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Murray heads star-studded cast in classy indie film

Chris Kepner | Monday, November 22, 2004

“Coffee and Cigarettes” began back in 1987 as a six-minute short vignette written and directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni. It’s simply a couple of guys enjoying a conversation over the ever-popular and aforementioned vehicles for caffeine and nicotine. Pleased with the result of his effort, Jarmusch filmed 10 more such vignettes over the next 17 years, compiling them into the feature-length gem that is now available on DVD from MGM Home Entertainment.”Coffee and Cigarettes” is a lot like a musical work in eleven movements. While each vignette can exist quite happily on its own, the opus in its entirety is truly special. Jarmusch conducts, setting eleven different scenes for his eleven different groups of musicians, but allowing them to improvise cleverly and tastefully over his form. Motifs introduced in the earlier vignettes find their way into later ones in such a way that it becomes obvious that the actors in the more recently filmed vignettes have watched the early ones. These actors are a part of the audience until their turn to take the stage, at which point they enrich the motifs by reintroducing them in different contexts. This draws you into the film so effectively that you’ll lose sight of the fact that you’re an outsider, an aspect beautifully enhanced by the overhead shots of the tabletops that are woven into each scene. There are even several shots where the characters glance down at the table from time to time to maintain the casualness of a conversation.If this sounds all too techie-go-film-nerdy to you, maybe you’ll be interested in the five-star quality ensemble cast, with names like Bill Murray, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Cate Blanchett, Alfred Molina and GZA and RZA of Wu-Tang Clan. In fact, the mental image alone of Murray improvising a scene with GZA and RZA should be incentive enough to see this film.Jarmusch does a spectacular job of mixing moments of poignant reflection into a film built on a foundation of humor. Before you realize it, you’ll find yourself contemplating things like wealth, success, status, and the ideas of Nikola Tesla. Nay, some of these themes are so subtle at times that you might not even be conscious of their presence, but they’ll have their affect on you all the same.On the DVD, you’ll find hilarious outtakes of Murray’s improvisation from his scene with GZA and RZA, as well as a feature on the tabletop shots and an interview with Taylor Mead, but it’s not exactly the two-disc, feature-loaded release that you see so often these days. It lacks even a commentary track or an interview from Jarmusch, but maybe his motivations are better left unsaid. Maybe viewers should take what they will from the film without having “the point” spoon-fed to them in such a way that completely undermines the personal introspection that should take place whenever a film is watched.Since it’s an independent film, many will have no trouble passing over “Coffee and Cigarettes.” They would be making a terrible mistake.