ponies know. It might be time to stop, a fact that Jarmusch himself may be considering, given that this is his first release in four years and that it’s mostly comprised of footage he shot in the decade before. This movie ain’t retro; it’s plain old recycled.