The Film: 'Mystery Train' (1989), Dir. Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, Steve Buscemi, Tom Noonan and the raspy tones of the great Tom Waits.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: My first exposure to director Jim Jarmusch was when Teenage Me (perhaps you remember his only slightly stupider earlier incarnation 12 Year Old Me) plucked 'Dead Man' off a Blockbuster shelf expecting a traditional western and receiving a darkly comedic, surreal, acid trip of a western deconstruction. Man, Teenage Me decided that he hated Jarmusch based on that one film alone.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: Looking back on how I learned to love movies, I see a map charting how I became the human being I am today.
It all had to start somewhere and for me, it was the James Bond series. Prior to discovering a battered copy of 'Licence to Kill' on VHS (yes, that was my first 007), movies were a fun distraction, something entertaining that you partook in here and there, but they existed on the same level as books. Or board games. Or my action figures. They held no sway over me. I didn't feel any magic in them.
But the massive history of the Bond series! The sheer number of films! So much to dive into! So much to explore! Not to mention, to an adolescent with the minimal possible understanding of sex (I only knew that it was apparently awesome) and no understanding at all of the consequences of violence (except that it was also apparently awesome), Bond was like the encapsulation of everything that my young self found important and amazing.
(Yes, we are here to talk about 'Mystery Train.' We'll get there soon enough, I promise.)
For the first time, movies spoke to me. Sure, it spoke to me in a childish, emotionally distant way (I still consider myself a minor Bond scholar and a huge fan, but let's not elevate them too high, okay?), but that was the moment where I fell in love with cinema. That was the moment where I felt a true, genuine connection to the medium. I had a reason to care. I had a reason to invest. I had a reason to pay attention to what I was watching. To absorb it. To treasure it and not forget it.
By my early teens, my film world had widened to include horror movies and for about six months, I convinced myself that I was the world's reigning expert on the genre (over a decade and hundreds of horror movies later, there are countless people who walk serious circles around me when it comes to that genre). Bond was still great, but horror movies were mean. They were bloody. They were for grown-ups. By watching them, I knew I was growing up, too.
When my teens came around, I entered my pretentious phase. Film had been important to me for so long that I had finally graduated to the Hollywood classics. The came the three-hour, black and white Swedish movies about losing your faith. I walked around saying idiotic things like "What do you mean you haven't seen (INSERT SEVENTY-YEAR OLD MOVIE HERE)? What kind of moron are you? GOD!" Teenage Me was insufferable. This was when I saw Jim Jarmusch's 'Dead Man' and was immediately turned off by its strange blend of surreal visuals, oddball comedy and strange metaphor. It didn't have a reputation for being a great film and it didn't wear any importance on its sleeve. Of course I was going to hate it.
Four years of college, surrounded by people just like me, managed to beat this pretentiousness right out of my skull. Well, most of it. Half. Forty percent.
Having seen 'Dead Man' again recently, I think it's a good film. I like to think that Current Me is a fairly well-balanced movie watcher who appreciates glorious trash just as much as he loves the standard classics. I like to think that Current Me knows that a film doesn't have to be "important" to be legitimately great. I like to think that Current Me can finally appreciate a filmmaker who makes intensely personal personal movies that are derived from a unique place, that feel completely out-of-touch with the standard plain of reality and portray a point of view that no other movie has depicted. I like to think that Current Me is finally ready to appreciate Jim Jarmusch.
Bring on 'Mystery Train.' It's about Elvis or something, right? I wrote all of that because I really don't have a clue.
Post-Viewing Reaction: Younger versions of myself would have hated 'Mystery Train' with a blinding passion. It doesn't follow a traditional structure. None of the characters have a Hollywood arc. There is a lot of dialogue and very little action. It takes its time, meandering about, never in a hurry, asking you to soak up little details, to consider the characters and their environment rather than wait for anything resembling a plot to arise.
I cannot begrudge anyone who dislikes 'Mystery Train,' much like how I cannot begrudge myself for having such an averse early reaction to Jim Jarmusch. However, I'd be curious to see the "movie histories" of the people who find his work dull or insufferable. Looking back on my personal relationship with the movies, I see a series of events preparing me to embrace this kind of filmmaking, contorting my tastes to fit in the admittedly narrow niche that Jarmusch is working within. Jarmsuch has always operated under the radar and he surely will continue in that fashion, but it's hard to imagine him having it any other way. Any other way would involve compromise.
'Mystery Train' is three overlapping stories taking place over one day and one night in Memphis Tennessee, told one right after the other. The first is about a young Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase), who have traveled across on the world on a pilgrimage to see where rock 'n and roll was born. She's an Elvis fan, bubbly and excited, ecstatic at the thought of visiting Graceland. He's a man of few words, hiding behind a manufactured toughness and his rocker's hairdo. He thinks Elvis is overrated. Carl Perkins is much better. They wander the city. They tour a tiny record studio. They find a hotel. They talk.
The second story tracks an Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi), recently widowed, who finds herself stranded in town for day after her connecting flight to Rome is delayed. She finds herself manipulated by a magazine salesman, cornered in a diner by a sleazy con man (the great character actor Tom Noonan), who tells her a story about encountering the ghost of Elvis. She shares a hotel room with the talkative Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco). They talk. The ghost of Elvis also appears to them, but mostly they just talk.
The final story is probably the most action-packed of the three, but that's not saying much. After losing his job, Johnny (Joe Strummer) goes on a bender and is "rescued" by a friend (Rick Aviles) and his brother-in-law (Steve Buscemi, looking impossibly young). Much alcohol is consumed. A gun is fried twice. They drive. They talk. They drive. They find a hotel room and they talk some more.
Because the film isn't about plot, it's impossible to spoil anything. The joys of 'Mystery Train' come not from wondering what's going to happen next, but rather from sympathizing and empathizing with these characters as they interact with one another, often passing other key characters, unaware that their story is not the only one of interest occurring at that very moment. The overlapping time frame is not a gimmick -- the film never acts like a mystery that needs to be solved. When characters in one story here a gunshot, we know a later story will tell us where it came from, but there's no pressing desire to find out. It's just Jarmusch telling us that while the story of your life is happening in this room, the story of someone else's life is happening right next door.
Your life may be sweet romantic drama about visiting Memphis to see the origins or Elvis and the life down the hall may be a dark comedy about what happens when a man with a loaded gun has too much alcohol, but one is not more important than the other. And that may be the meaning of 'Mystery Train' (if it actually has one -- it certainly doesn't have to have one): every life is a story worth telling. Even the boring ones.
Watching 'Mystery Train,' I'm reminded of that old adage "acting is reacting." Not in connection with the films performances (although they really are stellar across the board, masterclasses of understated naturalism), but in what Jarmusch is obviously fascinated by. This is a movie that's entirely about reactions. How do the Japanese tourists react to the city of Memphis and its inhabitants? How does the young Italian woman react to her chatty roommate and the con man with the ghost story? How do the three friends react when a night of angry debauchery takes a violent left turn? Three completely different stories about completely different people, but all of them united by the town they're in and how it has influenced their decisions and choices. 'Mystery Train' is a meditation on the beauty of the human reaction ... we can only imagine the the thousands of other noteworthy stories occurring in Memphis on this night.
Although an ensemble piece, the true lead character at the heart of 'Mystery Train' is Memphis itself. Although not always a flattering portrayal, Jarmusch finds beauty in a city that looks like it's entirely composed of seedy bars, dirty hotels and condemned theaters. I kept waiting for the moment when the Japanese couple would feel let down -- they came thousands of miles for this dump?
But that never happens. After all, Elvis recorded here. So did Carl Perkins.
Next Week's Column: It looks like I'll finally be giving the John Waters' seminal gross-out flick 'Pink Flamingos' a watch next week, but what should I watch after that? There are only two options remaining before we go into a whole new batch of films, so vote in the comments below (or by Twitter)!
'La Dolce Vita'
'High Plains Drifter'/'Pale Rider'/'The Outlaw Josey Wales' (Triple Feature)
'Return to Oz'
'On the Waterfront'
'Sex, Lies and Videotape'
'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'
'The 39 Steps'
'The Sound of Music'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'