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Mystery Train A Long Train of Aesthetic Pleasure Passing by Memphis, Tennessee

still of Mystery Train

I went into Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train without expectations, my only feeling for this movie before watching it, other than the hope of seeing and learning things about Memphis, was the prejudiced notion that I would not like it as I liked his other movies, the ones I thought were more underground, and perfect examples of the no-wave film movement, like Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise.

Mystery Train is an anthology film transpiring in a down-and-out, hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, the Arcade Hotel. The hotel’s receptionist (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and bellboy (Cinqué Lee) simplistic storyline serves the purpose of the movie’s wrapper.

In this movie, the three main storylines interlock nicely and we get a more meaningful narrative by seeing how the three segments were related, by the time the final events unfold; in the third and last segment of the movie.

The first segment is about a couple of Japanese tourists, Mitsuko (Yûki Kudô) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase). They go to Memphis to visit the mostfamous rock and roll landmarks, like Graceland, the Sun Records studio and the Arcade Diner, where Elvis used to take his nourishment.

The second is about an Italian woman, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), dispatching her husband’s remains from Memphis to Italy, who has to pass the time until her plane’s departure time comes. She then meets with Dee Dee, (Elizabeth Bracco) and they book a room in the hotel together.

The third segment is about a British immigrant, Johnny (Joe Strummer), who’s fired from his job and his mind breaks. He ends up pushing his two friends into an emotional roller-coaster, first with a frustrated joyride and then with something way more serious.

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No-wave Anthology?

At first, I thought that the first segment’s couple was a brother and sister thing, but they were actually a couple of kids in their late teenage years. It was strange, to see a couple of middle or middle-high class kids traveling so far from their home, but I saw it as a good depiction of rocker culture, even if coming from characters of that kind of pampered socioeconomic background. Some people may root for the Japanese girl and think that her boyfriend acted in a way that was too stoical, but that would be only out of ignorance of rocker/rockabilly/greaser culture, not knowing that the character’s way of being is a common attitude of the aforementioned youth culture tribes.

The second segment is where it hit me, this wasn’t a movie that was only about the characters, their transient take on Memphis, and a few Tennessee tourist spots. It is pretty much a movie about Tennessee too. In this segment, we are treated to some atmospheric shots of Memphis that we might have overlooked in the first.

There is a phone call scene in this segment that, I thought, was overacted. Yet, for others, it may come as a comic relief moment. In this part of the movie, I noted that the character Dee Dee was a blabbermouth, and I felt vindicated when the characters in the last segment talk about her and confirm it.

The third story was a surprise for me, to see Joe Strummer in the skin of the Johnny, AKA Elvis, character. It’s the most emotionally charged plot of the three and the part of the movie in which there are more action scenes. Like I said, his character was fired, and he’s drowning his sorrows in abar when he flips out and takes out a gun, his workmate, Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) calls his brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi), to pick them up. Things get worse from there, much worse.

Behind the simplicity of the stories and lack of plot, there lies a meta-narrative of which the hotel is the focal point, and the way in which the three stories and the wrapper were put together were something new. I personally think Quentin Tarantino must have drawn inspiration from this movie for Pulp Fiction because the manner in which the four stories are told is similar.

I was already thinking that from the scene in which we’re introduced to Buscemi’s character, Charlie the Barber, as he cuts the hair of a customer. In that scene the lines of dialog sounded suspiciously familiar:

“You know what? I saw it on television, that the Chinese who are in China they all wanted to eat maccaroni with cheese, don’t you think is kinda odd with all the Chinese food they got?”

I think there isn’t anything I don’t like about this movie. Maybe some scenes of the second story, but like I said, the atmospheric scenes of that segment make up for any of its shortcomings. I wanted to relax with a generally plot-less movie like the ones by Jarmusch that came before Mystery Train, and even though the cast has many known, and we could say mainstream, faces (and even the voice of Tom Waits as a
radio DJ) I think that with this movie, Jim stood true to his no-wave origins.


© Martin Wensley 2019

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