Monday, October 5, 2009

1989 Rewind: Mystery Train

By 1989 and with only three films under his belt, Jim Jarmusch already had an identifiable auteurist stamp: his movies typically followed hipsters, loners and outright foreigners as they silently struggle to make sense of a physically and emotionally deteriorating America. Often, one or more characters identifies with the music of an artist, the camera rarely moves and the comedy is derived from moments of quiet irony and restrained oddity.

Mystery Train certainly contains all of these elements, and it points to future Jarmusch works Coffee and Cigarettes and Night on Earth by introducing several entirely different segments with alternating casts. The title, the name of one of Elvis Presley's most enduring hits, clues us in to what artist will inform the sparse soundtrack, and though the plots and characters change across all three stories, the King remains a constant force, directly or indirectly, throughout the film.

Centered in Memphis, Mystery Train, incidentally Jarusch's first color film, is a step forward not only technologically but thematically. His foreign or at least alienated characters attempted to figure out New York City (Stranger Than Paradise) and, nominally, New Orleans (Down By Law), and Memphis is the last great city of the American cultural mythos to explore -- sure, you can argue Los Angeles for the film industry, but too much of Hollywood's output is product, not art. New York is where foreigners first arrive and where intellectual communities spring up, New Orleans birthed jazz, and Memphis is ground zero for both country and rock 'n' roll. Of the three cities, the brash attitude and the glittering ostentation of Memphis most closely aligns with our postwar cultural mindset; thus, Mystery Train, by dint of its setting, is Jarmusch's most ambitious film yet.

The first vignette, Far From Yokohama, follows a mismatched Japanese couple visiting Memphis to visit Sun Studios. The irrepressibly sunny and chattering Mitsuko obsesses over the King and wants to visit Sun Studios and Graceland, while the stoic and sullen Jun argues for Carl Perkins. They rent a room from a motel that winds up the central location of each segment, managed by a flamboyant maitre d' (Screamin' Jay Hawkins). Jun remarks that Memphis is simply Yokohama with more buildings (echoing a sentiment Eddie expressed over New York and Cleveland in Stranger Than Paradise), and the closest the couple has to a full display of emotion is a heated debate over their respective artists, which is funny because they have a sex scene.

Jarmusch brilliantly layers this sequence to set up the conceit of the entire film: the difficulty of communication between people. That's been Jarmusch's main thrust in his previous features, but never has he explored this theme so thoroughly. Obviously, Mitsuko and Jun experience communication issues with Americans -- in a superb scene, the pair stands bewildered as a Sun Studios guide barrels through a speech she's given endless times; she speaks so quickly that I suspect that Jarmusch played it through the couple's POV as it further stresses how hard she is to understand -- but the key depiction of personal isolation in the vignette occurs between Mitsuko and Jun. Their deep, confrontational love for different artists is less an expression of preference than a representation of their inability to find common ground. Thus, in retrospect, when they momentarily share headphones to listen to the titular song, its a bigger emotional payoff than the sex.

That out-of-the-box approach to the writing defines the other two stories as well. Luisa, an Italian widow, finds herself stranded in Memphis with her husband's casket after her plane breaks down in A Ghost. Jarmusch uses steady tracking shots to follow her around the streets as she looks for a hotel to sleep the night, remaining constantly perpendicular with the character as if taking in the city from the windows of a car. These shots are simultaneously beautiful but emotionally vacant, like a tourist's journey through a city. She eventually reaches the same hotel from the first segment, where she agrees to room with a fast-talking girl named Dee-Dee who ran out on her man so fast she forgot to bring enough cash to rent a room. Dee-Dee never shuts up until she falls asleep, Luisa tells her roommate about her day, but when they part in the morning, the two, who both had suddenly found themselves without their lovers and therefore had something to share, leave without making any sort of connection.

In contrast, the final and most absurdist segment, Lost in Space, turns the stark disconnect between characters in the first two parts into the most open and accessible comedy in a Jarmusch film since the "Ice Cream" scene from Down By Low. Elvis showed up in the second act as a ghost, and Jarmusch reincarnates the King in this segment as the protagonist: Johnny's friends call him Elvis, and casting former Clash frontman Joe Strummer adds another element to the idea of the rebirth of Elvis and, by extension, rock. Elvis, Dee-Dee's boyfriend, lost not only her but his job, so he drinks himself into a suicidal stupor, and it's up to his friend Will Robinson and Dee-Dee's brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi) to sit on him. The three end up shooting a store clerk and hiding in the motel, where a brooding connection between Charlie and Johnny is hilariously severed when Charlie, who believes himself Johnny's brother-in-law, finds out that Elvis and Dee-Dee never married.

Jarmusch links the vignettes together in a final series of shots that seriously highlights how the characters are as isolated as they were at the start even as Jarmusch indulges in some terrific comedy. Johnny, Charlie and Will hop in their truck and try to sneak out of town and past the cops, despite the fact that the cops aren't even looking for them. The final shot shows them, as well as the characters aboard the train, turns the shot of the heroes riding off into the sunset on its head, and I didn't know whether to reflect on the film at that moment or burst out laughing.

Not a single line is wasted in the sparse dialogue of the film, but what makes Mystery Train even better is the way Jarmusch ties not only the characters and actions of each vignette together but elements from his catalog into the movie. Tom Waits reprises his role as DJ Lee Baby Sims from Down By Law as the voice of the Memphis radio station. Screamin' Jay Hawkins' presence alone is a reference, intentional or not, to Stranger Than Paradise, but when he remarks to an unlucky Charlie, "Boy, you got a curse on you," he's not only foreshadowing future events but coming close to the title of his signature tune "I Put a Spell on You." In that sense, Jarmusch uses Mystery Train to summarize and mark the end of his '80s work, and while I may prefer Down By Law, there's no denying the genius of this film.

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