Two Short Films on Coffee and Cigarettes from Jim Jarmusch & Paul Thomas Anderson

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 below. 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 Cof­feeHard 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Paul Thomas Ander­son Dropped Out of NYU Film School in 2 Days; Stud­ied Lit­er­a­ture with David Fos­ter Wal­lace

John Cleese Stars in a Mor­bid­ly Fun­ny Anti-Smok­ing Cam­paign (1992–1994)

An Anti, Anti-Smok­ing Announce­ment from John Waters

Bertrand Rus­sell: “I Owe My Life to Smok­ing”

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.

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