”I don’t have a dream in my heart to abandon music and start acting,” insists Jack White, in case anyone might get that idea from his roles in last winter’s Cold Mountain and, this month, Jim Jarmusch’s sketch-comedy art movie, Coffee and Cigarettes. ”But both those films made sense to me, because they [involved] things that I love – American folk music and Tesla. I can’t say no to either of those.”
Not Tesla the band, silly. Definitely not Tesla the band. (See Jack’s disgusted reaction shot in Cigarettes when his scene partner, one Meg White, invokes the ’80s rockers.) He means Nikola Tesla, the early-20th-century inventor worshipped by filmmakers, rockers, and brilliant loons everywhere. A scene in the movie depicts an informal White Stripes band meeting where Jack shows Meg his malfunctioning Tesla coil. It’s considerably less elaborate than White and Jarmusch’s previous stab at a Tesla tribute, a never-filmed video for a song from the Stripes’ Elephant CD, ”where I would’ve played Tesla and had a fight with Edison, using their actual inventions,” White says wistfully. ”Edison electrocuted an elephant to try to disprove Tesla’s alternating-current ideas; we were gonna reenact the electrocution, but it became too expensive. At least we got to work out our Tesla fascination together on this one.”
Though the Stripes didn’t have to do much heavy thespian lifting in his film, Jarmusch is positively smitten with them. ”Their whole interrelation is fascinating,” he says. ”And they’re both so striking. Like Meg, man, she could have been a huge silent-movie star, just from her face. I love watching them on stage. I love watching them eat dinner. I love watching them in a cab…. I wrote the scene so that Meg would know the solution to the problem, because you don’t expect Meg to know what’s wrong with a Tesla coil. But when you hang out with them, there is that element, because Meg often does have a solution you wouldn’t expect. Jack is the mastermind, but without Meg, without that dynamic, there’s no White Stripes.”
A recent SNL skit imagined the Stripes as a crime-fighting team. Cigarettes suggests a different screen future, as a bickering Abbott and Costello-style duo. Agreed: ”Some people might say we’ve always been a comedy team,” White points out.