Coffee and Cigarettes as a Common Thread

Coffee and Cigarettes is the title of three short films and a 2003 feature film by independent director Jim Jarmusch. The film consists of 11 short stories which share coffee and cigarettes as a common thread, and includes the earlier three films.

 
 

The film is composed of a comic series of short vignettes shot in black and white built on one another to create a cumulative effect, as the characters discuss things such as caffeine popsicles, Paris in the 1920s, and the use of nicotine as an insecticide – all the while sitting around drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. The theme of the film is absorption in the obsessions, joys, and addictions of life, and there are many common threads between vignettes, such as the Tesla coil, medical knowledge, the suggestion that coffee and cigarettes don’t make for a healthy meal (generally lunch), cousins, The Lees (Cinqué, Joie, and a mention of Spike), delirium, miscommunication, musicians, the similarities between musicianship and medical skill, industrial music, acknowledged fame, and the idea of drinking coffee before sleeping in order to have fast dreams. In each of the segments of the film, the common motif of alternating black and white tiles can be seen in some fashion. The visual use of black and white relates to the theme of interpersonal contrasts, as each vignette features two people who disagree completely yet manage to sit amicably at the same table.

The eleven segments that make up the film are as follows:

Strange to Meet You
This is the original 1986 short Coffee and Cigarettes with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright having a conversation about coffee and cigarettes.

Twins
Originally the 1989 short Coffee and Cigarettes, Memphis Version – aka Coffee and Cigarettes II – this segment features Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee as the titular twins and Steve Buscemi as the waiter who expounds on his theory on Elvis Presley‘s evil twin. Cinqué Lee also appears in Jack Shows Meg his Tesla Coil. The scene also features a recounting of the urban legend that Elvis Presley made racist comments about Blacks during a magazine interview.

Somewhere in California
Filmed in 1993 as the short Coffee and CigarettesSomewhere in California, and won the Short Film Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In this segment musicians Iggy Pop and Tom Waits smoke cigarettes to celebrate that they quit smoking, drink some coffee and make awkward conversation.

Those Things’ll Kill Ya
Joseph Rigano and Vinny Vella have a conversation over coffee about the dangers of smoking. The silent Vinny Vella Jr. also appears to beg his father for money, which is given in exchange for affection, which is not provided.

Renée
Renée French (played by herself) drinks coffee while looking through a gun magazine. E. J. Rodríguez plays the waiter, who is eager to be of service. He initially approaches her to serve more coffee, to which she reacts by saying “I had the right color, right temperature, it was just right”. After that, he comes back several times, hesitates, and leaves. He seems intent on striking a conversation with her.

No Problem
Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé are a couple of friends who meet and talk over some coffee and cigarettes. Alex has no problems, or so he answers to Isaach’s repeated questioning. At the end of the scene, Alex takes out a pair of dice and rolls three sets of doubles. It could be assumed that Alex Descas has an excessive gambling problem but to him it is not a problem because of what he can roll. Notice he doesn’t roll the dice in front of his friend.

Cousins
Cate Blanchett plays herself and a fictional and non-famous cousin named Shelly, whom she meets over some coffee in the lounge of a hotel. There is no smoking in the lounge, as the waiter informs Shelly (but not until Cate is gone). Shelly tells Cate about her boyfriend, Lee, who is in a band. She describes the music style as hard industrial, similar to the band Iggy describes. Cate tells Shelly she looks forward to meeting “Lou” someday.

Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil
Features Jack and Meg White of the band The White Stripes having some coffee and cigarettes. They play themselves, although the scene seems to perpetuate the band’s former pretense that they are indeed siblings. Jack shows Meg his Tesla coil that he says he built himself and waxes intellectual on the achievements of Nikola Tesla. In the beginning, Jack seems upset that Meg doesn’t share his excitement, and it takes Meg some coaxing to get Jack to agree to show Meg his Tesla Coil. He introduces the line, “Nikola Tesla perceived the earth to be a conductor of acoustical resonance.” Cinqué Lee plays a waiter in this segment. In the end, the coil breaks, and Meg and the Waiter offer suggestions as to why it might be broken. Finally Meg says something that Jack seems to agree to, and he leaves to “go home and check it out”. Meg clinks her coffee cup to produce a ringing noise, pauses, says “Earth is a conductor of acoustical resonance” and clinks her coffee cup to produce the noise again; she looks pensively out into the distance before a cut to black. Early during the segment, Down on the Street by The Stooges is played in the background.

Cousins?
British actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan have a conversation over some tea. (Coogan offers Molina a French cigarette, but Molina “saves” his for later.) Molina compliments Coogan’s designer jacket but notes that it will make him hot in the 85 degree Los Angeles heat. Molina works up to presenting his evidence that the two are distant cousins. Coogan rebuffs Molina until Katy Hansz asks Steve Coogan for an autograph, and Coogan won’t give out his phone number to Molina. Then when Alfred Molina gets a call from his friend Spike Jonze, Coogan tries to make amends, but it is too late, and he regrets missing the chance to make the connection. Although they say they are in LA, the segment was actually shot in Brooklyn at Galapagos, Williamsburg.

Delirium
Hip-hop artists (and cousins) GZA and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan drink naturally caffeine-free herbal tea and have a conversation with the waiter, Bill Murray, about the dangers of caffeine and nicotine. During this conversation GZA makes a reference to how he would drink lots of coffee before going to bed so his dreams would “whip by” similar to the camera-shots at the Indy 500, very similar to the same reference that Steven Wright did in the first segment. Murray requests that GZA and RZA keep his identity secret, while GZA and RZA inform Murray about nontraditional methods to relieve his smoker’s hack.

Champagne
William “Bill” Rice and former Andy Warhol superstar Taylor Mead spend their coffee break having a nostalgic conversation, whilst Janet Baker singing “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” from Gustav Mahler‘s Rückert-Lieder appears from nowhere. William Rice repeats Jack White’s line, “Nikola Tesla perceived the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance.” It is possible to interpret the relevance of this line to the constant recurrent themes throughout the seemingly unconnected segments.

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The Music that Kakfa Liked

Text by by Gustavo Artiles

 

Franz Kafka was not a music lover. But his old school friend and literary executor, Max Brod was, and he wanted to convert Franz to the glories of great music, high brow or classical music. But Franz says to him “I am not able to perceive the complexities of a large scale work”, and when Max takes him to hear the première of Gustav Mahler´s seventh symphony, which the composer himself conducted in Prague, where both friends live, on September 19th, 1908, Franz (then 35) still can not capture the secret threads of symphonic structures.

Brod tells us that Kafka was “an exception within the realm of genius… that he strained to vanish the last dissonance engendered by geniality”. But he kept that handicap, perhaps something insurmountable in spite of his intellectual efforts. It is equally possible that Kafka wanted to approach Mahler, the major symphonist of the period — “the greatest since Brahms and Bruckner”, a contemporary critic called him – because he knew him to be another Jew, as Max was too, and he might expect to find some affinities in him. But his reluctance towards the harmonic and structural complexities would hold him back, and they are especially acute in Mahler´s case!

Franz also says: ´I like American marches very much´. Which ones, he does not specify, perhaps he was not interested in registering their title or the name of the composer, but all points out to the marches already enjoyed and played in all open air concerts of military bands of Europe and, of course, the United States, i.e. those by John Philip Sousa, still enormously popular.

 
 

Sousa directed the Marine Corps Band for several years, then formed his own band which he led most of the rest of his life

 
 

The reason why Kafka felt attracted to Sousa is easy to understand, and I believe it has a connection with his work. One can detect a reflection of it specifically in his unfinished novel America, where we meet Karl, a young immigrant (i.e. the same young dreamer, K) who, at the end of the 19th century, arrives in the US searching for new horizons. An uncle of his, Jacob, is already there, but he does not know his address. After a series of events, Karl discovers one day a poster announcing a fantastic circus, the Great Natural Theatre of Oklahoma, also one of Kafka´s greatest inventions. What can a Great Natural Theatre be? It is Kafka´s conception of what that nation is like. The metaphor fits perfectly with a somewhat remote and diffuse perception of that country that was already becoming the proverbial melting pot, where boats from many parts of Europe and Asia, loaded with thousands of hopefuls to find a better life, far away from the oppressions and persecutions that perhaps they always had known in their own lands. And such assorted mixture of people come to meet in the same place, America. The poster says that ´All are welcome´, that ´Everyone can work in the Great Natural Theatre of Oklahoma´, no experience necessary. This is a second allusion to the prospects that, from the European point of view, one could expect to find on the other side of the Atlantic: ´great´ theatre. ´everyone can´. That is how America was, and still is, seen in general: countless opportunities for everyone. If everybody can work in the Great Theatre, it is not illogical for Karl to gradually meet, in the course of the rehearsals, persons he has already encountered during his long journey and later stay in the new land, including his lost uncle, Jacob.

The vastness of the American continent is another element in his mind. His vision of that Amerika is that of open horizons, infinite prairies, as well as towns that begin to be populous and puzzling.

Austrian, German and French marches of the period, generally pompous and imperialist, seem to shout ´Here we come, we, the unconquered, the most powerful, the greatest, our step says so, our mounts say so, our glorious colours say so; surrender and give us your respect and admiration, we expect no less´. Sousa´s marches say nothing of the sort: they speak about things like The Liberty Bell, The Washington Post, Hail to the Spirit of Freedom, The Belle of Chicago, Manhattan Beach, The Harmonica Wizard, La Flor de Sevilla, Hands Across the Ocean… even if a certain militarism or governmental quality seeps in too, something difficult to eradicate in what, after all, was the most famous band in history and that the American government did enthusiastically support. Thus The Man Behind the Gun, The Legionnaires, Globe and Eagle, Stars and Stripes Forever… But the fact is that all that music depicts the vigour and optimism of a nation in its early youth, and it abounds in joy and the celebration of a certain fraternity based on nationality, exempt from aristocracies and discriminations, more or less achieved thanks to equalitarian democracy. This is Sousa’s model. The model may appear a little rosy today, but that was the ´American Dream´. On the other hand, let us not forget that Sousa also wrote operettas (15), songs (70) and instrumental suites (11), a popular composer in the best sense of the word who knew the homage of the masses as no other before him. Sousa does not evoke scenic immensities or crowded towns, bur rather the essential spirit of optimism and confidence with which that nation faced the future. Sousa´s marches are the perfect circus marches for the Great Theatre.

Kafka saw the connection.