It's a drag that "cool" has become such a useless word. Ever since advertisers appropriated the marker in the late 1960s, as the very cool social critic Thomas Frank has observed, it's been increasingly tough to stick it to the Man or at least look like you're doing some damage. The Man, after all, now just instantly absorbs gestures of cool — the intimations of rebellion, the outlaw poses and beguiling discontent — re-wraps and sells them in a multitude of colors and sizes. The road once traveled by Jack Kerouac now leads straight to the mall.
All is not lost. In the compilation film "Coffee and Cigarettes," the latest in cinematic cool from Jim Jarmusch, men and women smoke cigarettes and drink coffee that's generally black as tar. Sometimes music drifts off a jukebox; sometimes a waiter hovers close by and a hint of trouble stirs the hazy air. In the contest of cool, these caffeine-and-nicotine fiends win without breaking a sweat. Yeah, cigarettes are no longer supposed to be cool — tell that to the smoking likes of Johnny Depp. Not since Victorian women had to sneak their smokes have cigarettes been so freighted with rebel potential. Despite the best efforts of the health police — any 13-year-old knows tobacco kills — more than a few know the pleasure that comes with saying no to "just say no." As for Jarmusch's other drug of choice, well, there's not a Starbucks cup in sight. Commissioned by "Saturday Night Live" to make a short film, the writer-director shot "Strange to Meet You" (with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright) in the mid-1980s. Over the next two decades, he shot 10 more short films, tapping an offbeat array of actors and musicians to joke, jitter and riff through routines chiefly organized around coffee, cigarettes and conversation. When Jarmusch started the project, Starbucks was still a small Seattle operation. Although he shot the final short films just two years ago, the now-familiar white and green cup remains nowhere to be seen. Like Jarmusch's decision to shoot entirely in beautiful black-and-white celluloid, the absence of Starbucks functions nicely as a declaration of the filmmaker's independence.
For a movie fueled on metabolism enhancers, "Coffee and Cigarettes" starts off slowly. The first short film, "Strange to Meet You," finds the pre-"Life Is Beautiful" Benigni a-twitch, sitting at a café table littered with ash, clutter and five half-drunk cups of coffee. Within seconds he's joined by Wright, a character actor with a sad-sack face and world-weary voice that sounds stoned on irony. Against the anonymous backdrop of a cracked and peeling wall, the two actors launch an absurdist-inflected duet that's part Abbott and Costello, part Samuel Beckett — quintessential early Jarmusch. "Do you smoke?" asks Wright. "Only when I drink coffee," replies Benigni, pausing dramatically between the last two words and, purposely or not, echoing the campy suspense of Dracula's declaration that he doesn't drink ... wine.
"Strange to Meet You" is gently amusing, but it plays too much like a private joke to be satisfying. There's something off-putting about its vagueness; it's as if Jarmusch were too cool to explain his intentions — or just not interested. The film isn't "about" anything per se beyond Tom DiCillo's cinematography and the low-key entertainment that comes from watching two animated mugs nimbly work each other's nerves. Things actually worsen with "Twins," a dead-end routine with Cinqué Lee, Joie Lee and Steve Buscemi that Jarmusch shot in 1989 when he was shooting his feature "Mystery Train." Happily, because the short films run an average of nine minutes, there isn't time to get bored and, by the time you're ready to bolt, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits have arrived to kick the movie into gear.
Called "Somewhere in California," the Pop and Waits 1992 pairing works so well that it would be wrong to tell you what happens. Let's just say it's nicely daft and involves the disorienting vision of Iggy Pop playing a sweetheart of a guy anxious to break through Waits' indifference. Most of the remaining films, all shot in 2003, are as good. "Cousins" finds Cate Blanchett expertly essaying two comically antagonistic roles, and the well-named "Delirium" brings Bill Murray together with two of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA and GZA. This combination of such radically different performers shows the filmmaker at his finest. Known for an elegant visual style, Jarmusch has a great gift for playing actors against one another, for finding complementary eccentrics (Murray and RZA) and uncovering rare gems (Bill Rice and Taylor Mead in "Champagne").
The penultimate short film, "Champagne," features two demimonde gents doing what they do best — performing. Downtown New York fixtures both, Mead worked with Andy Warhol and Rice collaborated with no-budget filmmakers who, like Jarmusch, lived in the East Village during the late 1970s. Jarmusch eulogizes his old neighborhood with Rice and Mead's help, conveying what it represented. The East Village of the 1970s was a lot like the peeling wall in the first film. It wasn't pretty by any means, but it had the secret ingredient of cool — soul. You can't buy soul at the mall. That may explain why Jarmusch, one of the few authentically independent filmmakers in American cinema, makes so few movies now. And why even a modestly pleasurable gift like "Coffee and Cigarettes" has cool and soul to spare.
'Coffee and Cigarettes'
MPAA rating: R for language
Times guidelines: Cigarette smoking, extreme coffee consumption
A Smokescreen presentation, in association with Asmik Ace and Bim Distribuzione, released by United Artists. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch. Producers Joana Vicente, Jason Kliot. Cinematographers Frederick Elmes, Ellen Kuras, Robby Müller, Tom DiCillo. Editors Jay Rabinowitz, Melody London, Terry Katz, Jim Jarmusch. Production designers Mark Friedberg, Tom Jarmusch, Dan Bishop. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500, and Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times