Saturday, December 12, 2020

Mystery Train


Director Jim Jarmusch

Jarmusch with Joe Strummer (left)

Actor Masatoshi Nagase











MYSTERY TRAIN          B                                                                                                       USA  Japan  (113 mi)  1989  d:  Jim Jarmusch

A film to live in. A film in which I can spend evenings and afternoons smoking, reading and sleeping. I’ve tried a hundred times to remake a Jarmusch tracking shot, I’ve never gotten close. They move at a speed that belongs only to him. Jarmusch is the metronome of a precious melancholy.                                                                                                                                 —French filmmaker Christophe Honoré on Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, listed at #9 of his Criterion Top Ten films, Christophe Honoré’s Top 10

Filmed in Memphis during the summer of 1988, Jarmusch mixes three interconnected stories depicting the city more as an idea than an actual place, viewed through an outsider’s lens, with two young Japanese tourists making a pilgrimage from Yokohama, viewing the city as a rock ‘n’ roll Mecca, a grounded Italian traveler visits from Rome to collect the dead remains of her husband and return him back to Italy, but a flight delay leaves her stranded overnight, while the third tracks a trio of friends as they make their way through a boozy night of misadventure, all connected by the music of Elvis Presley, a few other early rockers, and a bluesy guitar soundtrack written by John Lurie.  Much of this is viewed through miscommunication and alienation, offering racial diversity in the lead characters, where strangers in a foreign land view America with a mixture of weird fascination and curious befuddlement, as a central theme is just how much is lost in translation, ostensibly a film about loneliness, missed opportunities, and a longing for connection, with some feeling deceived by the America they find, including some that live there all their lives.  Unlike most filmmakers, Jarmusch’s primary interest is in the soon-to-be-demolished, rundown part of town, where they had to clear hookers from the streets each night before filming, according to Linn Sitler, the city’s former film commissioner, suggesting Jarmusch was one of the first to express an interest in filming there.  Much of the film takes place at the corner of South Main and what was then Calhoun (now G.E. Patterson), not exactly an area the city’s officials wanted showcased, a blighted landscape of vacant lots, boarded-up storefronts, broken down movie theaters, cheap rundown hotels, all-night diners, lone liquor stores, and dimly lit dive bars, all crumbling signs of an empty and abandoned ghost town, with little sign of street traffic or pedestrians, yet Jarmusch found a distinct character there, including clever graffiti on the walls paying homage to Stax records (which according to Jarmusch was already there).  It has now been cleaned up and is the most filmed area of the city, placing a plaque in the film’s honor, as it helped revitalize the neighborhood.  Near the opening, we see two Japanese tourists arrive in Memphis, Mitzuko (Yûki Kudô), an Elvis enthusiast, and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase), hair slicked back like the 50’s, preferring Carl Perkins, who is later seen gazing out the hotel window and uttering, “It feels cool to be in Memphis.”  This follows a long walk from the train station through the seedy neighborhoods lugging their bright red suitcase balanced on a stick they carry on each end, not encumbered by distances, obviously quite comfortable walking for hours, literally stumbling upon the Sun Records studio founded by Sam Phillips, little more than a hole-in-the-wall establishment, yet the home of so much early rock ‘n’ roll history that originated there, as Phillips launched the career of Elvis Presley in 1954, while producing the recordings of Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Howlin’ Wolf as well.  Their tour of the studio, however, is a complete waste of time, as the guide races through the material to the point of complete incomprehension, speaking almost no English, knowing exactly what they knew going in as they did going out.  Undaunted, they continue on their journey afterwards, marked by a continuous tracking shot through the city streets set to a bluesy theme, finally resting in front of a statue to Elvis, each arguing over who is their favorite rocker. 

As night creeps in, they find a fleabag hotel known as the Arcade, manned at the desk by R&B legend Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as the manager in his flame red suit and Spike Lee’s younger brother Cinqué Lee as the bellhop, in faded purple uniform and cap, the spitting image of Tony Revolori, the Lobby Boy in the Wes Anderson comic satire The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).  The room has a giant portrait of Elvis hovering over the bed, no TV, which is an obvious disappointment, with Mitzuko tending to her Elvis scrapbook that finds traces of Elvis in Madonna, the Buddha, and even the Statue of Liberty.  Mitzuko is overly friendly with a bubbly personality, while Jun is stoic and near silent, rarely changing the expression on his face, identified throughout by a near magical choreography of his lighter, with Mitzuko at one point using her feet to show her lighter dexterity, but both are tuned into their own wavelength.  When a gunshot is clearly heard, neither one seems surprised or particularly affected, though Mitzuko asks if what she heard was a gun?  Jun answers unenthusiastically, “Probably.  This is America.”  Both are completely unphased, heading out the next morning to see Graceland.  Next we see a distraught young Italian woman at the airport, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), having to absurdly sign a dozen documents to transport her recently deceased husband’s body back to Italy, calling home to report a delay in her flight, leaving her free time on her hands, wandering through the same city streets we saw earlier, buying a newspaper, which is itself an ordeal, with the vendor pushing every available magazine, eventually settling in at the Arcade all-night diner.  Minding her own business, she’s immediately hit on by a stranger (Tom Noonan), offering an elongated story about discovering Elvis in Memphis purely by accident.  Unimpressed, she gives him money to go away, but runs into him on the street afterwards, looking around for a safe haven before taking refuge in the Arcade Hotel.  But just as she enters the lobby, another disgruntled woman is rushing out, the hyperactive Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), where the collision knocks her down, with her magazines spilling all over the floor.  Eying up the situation, Luisa offers to share the room, as she doesn’t really want to be alone, which suits Dee Dee fine, more than happy to let Luisa pay, expecting to settle up in the room, which like the other one, has a giant portrait of Elvis.  While Dee Dee can’t shut up over her personal problems, talking nonstop about breaking up with her boyfriend, we are transported back to a similar point in time through the radio, with the voice of Tom Waits as the DJ talking the same rap and playing the exact same tune we heard earlier with the Japanese kids, a vintage Roy Orbison recording of “Domino,” The Teen Kings - Domino - YouTube (2:08).  With this understanding, Jarmusch has done a time synchronization, with other recurring events happening before as well, including the gunshot, which Luisa identifies as “maybe a .38,” while Dee Dee can’t exit this “dump” fast enough.  Once Dee Dee falls asleep, however, a very much awake Luisa has visions of Elvis Presley in the room literally talking to her, wearing a gold lamé jacket with slicked back hair, but once she frantically wakes up Dee Dee, the ghostly image disappears, grumpily turning back to sleep, while Luisa appears thunderstruck, unable to close her eyes all night long, seen hurriedly racing for the gate at the airport the next morning. 

The final sequence takes place in what appears to be a black neighborhood bar called Shades, with some guys playing pool, but an irate Johnny (British rocker Joe Strummer from The Clash, the only white guy in the joint, affectionately called Elvis for his retro hair style) is upset over losing his job and his girlfriend all in the same day, having a drink with his friend Ed (Vondie Curtis-Hall), unleashing his troubles and wallowing in his collective miseries as we hear Otis Redding, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Rufus Thomas (who makes an earlier cameo appearance at the train station) playing on the jukebox, eventually pulling out a gun, causing instant commotion in this otherwise laid back atmosphere.  Calling him crazy, Ed calls his brother-in-law to come get this troublemaker, none other than Steve Buscemi as Charlie, arriving together with his friend Will (Rick Aviles), with Charlie voicing his concerns about the type of neighborhood, suggesting maybe he should wait in the car, but Will has to remind him that white people are allowed inside.  Johnny is a basket case, already loaded from drinking, so they decide to stop at a liquor store, getting a couple bottles, but when the cashier makes a racist remark to Will, Johnny shoots him, thinking he’s got it coming.   Not knowing what else to do, they drive around in Will’s truck all night drinking before finally arriving drunk and exhausted, looking for a room to remain invisible at the Arcade, given the most dilapidated room on the premises, where they simply drink themselves into a stupor.  Once again, we hear synchronized cues from earlier episodes, with the DJ playing familiar songs, including Elvis singing “Blue Moon,” Elvis Presley - Blue Moon - YouTube (2:41), only 19 when he recorded it.  This song connects with personal losses, experienced differently by Luisa, Dee Dee and Johnny, even by Mitzuko, who feels the need for an embrace.  By now we’ve figured out Dee Dee is Johnny’s lost girlfriend, and all three sequences are happening simultaneously, all of them staying at the Arcade for a single, fortuitous night, each viewing things for a differing perspective.  Filmed in a leisurely pace, with mood and atmosphere dominating any developing storyline, the characters are defined by their small eccentricities, like the lighter routine with Jun, or his habit of photographing hotel furniture, where their dreams of what Memphis would be kept getting smaller in their eyes, drearier and emptier than they imagined, where it’s the music that continually sustains their passion.  We’re never able to penetrate Luisa’s interior world, having just lost her husband, yet she’s incredibly kind and gracious to everyone she meets, including the tremendously wound-up Dee Dee, who is a handful.  The guy with a gun sequence reveals just what nitwits guys can be sometimes, overly concerned only about themselves, as if they’re all that matters in the world, paranoid about constantly eluding the police, even when they’re not being chased.  Linking all these sequences together are the two guys at the hotel desk, who perform their own deadpan routines, slightly different with each group of new customers, perhaps the closest thing to stability in the film, as they’re the only ones not in motion, not heading anywhere, but content to be where they are, developing a natural ease with one another.  In addition to musical motifs, other architectural landmarks reoccur as well, sprinkled throughout the film, yet in a seemingly aimless pattern, having no real rhyme or reason.  As in all Jarmusch films, the dialogue is sparse, scenes are filled with wry melancholic silences, while Robby Müller’s camera mostly remains stationary, though interestingly the film was shot in color, always lighthearted and amusing, feeling at times like a musical travelogue, featuring some extraordinary cuts of music, bookended by Elvis Presley and Junior Parker versions of the entitled song, becoming a love letter to the city of Memphis, using just a few stragglers passing through to offer just a taste of the city’s rich cultural traditions.   

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