Jim Jarmusch's Mystery
Train was made over twenty years ago, but it feels as fresh and
invigorating as anything. Like many Jarmusch ventures, this one
feels both rambling and focused, with a parade of diverse characters
taking us on assorted jaunts through the cradle of American popular
music: Memphis, Tennessee. "Rambling" is in no way meant to
be read negatively here, however, as Jarmusch knows and trusts his characters
(and his actors) to a rare extent. He allows them to develop and
register their personalities in an organic way that heightens both realism
and unpredictability; this approach also benefits Jarmusch's oblique,
situational comedy and his penchant for lovely, understated camerawork
(here achieved with the invaluable aid of the great Robby Müller).
Mystery Train is divided
into three episodes that all take place on the same day in Memphis.
They track the varied fortunes of three groups of characters who all
wind up spending the night in the same fleabitten hotel in a neglected
part of town. First, a young Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh and
Masatoshi Nagase) with a deep love of American music arrive in Memphis
by train on a pilgrimage to Sun Records and Graceland. The second
story concerns an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) who is delayed in
Memphis for an extra night when her flight is canceled. She struggles
to make sense of her situation against an onslaught of tall tales and
aggressive strangers. The third and final story follows a trio
of loosely affiliated losers (Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, and Steve Buscemi)
who find themselves in need of a hideout after one of them shoots a
liquor store clerk. In all three stories, the protagonists wind
up at the Arcade Hotel, a rattrap operated by a sarcastic, mannered
night man (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and a desultory bellboy (Cinqué
Should Jim Jarmusch decide
to stop making films today, his influence on contemporary filmmaking
and a high place among unique American auteurs would nevertheless be
assured. In Mystery Train, and in most of his other work,
Jarmusch is simultaneously intuitive and methodical. His stories
tend to be about lonesome figures - and even when his characters appear
in groups, they often appear lonely or "lost" somehow - on some
kind of quest. His characters spend a lot of time observing and
reacting to situations, characters, and other assorted stimuli; perhaps
the most interesting aspect of Jarmusch's style is his ability to
portray characters that (often silently) process and interpret information,
the effect of which is demonstrated in their subsequent behavior.
Mystery Train positions
its characters in a place inhabited by the ghosts of American music.
The direct and indirect influence of these ghosts on the film's protagonists
is one of its consistent and driving themes. The Memphis of
Mystery Train, which was shot in 1988, has seen better days.
Aside from its urban center - a group of glinting towers seen only
in the background - Memphis is a weedy, decaying, desolate ghost town.
The former headquarters of Stax Records is shown as a boarded-up, whitewashed
relic, recognizable thanks only to the word "Stax" spray painted
in red over its façade. The Japanese couple, on their pilgrimage
to Sun Records, is treated only to a rushed oral history by a young
guide. The studio is otherwise an empty shell. Most telling
and eerie of all, each and every room of the Arcade Hotel is haunted
by a different portrait of "the King" - Elvis Presley.
The music is still there, too,
although it's only heard on the radio. Songs by Elvis
and Roy Orbison and Junior Parker waft across the airwaves, suggesting
the past glory of Memphis and its lasting importance. The songs,
however, sound all the more lonely and ghostly piped out of speakers,
heard by only a few, rather than being performed live in crowded halls
or recorded in busy studios.
The characters who move through
this weird landscape each have to grapple with this legacy - a legacy
that is foreign to some (like the Braschi character) and familiar to
others (the trio of losers in the third episode). Interestingly,
that third and final segment is propelled by Joe Strummer's character
being angered into a hectic, vengeful stupor after his co-workers insist
on calling him by a hated nickname: "Elvis." The subject of
an unavoidable cultural legacy has never been investigated with such
subtle sensitivity - in Mystery Train, we observe the impact
of this kind of legacy on specific, individual characters, illuminating
the influence of towering icons on private lives.
Those waiting for The Criterion Collection to stumble will be disappointed,
for the label once again fails to do so here, presenting Mystery
Train in an enhanced 1.77:1 transfer that makes the film look like
it was shot yesterday. Supervised by Jarmusch, the transfer replicates
the richly-colored production design by Dan Bishop and the vivid photography
by Robby Muller with intense attention to detail. Digital artifacts
The audio is the original, fully restored monaural track.
This is one of the best mono soundtracks I have ever heard. Going
back to the DVD just before writing this review, I assumed I'd be
addressing a stereo soundtrack. Somehow, a remarkable dynamic
range is achieved here within monaural confines; music, sound effects,
and dialogue are brilliantly balanced. It's a crisp and engaging
track that manages to achieve true expansive ambience within a single
In lieu of a commentary track, Jarmusch provides an audio-only Q&A
With Jim, which runs about an hour (a time stamp is not provided)
and features the director answering questions emailed by fans.
It's a really good time, and full of production insights and some
very funny tangential anecdotes. Next are a selection of excerpts
from a 2001 documentary called Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell
on Me (17:39), which includes interviews with Jarmusch as well as
Hawkins; these excerpts mostly track the development of the professional
relationship between the two. Memphis Tour
(17:35) is a video piece that takes a new look at Mystery Train's
locations, many of which look a hell of a lot better than they did in
1988. There is also a production gallery of Polaroids,
as well as a more formal Photo Gallery featuring the work of
Masayoshi Sukita, the production's still photographer.
Mystery Train is one
of Jim Jarmusch's strongest and most lovingly-made films. It's
a tour of American culture through the eyes of outsiders, and a tribute
to a time of great cultural productivity in a city that has since retreated
from the limelight. Criterion's DVD offers a stellar technical
presentation and enjoyable bonus content. Highly recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.