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A Japanese couple obsessed with 1950s America goes to Memphis because the male half of the couple emulates Carl Perkins. Chance encounters link three different stories in the city, with the common thread being the seedy hotel where they are all staying. Written by
Ed Sutton <email@example.com>
One of the loosest, though tightly structured, low-key yet hilarious, and rocking' films of the 80's
I've seen all of Jarmusch's films with the exception of Night on Earth. While all of them (even Dead Man and Year of the Horse, movies that boggled my mind with how strange they were) carry a level of off-beat, original, and fresh kind of film-making prowess, I think my favorite (hard to say 'best' with this director) is with this film, Mystery Train. Plot-wise, it's the obvious precursor to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (and it's understandable that QT saw this- he did, after all, include Elvis as a practical spiritual adviser for Clarence in True Romance, beside the point). The idea behind both films is very similar, but of course executed in entirely different trajectories - one person or place has a level of importance for what will happen to the characters in the film (with 'Pulp' it was Marsellus Wallace; with 'Mystery' it's the Hotel run by Screaming' Jay Hawkins, and the song Blue Moon on radio). On its own terms, Mystery Train comes out entertaining if one doesn't want to think about the timing of the plot, even if that is carefully, almost architecturally constructed.
Although the second and third stories are linked by character associations, the first is a stand-alone segment that looks like if it was just on paper could make for a calm, witty short story. As it is in the film, the Japanese couple "Far from Yokohama" featuring actors Masatoshi Nagase and Yôki Kudô, is an inviting first part of the film, almost entirely in Japanese subtitles, and playing off of the lady's love of Elvis, and the guy's quiet love for Carl Perkins (a name I didn't really know until I asked around). A steady pace is kicked off by Jarmusch, working more on mood than on a conventional story, and it is something that works rather well. Interesting still is how he sets up other little bits with supporting characters as the leads unfurls- this being an occasional couple of lines between Hawkins and down-beat bellboy Cinque Lee (there are also very quick shots of Steve Buscemi as a barber, the only small connection to the other two stories, and Rufus Thomas at the station). Sometimes the couple bicker, but never with a rush of intensity, and when the scene comes to a passionate close, it's really wonderful how it can be touching at being subtle.
The second story, "Ghost", is faster, with more of a high-key for humor. Nicoletta Braschi (Roberto Benigni's wife in most films as in life) is astray in Memphis on a flight, and instead of seeking out Elvis gets it delivered to her in a vision while in a hotel room with a talky Jersey Girl (Elizabeth Bracco). It's a complete kind of surreal scene that acts as the fine top-off to a set of odder circumstances that bring her to the hotel (in particular Tom Noonan in one of the funniest small roles I've seen in any Jarmusch film). Once again, the little things keep this thing floating with a stack of magazines, and of course, all that music on the radio.
The third story, "Lost in Space", is when Jarmusch turns up the energy, which means not as far as you might expect. What he does get is a kind of three-character triangle that some-what reminded me of a sequence in The Last Detail: three characters that are totally smashed, with nothing else except to crash in the hotel. But with this story, two performances shine through unexpectedly: Joe Strummer as a fuming, gun-toting Brit and Steve Buscemi in his early days as his "brother in-law". The climax to this scene- in essence the climax to the whole film- is one that is on par, at least comparable, to the climax of Pulp Fiction, as a wild, dead-serious and dead-funny accumulation of events tying things together.
Two facets that make Jarmusch's vision work are, for one thing, that he has Robby Mueller, a bit of a God in the world of modern European cinematographers. His scenes are lit sometimes with all the realism and fantasy of a European fantasy film, but also with a careful eye in composition and getting unusual angles on things a simple as photographing two people in bed or a person walking alone with Memphis in the backdrop. The other facet includes the city itself, with its quality of attracting and leading in people who are unique to the city, and (sometimes) particular to the music. On top of Jarmusch regular John Lurie on the guitar and harmonica, he brings in songs that remind me how much I can get into this kind of music with the right setting. They- Elvis, Orbison, and Sam Phillips among others- contribute just as much as the actors do. Mystery Train may be one of the quintessential 80's indie films (which can be said of Stinger than Paradise and Down by Law as well), that welcomes anyone who might be interested to watch, and if you don't like it, it's not at the worst offensive to taste. It's a keen film on people, music, and devotion.
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