Jim Jarmusch: Blowing in the wind

His new film celebrates his love of cigarettes, but Jarmusch is still happy in smoke-free New York
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The Independent Culture

I think the film director Jim Jarmusch is the only person I've ever interviewed, man or woman, whom I don't just admire, but would actively like to be. He seems to have a pretty sweet gig going. His life is probably not overly endowed with riches, nor necessarily a bed or roses - artists must struggle, after all - but it's still damn enviable in other respects.

I think the film director Jim Jarmusch is the only person I've ever interviewed, man or woman, whom I don't just admire, but would actively like to be. He seems to have a pretty sweet gig going. His life is probably not overly endowed with riches, nor necessarily a bed or roses - artists must struggle, after all - but it's still damn enviable in other respects.

For starters, if you were Jim Jarmusch, you'd get to live in New York City, wear a lot of black clothes, and be revered as an indie-movie maverick hero who's never sold out, even after taking a few Hollywood dollars to make films like Night on Earth or Dead Man. Hell, just having been the guy who directed the masterfully laconic and deeply influential Stranger Than Paradise would be good enough for me.

Plus, you'd get to be a smart, funny, so-laid-back-he's-almost-prone sort of guy, with a groovy bouffant of prematurely grey hair. And the final topper is you'd have just about the coolest friends on the planet, judging by the talent working for scale or just doughnuts on his latest, Coffee and Cigarettes.

An endearingly patchy assemblage of 11 black-and-white shorts, some comic, some wistful, some just weird, in which pairs or threesomes of people share coffee and cigarette breaks, the film's line-up includes Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan and musicians Iggy Pop, Tom Waits. Some have collaborated with Jarmusch before, like Waits ( Down By Law) and Buscemi ( Mystery Train). Others, like Murray, have long been friends.

"I knew almost everyone already," Jarmusch explains to me in a Venetian hotel garden, just after the film has premiered. "Cate Blanchett I only met once a year or two ago and we had tea in New York. Because I like her chameleon-like quality as an actor, I wanted to meet her. And then I called her and asked if she wanted to do this and she did. Everyone else I knew except Steve Coogan, who I'm a big fan of. I called him up and somehow tricked him into doing it as well."

I ask Jarmusch about the long gestation of the project, which began in 1986 with a short featuring a jittery Roberto Benigni sharing a cup of Joe in a café withSteven Wright. After that, he made a few more, including the one with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits riffing on their own personas, and the first three dribbled out as shorts, until Jarmusch decided to start holding on to them with an eye to making up a feature in pieces.

In the end, themes, motifs and even lines echo across seemingly unrelated segments, creating a skew-whiff coherence. But his plans to shoot one a year went awry, and several were made in 2002 and 2003. "Now I want to make some more, and in another 12 years I'll have another instalment ready," he says deadpan, perhaps joking or entirely serious.

I ask if the rivalry theme, hilariously executed in the Steve Coogan-Alfred Molina segment, evolved as part of the work. "I think it's just a theme of human nature that you have little resentments running through, you have... you know, little rivalries," he says a bit haltingly. "I'm not sure where ideas come from because I'm not an analytical person. I'm not good at answering questions about where this comes from or why I did that. If I knew I probably wouldn't have done it, so I probably just do them intuitively. But all my work is intuitive to a large degree."

Maybe this is why there's such a strong sense of coherence running through his oeuvre; and, while the self- financed Coffee and Cigarettes is in some ways Jarmusch Lite, a sampler of sorts, it shares not only cast and crew with his other films but resonates richly with them. PhD theses could be written on the significance of smoking in Jarmusch movies. It goes back as far as his first feature Permanent Vacation, in which the lead characters re-enact the scene in Rebel Without a Cause when Natalie Wood replaces a cigarette in James Dean's mouth the right way round. Think also of the Japanese tourists played by Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh in Mystery Train, doing Zippo tricks and chuffing away constantly.

Jarmusch is passionate on the subject of tobacco and lights up in every sense when the subject of the bar-ban on smoking in New York is raised. "It's a powerful drug, nicotine, as is caffeine, as is alcohol, and these are drugs that are treated in different ways, in different cultures," he says. "Like, tobacco is a sacred drug in Native American culture. How many people die from doing stupid things from drinking alcohol? But does that mean it should be outlawed?

"I don't think any drugs should be outlawed, they should be decriminalised. The reason crime is involved in drugs is because drugs are illegal so people can't get them, they become junkies, they start robbing people. Anything you use for yourself, I don't understand why there should be laws saying you can or cannot do that. It's absurd to me. Are drugs sometimes very bad for people? Yeah, certainly. They sometimes kill people, but then so does driving cars, or emissions from cars or factories. The whole world is toxic..."

Is directing a kind of drug too, given that it is addictive, expensive and can be hazardous to one's health. "Well it can be, as can money or sex. But again, I'm not judgemental. It's not good or bad, it's just there," he says and surprisingly links this thought to the movie. "I like the idea of coffee breaks, like this little situation of people having coffee, and smoking together, as something outside of the daily routine. And it's a drug! They get to use drugs, and take a break to get some stimulation from a drug. I like that as a device for a little conversation."

Jarmusch has more of a miniaturist's or a lyric poet's sensibility than that of a feature film-maker in some ways. His films are often accused of lacking plot, when what's really going on is an attempt to grasp a certain mood, to fix a point in time that feels imbued with ineffable feeling. It's this which makes his work, for all the Americana on display, seem more European or Asian, and not just because he often features non-American characters. Those long takes where people do nothing much in particular, the silences, the languor, may all seem random, but they're the product of a quite formalist imagination, despite Jarmusch's insistence that he's an intuitive film-maker.

I ask if his attraction to short films and long scenes springs from a desire to push the boundaries of cinema. "Yeah, I think of cinema as more like poetry, in that literary forms are so wide as a variety," he says. "You could write a novel or you could write a poem that's two lines long. But cinema is restricted commercially. The film must be under two hours because we can then get six screenings in a day instead of five, and we make more money. And I'm like, 'Shouldn't the film be as long as it wants to be?' So I like to have the idea that the film is free and the form is a little more free than that. I love form and I love structure, but I want the content to fit, the form to support the content and not the other way round."

In Coffee and Cigarettes, two characters discuss Paris in the 1920s, the golden age of modernism. Which era would Jarmusch choose to live in if he could go back? "New York in the late Seventies," he says, perhaps remembering a time when he studied literature at Columbia went to film school and was in a band.

"That's when I first lived in New York and it was so amazing. Anything seemed possible. The city was really dangerous, there was an economic crisis. There was the blackout, the Summer of Sam, the beginning of punk rock, the beginning of hip hop, the beginning of a new generation of underground film-makers and artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat... It was also disco, and excess, and that whole scene. Yeah, it was a lot of wow, a lot of weird things compared to today."

And how does it feel now about the city, especially after September 11? "Well, I've always loved New York because I thought of it as being not part of America, like a separate country. I used to love the graffiti in the Lower East Side that said 'US Out of New York!' September 11 was a huge traumatic experience for us, certainly for New York. It was very traumatic. And certainly I think the current American government probably hate New York. It probably represents everything they hate. It's a bunch of Puerto Rican, junkie, crack-head transvestites. They probably feel fine if it gets blown up.

"NY is always changing. It's not in a very interesting state right now, but it's still full of crazy, wonderful people. It's still NY, but it's more and more for the rich, and about real estate and controlling everyone and you can't smoke. It's like Eddie Izzard said, 'What will be next in bars? No talking, no drinking?'"

How does he feel when other people's films get described as "Jarmuschian". "It seems really strange to me," he says, almost shaking his head in horror. "I try not to be aware of my influence. I don't like historicising things. I've been horrified by them historicising the 'punk rock period', looking back, that kind of stuff, and it freaks me out because I just see it as all just one big ocean with new waves coming. Waves break off another way and they're exactly the same thing. I don't like it when they number the waves, like that's wave number 237. 'No, it's not, it's just part of the ocean, shut up,' I want to say."

It's time for one last question, and while the one I'd most like to ask is, "Can I have your life please?", instead I ask does he always wear black, as he is doing today. "No, not always, no!" he declaims. "I wore blue yesterday. I wear blue, black, even grey! It's a thing I have that started as a teenager, when my fashion role models were Hamlet, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Zorro. And that really disturbed my mother, too. When I was 15 or 16 she was like [slightly nasal voice] 'Why are you always wearing black? It's so morbid and funereal!' And I was like, 'Try and say that to Johnny Cash, Mom!'"

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