Friday, October 27, 2000

October 27, 2000

Archived update from Cigarettes & Coffee, run by Greg Mariotti & CJ Wallis from 1999-2005

If you're addicted to tobacco or have a weakness for dingy diners, you'll be itching for a smoke in your favorite local eatery after watching Cigarettes and Coffee, a 30-minute short written and directed by Paul Anderson in 1993, before he took on the snazzy moniker P.T. Anderson. From the corner of my eye I spotted the label on the video's white, hard plastic case. It read: "Warning: Only available version of this ultra rare film. Picture quality may be affected." Hmmm ... my curiosity was piqued.
This was Anderson's, director of the much lauded hits Boogie Nights and Magnolia, first film. Set in a diner outside Las Vegas (a city with very lenient smoking regulations), it gives a quick glimpse into the lives of five people, a minuscule cast compared with his other films which are filled to the brim with many well-known actors. There are three narratives: two friends, one young and in trouble, the other older and supposedly wiser (Philip Baker Hall); a young couple on their dysfunctional honeymoon; and a shady hustler. On the surface, they all seem to be connected solely by their love of nicotine. However, as their secrets unfurl, their stories seem to softly glide together along the fringes. When one crumples a $20 note and throws it on the floor, another finds it and picks it up on her way out.
These types of cat-and-mouse coincidences, which tie seemingly disparate characters together through small, unassuming actions, are key structural points that Anderson builds upon and polishes in his later films. Like Quentin Tarantino, he possesses a knack for blending different life stories together onto one large canvas, but does so in a slightly more subtle way.
He expanded Cigarettes and Coffee into the 1996 feature Sydney, which was then dubbed Hard Eight. He used bigger stars then, like Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, but here he only musters up a relatively unknown cast with actors like Kirk Baltz and Scott Coffey. This initial effort seems to be an exploration of human nature and relationships, particularly in the face of friction. He presents a few, quick vignettes that leave the viewer with the knowledge that there is and will be more.
The short opens with close-ups of the ritualistic act of preparing and lighting a cigarette. Hall breaks the silence with precisely enunciated words – as if each syllable needs to be pronounced just so – to benefit the viewers so that we may absorb the full importance of the point. The point? Drink coffee and have a smoke when you need to get something serious off your chest.
Tobacco and caffeine are the Valium of this created world. Each drag soothes the nerves of both the distraught and mellow characters. Is it a commentary on commonplace addictions or an exercise in product placement? Even as the newlywed husband barrages his wife with caustic words because of her irresponsible gambling binge, when he pauses to smoke life seems a bit more bearable and his wife less stupid.
But cigarettes and caffeine aren't the core of his film; the dubious mysteries are slowly revealed. Of course, they come at the very end leaving you waiting for a sequel. However, this being Anderson's first film, you know that it does pan out. Following the short is Aimee Mann's haunting music video for "Save Me" from the Magnolia soundtrack and two short trailers for the movie. Though a bit strange to watch after a film, it was a nice release from the tension built up earlier.

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