The form of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), a film compiled of short stories, arouses a problem of consistency. Even critiques like Roger Ebert do not see the structure as anything more than ‘smoking and drinking’ and evaluate the stories individually.1 But the film has strong and clear thematic arch that derives from the dialogues and the mood of each piece. By his shorts Jarmusch composes a loose narrative parallel to the human life and suggests that lamps and tables in the cafés can observe all the moods and tensions of our little being. To see this idea clearly, one only has to extract this narrative from the individual stories.
The conversation of Steven and Roberto in the very first story recalls children’s one. Steven, who has no job and relaxes most of the time, explains his idea of caffeine popsicles and Roberto asks ‘do you know my mother?’. His Italian accent places him among the immature Roman youths portrayed in I Vitelloni (1953). Roberto then goes to the dentist’s instead of Steven. Although this idea seems absurd, it has a clear logic, the characters only omit certain facts of real life, similarly to children.
Second story unfolds during the perpetual quarrelling of the twin characters. They constantly judge and criticise coffee, music, Elvis, waiter, each other’s style. The fights between brother and sister and the uncompromising opinions perfectly fit to the late teens. Third story marks the point of disillusion in life. The big idol Tom turns into a pretentious egoist and Iggy zips away from him with a real relief. In ‘Those Things’ll Kill Ya’ the life already has its demands, the dollars quickly disappear in the hands of children and one starts to treasure a few little pleasures like the cigarette.
Following stories concern with the troubles of adult life. René has to face the waiter, who cannot imagine that any beautiful woman could be unwilling to flirt. Isaac and Alex go through the fatal misunderstanding, surprisingly easy to encounter in the real life. Cate Blanchett in ‘Cousins’ touches the well-known issue of social differences. Jack, Meg and tesla coil bring to the film for the first time the nostalgia in the regrets of the sad Tesla’s fate. The overarching narrative of the film culminates with ‘Counsins?’. The essential need of life, often bothersome for our caressed egos, comes here spelled out by Molina, ‘love me’. Ageing Bill Murray accomplishes the big dream about the coffee popsicles when sceptically evaluating his life, and the film finishes with stunning ‘Champagne’, heroic attempt to enjoy the last few minutes of the short coffee break. We depart together with weary Taylor.
Jarmusch does not unite the film only by the common style. The recurring themes in conversation that develop their meaning as the narrative of the film continues connect the stories as well. The mood of the pieces strongly corresponds with their position in the narrative. The fresh naïve beginning transforms to more melancholic tones towards the end and finishes in complete detachment and tired stillness.
Coffee and Cigarettes summarize in its eleven stories the human life. Not that it would tell everything about us, but it suggests that in the social space of cafés, under the gaze of friends and curious fellows, the life can appear as the series of passing impressions.
- Roger Ebert, ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’, Roger Ebert.com, (May 2004) <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/coffee-and-cigarettes-2004> [accessed 8 May 2013].