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Mystery Train: It Feels Cool to Be In Memphis

Like his earlier Stranger than Paradise and Down By Law, Mystery Train is a road movie that finds more enlightenment in detours than destinations.

Mystery Train

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Nicoletta Braschi
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
Year: 1989
Release date: 2010-06-15

Years ago, at the listening station at Plan 9 Music in Richmond, Virginia, there was a small flier that featured the image of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The writing underneath the picture read, “Hawkins reportedly fathered up to 57 children... Are YOU one of Jay's kids?” Customers who listened to music at Plan 9 Music did so under the likeness of Hawkins, their then-recently departed, possible father. This search for Hawkins’ heirs was an earnest effort by his friends and family that turned into a curious object on record store walls and entertainment websites, on one hand extending his legend and on the other distracting from his artistic contributions.

Both Hawkins and Elvis Presley, mythic and melancholic, hover throughout Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, an anthology film set in Memphis, Tennessee. Hawkins plays a Sphinx-like night clerk at the crumbling Arcade Hotel, the film’s primary location. Portraits of Presley (each featuring a different facial expression) adorn each room of the hotel, where his spirit appears briefly.

Across three interconnected stories – “Far from Yokohama”, “A Ghost”, and “Lost in Space” – a diverse group of characters traverse the same physical landscape but arrive at distinct moments of revelation. Jarmusch presents the city’s history, atmosphere, and characters with his usual low-key style. Like his earlier Stranger than Paradise and Down By Law, Mystery Train is a road movie that finds more enlightenment in detours than destinations.

Two versions of the song “Mystery Train” (by Presley and Junior Parker) frame the film, and these are the only sections of the film when the characters are actually “going somewhere” in a traditional sense. Structurally, this is neither a train movie nor a mystery movie. The title of the film is evidence of Jarmusch’s sly humor, but it could create false expectations in viewers unfamiliar with the song and seeking the generic cinematic associations of “train” and “mystery”. Yet the opening train sequence of the film, and especially the first characters we meet, establish a sense of anticipation and discovery that introduces Memphis as a place of limitless possibility and import, regardless of its material state. The city becomes a mystery to be explored by each traveler.

Passengers on the train, Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) are a young Japanese couple eager to visit the city of Sun Studio and Graceland. They debate the comparative supremacy of Presley and Carl Perkins, lend a lighter to Rufus Thomas, and react differently to American architecture. Mitsuko, who speaks some English, approaches the city with ebullience and wonder. Jun, however, is reserved and seemingly underwhelmed. His disposition is understandable when we consider the ramshackle crossroads of the city that greet the tourists.

As is frequently the case in Jarmusch’s films, there is no attempt to outwardly idealize the landscape. Details of decay fill the frame. Graceland might be the film’s promised land, but we never see it. The couple visits Sun Studio briefly, but find it to be a place where the tour guide talks too quickly for even perfect speakers of English to comprehend, and visitors must sway from side to side to keep up with her constant motion. As they walk the streets of a run-down part of the city, Jun and Mitsuko pass by, and at times comment on, a barbershop, a bar, a café, and a car, all of which will reappear in later stories.

The heart of “Far From Yokohama” and each subsequent vignette lies in the Arcade Hotel, where Hawkins and Cinqué Lee hold court as Night Clerk and Bellboy, respectively. In their $22 room, Jun and Mitsuko continue their Perkins/Presley debate, but Mitsuko seems to win him over with her scrapbook, which contains pictures of Presley resembling several historical icons.

Although Mitsuko has been the charming focus of the story thus far, Jun begins to represent a philosophical perspective that resonates throughout the film. He takes pictures in the hotel room, explaining to Mitsuko that the tourist destinations will stay in his memories, but he needs to document the hotel room in order to keep it alive in his mind. He gazes at the night outside, and proclaims, finally, “It feels cool to be in Memphis.” The young couple relaxes, converses, makes love, and argues. Presley’s “Blue Moon” intercedes from the radio speaker, bringing their activity full circle and emotionally capping the meditative pace of the sequence. As they prepare to depart the next morning, we hear the sound of a gunshot that introduces an element of mystery and expectation into the otherwise minimal plot.

“A Ghost” maintains the casual mood of “Far From Yokohama”, introducing Nicoletta Braschi as Luisa, a widow accompanying her husband’s coffin on a homeward bound flight to Rome. When she must unexpectedly stay in Memphis for an evening, Luisa begins a journey of discovery that covers the same cityscape as Jun and Mitsuko, though she shares none of their intention or attachment to American culture. She is simply stranded for a day.

Braschi’s quiet grace gives Luisa a measure of strength that ensures the single woman will be okay despite the menacing environment around her. The threats she faces mostly involve the unfortunate tendency of those familiar with a city to take advantage of strangers. Luisa’s visit to a café becomes a negotiation to get a creepy man to leave her alone. He wants her money (and possibly more), and in exchange for a story he tells her about picking up the ghost of Presley, she gives him $20 to let her be. Her escape from the man and his friend takes her to the Arcade Hotel.

In one of the more intentional intersections of characters in this otherwise subtle screenplay, Luisa arrives at the hotel just in time to come to the aid of Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), a woman who plans to flee town the following day but lacks sufficient money for lodging. Quiet Luisa and the incredibly talkative Dee Dee form an unlikely duo, but they both seem to have emotional needs that are temporarily allayed by their time together. Dee Dee is not yet wise enough, or open enough, to listen to Luisa’s advice concerning her troubled relationship, which is the reason she plans to leave town. While Luisa only discovered Memphis by a turn of fate, Dee Dee chose to move to the city and has now decided to depart.

The result of their comparative openness to the city’s mysteries is that Luisa is blessed by a vision of Presley’s spirit, while Dee Dee is not. Presley’s ghost has moved out of the creepy man’s story and into Luisa’s hotel room, and she will take this spectral piece of Americana back to Rome. As in “Far From Yokohama”, both “Blue Moon” and a gunshot bring the episode to a close.

The final story of Mystery Train brings the viewer closer to an insider’s view of Memphis than the preceding installments. Whereas “Far From Yokohama” introduces the city through tourists that have only experienced American culture in a remote way, and “A Ghost” provides the nexus of accidental arrival and intentional departure, “Lost in Space” is a street-level, everyday view of the city. This perspective is simultaneously less idealized and more dramatic, because the characters’ frustration leads to a higher level of escalating action.

Joe Strummer plays the surly, down-on-his-luck Johnny (also known as Elvis), and through context we recognize him as the boyfriend Dee Dee is leaving behind. His friends, Will Robinson (a scene-stealing Rick Aviles) and Charlie the Barber (Steve Buscemi), who is also Dee Dee’s brother, attempt to protect him from carrying out too much drunken destruction. Their trip to a liquor store turns criminal when the racist clerk insults Will and dares Johnny to react. Johnny’s violent reaction puts the three men on the lam, but their endless drunken driving around the city yields no escape.

They end up at the Arcade Hotel, with booze and a gun in the hotel’s most dilapidated room. After darkly comic interaction, the most memorable of which involves the television series Lost in Space, the story ends with the familiar elements from earlier segments and finally provides the context for the gunshot, and the film’s final leave-taking.

Mystery Train is an inarguably influential independent film. Now more than 20 years on, it continues to resonate in the DNA of anthology films and network narratives. Some viewers might resist Jarmusch’s decision to take a novella approach to the various naturally cinematic elements that appear in his script, but his script and direction are both more complex and entertaining than films that force intersections of characters and locations, or worse, overestimate the so-called clever arrangement of their puzzle pieces.

Mystery Train offers no big breakthroughs of action or character. Instead, the film ruminates on a certain city and the travelers that find small insights within it and within themselves. As Jun says, “It feels cool to be in Memphis.”

New to Blu-ray, Criterion’s restored HD digital transfer of Mystery Train is easily the film’s most impressive home video release yet. Although the film resists a traditionally “scenic” presentation of the city, the details of decay are vivid, and on this release Robby Müller’s careful compositions seem particularly in tune with the director’s perspective on the city and characters.

Bonus features include an audio Q & A with the director, which appears instead of a commentary track and allows Jarmusch to respond directly to fans’ questions. His answers, which are sometimes very specific, illuminate his influences, impulses and approach to storytelling. He also appears in excerpts from a feature documentary, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me, in which he touchingly describes his relationship to the musician and the conditions that brought them together as collaborators.

Finally, a documentary about the locations used in the film opens up the subjects of race relations and a history of musical appropriation in which Presley is described as the “embodiment of separation of culture”. Another impression the documentary creates is that Mystery Train was shot during an especially low point in Memphis’ self-image. The present-day footage suggests improved economic and cultural conditions, and this contrast makes Jarmusch’s own preservation of a certain period of Memphis history seem more mysterious -- recorded evidence of a place that would otherwise only exist in memory.


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