STRANGERS IN MEMPHIS Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train

In 1989 the famed
indie director  – accompanied by Joe
Strummer, Tom Waits, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and others – set out in search of slices
of Authentic America.

 

BY ZACHARY HERRMANN

 

Had Jim Jarmusch not already used the title Strangers in Paradise for his second
feature film, it might have been just as perfect for quite a few of his ensuing
films. With some key exceptions in the eccentric New Yorker’s filmography (most
recently, the underappreciated The Limits
of Control
), the auteur has locked his camera down in Mythic America, a
place that exists in films and songs, and to a much lesser extent, reality.
It’s a riff on the American dream, filtered through pop culture, nostalgia, and
eventually, disillusionment.

 

Everybody (except for Johnny Depp’s Native American guide,
Nobody, from Dead Man) is a foreigner
in this America,
at least figuratively speaking. American, immigrant or just plain visitor,
these characters are tourists rummaging through the country like music junkies
diving through record store bins. Looking for what they either ignored or never
before knew to search for.

 

If Mystery Train is not Jarmusch’s best or most satisfying film, it is, without a doubt, his
most focused in horning in on Mythic America. Set in a version of Memphis,
Tennessee constructed more a dash of fact and a whole lot of fantasy (Jarmusch
had never been to the city before writing the script), Mystery Train goes out in search of slices of Authentic America in
the divided, decaying heartland.

 

Away from the anesthetized, skyscraper-laden downtown
(literally relegated to the background), Jarmusch finds the “real” Memphis in shambles,
haunted by the ghosts of Elvis (explicitly) and Martin Luther King Jr.
(implicitly). He bookends the film’s three interconnecting narratives with
Elvis’s famous version of “Mystery Train” at the opening, and Junior Parker’s
original rendition in the closing. 

 

Jarmusch is never so coarse as to overplay his hand (Paul
Haggis he ain’t), but the racial tension is certainly, most strongly in the
third story, “Lost in Space”, but also glimpsed in subtler ways: The film was
shot before the original, then-decrepit Stax Records building got torn down
and, years later, converted to a museum. Sun Studio, at that point, was already
a well-scrubbed tourist attraction.

 

We visit the latter studio in the first segment, “Far From
Yokohama”, with a Japanese couple (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) making a
pilgrimage of sorts to the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. Playfully bickering
over who is the real Memphis
star (Carl Perkins vs. Elvis Presley), they are filmic descendants of Breathless stars Jean Seberg and Jean
Paul-Bellomondo: lovers, defenders and imitators of pop culture.

 

In “A Ghost” and “Lost in Space”, the burden of Elvis weighs
heavier on the characters. Stranded in the city for one night, an Italian woman
(Nicoletta Braschi) sees The King’s ghost after a run-in with a seemingly
dangerous character (Tom Noonan, positively chilling) who spins her a yarn
about the giving the singer a lift one night. She later meets and rooms with a
chatterbox (Elizabeth Bracco) who is leaving her husband, whom everyone calls “Elvis”
(Joe Strummer). 

 

Strummer’s character is consumed (and perhaps, fueled) by
Elvis and all things Memphis
in what is both the most amusing and gravest of segments, dragging his friend,
Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) and brother-in-law (Steve Buscemi) in for a wild night,
the ends of which we have already heard echoing in the previous two stories.

 

The connecting device in all three parts is the seedy, Arcade motel where all the involved parties spend the
night. The desk team played by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (jumping from the Stranger in Paradise soundtrack right
onto the screen in a splashy red suit) and Cinqué Lee (brother of Spike,
dressed as a classic bell hop) are a holdover from another era, like much of
their immediate surroundings.

 

Mystery Train is,
thankfully, not a self-serious film – Jarmusch gets his point across by ambling
around playfully. He has a documentarian’s eye for detail (especially for a
city he had never visited before). The answers come largely in the visual and
aural clues (read: a cracking soundtrack featuring Rufus Thomas, who has a
brief cameo, Otis Redding, who does not, and Elvis Presley, whose spirit drives
the film, to name a few), and that’s when they come at all.

 

It’s a film about exploration, which is kind of Jarmusch’s
thing, so don’t expect a thesis on American in the vein of Nashville,
another great film about another great American music town. With the train and
the visitors it brings, you drift in to Memphis,
and then, drift out.

 

Special Features: This
is Criterion, and considering that Mystery
Train
is a fairly new film in the larger scheme of things, the transfer is
unsurprisingly gorgeous. Jarmusch and cinematographer Robby Muller went with a
very natural color palette, with the splashes of red and fluorescence tying the
film to Muller’s earlier work on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (double feature anyone?).

 

Just as important, especially for this film, the soundtrack
is crisp and punchy in mono. Home theater nuts may not like it, but mono makes
sense over stereo in terms of preserving the original musical recordings.

 

As for special features, Criterion does a solid job for a
one-disc offering from a director who doesn’t do commentary tracks. Instead,
the centerpiece of the extra materials is Jarmusch’s 64-minute Q & A,
recorded last January. The writer/director takes questions from fans, and he
answers each to the full extent. There’s a lot of interesting back-story given
(yes, Tom Waits is more or less reprising his role from Down By Law on the radio in Mystery
Train
, and other burning questions answered). For my money, it’s better
than your average commentary spiel, and significantly more digestible in one
sitting.

 

An original documentary on the Memphis shooting locations
and excerpts from the documentary Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me round out the set, in addition to a couple essays covering the cinematic and
musical aspects of the film.

 

Which is all very informative, but maybe Jarmusch has a
point in refusing to do a traditional commentary track for his films. It’s all
right there, in the film and the records that inspired it.

 

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