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June 17, 2004

Turbokitty on Jarmusch

Dear Vanessa --

When my favorite downtown artchick, Turbokitty, told me the other day that she loved Jim Jarmusch's new Coffee and Cigarettes, I instantly set to work badgering her to write up some thoughts about the film.

This just in from downtown:

Turbokitty Does Jarmusch
I've seen all of Jim Jarmusch's movies. He's the ultimate independent film director. I've grown up with him. I find him so much cooler than some of the standard-issue Great Filmmakers. Or maybe he just speaks to me more directly. I sort of love to hate Altman and Kubrick, for instance. I see lots of both of their films -- they do get under my skin. But they strike me as old-fashioned. Jarmusch is not old-fashioned in that way. He's New Wave in the '80s sense, not in the '60s sense. He's cool New York.

His new film, "Coffee and Cigarettes," doesn't have a storyline, It's a movie that nothing really happens in. Instead, you have these moments in conversation that pull you through the movie. There's a loose structure in the way he puts the vignetttes together. It's in black and white, and it's all people in cafes making small talk. Jarmusch is also analyzing coffee and smoking. It's a kind of refrain in them movie: people saying "No, I don't drink coffee anymore, it's not good for me."

I read that he shot this film over 15 years. They'd rehearse a vignette for a day, and then he'd shoot the vignette the next day. And it had to be set up that way: a day for rehearsal, a day for shooting. He got his material in one day or not at all. So it's very immediate.

Doing photography, you can do the same thing. You can set yourself little rules. For example, you might walk in and say, I'm giving myself an hour, what am I going to get done in an hour? That's when magic happens. You get totally crazy and something happens and you have no control over what's going on.

I do that with my photography. I'll be in the passenger seat of a car, especially when I was in California, and I'll say, I'm going to shoot from the passenger seat for an hour. I'd take loads of stuff. Then I'd edit it. And I might get five amazing photographs from the hour. You can do that kind of thing with drawing too, because it's quick -- you can get it down. I don't think it'd work with oil painting or collage, let alone sculpture. It's gotta be a quick process, so really photography is the best.

I love the process of getting out there and doing something. And I love quick results. I just made a painting that took me a month, and I thought I was going to kill myself.

I wonder how many people Jarmusch shot that didn't get into the movie. Probably quite a few. The first one he did was with Roberto Benigni. It's the first vignette in the film. It's really cute, like a miniature Laurel and Hardy sketch.

My favorite vignette involved Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. They meet at a spot where Tom hangs out -- an L.A. dive, a seedy place with great jukeboxes and rundown booths. It's like a ghost town but you're inside. Iggy and Tom have a hysterical conversation quitting smoking. Meanwhile they keep picking up cigarettes left by the previous person.

What I especially loved were the expressions on Iggy's face. No one can make a face like Iggy. In the sketch, they're both jerks, but Iggy is the lesser of the two jerks. At one moment he comes out with an asshole remark, and Waits takes offense, and decides to be a prick but in a polite way. And Iggy gives him this look -- it's hysterical. But it's so deadpan too. But the whole vignette is completely deadpan. I read somewhere that Tom Waits at some point went to Jarmusch with the script and said, "Is this supposed to be funny? If so, would you circle the jokes for me?"

You can tell, watching a few of the vignettes, that time has passed. Spike Lee's brother and sister are in it, for example, and you knew they couldn't look like that today, because they look like they're 25.

There are a couple of moments of a retro style too that looked like the late '80s or early '90s. No one these days would take that 1960s trailer-trash beehive look; that was In in a retro sense in the early '90s. And directors and photographers are finished with that. It doesn't look lame and shabby, just dated and slightly boring. Hair, nails, eyes -- very John Waters, and very over.

I love Jarmusch's attitude towards performance. Jarmusch gives actors some space. He throws the ball out there and says, pass it around, and do what you want you do. He gets off on it, which in turn makes his actors love him. He's fun. Well, he's probably a nightmare in post-production, or maybe at home. But he seems like he must be loads of fun on the set. Jarmusch seems to love working with actors who have a certain angle and who can take their characters someplace. He's constantly waiting; he's seeing who's going to surprise him. Surprising him is the actors' job. They get to do something he doesn't expect. That's an exciting space for him -- and then he gets to edit.

I get a lot of inspiration from those moments. He's capturing unusual sides of actors, or aspects of people who don't normally act. Other directors wouldn't give these people the time of day, but Jarmusch is willing to get out there and grab it. He might be the biggest asshole in the world, but as a filmmaker he seems to open the door to collaboration. He seems like he's studying things, studying little moments. Like he's thinking, Hmm, maybe I can tie this into my movies ...

There are maybe ten or 11 vignettes in all. It's structured like a V, with a vignette that stars Cate Blanchett in two roles at the middle of it. And there's some dialog that matches up, beginning to end. That gives the film some sense of structure too.

Cate Blanchett was outstanding. She has a lot of range. In the vignette, she was having coffee with her cousin, played by her too. So it's like "Bewitched"; it's like Sabrina visiting her cousin Samantha the witch.

Cate's cousin is a rocker girl with no money and Converse hightops, and Cate's also playing herself, a movie star. They have chitchat talk trying to catch up. Cate the star is trying to be modest, but you also see that she doesn't care if the cousin's there or not. I read somewhere that Cate had to wear a little earpiece and sit with an extra so she could seem to be acting with herself. Apparently it took two days to make this vignette. It's the one vignette that took more than a day to film. Cate was fantastic as both women, by the way. As the rocker cousin, she was completely in Australian grunge-grrl mode, perfect.

The funniest of the vignettes involves Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina. I saw the film twice and both times the audience was roaring. Molina's a sweet guy who's just trying to have a conversation with Coogan, who's being a British asshole. I've been around a lot of British people -- my boyfriend's British -- when they run into each other. At first they sigh in relief to be with each other; then they start taking the piss out of each other. But at first they're relieved.

In the vignette, Molina's a nice guy who's obsessed with genealogy and thinks the two of them might be related. And Coogan has no time for him at all until Molina gets on the phone and it turns out he's got Hollywood connections. The audience loved the vignette, and believe me it also rang true about Brits.

Jarmusch's movies appeal to me visually and conceptually. Conceptually he seems interested in time. He's interested in how a moment can change your whole life, and suddenly you're on a whole different journey that's a little more grand.

He's developed as a filmmaker. The things he's doing now aren't what he was doing at first. He has matured in his filmmaking. He's moved towards the emotional a lot. Early films like "Night on Earth" and "Strangers in Paradise" weren't emotional. He's just doing that short-story, short-time-frame thing of his. But more recent movies like "Ghost Dog" and "Dead Man" were both beautiful and emotional. Of course, a lot of people don't like "Ghost Dog." But I loved "Ghost Dog." It was so weird. It wasn't deadpan, it was very serious.

Visually, he uses a lot of classic film noir shots. He does them well, and he makes you feel comfortable about it. That combination of conceptual plus film noir is pure, cool downtown New York. That's one thing he's never changed, just like he's never changed his haircut in 25 years.

As far as cinematography goes, I'll always be interested in cinematography. Scorsese, for instance, works with people who get in there and move the camera around to make you feel the moment. He's not too jazzy, but there's lots of camera tricks happening.

Jarmusch interests me in a more classic way. The way he frames everything and the way he shoots his films -- he's borrowing the classic look. When you look at his shots, you might see "Double Indemnity." He must have loved some of the great kinds of cinematography that a lot of us love, and he's bringing that in. He's not original, but he doesn't need to be. He's making it visually pleasing; he's artfully framing everything.

I'm not into storytelling, which makes me and Jarmusch a good match. He's into short stories that he brings together and crisscrosses over each other. He's very ingenious in the way he does that. Me, I love games and I love visuals. When everyone was into the dialog and the plot of "Fargo," for instance, I couldn't stop looking at the set design. My focus was on the cool clock on the wall behind the characters. I couldn't help it.

I love Jarmusch's droll running gags too. If there's any spin on the story, or if a joke needs to come across, or a silence needs to happen, he'll make sure the actors do that. I think he probably watches a lot of old silent films and studies the way they use space and body language and facial expressions.

I've seen all his movies, and I've liked all his movies. He can bore people when he just lets the camera roll. And there are parts in "Strangers in Paradise," for instance, when I was bored. There's a lot of empty space. Or he'll just focus on a hand picking up a cigarette. That can come across as boring to some people.

But, still, it's nothing like the boring films visual artists make. I could kill myself watching some of those. The sculptor Richard Serra has made some, and Dan Graham. They're interesting films, and you learn from watching them. But you also feel like you're going to die from watching them. These Serra and Graham films are visual studies. Richard Serra stood in the middle of a bridge turning 360 degrees. That was the film. Dan Graham held a camera between 2 people and formed a figure 8, over and over again. I mean, they are good film studies. They are minimalist beauties. But they are also long, boring and in real time. And art followers go mad over these films, like they are the second coming of Christ.

Jarmusch, though, is like the ultimate cool art school teacher. He's someone I've looked up to; he's a role model. I'd never go out with him. I might want to, but he also has that older-brother quality, and I wouldn't be able to get past that. But he is cute. Well, not cute, but strangely good-looking -- the downtown guy in black who lives on Canal Street and has always been grungy. I love that.

When I moved to New York from L.A., I saw him on the street several times. I was never impressed when I saw stars in Hollywood. But when I saw Jim Jarmusch on the street I went gaga. I nearly bumped into him one month after moving here, and I had huge, huge stars in my eyes. I'm someone who doesn't care about Hollywood crap. As an L.A. girl, I was basically holed up in my downtown loft thinking, "There's someplace so much cooler than L.A., and I've gotta find it." I've wanted to move to NYC since I was eight years old. And Jim Jarmusch embodied it what was cool about New York.

The first time I saw "Coffee and Cigarettes," the audience was full, and the second time it was pretty full. Both audiences enjoyed it. I was with a friend one time who never likes movies, but even he had a good time. Come to think of it, I haven't met anyone who didn't like the movie. There are moments when you're like, Dammit, nothing's happening -- yet you still love it.

I love re-seeing his movies. For me, seeing Jarmusch movies over and over is like playing your favorite Who album or Johnny Cash album over and over. It becomes something you love to be around. In the case of this one, you can't wait for Bill Murray to come on, for example. You know the line he's going to say, and you don't care, and it's great.

Jarmusch makes me want to continue as an artist. He makes me appreciate going your own way, and following your vision.

Many thanks to Turbokitty.

Hey, I notice that George Hunka enjoyed the movie too, here.



posted by Michael at June 17, 2004


Hypercatknip to the Turbokitty on her "Coffee & Cigarettes" review. It was a great movie to mull over in small bits; no major cataclysmic events but bon mots swirl around in my head 3 weeks after seeing the movie. It also served as an introduction to Jarmusch for my son. I've been prosletizing Mr. J. for a while and he finally succombed, when he read that GZA and RZA of "Wu Tang Clan" were in the movie. After thoroughly enjoying "Coffee & Cigarettes", we rented "Ghost Dog"; GZA & RZA had small bits in the movie as well as doing the soundtrack. I believe he's now hooked. Soon, I'll be playing a much worn out VHS of "Night on Earth" for favorite, well..maybe next to "Midnight Train".

Posted by: darkoV on June 18, 2004 8:12 AM

Can I also recommend the excellent DVD of Down by Law that Criterion released last year? Featuring a cameo from the wonderful Ellen Barkin, a soundtrack by Waits, and the introduction of Roberto Benigni to American audiences.

Posted by: George Hunka on June 18, 2004 1:56 PM

God, all his movies are good, aren't they?

Posted by: TurboKitty on June 19, 2004 11:38 AM

Except for Dead Man, which I found unwatchable.

Posted by: George Hunka on June 21, 2004 11:05 AM

Love and Hate Jim. Loved and hated Dead Man. Heck, I hate and love Neil Young's score for it so much I bought (mainly though to here Depp's take on William Blake's poetry). I liked C and C. Thought there were some dated scenes in it, but some amazing scenes as well.

I had a question concerning the last scene with the aging actors. I checked IMDB and they seemed to be rather bit actors, but I know I've seen them before in other things. Does anyone know some more details about them?

Posted by: KHH on June 23, 2004 5:34 PM

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