Thursday 7 August 2008

Mystery Train (1989)

I haven't seen many Jim Jarmusch movies but every one has impressed me in a different way, and his is a name I now actively seek out. Dead Man stunned me, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai resonated with me and Coffee and Cigarettes fascinated me. Mystery Train is a compilation of three stories linked mostly by Elvis Presley and a Memphis hotel but also by timeframe and linked characters. Given that this is written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, it's not going to be your everyday story, and true to form it's a quirky joy to watch, in an amalgam of English, Japanese and Italian.

Far from Yokohama follows a young Japanese couple on a pilgrimage to Memphis. Jarmusch plays up the similarities (or lack of them) between Yokohama and Memphis but pays even more attention to the cultural differences and they're a fascinating pair. Mitsuko wears white lipstick and a leather jacket with Mister Baby painted on the back. She pays the bellboy in plums brought over from Japan and collects pictures of Elvis looking like other historical figures or statutes. Jun has slicked back hair and a green suede jacket, he looks depressed even when he's happy because that's just how his face is and he only takes pictures of hotel rooms. Everything else is in his memory, but the hotel rooms he'd forget.

They carry their suitcase around strung on a bamboo cane and argue in Japanese about who was better: Elvis or Carl Perkins. Jim Jarmusch characters are all fascinating and full of quirky insight. These ones arrive by train and from moment one nothing seems to be quite what they expect. Quite what they really think of their pilgrimage beforehand and afterwards is completely open to question because Jarmusch doesn't really tell us. He gives us hints but he lets us work it out, just like many things in this film.

A Ghost sees an Italian lady named Luisa with plenty of spare change stop off in Memphis because of a mixup with planes. She's transporting her deceased husband to Rome but an accident leaves her temporarily stranded in Memphis. She gets to walk around as much as the pair of Japanese pilgrims but with a little more of a sinister backdrop. She gets hassled by no smaller a guy than Tom Noonan, who spins her a great yarn about the ghost of Elvis entirely to fleece her out of money but then won't leave her alone.

She finds her way to the same hotel as Jun and Mitsuko, but ends up sharing a room with a stream of consciousness talker called Dee Dee who can't shut up. She talks about everything, it seems, but especially why she's leaving Memphis to get away from her boyfriend who she can't read because he never says anything. And just as she shuts up and goes to sleep, in comes the ghost of Elvis to talk to her instead.

Lost in Space introduces us to said boyfriend, Johnny aka Elvis, though he doesn't look anything like him. He's played by Joe Strummer from the Clash, who is on great form as a wild drunken Englishman getting into trouble in a foreign country, as he links our three stories together in time. Jarmusch populated this film with a bunch of music legends: not just Strummer and Hawkins but also Rufus Thomas, the voice of Tom Waits and even Rockets Redglare, who associated with legends being the bodyguard for Sid Vicious.

The Elvis played by Strummer drives around all night with a black guy called Will Robinson and his girlfriend's brother, Charlie the Barber, played by Steve Buscemi. They end up at the hotel too, to hide out after Elvis shoots someone in a liquor store. They are drunker than skunks (and probably were during shooting) making this whole section realistically down and dirty. In many ways it feels like a dream, which is aided by the dialogue and the cinematography.

One line or one shot in a Jarmusch movie can say more than many films manage in their entire length, and in Jarmusch movies the characters aren't just people: Memphis itself is a character here, a faded, run down, highly subdued Memphis with very few people around and lots of space. Jun compares it to Yokohama with 60% of the buildings removed and there's certainly lots of emptiness, between the buildings and between the people. Wandering around this dusty side of Memphis we see very few buildings that aren't rundown and dilapidated and we spend time in what must be all of them. It's surreal to experience what seems like everywhere within an entire side of town yet do so in a leisurely manner that floats through less than two hours. The wind howling among the wind chimes outside as I watch just adds character.

Beyond Memphis itself there are other supporting characters and all are memorable, especially Screaming Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee as the hotel night clerk and bellhop who continue through the three segments. Jodie Markell gives an awesome monologue as a Sun Records studio guide. She talks so fast it wears everyone out: our leads, played by Masatoshi Nagase as Jun and Youki Kudoh as Mitsuko and what appears to be a real family who must have just been there when Jarmusch arrived to film. Such synchronicity would fit very well. I wonder what else got made up on the spot. Very cool indeed.

1 comment:

peregrine fforbes-hamilton said...

Danger, "PENNY" Robinson, danger. rampantly heterosexual pedophile on the loose (and it ain`t Dr. Smith).