Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil: Coffee and Cigarettes
Coffee and Cigarettes is a film that is better to have watched than watch, both irritating and enthralling, an impatience I’ve experienced with other Jim Jarmusch projects. It particularly suits this collection of vignettes. though, because it’s a feeling shared by nearly all of the characters. Wanting nothing more than to contemplate the pleasurable minor vices of the title, they are forced instead to interact with other people, to navigate through shared antipathy and neediness.
There’s something painfully nostalgic about these spaces, pre-smoking ban cafes and diners and bars. They offer at their best a luxurious anonymity, somewhere to pause for the price of bottomless coffee with only a pack of cigarettes, a book, or one’s thoughts for company. These places were going extinct when I fell in love with them, uniquely uncool places with an accumulation of calcified locals. It felt like trespassing in another decade, one with real adults, and being tolerated rather than welcomed, a surprisingly fruitful atmosphere for in-depth navel gazing. The drink-up-and-get-out anonymity offered by the chains that replaced these joints (along with their significantly better coffee) just isn’t the same.
Meeting for coffee is defined as undefined, lacking the commitment of a meal or even a drink. Someone’s late, someone’s waiting, someone has someplace better to be, someone really doesn’t. It’s the dentist’s waiting room of sociability, one eye always on the door and wishing the liminal uncomfortableness will mercifully end, wishing for enough time to somehow make it end well. Chess patterns lurk in every vignette, reflecting the patrons’ inability to simply converse or share the quiet, perpetually competing for the upper hand, to be interesting or admired or just the first person to leave the table. Offenses are passed back and forth like sugar jars, but no one has the gumption to fight, cringing at the formica instead. No one comes off well (I found myself really disliking Tom Waits, in fact, who I otherwise admire very much), but they are all too familiar, mapping onto personal memories and tingeing them tragicomic.
It’s a film of fleeting pleasures (dipping into the light nonsense of a conversation shared en masse by everyone with a cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other) and punishing self-awareness amid the impossibility of truly meeting anyone else, blindly focused on how we’re coming across ourselves. We’ve met, we’ve conversed, going through the steps of the dance without ever getting to our feet. Are we friends? Why don’t I enjoy your company, when I want to, when I’ve made the effort to see you? Why can’t we share something as meaninglessly solacing as coffee and cigarettes?
Strange to Meet You: Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni