Directed Viewing: Trying Days of Jarmusch, “Mystery Train”

If you’ll permit me to be reflective for a little bit this week, one of the best parts of these director-specific projects is that it leads you into places that you’d rarely go normally. Now, that’s a good thing abstractly, something a little like eating your vegetables or getting your oil changed. You recognize the good, but sometimes it’s a real pain in the ass.

With that intro, guess how this week’s movie turned out?

Mystery Train (1989)

Mystery Train is a combination of three smaller stories that take place roughly simultaneously in Memphis. They don’t interweave, playing out as three separate scenarios labelled “Far From Yokohama”, “A Ghost”, and “Lost in Space” which slowly fill in the events around a run down hotel and a mysterious gunshot and all manner of small character pseudo-drama. Also lots of bullshit about Elvis.

The first story, “Far From Yokohama”, features a teenage Japanese couple Mitsuko and Jun, who have taken a pilgrimage across America to see the sights and take in a bunch of musical history. Mitsuko is obsessed with Elvis, believing him to be some sort of spirit of America, living on in Madonna and the Statue of Liberty and … I don’t even know what else. They continually talk about going to Graceland, but that never materializes. They do get a numbingly verbose tour of Sun Records, where the tour guide inches the group along one wall of the small recording studio, reciting a monologue that manages to overwhelm even native English speakers. For Mitsuko and Jun, who seem to barely grasp enough English to get by, I can only imagine it would be like being on the moon.

Either way, they end up having a bunch of arguments, then some make up sex, and then they hear a gunshot, before waking up the next morning refreshed and ready to steal all the towels and get the hell out of town.

The second story is about a recently-widowed Italian woman named Luisa, who is left to survive in Memphis for the night before continuing to escort her husband’s coffin. She wanders the city, being taken advantage of by various people, left with little money and sharing a room with a young woman called Dee Dee in the run down flophouse all three stories converge at. Dee Dee has recently left her boyfriend and plans to leave the next morning. She spends most of the night talking Luisa’s ear off about any number of things, though the two women are embarrassed into silence by the sound of their neighbors having sex and the sound of a gunshot. During the night, Luisa has a vision of Elvis Presley.

The two hotel clerks serve as the greek chorus to the rest of the film, drifting in with their own non-sequiturs.

The final story introduces Johnny, a loser who’s just lost his job and his girlfriend. Known around town as Elvis, he gets beligerent in a bar and waves around a gun before his friend and his girlfriend’s brother help him out of the bar. Johnny, so drunk he is convinced his girlfriend’s brother Charlie (Steve Buscemi) is his brother-in-law, convinces the two men to follow him into a liquor store, which Johnny robs and ends up shooting the owner. The three men decide to hide out in a local hotel for the night. As Johnny sobers up, he realizes that Charlie isn’t really his brother-in-law and flies into a rage. He attempts to shoot himself, and as the other two men try to wrestle the gun from him Charlie is shot in the leg. The three men flee the city, heading out of town along with the train carrying the other characters from the other stories.

If that sounds like little more than a bald summary, well, it is. I normally try to give movies the benefit of the doubt, but I have to admit that I absolutely hated everything about this movie. So my own opinions on what the film represents are so colored that I feel like I’d be doing the article a disservice by including them throughout the main part. But now that we’re over that hump, I’ll give it a shot.

Mitsuko and Jun are easily the most compelling part of the movie, charming in their own fish-out-of-water way.

This is the fourth Jarmusch film I’ve seen so far, and all of them have been obsessed with some idea of America as this run down wasteland for bums and hipsters (the more traditional form, that is), films fixated on rambling narratives with little in the way of movement and with characters who rarely end up learning or growing from their experiences. It’s all a bunch of drifting existentialism, and sometimes that really works (Down By Law really won me over) and sometimes it fails. This one fails.

Maybe it’s just because I have no attachment to the kind of music history the movie is so wrapped up in. There’s a lot of it, mentions of musicians and places and times and songs that I just don’t really give a shit about. The problem is, the film doesn’t care about being inclusive, which is fine unless you’re the one on the outside looking in trying to figure out at which point you’re supposed to care about all of this. It’s far more interested in being cool, in delving into this idea of the mythic history of American rock and roll, than it is about telling any sort of narrative worth sitting around for.

The whole thing ended up, at least to me, reminding me in many ways of a Coen Brothers movie in its ambitions, but without any of the charm or the narrative complexity. It’s an inert brick of a film, set up to appeal to sensibilities I can’t even pretend to understand. To say that I disliked it would be underselling the whole experience. Of all the movies I’ve talked about since I started writing about movies, I feel it is the one genuine waste of time. No person needs to worry about watching this, I feel. There are better things to do with 110 minutes. Life is short. Do something, anything, and you’ll have spent that time more wisely. Leave Mystery Train for the poor souls like me who feel compelled to delve into this bullshit.

( Now, admittedly, this is probably not fair. Plenty of critics loved the movie and still do. I think those people are crazy. And honestly, I never want to tell people not to watch a movie. Learning and having your own opinion is part of the experience. But god damn, if ever there was a movie, this was the one. )

I know we’re quickly getting to the point where Jarmusch movies start having plots, and I can’t wait. I feel like he’s ridden too long on the same ideas of cool and rambling non-narrative, four movies in I feel tired and like each time I sit down for one of these movies I’m spinning my wheels as much as the director is. So we’ll be back next week, and hopefully with something more positive to talk about.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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