When American society relinquished cigarettes, American cinema lost one of its most dramatic visual devices. You still see smoking in the movies, but its meaning has changed. “A cigarette wasn’t always a statement,” wrote David Sedaris when he himself kicked the habit. “Back when I started, you could still smoke at work, even if you worked in a hospital where kids with no legs were hooked up to machines. If a character smoked on a TV show, it did not necessarily mean that he was weak or evil. It was like seeing someone who wore a striped tie or parted his hair on the left — a detail, but not a telling one.”
These two short films show American auteurs keeping the cinematic centrality of the cigarette alive well after its heyday had ended. At the top of the post, you can watch Jim Jarmusch’s 1986 short Coffee and Cigarettes, which stars Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni sitting down for and talking about those very same consumables. It began a long-term project that culminated in Jarmusch’s 2003 feature of the same name, which comprises eleven such coffee- and cigarette-centric short films (one of them featuring Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, another featuring Bill Mur) shot over those eighteen years.
While one might naturally have met a friend specifically to enjoy caffeine and nicotine in the mid-1980s, a decade later the situation had changed: only in America’s seedier corners could you even find a coffee-serving establishment to smoke in. Paul Thomas Anderson used this very setting to begin his career with Cigarettes and Coffee above. Eschewing film school, he gathered up his college fund, some gambling winnings, his girlfriend’s credit card, and various other bits and pieces of funding in order to commit this short story to film.
It worked: Cigarettes and Coffee scored Anderson an invitation to the Sundance Filmmakers Lab, a setting that allowed him to adapt the short into his feature debut Hard Eight. Like Cigarettes and Coffee, Hard Eight stars Philip Baker Hall, a favorite actor of Anderson’s that he went on to use in both Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Thematically, this tale of a group of low-living but in their own ways hard-striving characters all connected by a $20 bill presages the themes that, in his pictures of higher and higher profile, he continues to work with today.
And can it be an accident that Anderson has, in the main, set his films in past eras that not only accepted smoking, but expected it? Jarmusch, for his part, seems to prefer milieus at increasing distance from our everyday experience, amid urban samurai, assassins in foreign lands, immortal vampires in Detroit, that sort of thing. So if these filmmakers want to keep using smoking, they have ways. I just hope coffee doesn’t fall out of style. That would bring about a world that, as a filmgoer and a human being, I doubt I’d be prepared to live in.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture as well as the video series The City in Cinema and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.