One of the reasons for this (and there's a bunch of them) is his ability to capture different voices and cultures. There are very few directors who, in one film, would offer five separate narratives and set them in L.A., New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki and have the actors speak in their native languages. That film, Night on Earth, isn't perfect, but it made me love Robert Benigni, and that was an uphill battle after Life is Beautiful. Anyhow, despite the fact that Jarmusch is focused on a European and American world view, I occasionally think of him as one of the few directors who bring an awareness of the World into his films. Consequently, I find myself relishing the idea of sitting down with a Jarmusch film, totally willing to be submerged within culture and world views that aren't common on film.
Coffee and Cigarettes is Jarmusch's latest film, though it's actually a collection of short films that he has made over the years. It's gotten mixed reviews, which is to be expected after his previous two films Dead Man and Ghost Dog, which had very linear narratives. But to anyone who has seen Night on Earth and Mystery Train, it's a side of Jarmusch that has been seen before. What makes it different to those films, however, is that it is somehow more irrelevant and funnier and poignant than either of those previous films. In the eleven shorts, the film manages to cover fame, beauty, family, how you live your life, and a hundred other little moments. It also reaffirms that Tom Waits is undeniably cool.
In fact, the Tom Waits and Iggy Pop chapter is one of my favourites. Called 'Somewhere in California' if finds Iggy Pop and Waits in a run down bar, meeting for the first time, not really friends, just two guys who work the same profession and know each other. Their conversation is plagued by awkward moments, Iggy's fawning, and a underlying lack of respect that Waits has for Pop, who tells him when he first enters to call him Jim. Or Iggy. Okay, just Iggy. Iggy is good. Waits then proceeds to call him Jim for the rest of the conversation. It's funny, and Waits has the flashier roll, but the acting credit has to go to Iggy, who isn't afraid to come off as a nervous, twitching guy who is a little in awe of the other. Not exactly the image for a punk icon.
In contrast to that is the meeting between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan. Keeping in with social awkwardness and people meeting through a job, this time the two actors, Jarmusch has the story unfold in a similar pattern to Iggy and Waits, with the exception that the two British actors have met for tea and biscuits and cigarettes, rather than coffee. The dialogue, as it does with all the chapters, shifts in tone and word usage for the two. This dialogue change is one of the things that defines the film, actually, and half way through, you begin to enjoy just hearing the variety in each little chapter. (I actually found myself wondering how much of it is Jarmusch and how much is the actors in this regard. Given that it is a strength through all of Jarmusch's films, I lean towards him, but maybe he is free with his dialogue and actors.) Still, 'Cousins?' takes a few strange and twisting turns, and Molina is really quite excellent.
Perhaps my favourite chapter, however, is 'Cousins' with Cate Blanchett. It should be said that I've never actually seen the big deal in Blanchett. I've seen her in a number of films, but in not one of those films have I thought to myself, hey, lets go see this Cate Blanchett film. But in her chapter she plays both Cate Blanchett, movie star, and her cousin Sheryl, from Sydney. Or is it Shirl? Either way, the name is a bit regretful, since it's mainly used to begin jokes involving working class Australian women who stalk out of her fly screen door, fag in one hand screaming, "Fucking children! Get off my fucking lawn!"
I live in the Western Suburbs of Sydney, where such an image is dumped in Sydney, and I'm prone to be a bit resistant to this image. When Blanchett's cousin strolled in, flopped on the couch, lit up a smoke and began to speak in a thick, Westy accent, I wasn't so impressed... and then, a minute later, when she settled into it, and the words and inflection and lazy disregard for everything while at the same time being envious and gazing round at the fancy digs... I was having a parade of girls I've known walk past me. By the end of the chapter I had no doubt that the cousin lived in Sydney, that she lived in Sydney poor, and hung our in RSLs with her boyfriend Lee and their band that was struggling to get an album released, and bashed away in the pub scene (but mostly their garage) down here. Even more, you could see in Blanchett playing 'herself' that there was a similar Sydney girl lurking there, too, and that for all she resisted the idea of a smoke, asked for warm milk, sat looking beautiful and kept, for all of that there was the feel of a woman who wasn't that far removed from her cousin.
There are, of course, some chapters that don't work as well. The first two chapters, 'Strange to Meet You', with Benigni and Steven Wright, was a bit unfocused for me. Likewise, 'Twins' with Joie and Cinque Lee and Steve Buscemi didn't quite catch my attention, except when they were talking about how racist Elvis was. But, when compared to the utter sexiness of Renee French drinking coffee and smoking, however, you realise they are only minor problems. Things that are overcome.
The last thing I want to note is the end of the film. I'm not actually going to talk about that at all, except that I thought, in a strange way, that it was just about the perfect ending for a film like this. There was a sense that yes, Jarmusch had picked the right story to end out on, that he had, somehow, managed to tie the thematics of the film into that final chapter. At least, that's what I felt. Like always, your mileage varies depending on the day.