Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Mystery Train (1989)

Mystery Train (1989)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Masatoshi Nagase (Jun), Yûki Kudô (Mitsuko), Screamin' Jay Hawkins (Night Clerk), Cinqué Lee (Bellboy), Nicoletta Braschi (Luisa), Elizabeth Bracco (Dee Dee), Tom Noonan (Man in Arcade Diner), Stephen Jones (The Ghost), Joe Strummer (Johnny), Rick Aviles (Will Robinson), Steve Buscemi (Charlie the Barber),  Tom Waits (Radio D.J).

In the early films of Jim Jarmusch things definitely come in threes. Both Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law focused on three characters and had three distinct acts, taking those characters to three different places. In Mystery Train, Jarmusch tells three different stories, all set in Memphis during one long, dark night. This time, the setting stays the same – eventually, all three stories end up at the same hotel – but the characters change. It was also the first time since his student film debut that Jarmusch worked – and the cinematography, once again by Robby Muller – is just as striking in color as it was in black and white. The landscape is just as alien to the characters in Mystery Train as it was to the characters in Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law – the foreigners and the Americans alike.

The first segment is about two Japanese tourists – the ever perky Mitsuko (Yuki Kudo), a diehard Elvis fan looking forward to seeing Graceland, and her monotone, unsmiling Jun (Masatoshi Magase) – a connoisseur, who prefers Carl Perkins. She speaks a little English – he speaks practically none – and we see them get off the train in Memphis, wander through the station (where they disagree as to whether or not it’s better than the one back home – which is much more modern) – and then walk through a Memphis of boarded up business, tract housing and seedy bars. They come to Sun Studios – and go on the tour – only to not understand a word of it, as the tour guide talks at a wicked pace. Eventually they end up at a rundown hotel. It has no TV, but a picture of Elvis on the wall. At some point in the night, they hear a gunshot.

The second segment is about an Italian woman, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) who is in Memphis to collect the body of her husband and bring it home. There is a mix-up, and she has to spend the night in town. She too wanders through the dilapidated city, gets taken advantage of by a news vender, and scared by a foreboding man (Tom Noonan – who is scary doing nothing), who tells her the old story of picking up a hitch hiker who wanted to be dropped off at Graceland. To get away from Noonan, she ducks into the same rundown hotel – and meets Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco) – a woman who is leaving town the next day to get away from her boyfriend, but doesn’t have the money to afford even a place this dumpy. Luisa offers to share her room. At some point in the night, they hear a gunshot.

The third story has Dee Dee’s boyfriend, Johnny (Joe Strummer) out on the town with the boys after being dumped. He’s getting drunk, so his friends call Charlie (Steve Buscemi) – Johnny’s lone responsible friend, and Dee Dee’s brother – and the two of them end up in a car with another friend, Will Robinson (Rick Aviles). The drive around, wind up at a liquor store where Johnny does something stupid. Looking for a place to lay low, they end up at the same seedy hotel. At some point in the night, they cause the gunshot.

The hotel is staffed by two men  - the older Night Clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins), who dresses in a sharp, red suit, has a deep, booming voice (because he’s played by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and has seen it all, and the bellboy (Cinque Lee), who still isn’t quite sure how to view all the strange people they meet on a night to night basis.

As with his other films, Jarmusch doesn’t take you to the parts of the city that we know well from other movies. In Stranger Than Paradise, New York is nothing but a dingy apartment, Cleveland a frozen wasteland of fast food joints, and Florida a rundown hotel. In Down By Law, New Orleans looks desiccated and dirty. His Memphis is the same way – rundown – a dark and foreboding place, and one lacking in the romance the city would like you to believe is there. Elvis and Carl Perkins – not to mention the rest – are long gone, but their memories are still there, although they are fading, and turning darker.

All three stories involve foreigners in Memphis. None of the darkness or grim can dim Mitsuko’s spirits. She’s in the home of Elvis – the King – and everything seems amazing to her. Jun takes in everything with the same look of discontent - yet the two work well together for the most part. For Luisa, Memphis is a darker, more mysterious place – one she doesn’t understand in the least, and full of strange people – not least of which is Dee Dee, who talks incessantly, without really saying anything. For Johnny, Memphis has become the hellhole he’s trapped in – he doesn’t want to be there anymore, was only staying because of Dee Dee, and now that she’s gone, he hates the place even more.

As with all of his films, Jarmusch isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere. He doesn’t really put his characters through anything as pedestrian as a plot, but rather likes to sit back and observe them, as they take in a place they don’t entirely understand, and never will. The three stories are all separate, and yet they do come together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The acting helps – particularly by Kudoh, Hawkins and Buscemi. But the major accomplishment here is Jarmusch’s – who finds the romance and the sadness at the heart of Memphis – at least the one he sees.

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