catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 3 :: 2005.02.11 — 2005.02.24


A cup half empty

Edward Hopper?s painting Nighthawks

is the pantokrator in the iconology of twentieth-century urban American culture, just as American Gothic is of rural culture. The painting has suffered, as all icons do, from over-exposure. Even worse for a work of art, it has been translated into kitsch. There are probably people who think that the version with Elvis, Marilyn, Bogart and Jimmy Dean, and a strip of actual neon light running along the top—the version hanging in their rec room—is the original rendition of the work. They might be shocked to find that the original painting actually features a couple of nameless, ordinary people.

I had seen many copies of the painting before I saw the original in the Art Institute of Chicago, but I was still impressed by the powerful emotion the image evokes. The tension between the dark, sterile streets and the warm glow in the diner seems to cut straight to the core of our feelings about darkness and light. It is absolutely clear why these four people remain together, huddled over their cups of coffee in the middle of the night. They?re afraid of the dark, both within and without. Mark Strand describes this Nighthawks effect in his remarkable book Hopper:

The diner is an island of light distracting whoever might be walking by—in this case, ourselves—from journey?s end. This distraction might be construed as salvation. For a vanishing point is not just where converging lines meet, it is also where we cease to be, the end of each of our individual journeys.

Hopper made use of coffeeshops and restaurants in other paintings like Automat and Chop Suey to capture portraits of alienation with a starkness equal to that of any Harold Pinter play. The social function of the coffeeshop makes it an effective setting in which to highlight the weaknesses in human relationships, a device that was also put to good satirical use in Seinfeld. It seems at times that it is these layers of meaning that director Jim Jarmusch, himself something of an icon in independent cinema, is reaching for in Coffee and Cigarettes.

The film is a series of short scenes about drinking coffee and smoking, featuring a great cast who mostly play themselves, or variations on themselves. All the familiar iconic coffeeshop elements are here: the stainless steel napkin holders, the glass salt and pepper shakers, the sugar dispensers, the white coffee cups, the counter-people in funny hats (one of whom is played by Bill Murray playing Bill Murray inexplicably working as a highly-caffeinated counterman), and characters with no place else they need to be.

The biggest problem is that Jarmusch fails to establish a metaphorical layer for the film early on. Too many of the early scenes are painfully literal as characters tell one another that smoking is bad for you and coffee and cigarettes are not a healthy meal. The worst of the scenes feel scripted and forced. A half-hearted attempt at ?depth? is made by referencing electrical engineer Nikola Tesla?s idea of the earth as a ?conductor of acoustical resonance.? A Tesla coil turns up in one of the scenes and creates more energy in a few seconds than is in the entire first half of the film before it shorts out. The film itself picks up some speed in the second half fortunately.

One of the best scenes is a delightfully satirical take on the Hollywood ?lunch? featuring a needy Alfred Molina as Steve Coogan?s long-lost and never-missed distant cousin. Another strong scene features Cate Blanchett playing both a conventional version of herself and a jealous rocker-chick relative. There is a fun quality here of stars satirizing themselves on their day off, while at the same time conveying the sense that building genuine relationships is difficult for all of us.

The ?coffee and cigarettes? theme is perfectly suited to Jarmusch?s passion for black-and-white photography. He makes good use of ?tabletop? shots, allowing us to admire from above the contrast of black coffee in white cups, frequently against a checkerboard pattern. It is sheer style that holds this film together more than narrative, but I find that to be true of all of Jarmusch?s films. He is a master at creating atmosphere. I?m convinced he could make an audience watch Ren?e French smoke for the entire length of a feature film without losing their attention. We sympathize with the young waiter, played by E.J. Rodriguez, who compulsively returns to her table when it is clear she simply wants to flip through her gun catalogue in peace.

At the end of the last scene, one of the characters slips off to sleep. Maybe he?s taking a nap, maybe he?s died. It may be that this final moment is intended to give shape and substance to all the preceding scenes; to suggest, perhaps, that our lives are simply a series of in-betweens; spaces in between projects, relationships, generations, race, and the ways we attempt to fill the awkward pauses, uncomfortable silences, and inexpressible longings with habits—take a sip of coffee, a drag from your cigarette and try to think of what to say next. If that is the case, it fails to do so. Ultimately the film is less than the sum of its parts, entertaining and intriguing as some of them are.

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