Monday, October 21, 2013

Talking Mystery Train with Allison Kupatt

I loved Jim Jarmusch's latest, Only Lovers Left Alive, so much when I saw it at TIFF that I was eager to revisit some of the director's other work and talk about it, particularly the films that reminded me most of Only Lovers, Down By Law and Mystery Train. I had a back-and-forth discussion with Allion Kupatt of Nerdvampire about the latter, a transcript of which has been reproduced below. I had a great time talking to Allison about the film, which is one of the Jarmusch films I love best but the one I've had the hardest time articulating what it is about the movie that grabs me. Having a companion to discuss it was a great pleasure, not only to hear what someone else took from this intimate movie but to help clarify my own long-clouded thoughts. Anyway, if you haven't seen Mystery Train, I highly recommend it (you can watch it on Criterion's Hulu+ channel, which is the best $8/month you can possibly spend). If you have, check out our breakdown, after the jump.

Jake Cole: There are so many little details about Mystery Train that I love that I'm afraid I might end up not covering them by starting with a topic as broad as the film's use of music. But then, where else can one start when talking about this film? Rewatching it for the third or fourth time, and especially in the context of having seen Jarmusch's latest, the Detroit-set Only Lovers Left Alive, I was even more deeply connected to the film's music, which itself is not limited to archival Memphis tunes but incorporates John Lurie's Sun-aping score and, even more abstractly, appearances by legendary Memphis artists.

I really fixated on it this time around and am working out a theory for what it means to Jarmusch's cinema as a whole, but I'm curious what your response was to the music, both heard and felt throughout the movie.

Allison Kupatt: I would definitely focus in on the music first off! As far as for Jarmusch, I know that he was in a No Wave band in the eighties, either while he was at NYU's film school or just after he left?  got kicked out? Not sure, not really the point. The point is! Jarmusch has significant musical history. Plus, he works with musicians-as-actors a lot, like John Lurie and Tom Waits (this is probably more reflective of my tastes, but Tom Waits' score for Night on Earth sticks out more to me than Lurie's score for Mystery Train). From the research I did, bookending Mystery Train with two covers of the song was really intentional - just that the tone between Elvis' cover and the original Junior Parker version make it sound like two different songs.  Or at least a song about two different train journeys.

He also sets it in a city whose importance in history (sorry Memphis) is largely about the music industry. It does seem like, even though he's a filmmaker, Jarmusch puts a lot of weight behind music in film. In terms of scores, The Limits of Control sticks out more in my mind. 

JC: Well, I would agree that Lurie's score is far less central to the film than, say, Neil Young's work for Dead Man or the soundtrack for Only Lovers, which features scoring by minimalist composer Jozef van Wissem, as well as contributions by Jarmusch's own post-rock/noise band. I suppose what I mean, and this is getting back to your point about Memphis being defined through its cultural contributions, is that the music defines just about everything in the film, not only the setting but the entire structure of the film, effectively infusing the movie with the culture it seeks to display.

In that sense, I think of Mystery Train almost as a work of curation, in the same way I would for Only Lovers and the extremely referential Limits of Control. I think the crux of the film occurs during its first segment, "Far from Yokohama," in which Japanese tourist couple Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitsuko (Yûki Kudô) tour Sun Studios. First, the shot setup creates a mood of museum chill, first filming from the control booth looking into the recording booth where a small crowd congregates, a place that once boomed with the first rock now quiet and eerily preserved. But then we hear the tour guide start verbally sprinting through the studio's history, an amusing scene that bridges Jarmusch's cool aesthetic remove with the characters' subjective experience as they struggle to keep up in a language they do not understand. The scene sticks out to me, though, because the history in question is so complex, and her homogenized, breathless delivery steamrolls over the very contentious race politics of Sun Studios, with its search for viable white and black talent that flew in the face of convention. Her narration is factual, but it does not do anything to give a real, felt sense of just how crucial the place was.

I think it's the first indication of Jarmusch's broader portrait of Memphis' racial identity, but that, I believe, is its own topic so I'll stop there for now.

AK: You talked a mountain of stuff! I feel like my intelligence on the Memphis music scene is at a dilettante level at best, so all I have to add on that front is: Yes. Yes? Also I love that scene, it's so funny.  In general, I think "Far from Yokohoma" is my favorite of the three stories. As far as Jarmusch's "cool" aesthetic, these two seem like the most representative as music fans going across the globe to visit rock 'n roll monuments. Both Jun and Mitsuko have great aesthetic style, although Jun's is more reflective of the rockabilly music whose icons' houses they're visiting. It's funny how Mitsuko seems very dedicated to exploring the city and interacting with the cultural history, but her style is contemporary. And I want her dog t-shirt more than anything.

But that's a pretty good emphasis on more cultural ramifications of the music industry: not only has it shaped this city's historical importance, but it also reflects in personal expression, even though the music and style from that era is a generation separate from the characters in Memphis.

JC: I'm so glad you mentioned the subversion of expectations in their fashion. I love that Jun is set up to be such a hipster, adopting the style and delving past the obvious focal point of Memphis musical history, Elvis, to exalt Carl Perkins, only to show complete disdain for the place. (Although, it's worth noting that Jarmusch take Jun down a peg in the film's sex scene, which illustrates through its swift conclusion that Jun isn't half so cool and collected as he pretends.)

But I think their differing responses to the same sights sets up one of the key aspects of the film, and Jarmusch's filmography as a whole, that being the way that the same locations can mean so many things. Both Jun and Mitsuko say at one point, "This is America," but they say it in wildly different tones. (And I was reading Jonathan Rosenbaum's essential review of Dead Man earlier today, and I was reminded that the line is said in that film as well, when Johnny Depp's character asks a prostitute why she carries a gun.) It's a statement with the bluntness of objective fact, but it connotes diverging opinions of what, in fact, America is. Thus, this travel movie is less about an individual response to a concrete setting than how the place itself seems to warp around one's perception of it.

AK: I guess it's simplistic to point out, but Jarmusch's films always seem very America-centric.  Over his filmography, he explores it by setting his movies in cities that aren't generally covered by American cinema.  Besides his early films, which both take place in New York, he seems to focus on either anonymous cities.  Usually it's a city that seems underpopulated or in decay and few monuments are shown that reveal the city's identity.  In this case, we only see inside the Sun studio and one statue of Elvis.  The Memphis skyline is only seen briefly after characters pass by a vacant lot on their way to the hotel.  

I think Mitsuko is the more charming of the two (obvs), but it is funny that when the "Blue Moon" signal starts in their story, Jun expresses how cool it is that they're 18 and traveling America.  It pales in comparison with the other stories during the "Blue Moon" synchronicity*, but it hints that he's on the same page as Mitsuko, even though he tries to dissatisfied with the trip.  

*To go into a slight tangent for the readers: Mystery Train is an anthology film where three stories happen, all centered around a flop house.  There are two moments of simultaneity in the three stories - once after midnight when Tom Waits' DJ introduces Elvis singing "Blue Moon" and in the morning when a gunshot goes off.  

JC: Yes, Jun is one of a long line of Jarmusch hipsters whose too-cool-for-school aloofness is sanded down to reveal a deep connection to the things they seem to adopt ironically.

To your point about the film taking place in Memphis' outskirts, I think that's a key element of how Jarmusch elicits his themes. The triptych structure gives us three protagonists (well, two and one couple), all of whom are foreign: Jun and Mitsuko are Japanese tourists, Luisa is an Italian stranded between flights, and Johnny a.k.a. Elvis is a British ex-pat who resides in Memphis and has made a life there but still exhibits a culture clash with his new surroundings. The Memphis they see is not the one made for tourists or even well-off residents, but the forgotten shells upon which the metropolis was founded. What we see of Memphis is its creative soul, but it has also been warped by economic decay.

Not coincidentally, it is also set in a predominantly African-American portion of town, so perhaps now would be a good time to circle back to my quickly dropped reference to the film's view of race. But first let me ask you: what do you think of how the film handles Memphis' racial makeup, especially as it pertains to its musical history. I'll save my fuller thoughts, but for now I'll say it may be the film's subtlest element, and one of the most textured depictions of race in an American film.

AK: I don't know, I feel like the racial aspects of the film would be the hardest for me to comment on.  It seems like the only real locals in Memphis are the black characters, since everyone else is in a process of leaving town or never originated there in the first place.  It sets up everyone to be transitory besides the Bell Hop (Cinque Lee) and Night Clerk (Screamin' Jay Hawkins), who in contrast seem like they are eternally going to be at the Arcade Hotel, no matter what happens to the city around them.  But then again, we have some white characters who seem equally a part of the city's bizarre tone, like the man who sells magazines to Luisa or Tom Noonan's character in the diner.  It's just that our leads are foreigners and the main interactions they have are with people who are also leaving the city sometime soon.

Drawing from that, it's only just occurred to me how little the Japanese couple interact with other people in comparison with the other two protagonists.  I guess that's mostly a language barrier, but also they're traveling together - they don't really need to reach out to other people in a meaningful way while they're in Memphis.  Probably the person who is forced to interact with the most strangers is Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) in the second story "A Ghost."  She's in Memphis unintentionally after her plane is delayed in the city while she's transporting her husband's coffin.  She seems to go through a slew of adding insults to her injury - not only is she stuck in an unfamiliar city for the day, but she is also pressed to purchase a lot of magazines and then put-upon by Tom Noonan's character while he tells her about his encounter with the ghost of Elvis.  And ON TOP OF THAT, she's kind enough to share a room with chatty Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco) when she can't afford her own hotel room.  Meanwhile, "Lost in Space" has three characters constantly interacting with each other, usually more reluctantly than than out of a desire to be around one another.  

JC: I realize I kind of dropped a big theme with so much baggage attached at the end there, but actually what you say about Luisa and Noonan's creep being as much a part of the film is what I was sort of aiming for. I think Jarmusch avoids making a clear-cut statement about race than he does provide a subtle context of the area's racial history while still presenting a town in which everyone fits in. In fact, it is an explicit address of race that shakes up the good vibes, with Joe Strummer's Johnny first complaining of the Elvis worship in a town that birthed so many black entertainers (not an unfair point), then pulling a gun on a racist liquor store clerk and introducing violence into the movie. In some ways, Strummer, who in real life led demonstrations against racism in rock and namechecked far more reggae artists than punks, represents the white do-gooderism that typifies how most films handle race, good intentions that ultimately reduce a complex history and present into an id-satisfying display that is really only about him feeling good.

In other words, the film in general resists reducing the topic to a "mere" theme, which may be why I've not yet mentioned "The Ghost" despite finding it the most beguiling of the three stories. It's the one least attached to a big theme, be it the Edward Hopper-esque depiction of a lonely America in the first segment or, again, the more explicit racial elements of the third. One of the essays in the Criterion booklet helpfully points out that the street Jun and Mitsuko walk down on their way to Sun is Chaucer St., and this is the most Canterbury Tales-esque of the three stories, something that exists solely for the sake of telling a story. That's even true of Noonan's Elvis tale, a thinly veiled come-on that is nevertheless pleasing to hear, even if everyone in town has heard that story endlessly. And I love that it is she, who has the least interest or connection to Elvis, who is visited by him, even if the King did seem to make a mistake in appearing before her and not some other intended person.

AK: Yeah, and unfortunately I don't have much to say that's articulate enough to address it.  I do like your thoughts on Joe Strummer's casting, but it is beyond me to successfully talk about either the black entertainers of Memphis' heyday or the racial make up of the city when the movie was being made.  But yeah, it all gets pulled out in the final story line, which is also the most violent of the three and about the most local characters.

And yeah, I love that the ghost of Elvis appears to Luisa, who is the person least connected to the musician.  It's interesting that the stories go from the teenagers who seek out Elvis and see him everywhere to Johnny, who actively rejects any comparison he might have to him and in the middle there's Luisa.  And more than that, her ghost sighting means almost nothing, just that her stranger day has gotten stranger.  It's not surprising that when she leaves the city, almost late for her plane, she unquestionably breaks into a run.

While I agree that there isn't a great theme connecting the three stories as a whole, it is interesting that the characters are pretty aimless as they explore the city.  Even Mitsuko and Jun are shown walking around more than when they visit monuments.  It puts the city as the primary aspect of the film, even though it isn't shown in a particularly flattering light.  In one of the essays I read during undergrad, Juan Suarez pointed out that Jarmusch includes characters that are in movies so briefly that they are more like accessories to the scenery around them.  In this case, it's the woman in the silver dress who leaves the Arcade when Jun and Mitsuko are trying to decide where they should spend the night.  Sometimes, the inhabitants of the movies feel like they are less important than the city they walk around.

JC: I agree with you that the characters often feel more like a part of the city that hangs behind them than distinct entities within it, but I also think that is indicative of Jarmusch's ability to convey a great deal within sparse frames. If the Hopper-esque composition of Jun and Mitsuko in their hotel room often seems the focus over them, it also speaks to their internal mood of longing and alienation in a place they find as exciting as lonely.

And in general, I find the film's movement to be quite musical, especially in relation to Memphis' strong blues background. Jarmusch has long favored repetitious setups from different angles and with different characters, and in this film that cyclical but mildly variant structure comes to resemble the basic building blocks of blues, 12-bar progressions and pentatonic scales that are reused and reused but yield different results.

It also fits into the tacit roles appropriation plays in the film, not only in the subtle nods to the city's complex racial history but its ties to its musical heritage. It's telling to me that the film opens with Elvis' famous rendition of "Mystery Train," but it ends with Junior Parker's original (also recorded for Sun), a possible commentary on the flipside of Elvis' reputation as a barrier crosser that concerns how he turned black artists' songs into hits for himself. But I also think Jarmusch digs deeper than a mere screed, and in Johnny (played by a punk rocker who helped curb the excesses of rock back to its roots) the film depicts a white man appropriating Elvis! That Johnny is actively opposed to this does not absolve him, perhaps in the way that Elvis' own lack of malice in paying tribute to the music he loved does not preclude him from having unintentionally profited instead of those musicians. Jarmusch may seem cool and removed, but he treats such things on the actual level of the people involved, understanding that the truth of human living is more complex than a cultural critique that ignores such factors.

AK: Yeah, in general I would say that Jarmusch directs with a humanist eye.  I didn't mean to say that the setting is completely more important than the characters, just that it is given a higher amount of worth in his films to the point where some characters become more a part of the city than a part of the film's narrative.  

I also like the comparison's with Hopper. Since this is his first color film after Permanent Vacation it's interesting to see how he uses color on film, especially during night scenes. He's also picking very Hopper locales, like the diner and hotel, especially since they are shown both inside and out, where the characters look isolated. I would say as a general rule of thumb for Jarmusch, his films center around when isolated people have unusual interactions with someone else that forces them outside of their routine. I'm thinking mainly about the cousin visiting in Strangers in Paradise, how Roberto Benigni's character breaks up the quiet in the cell, and most of the stories in Coffee and Cigarettes center around similar encounters. But I don't know, now that I'm trying to define it, isn't that the case with most movies? You meet someone and your life changes a little, or something unusual happens and before you know it, there's a great story?

JC: I like that. You could also say the same about life, which may be why, for all their stylized composition, arch dialogue and postmodern genre trappings, Jarmusch's films give me a real sense of life to them, with little surprises that complement the surreally removed tone of his shots while also injecting them with humanity.

My favorite moment of the film is one of Jarmusch's most off-handed displays of this. When Jun and Mitsuko are waiting at the station at the start of the film, they are asked for a light by a man I was surprised to discover on my second or third viewing was Rufus Thomas, who like so many Memphis artists coming up in the '50s recorded his first work at Sun and later become one of the key acts of the legendary Stax label. His identity alone deepens the first impression of the man as just a poor local milling about a run-down building, but even without that knowledge, his character upends expectation when he thanks the couple in Japanese. Granted, saying "Arigato" is no proof of fluency, but the response is nevertheless surprising, and a reminder that people so often do not fit into the molds we cast for them. Jarmusch often populates specifically American cities with multinational casts, but sometimes, even the locals remind us that they are aware of a world outside their borders, and as most great works of minimalism, a vastness breaks out from modest structures.

AK: Yeah! That's something I always appreciated with Jarmusch is that he remembers that there we live in a multinational, multilingual world. Usually it feels like American films that handle foreign characters or settings become so focused on exploring the otherness of other cultures that it feels really disingenuous. In contrast, Jarmusch creates movies where a diversity of ethnicity, nationality, and language is the natural order of things. People are isolated, but I wouldn't say that they are othered in the traditional travel-narrative way.  

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