A Film About Coffee: It’s title seemed to come more like a question than it did as a label for a new documentary. Maybe years spent in video rental stores and DVD libraries have somehow wired my lizard brain to instinctively assume the inquisitive tone whenever a film about ‘something’ comes up. Too many times I’ve had to look someone in the eye and recall a film that meets the wildly dissociated criteria they can dream up at the given moment: “give me a German film about, skaters maybe?” or even “can you think of an old British film about something, issues maybe. With a bit of grit?” or better still “have you got a Japanese comedy about food? Or better still a documentary about Japanese food?” Yeah sure, let me think about that, give me a minute and I’ll get you a few to pick from. But a film about coffee? That’s a much tougher question that you might first assume.
Because certainly there have been a couple of documentaries that are explicitly about the bean, the process, the roasting, the industry and the global market for the rejuvenating juice, Black Gold being a recent example that comes to mind. Better yet is the delightfully perky THIS IS COFFEE! a public information film put out by the Coffee Brewing Institute in 1961. In its scant twelve and a half minutes it manages to be all your Mad Men wish-fulfilment dreams rolled into one. Exoticism, imagined foreign travel, brewing instructions, and staged tableaux of coffee being drunk “on the breakfast table” “at the writers desk” “at the college meeting” “at the romantic meal”. Coffee is LIFE, coffee is everywhere! It truly makes you wonder how many boozy lunches the dry men of the Coffee Brewing Institute had to sit through before Don Draper sold them that pitch.
But how about films concerning coffee, than aren’t documentaries? Ask around and any hepcat worth their salt is bound to mention Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, so much so it’s practically a no-brainer. A good friend of mine hit the nail on the head when he noted that it’s essentially eleven short films that play like eleven awkward dates. Two people meet, they drink coffee, they have some stilted conversation, exchange a furtive glance or three, they maybe smoke a cigarette or two. The film’s a hit and miss oddity, a clever portmanteau of Jarmusch’s early short films glued together with some newer scenes, and it holds an undying attraction to music fans eager for theopportunity to see The White Stripes, or Iggy Pop and Tom Waits on screen. For myself the joy is seeing The RZA, The GZA and Bill “Groundhog Day, Ghostbustin Ass” Murray brought together in a mad moment of method acting. That and the fact that the three actually discuss coffee rather than just drink it.
But that’s it, that’s where the list stops short for most people I’ve managed to ask in the last couple of weeks. Whether it’s film nerds, or even challenging some of Bristol’s finest coffee experts, this line of inquiry has left me grasping for good films about, or at least intricately involved in the act of making, drinking and enjoying coffee. There are of course plenty of brilliant scenes built around drinking of coffee, sometimes the withholding of coffee, and more than few singing the praises of a “DAMN fine cup of coffee”. There’s some great comedy in the serving of coffee, some humour even in the noirish concoction of Steve Martin’s own java, but nothing which seems to distinguish itself beyond that.
The truth of the matter lies closer to my own crackpot theory about Swedish cinema, namely that there isn’t a single film (or TV series) set in the modern era which does not feature someone making or drinking coffee at some point in the whole affair. It’s a theory I’ve only had the casual chance to test in the Swedish films I’ve seen recently, but it’s holding up with an almost unnerving 100% consistency. Coffee is everywhere in Swedish film, just as it is an ever present part of Swedish life, and while neither a song or dance is made of the matter, it’s always just there.
And this truism obviously carries across borders, and my inability to find a good Film About Coffee hinges on the fact you don’t get good films about furniture, or breathing, or washing. Coffee is part of the firmament of everyday life, and until someone teases the subject out into something greater, the act of coffee itself is not likely step beyond it’s perennial bit-part status on screen any time soon. I’ll be curious to see what the actual documentary A Film About Coffee turns out to be like when it gets it’s South West debut at the Arnolfini in Bristol on the 7th of November, but I’m not expecting a paradigm shift in the starring role of coffee any time soon.
Instead I’ll end with my favourite coffee making scene in cinema, from the opening credits of the Ipcress File. Freshly ground beans and a French press isn’t a euphemism of how Michael Caine starts his days, but the brilliant title sequence to this spy classic still hints that there’s some romantic entanglement of which we’re not getting the full picture. Simple, effortless, and endlessly cool. Which is to say, quite unlike a good cup of coffee.
Tickets for the A Film About Coffee screening in Bristol are available on the Get Invited website.
All the other films I’ve been surreptitiously linking to can be found at the brilliant video store 20th Century Flicks, on the Christmas Steps in central Bristol. They too can do a brilliant job of recommending films to match your free-association taste requirements.