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Riding Giants
Coffee and Cigarettes
(2 films)
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Aired 8/3/04 and 8/11/04

Coffee and Cigarettes is Jim Jarmusch's latest film. It features a star-studded cast, it's filmed in black and white, and it is a series of separately titled vignettes shot, apparently, from 1986 to 2003, and organized, for the most part, around the ritual of sitting in a café or diner, drinking coffee and-here's the anachronism-smoking cigarettes. Maybe that's why he did it-just before even New York went clean air--these are indoor spaces, and mostly, I think anyway, New York spaces, and mostly everyone is smoking, until we get to the very end, where tea and good health become the surprising property of the Woo Tang Clan. So this is not only an experiment in watching some well-known folks improvise, but also a kind of tribute or memorial to a bygone practice in much of the cosmopolitan United States.

The vignettes are arranged as groups of two or three people having what ends up being quite  strange conversation as they drink coffee and smoke. By the end of the film and the last vignette we hear, like a sestina, certain refrains and phrases from the other vignettes repeat themselves, so that the film turns back upon itself to complete the poem. Made over 17 years and in between other projects, this is Jarmusch's first film since Ghost Dog and it is profoundly different. Where Ghost Dog was all about the present and the future of film and music, in spite of its nostalgia for warrior times and its ambivalently luddite ideology, this movie harks back to a time when black and white brought out the wispy moody aura of smoke-filled rooms.

The cast, of course, is the thing in this film: Roberto Benigni; Bill Murray; the Lee sibs-- Joie and Cinqué--minus Spike, who's mentioned later on; Steve Buscemi; Cate Blanchett, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan and, as I mentioned, the Woo Tang Clan (RZA and GZA), among others. Sometimes the conversations work: the awkward and missed encounter between Iggy Pop and Tom Waits is hilarious. There's also the startling opening vignette where Steven Wright absurdly persuades Begnini to go to the dentist in his stead. Then there's an astonishing centerpiece where Cate Blanchette the movie star meets her less well-off female relative in a posh hotel tea lounge. Some of the scenes are very funny: I loved the banter between Vinny Vella and Joe Rigano, where smoking becomes an object of contention, as it does as well in one of the earlier scenes. Sometimes the scenes reach for the sublime heights of absurdist dialogue, sounding a bit like passages from a Beckett play. Isaach de Bankolé and Alex Descas have a conversation that ends badly because of a misunderstanding that occurs in the course of the conversation, but we never quite know what it is.

Other vignettes work less well. I found the scene with Joie and Cinqué (as twins) and Steve Buscemi as their waiter tiresome-it was Buscemi at his irritating worst. The scene with Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, where a seemingly unsuccessful actor tries to court a very famous one and, in the manner of satiric literature, finally turns the tables on him, is very long and treats us to some excruciating humiliation. Toward the end of the movie, RZA and GZA find themselves waited on by none other than Bill Murray and step out of the diagesis to quiz him about his role as a waiter in a coffee shop. We get the gimmick, and Murray is a consummate comic actor, but even then the scene begins to get tiresome. It's as though some of the vignettes are there to try out a joke or a pun or a clever word play or trick of filmic representation, and one can appreciate each trick. But it doesn't always make for absorbing viewing.

I was very moved by a scene at the end that seems to comment on the beauty of the film's repetitions and its haunting echoes as it exploits a notion attributed to the physicist Nikola Tesla (of the Tesla coil, which is featured in one of the vignettes), the transmission of "acoustical resonances." In this scene, an old man conjures up and listens to a beautiful symphony that seems to emanate from within his head but that his dear friend-a similarly impoverished old man-hears too (another joke about diagetic and extra-diagetic filmic effects). They are drinking bad coffee, but one of them decides it ought to be a glass of champagne. This moving commentary on the fantasy of film and life in the face of rather bleak conditions strikes the serious chord in the film and helps us see the tenderness and the pathos of the director's relationship to his medium. It doesn't matter that we might not like all the scenes and that some of the movie is actually boring.  By the end we appreciate the way Jarmusch shows us what film does-the tricks it plays and the beautiful fantasies it conveys-and how we react to it, then reminds us, but gently, of the acoustically resonant gap between that fantasy and our lives. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Stacy Peralta's Riding Giants is a movie I probably don't need to say much about. Those of you who are already fans of surfing or actively interested in local culture will go; others won't, since, after all, what's a movie that features a bunch of big waves? There's been a slew of recent films about surfing in a kind of revival of surfing's post-Gidget heyday, only with dignity this time.

Blue Crush was great-finally we had a story about women and girls who surfed. But the story-a romance and a personal best tale-was a little lame, the main actress was not a surfer (and it showed), and they morphed the waves into these impossible monsters. Ok, so that had its flaws for the folks who wanted real surfing. Then came Step Into Liquid, which was touted as being a gender corrective to Endless Summer while also taking very seriously the "sport" that is not really a sport but more of a lifestyle or, as Riding Giants would have it, a philosophy. Step Into Liquid had real surfing (it boasted an absence of special effects, though I think there was added sound), but it lackedŠI don't know, something. Pretty much no women, moments of bothersome sexism, and none of the cast really gripped my attention. Ok, now this one, a movie about big wave surfing.

Peralta did the documentary about skateboarding (Dogtown and Z Boys) and, as with that movie, his attunement to his characters-or subjects, as I guess we'd have to call them, since this is a documentary-is expert.  He finds really quirky interesting people and hones in on the philosophical dimensions of the activity while also providing a lot of information for the non-surfing audience. In this one, the focus is on what waves are, how differently they behave, and what a surfer needs to know and learn to deal with them. And it goes back to the beginnings of surfing and forward to the big wave tow-in generation, makes the connections between surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding, keeps its focus both modest and pretty narrow and avoids making grandiose claims. It's shot to look old-fashioned, with scratches on parts of the film and wobbly titles reeling across the screen. It also therefore tells a bit of the story of surfing's history in film and on television.  So there's a lot for those whose primary interest may be in the non-participant aspects of surfing.

I learned a lot from watching this, even though I will also admit that there are sections that seemed too long to me, shots of surfers on waves that didn't give me the thrills I was looking for from the other glossily produced surfing films, videos and photographs. I kind of admire the way Riding Giants withholds that pleasure, in part, I assume, to make the point that whatever else it is, big wave riding is dangerous and terrifying rather than glamorous, and that it tests the mettle of a person to its fullest extent.

I was impressed most of all by two aspects of the film. First, the characters: Jeff Clark who surfed Mavericks alone for fifteen years before the great Hawaiian surfers discovered that it could compete with their waves; Santa Cruz local doctor Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to surf Mavericks, and the amazing, and amazingly modest, Laird Hamilton, big wave surfing's most skilled and renowned practitioner. Each of them has really smart and thoughtful things to say about their art. Second, they reminded me of nothing so much as Zen monks, with their contemplative, paradoxical, profoundly peaceful and serene-not to mention humble-attitudes toward the waves, the ocean, their own capabilities and limits, and life itself. It made me wonder about all that purported nastiness folks talk about here in Santa Cruz among the local surfers. Not here. I began to understand that, for the serious ones, it's not only or even primarily the thrill of engaging in an extreme sport-and one guy describes surfing as skiing down a mountain where the mountain is chasing you as you go-but a way of finding the self, of looking as hard and deep as one can into one's soul and seeing what is there. It is a difficult and patient practice.

I did have a few reservations about what I think is probably one of the very best surfing movies ever made. It begins by explaining that surfing was an indigenous Hawaiian activity and then tells tell the story of its adoption by US subcultures. I wanted to know: where does surfing live now in the hearts and minds of those who began it? On a completely different note, the movie also left me wanting to hear what a surfer hears when he or she is on the wave. Is it quiet or is it really really loud? So, for example, when they started introducing the jet ski as a vital component of mega-big wave surfing, did the sound of the motor interfere at all with the experience?  I couldn't tell, with all the music and the amplified wave-crashing sounds.

All in all, this is a movie that even non-surfers can love. And Santa Cruzers should definitely see it. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.