© 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. (more…)