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Mystery Train
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Masatoshi Nagase (Jun), Youki Kudoh (Mitzuko ), Nicoletta Braschi (Luisa), Elizabeth Bracco (Dee Dee), Screamin' Jay Hawkins (Night clerk), Joe Strummer (Johnny), Rick Aviles (Will Robinson), Steve Buscemi (Charlie), Cinqué Lee (Bellboy), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Ed), Rufus Thomas (Man in station), Jodie Markell (Sun Studio guide), Sy Richardson (Newsvendor), Tom Noonan (Man in diner), Sara Driver (Airport clerk), Stephen Jones (The ghost)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1989
Country: U.S.
Mystery Train Criterion Collection DVD
Elvis! Carl Perkins! Elvis! Carl Perkins! The title of Jim Jarmusch’s fourth feature film, Mystery Train, was taken from a 1953 song that was co-written and recorded by Junior Parker, but made famous by Elvis Presley two years later (both versions are featured in the film, Presley’s at the beginning and Parker’s at the end). It is a fitting title, even if trains play only a nominal role in the film, which takes place entirely in the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Jarmusch had never been to Memphis before he started writing the screenplay, which is surprising given that the film has often been described as a “love letter” to the birthplace of rock’n’roll and soul music, which in the late 1980s was in a low period of economic despair and lack of development. The song’s evocation of a train taking away someone’s loved one but also promising her return was thus a perfect metaphor for the state of Memphis at the time: down, but not necessarily out.

Like Jarmusch’s previous features, particularly his 1984 breakthrough Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train is a droll, dark comedy about strangers in a strange land, which Jarmusch emphasizes via his signature tracking shots that pace alongside a character or characters walking through a dilapidated urban landscape that simultaneously signifies hope and despair. We see bits and pieces of Memphis, but most of the film is situated around a single square block near the train station, far from the well-beaten trails hoofed by thousands of tourists. Of course, Jarmusch’s characters are tourists--some intentional, some accidental--and their stories intersect in odd and endearing ways, suggesting a kind of universal human connectivity that Jarmusch would extend significantly in his next film, Night on Earth (1991), which simultaneously expands his palette by taking place in five cities around the world and shrinks it by limiting the action entirely to a series of taxicabs.

That concurrent breadth and intimacy is one of Jarmusch’s hallmarks, thus it is not surprising that his film about Memphis refuses to show us the city’s most famous destinations, particularly Graceland and Beale Street, although we do get a scene that takes place in the famous Sun Studios, where everyone from B.B. King to Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash laid down tracks in the 1950s and ’60s, but had only recently been resurrected from years of neglect and turned into a historical tourist destination. Jarmusch is not so much interested in the obvious elements of his location, but rather the forgotten corners--the dilapidated buildings and derelict business establishments that remind us of what once was. Working with his longtime cinematographer, the German émigré Robby Müller (who is also a favorite of Wim Wenders and Lars Von Trier), Jarmusch finds visual poetry in the run-down, the ignored, and the decrepit, especially via the use of neon colors cutting into the darkness and the gray, which contrasts with the black-and-white of his previous two films and gives Mystery Train the look of an Edward Hopper painting.

The film’s narrative is composed of three separate stories that are largely self-contained, yet have just enough overlap to make them seem like an organic whole (they all take place simultaneously, so when Jarmusch moves to the next story, the film rewinds in time). We start the film following two young Japanese tourists, the perpetually glum and stylishly coiffed Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and his eager, upbeat girlfriend Mitzuko (Youki Kudoh), who arrive in Memphis by train and debate its similarities to their home in Japan and whether Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins is the greatest rock musician. They tour Sun Studio, where they don’t understand a word of the machine-gun-fire exposition by the overeager tour guide, and then settle in for the night in a rundown fleabag motel on South Main Street with terrible wallpaper and tacky black-velvet portraits of Elvis in all the rooms. The hotel is run by a night clerk played by musician Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (whose “You Put a Spell on Me” was integral to Stranger Than Paradise) and a bellhop played by Cinqué Lee (brother of director Spike Lee), who become the connecting thread of the three stories as each story’s characters eventually wind up in the hotel.

The second story centers on Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), a recently widowed Italian woman who has been delayed getting back to Rome and has to spend an extra night in Memphis. A delicate, gentle soul--a true innocent--she is also frequently taken advantage of, first by a newsvendor (Sy Richardson) who wants to sell her every magazine and newspaper on his rack, and then by a creepy man in a diner (Tom Noonan) who spins her a tall tale about Elvis’s ghost, all as a way of trying to con her out of $20. She eventually finds herself in the hotel sharing a room with Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), a young woman who yammers as much as Luisa is silent, which is why we learn so much about her and how she just broke up with her British boyfriend Johnny (Joe Strummer, former lead singer of The Clash), whose mutton chops and pompadour earn him the nickname “Elvis.”

Johnny is the center point of the third story, as he bemoans the loss of his girlfriend to his two buddies Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) and Charlie (Steve Buscemi) at the very hotel where Dee is staying with Luisa. Because Johnny has already pulled out a gun early in the story, you know it will come into play at some point (remembering Chekhov’s admonition about the use of guns in drama), so the trick is finding out when and how (we are also reminded that we heard an off-screen gun shot in both of the previous stories, so it’s only a matter of time).

Like a good short story, the stories in Mystery Train are not so much about what happens in them (which is very little), but the tone and mood of their telling. By this point in his career, Jarmusch had nearly perfectly his deadpan narrative style and darkly comic insight into human relationships, and it is easy to see the massive impact he had on the independent film revolution that shook up Hollywood in the 1990s (it is impossible to imagine the cinema of Quentin Tarantino, for example, without Jarmusch). For some, his films are maddening simply because they don’t trace a neat path through obvious plot points, but rather meander about, allowing us to observe the characters’ behaviors and draw our own conclusions. His international cast (Japanese, Italians, Brits, Americans) continually reminds us that, regardless of whatever distinctions we want to put on ourselves and others, we are ultimately all part of shared humanity, which is both an important philosophical stance and also a source of great comedy. Mystery Train ultimately doesn’t rise up to the levels of Jarmusch’s greatest films, partially because he was experimenting for the first time with multiple stories and partially because its best moments evoke better moments from his earlier films, but it is still an intriguing experience, one that captures both the characters’ intersecting places in life and the history of Memphis, a city that anyone who has ever visited is never able to forget.

Mystery Train Criterion Collection DVD
Mystery Train is also available from The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray.
Aspect Ratio1.77:1
Audio English/Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Q&A with writer/director Jim Jarmusch
  • Excerpts from the 2001 documentary Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me
  • “Memphis Tour” featurette
  • On-set photos by Masayoshi Sukita
  • Behind-the-scenes photos
  • Insert booklet featuring essays by writers Dennis Lim and Peter Guralnick
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJune 15, 2010

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s digitally restored, high-definition transfer of Mystery Train, which was supervised and approved by director Jim Jarmusch, was taken from a 35mm interpositive. On DVD the image looks quite good, with strong, crisp detail and excellent color saturation and hues, which are particularly notable in the night scenes around the hotel where Jarmusch uses gaudy neon colors against the darkness. Black levels and shadow detail are excellent, which is crucial because much of the film takes place inside dim hotel rooms. There is a definite presence of grain in the image, but just enough to give it a film-like appearance without detracting from the detail. The monaural soundtrack, mastered at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic tracks, is likewise excellent, with good clarity and lack of ambient hiss or aural defects to detract from film’s amazing soundtrack of classic Memphis-born rock and blues.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    As on Criterion’s previous DVD releases of Jarmusch’s films, the director declines to offer an audio commentary, opting instead or an audio Q&A in which he responds to questions that were sent in by fans. Running just over an hour in length, it doesn’t quite take the place of a commentary, but it is an excellent of way of getting Jarmusch to address some of the film’s most pressing questions (35 of them, in fact), which range from his artistic inspirations to all kinds of minutiae and odd trivia like whether or not Roberto Benigni was actually inside the coffin during the second story. Also included on the disc are 17 minutes of excerpts from the 2001 documentary Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me (most of which focus on his relationship with Jarmusch), a brand-new 17-minute documentary about the various locations around Memphis where the film was shot and how it incorporated the city’s social, cultural, and musical history, a gallery of on-set photos by Masayoshi Sukita, and a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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