© 2016 by James Clark
Feature films being pretty high on the entertainment food chain (just spend a few minutes with what Vanity Fair magazine has become), most of us readily subscribe to the truism that each new profit centre has to come up with something “incredibly” different to please appetites forever seeking new thrills. Think of the spectacular range of David Lynch’s fireworks from Blue Velvet to Mulholland Drive. Whereas the Surrealist dictates of his muse well accommodate dazzlements from various dimensions of the vast, dark and fertile skies, it may be premature to conclude that all avant-garde commitment must embrace similar dramatic shock on the order of supernova cinematography. This consideration especially rains down on us when we contemplate the many films brought to light by the prolific Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch and his cameraman, Robbie Muller, clearly do not go on location to distant galaxies in order to deliver their goods. Though as unique in his way as Lynch, he sustains an output which could be described as one long, repeated, low-key activation on behalf of a virtually inaccessible rightness, or law. Time drags; gloom seeps into every nook and cranny; and it’s oddly funny and amazing—that, on the basis of dialogue as a generator of generally invisible awe. From the perspective of Lynch’s sensuality, that invoking of the surreal “more” looks inside-out. The cosmic break-out imagined in so many ways by so many auteurs, comes to be tempered in ways which take quite a while to accommodate. The Surrealist thrust for the “more” than discrete advantageousness comes in for a challenge to its downplaying of the creative energies of very human, very error-prone players.
Jarmusch has strongly hinted and gone on to prove in the action of his work to be particularly absorbed with the processes of music. Notably, then, right on the heels of a film from 1984 spotlighting Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the song, “I Put a Spell on You;” and a film from 1986 featuring a disc jockey—we have our film of today (from 1989), namely, Mystery Train, and the mystery of Elvis. And withal we have to scour the tiny portals offering access to a zone of grace (a Graceland) freighted with tons of refuse. (A very early moment has a pair of young Japanese tourists on a pilgrimage to the musical heart of America, and their train passes a striking series of garbage dumps.) An indication that the hitherto gentleness of the prospect of such shortfalls has moved into a less sanguine perception may be most incisively found in the second part of the three-part structure of Mystery Train. There we have an Italian woman, having been a resident of the U.S. for some time, returning to Italy with the coffin of the man in her life. That actress Nicoletta Braschi portrays this enduring of the school of hard knocks represents a very deliberate recall of her role in the preceding Jarmusch film, Down by Law, where she encounters and falls in love with an Italian drifter, felon and fugitive (Roberto). Roberto’s settling down with her has its ominous factor, as enunciated by one of the sayings of DJ, Zack (to be found in the earlier film), “It’s not the fall that kills you. It’s the sudden stop.” (Fellow-fugitive Zack [played by singer Tom Waits] resurfaces in Mystery Train as Memphis DJ, “Domino,” and his domino effect.) Now the dead man in our film, parked in Memphis during a one-day delay in scheduling, remains unnamed and the widow is Luisa, not Nicoletta. But the ongoing aura is not to be missed, in its accomplishing a fresh dimension of an inexhaustible problematic.Whereas Nicoletta was an ardent devotee to the delights of food, dancing and love of Roberto, Luisa, on the phone to Rome with the details of her voyage, covers the reversal with corporate realism: “I’m OK. That’s just the way life is.” Now that assurance precisely activates the work’s labor of love, inasmuch as it’s here to show those of us who can see that such cold-bloodedness is not the way (the essence of) life is, despite a large majority maintaining—in the words of Zack’s departing girlfriend—that “jerking people off a little” is the way to wholesomeness, to being a lawful, productive human being.
On her unexpected and brief visit to Memphis, Luisa has no trouble finding soulmates who, like her, make the world go round with prosaic, stunted inevitability. She drops by the World News outlet where a cordial African American wearing a cap inscribed Sheriff tells an elderly comrade with a Southern drawl buying a Hungarian newspaper (of which aunt Lotte, in Stranger than Paradise, probably counts herself a faithful reader), “Get on the phone, reach the man in that government of ours…” The geezer gets into that advantage race to the tune of seeing himself as another “Mickey Mantle… Tim McCarver for President!” “Now you’re talkin’,” the Sheriff praises. “You can organize. You got the time… You can change history!” On his way out the door, the apparently new man mutters, “So why don’t I get it on? Write some letters, telegrams… Let me give it a try…” Then Luisa selects an Italian newspaper (the Sheriff, strong on sound-bites, asking, “So what can I do you for?”) and goes on to be done in the form of also buying “The Tri-State Defender” and many magazines touching upon the whole spectrum of racking up big wins, which she had no awareness of but feels duty-bound not to disappoint an exponent, like herself, of feeble heart—her phone call at the airport consisting of her screaming to a listener in Italy about the logistics of lugging that damn coffin across the ocean—and jaunty, progressive demeanor. She proceeds to a diner where she encounters (another) con man with a line about Elvis’ ghost telling him that she will appear and should be endowed by him one of the King’s combs at the ridiculously low price of $20. She pays up to the perhaps victim of mental illness, further installing her full membership in sentimental liberalism. Then she ducks into a seedy hotel with the vulnerable story-teller and an equally worthy friend stalking her disconcertingly, and she immediately comes to the rescue of a woman (Dee-Dee) who can’t afford the fleabag’s toll of $22. Luisa, claiming not liking to sleep alone, invites the nonstop self-pitying complainer— “I’ll just wander the streets all night… probably get killed…”— (having much in common with Zack’s nemesis) from out of a form of sympathy as programmatically bloodless as her expectations of the rewards of sensuality. (Nicoletta, recall, brought Roberto onboard more in the spirit of a great hire than a mystery train.) Checking in, she claims, to the desk clerk played by a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins far less mercurial than in Stranger than Paradise, to be “discombobulated;” ensconced in her room, she envisions that the ghost of Elvis (ghosts being right as rain from the career of jerking off) comes to the foot of her bed, only to remark that he seems to have come to the wrong place (a lovely take on her own ambivalence). In the morning she gives to the lost but noisy $200 to bankroll a trip to Natchez, Mississippi, and a friend’s hospitality and, who knows? —even a job. Anyway, she’d be rid of her Brit boyfriend whom all his acquaintances call Elvis, much to his annoyance in recognizing that he has no charisma at all but simply poses as a wannabe-part-of a current of magic. The questionable spell coming over the no-nonsense charity dispenser is facilitated by Dee-Dee requiring a radio lulling her to sleep. Luisa is caught up in Domino’s slick patter and his dead of the night standby, “Blue Moon,” by the local force of nature, gone but not forgotten. The recorded cri de coeur (including a not so sublime falsetto passage) leaves Luisa-the-good with a forgettable travel blip. But it leaves us—having previously heard vintage Presley in the form of his early, having-it-all-together hit, “Mystery Train,”—accentuating the positive, at the expense of the pall-bearer, the one-woman soap opera (“I never know what he’s thinking… He never fuckin’ says anything!”) and the assorted predators overrunning the King’s kingdom.
As the roommates prepare to go their separate ways, the sound of a gunshot rings through the porous walls and cluttered corridors. “Maybe a 38,” Luisa expertly observes, ever the master of useful everyday facts. The source of that self-assertion is a figure Dee-Dee—transplanted from New Jersey with her brother who now operates a barber shop and is held in high esteem by her (first seen outside his shop, by the Rockabilly devotees as they trek from the train station, sharpening his skills as a fly fisherman, and later seen working overtime on a customer arriving after he had shut down)—had, until less than a day ago attached herself to, in a cheap bid for the sake of social climbing (she finding his accent refinement itself). Luisa being out of the picture but exerting a permanent warning, there is the chapter card, “Lost in Space.” (Her moment of truth had been called, “A Ghost,” and therewith the questionable sweetness of Nicoletta has been meant to haunt us. Confidently dispensing advice to the romantically bankrupt charity-case, she once again refuses to leave the shallow end of the pool. “Love can last only one week…”) If the dismaying powers of Luisa bring us face-to-face with a virulent and very popular gale of social media, the Lost Ones following in her wake have to do with self-evasion missing the mystery train so wantonly that they pose far more a biological than an interpersonal menace. At an (almost entirely) African American bar/ pool hall (affixed with the Sheriff’s touch of a Martin Luther King poster), Elvis and a black friend go downhill fast. The former, growling, “Fuckin’ bollocks!” goes to the juke box and puts on a Motown yawner connected with railroading: “Train #1 is gone; Train #2 is gone…” (Like Bela, Roberto and Luisa, Elvis joins a host of immigrants not really getting the newness of the New World. Like those skiffle-primed hordes of the “British Invasion,” he imagines that unlocking the mystery of the American South is well within his fluency for rude grottiness and cute chat. That the latter has got him nowhere has been telegraphed by his response that night to a black drinking buddy’s attempt to lift him out of depression by suggesting, “Why don’t you go back to England or wherever the hell you came from?” [The local himself proves that much more than geography is involved in unlocking the centre’s power. “Everybody I know needs a job.Seems like everybody in this town is outta work…”] “You know,” the perfect fit cries out, “if it wasn’t for her [“yo old lady leavin’ ya”] I wouldn’t be in this fuckin’ town.”) He needs 5 cracks of his lighter to light his friend’s cigarette and performs a karate-manoeuvre shut-down which elicits a laugh, a sneering smile and the oath, “Shit!” from his pal. He gratuitously picks a fight with two pool players— “If you can’t use my proper name…”—which his drinking buddy defuses (“He’s cool… he’s cool…”); getting more drunk, he tosses his empty glass (yes, glass) on the floor and pulls out a pistol which he is proud to show having been loaded. (Along this way of undefined retardation, he mentions having difficulty holding a job and its repercussions with Dee-Dee; and we’re back with Zack and Laurette and their more studious type of clash.) The worrier feels it is time to bring into this hornet’s nest what he and everyone—except Elvis—assumes to be his brother-in-law, Charlie, the barber, to smooth things over. That newcomer, along with Elvis’ best black friend whom Luisa, on her trek from the airport, saw rebuffing his half-ton, “Why you wanna do this to me?” ease him out to the open road where, after cruising around for some time in that truck (Charlie insisting on going home but Elvis citing his brother-in-law’s obligation to stay) the self-styled dashing gunman shoots and kills a liquor store clerk who had called the best friend “boy,” prompting man-of-the-people Elvis to consider the two bottles of Butcher’s a gift, whereupon the clerk gambled that Elvis didn’t have it in him to shoot, miscalculating, however, that the gunner was wanting to die. Sure enough, the trio stopping over at the hotel where Luisa was unable to sleep due to considerations well covered by the Japanese girl on departing that same Heartbreak Hotel— “That’s everything isn’t it? Did we forget anything?”—the man far from homelines up the barrel to his seldom used brains and Charlie intercedes, getting shot in the leg for his trouble. Before being ruined for life by that coward-cum-terrorist, the small businessman, deliriously drunk on toxic Butcher’s, reaches back to a happy memory, his enjoyment of the old TV series, “Lost in Space” (about a junkyard planet), which the non-entity chauffeur goes on record as hating. Then he and Elvis dump Charlie in the cargo area, as if he were a prize from a day of hunting. They think to get him back to normal by pointing out, “There are lots of doctors in Arkansas…” Dodging the police sirens, they scream along a service road beside the train carrying the Natchez-bound siren still in play (but don’t bet on it).
Whereas the episode, Lost in Space, is mainly about law of the jungle eclipsing law of clever advantage, the film, true to its innovative integrity, leaves us unsure of the (perhaps only former) barber and his (perhaps unemployable) sister. Redneck ground feeders (though few of them might rise to it). But taking the trouble to work lousy hours and move hundreds of miles for a job is situated in a context where you don’t need to be a doctor to be widely encouraged.
The various modes of paralysis, which part 2 and part 3 immerse us in, come fully into their own in light of part 1— “Far from Yokohama,” where that one in a million lives up to the real (and short-lived) Elvis. One of the riveting phenomena of modern Japan is its population’s propensity to forge passionate kinships to facets of American life. (Only products minted in the USA make the grade.) Mystery Train may, in its later stages dribble off to chilling oblivion. But a couple of Japanese kids have, amidst an Asiatic technical, calculative powerhouse, formed a devotion to twangy electric guitars redolent of rural backwaters, and musicians outfacing an echoey doom. The ludicrous Elvis would proclaim that “this fuckin’ town” [Memphis] would not be his, were it not for Dee-Dee; Luisa had barely any recollection of Elvis at all and counted her time in non-cosmopolitan Memphis to be an irritation.; but the protagonists kicking off this accelerating rout have, being not only very young but very young at heart, do, in their rather clownish way, elicit graces belying the slummy architecture and the slummy majority. The unseemly frantic rush by Luisato catch her plane gives us a last look at someone who, in the last analysis, is as adamantly trashy as failure-to-thrive Elvis.
We first see them, seated in a stainless steel streamlined train coach, listening to their tape deck to while away the more than two-day nothingness of the Mountain West and Great Plains finally giving way to the Confederate (agreement-rich) South, their Nirvana. By way of a rock-paper-scissors flurry (a primer for advantage skills) the girl (Mitsuko) gets to hear Elvis instead of the preference of her boyfriend (Jun). Moreover, she gets to hear pre-full-bore-advantage Elvis, specifically, his 1956 singular single, “Mystery Train.” The performance is true to pulsating, resonant (echoey) life; but the listeners are far from their best, conveying for us the bare-bones of their excitement. Though perhaps more mindful than Mitsuko that Elvis was a stiff most of his life, Jun can’t do without the mystery man’s hair style which he combs while half-listening to that out-of-the-gate game-changer. She complains, “It seems we’ve been in this train forever” (the nice point being that we’ve all been in this train forever). Jun’s remark, “There is a time difference in America”—to stress that, unlike geographically tiny Japan, going from coast to coast is not a matter of a few minutes—includes peering out at us from that chit-chat a Great Divide of old and new. The platform at Memphis, when finally reached, is part of a dispirited tank town evoking the Great Depression. On reaching the period main waiting area (by way of a vintage East Asian progress with their cool red suitcase borne by them at either end of a bamboo pole), Mitsuko lets out a whoop, and declares with satisfaction, “Great Echo!” (This being very much not a National Geographic love at first sight, but rather a visit where you have to muster lots of attitude to get the best out of it.) Seated amidst pew-like benches, Jun remarks that this place is far weaker than the station at their home town, Yokohama. (He adds the dig, “Memphis is Yokohama with 60% of the buildings gone.”) Mitsuko argues that the Memphis facility is “antique” and thereby more classy. This draws from him, once again, the sense of Carl Perkins (pronounced Parkissons) being the real deal (not an antique). A suggestion that he doesn’t have a strong focus on the feast at hand is his acceding to her insistence they see Graceland first; and yet they end up at the shrine that is the former Sun Records studio. More to the process of having it slip away, they’re confronted by a tour guide rattling off the stars, including Elvis and Perkins, so quickly they can follow very little. (The frontage resembles an H&R Block office.) Back on the sidewalk he insists, “I was really looking forward to Graceland…” A bit more equilibrium comes to pass at nightfall as they sit on a park bench beholding a bronze statue of the biggest name in rock and roll—who has brought about mesmerising musical dynamics. “Carl Perkins was better,” heretical Jun insists, all the while his face set in a scowl.
The clashes as to Parkissons and Elebis form a bemusing celestial ceiling for this trip of a lifetime, with its down-to-earth dimension being Mitsuko’s persisting in trying to cheer him up. Transfixed by the statue missing almost the whole point of the phenomenon (looking in fact like an oversized breakfast cereal perk), she kisses him right after he takes a drag on his ubiquitous, cool cigarette (otherwise propped against an ear, working-man style) and luxuriates in exhaling his current, the spark of wild love conspicuous in being absent. Booking into the same heartbreak hotel on the same night Luisa and the felons did their thing, that partnership climbs upstairs to fire up a fleeting moment making their rather arid extremities worthwhile. “No TV,” he mutters. Noticing the bellhop hanging around, she presents him with a plum from Japan (implying a meaningful contact), all the while the picture of chipper remarks and big warm smiles. Further sustaining her stature as the imaginative mover and shaker to his dour attitudinizing, while he wanders around the room snapping with his camera details of the décor (prompting her to ask why he never covers the world at large, but only small, boring places), she, sitting on the floor building up a scrapbook, announces. “Should I show you my important discoveries?” Mitsuko has linked to her Elvis visual archive various figures starring through the years to add to the consequentiality of the King. There is a Buddha looking typically serene; then there is a photo of the rocker at rest, the attitudes nearly identical. There are the Statue of Liberty, and even Madonna (that falsetto seemingly empowering). Jun wryly praises, “Elvis was more influential than I thought…” But in that he was underplaying how much a song like “Mystery Train” means to him.
Actress, Youki Kudoh, covering the role of strong and charming modern woman outpacing a guy she’s too good for, proceeds to treat us to a clown show—vaguely reminiscent of consummate clown Giulietta Masina, doing her damnest to bring around to loving life, as she does, a cloddish, verve-extinguishing mate, in La Strada (1954). She prefaces her getting into the mood for the state— “They’re fucking”—which Luisa and Dee-Dee can’t help hearing, by the hopefully effective easy gambit, “Why the sad face?” He retorts (the facts being no doubt far more complicated), “I’m very happy. That’s just the way my face is.” Her bag of tricks to cheer him up involves applying an overload of lipstick and then giving the bemused travelling companion a big kiss which results in his deadpan eyes being matched with an Emmett Kelly mouth. Then she lights his cigarette by operating and offering a lighter with her toes. Then she squishes her lips and smokes as if she had fallen off a motorcycle. This funny girl/ straight man show is supplemented by Screamin’ Jay talking the bellhop (with a circus monkey pill-box hat) out of eating that plum and then snapping it up like one of the other circus attractions. She slips into bed, removing her clothes, hopeful that her lovable, high-spirited body language will be rewarded with some warmth. He, however, like Zack in Down by Law, is intent upon his great patent leather shoes, polishing them carefully and placing them on a soft chair, the way Carl Perkins would have treated his blue suede kickers. Then he stands by the window, with three street lamps but no moon to see, contemplating the day gone by, the rag-tag street with its railway bridge and the isolation being not quite about “very happy.” A train rushes by, its whistle blowing. The former sprite has now become a force of the mundane, an opponent of the strange. “What are you looking at?” He replies, “Memphis,” a town he didn’t seem very impressed with a few hours before. He elaborates, “This isn’t Yokohama. This is America… To be 18 feels cool… and so far from Yokohama… It feels cool to be in Memphis…”
A cut has them rutting, she noisily; and then she angrily faults his not having shaved for two days, after he questions the grooming of her hair. He looks over to that window and Domino (with dominos collapsing apace) warmly informs, “Classic Roy Orbison [another star Jun prefers to Presley] … “On the Road…” Then the new Zack puts on “Blue Moon” for Luisa to make a fool of herself; but Jun, perhaps as never again, is on top of the world, but not Mitsuko’s world. There is a cut to “wild man” Screamin’ Jay advising the bellhop to upgrade his uniform from out of his own pocket. “Clothes make the man…” As Jun fumbles that ball that is his buddy at least, the falsetto passage clicks in to turn the screw another step. After an angry Mitsuko tells her mate not to wake her up (a tough customer, no doubt), he flat-footedly petitions, “Don’t you want to go to Graceland?… You sleep too much…” They eventually pack, his stealing a bath towel infuriating her about luggage space which she overcomes by putting about 8 of her beloved T-shirts on. As they sit on the overstuffed bag to close it, the sound of Elvis the nobody shooting the barber puts them into another mood, but a mood no better than that just before. “Was that a gun?” the Japanese Gelsomina asks. “Probably,” Jun declares, now once again the rather smug partisan of his neat and gunless homeland. “This is America…” But where did cool, 18-in-Memphis go?
Keeping pace with the remarkableness of this roundup of the rigors of mystery, there are factors of design, irony and comedy to further assure us that we are in the hands of a master of cinematic reflection and dash. Each of the three rooms in the hot-buttoned-hotel musters thematically bouncy design delivery. With its lush and edgy floor lamp, and distressed seating, you could call the temporary home of Mitsuko and Jun the David Lynch sanctuary. With its Arts and Crafts floral wallpaper, you could call the social reform stopover of Luisa (with her naturalist wild bush of underarm hair) the William Morris chapel. With its raging, ripped-apart walls and furnishings, you could call the one-night hideout of the desperadoes the Marquis de Sade play-pen (de Sade being a factor of Down by Law). Elvis the jaundiced tells the drinking buddy, “I can’t help it if I was born white…” The desk clerks do some research to whitewash the slobbiness of the reality of Presley’s career. Running by the gravity-factors of other planets in hopes of reinstalling the King in his best-light lightness, the bellboy discovers with some dismay that were the celestial one settled on Jupiter he’d weigh 648 pounds. The next stop for the binge rockers (she being sold on her Our Gang—solitude- averse—T-shirt) is New Orleans and the Fats Domino Museum. On the train out of town, fretful Dee-Dee asks Mitsuko if this is the train to Natchez. The latter misunderstands that she’s being asked for matches, a way of exposing the tourist as far from a bidder for grinding work and instead a ready dispenser of mundane fire. Mitsuko’s velvet bomber jacket carries the message on its back, Mister Baby. There might have been a microsecond of aspiring to extraordinary courage. But it ain’t that easy!