All writing is travel writing, the axiom goes. And for Jim Jarmusch, perhaps more than any other filmmaker working today, all movies are travel movies. It’s not a slight to call him the epitome of the filmmaker as tourist. In a Jarmusch movie, the simple fact of being somewhere new, somewhere potentially confusing, is nourishment for the senses, tonic for the imagination.
We can pinpoint exactly where this wanderlust began. In the first few minutes of Jarmusch’s debut feature, Permanent Vacation (1980), the hepcat hero muses on a voice in his head that periodically tells him, “Time to split. Go someplace else . . . You have to start the drift.” At the end, after a largely plotless prowl through the pregentrified dereliction of the Lower East Side, he hops on a boat to Paris. The film concludes with him pulling out of New York Harbor, the Manhattan skyline receding into the distance (echoing the final shot of a great travel movie from the period, Chantal Akerman’s 1976 News from Home). Jarmusch’s career, while not exactly a permanent vacation, has been consecrated to the possibilities of cross-cultural exchange, the satisfactions of “the drift,” the romance of “someplace else.”
Mystery Train (1989), his fourth feature, caps a trilogy that presents America as a strange land full of strangers. In Stranger Than Paradise (1984), the first and most indelible of his deadpan odysseys, Eva (Eszter Balint), a teenager newly relocated from Budapest, compels two New York hipsters (John Lurie and Richard Edson) to travel first to suburban Cleveland and then to the Florida coast. In Down by Law (1986), a motormouthed Italian convict (Roberto Benigni), forever scribbling American idioms in his notebook, springs his two gloomy cell mates (Lurie and Tom Waits) for a journey through the Louisiana bayou. More than portraits of dislocated outsiders, these films are comic, bittersweet love letters to America, hardly blind to the country’s ugliness and faults but open to seeing it from a new angle.
Set in Memphis, the mythic birthplace of American popular music, Mystery Train consists of three separate stories that pass through the same ramshackle hotel. Each involves a different type of outsider: tourists with an itinerary, an accidental visitor on a forced layover, an immigrant who has lost his bearings. The first, “Far from Yokohama,” begins with a teenage Japanese couple, Mitzuko (Youki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase), listening to Elvis’s “Mystery Train” as their train pulls into Memphis. Rock-and-roll fans, they’re in town to visit Sun Studio and Graceland (a pilgrimage, as Jarmusch suggests by showing them walking down Chaucer Street). She adores Elvis and keeps a scrapbook devoted to the King, matching his various likenesses with those of Buddha, Madonna, and the Statue of Liberty; he’s a cool cat with an immaculate pompadour, and he prefers Carl Perkins. In the second story, “A Ghost,” Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), a newly widowed Italian woman, resigns herself to spending an additional night in America before catching a flight home to Rome the next day. She has run-ins with friendly and hostile locals alike but keeps her loss to herself. Fleeing from a deadbeat creep (Tom Noonan) who spins her a yarn about Elvis’s hitchhiking ghost, she ends up sharing a room for the night with Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), a loquacious young woman who has just dumped her boyfriend. The final segment, “Lost in Space,” finds Johnny (Joe Strummer), Dee Dee’s British ex (nicknamed Elvis for his quiff), morose over the loss of his relationship and his job. His friend Will (Rick Aviles) and Dee Dee’s brother, Charlie (Steve Buscemi), retrieve him from the dive bar where he’s drowning his sorrows, but their plan to keep him out of trouble backfires, and they find themselves seeking refuge at the hotel.
The stories are more or less self-contained, but Jarmusch provides bits of connective tissue, small points of contact, gentle reminders that these characters, most of whom never meet, are occupying the same time and space. The hotel’s desk clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and bellhop (Cinqué Lee) do an overlapping, entirely charming comic routine across all three segments. Charlie can be glimpsed in Jun and Mitzuko’s story, Will in Luisa’s. Jun and Mitzuko walk past a bar called Shades, where Johnny will get drunk a few hours later. The couple and Luisa traverse the same stretch of sidewalk (within minutes of each other, to judge by the dusk light), high-rises visible in the distance. Luisa and Dee Dee hear Jun and Mitzuko having sex in the next room. A passing train is seen by Jun and Dee Dee from their hotel windows and by Johnny, Will, and Charlie from a speeding car. In each segment, someone happens to turn on the radio just before 2:17 a.m., catching the final strains of Roy Orbison’s “Domino” before the DJ (Tom Waits) announces the time and introduces an “early-early-morning” favorite, Elvis’s tremulous “Blue Moon.” The morning after, every single character who has ended up at the Hotel Arcade hears a gunshot (one of them feels it).
Mystery Train is a puzzle movie as humanist manifesto. Not just attuned to the formal pleasures of synchronicity and repetition, it’s founded on the most basic facts of human commonality and difference: our lives are filled with shared experiences that we nonetheless feel and understand in disparate ways. The cubist structure, descended from Rashomon (which Jarmusch nods to more explicitly in his 1999 samurai-Mafia neowestern Ghost Dog), also allows for a strong sense of place to emerge, a selectively depicted Memphis—a Memphis of Jarmusch’s mind—that we get to know as we see the same parts of town over and over, from slightly different angles and under slightly different circumstances. Mystery Train mostly hangs out in the city’s run-down pockets (reminiscent of the postapocalyptic lower Manhattan of Permanent Vacation), a half-dead zone of abandoned lots, boarded-up storefronts, and newspapered windows.
Wherever he is, Jarmusch finds a mournful beauty in the commonplace and the forgotten. He’s not big on the usual tourist sights. In Stranger Than Paradise, Lake Erie turns out to be a wintry expanse of nothing; Florida, idealized before the fact as a tropical paradise, is rendered as a patch of scrubby coastline and a cramped motel room. Jarmusch’s latest film, The Limits of Control (2009), which follows Isaach de Bankolé’s lone man on an enigmatic mission through Spain, is his first to be set entirely outside the U.S., and perhaps for that reason is his most traditionally touristic. But even this travelogue of a stranger in paradise stages its key, transporting moments in relatively mundane settings: sleepy town squares, modest apartments, a corner of the Andalusian desert.
In Mystery Train, we never see Graceland, though we do stumble upon the more modest Sun Studio. Much of our time is spent in the vicinity of the hotel, a flavorsome fleabag with battered furniture, peeling walls, and an Elvis portrait in every room, the kind of place that might have inspired Jarmusch’s fellow road-trippers and Americana connoisseurs Edward Hopper and Robert Frank. (The compositions and colors in Mystery Train are as controlled as in Hopper: breaking from the black and white of his previous two films, Jarmusch and his regular cinematographer, Robby Müller, work in a limited palette of blues, grays, and greens, with stylized bursts of red.)
Jarmusch necessarily pays attention not just to musical history—the dive bar’s jukebox selections include Otis Redding, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Rufus Thomas (who can be seen asking Jun and Mitzuko for a light in the first section)—but also to racial dynamics. Most of the locations are in the mainly black part of town, not far from the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down, and Charlie doesn’t hide his nervousness about going into a bar like Shades. Later, it’s a racial slur, directed at Will, that prompts Johnny to shoot the liquor store clerk. The black and white roots of rock and roll are breezily covered by the jabbering tour guide who greets Jun and Mitzuko at Sun Studio (they don’t understand a word she says), and Jarmusch acknowledges this history of appropriation and integration with his choice of musical bookends: he opens the movie with Elvis’s 1955 recording of “Mystery Train” but gives the last word to Junior Parker, a black musician who cowrote the song and recorded the lesser-known original two years earlier.
It’s no detriment to Mystery Train—and in fact makes a kind of theoretical sense—that Jarmusch had never been to Memphis before he came up with the idea for the movie. Many of his characters find themselves having to decipher an alien environment, and it’s telling that some of them rely on old frames of reference. (On balance, Jarmusch’s films suggest that travel sharpens the senses, but he’s also sensitive to Emerson’s contrarian assertion that it “narrows the mind.”) When one of the New Yorkers gets to Cleveland in Stranger Than Paradise, he grumbles, “You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same.” Similarly, Jun insists that Memphis is just like Yokohama, but with 60 percent of the buildings removed. (Mitzuko, enthralled by how “antique” everything is, begs to differ.)
One way to familiarize the foreign is to identify shared cultural referents. In Memphis and in Mystery Train, that common denominator is obviously Elvis. But even so, all the characters have vastly different conceptions of the man and his myth. Johnny, who hates his nickname, bemoans the omnipresence of the Elvis brand. To Mitzuko, he’s the most American of icons. To Luisa, he’s simply a local curiosity, but the grief-stricken widow is also the only one in this ghost town blessed with an Elvis sighting. Culture, of course, can be as much a barrier as a bridge—with a typically transnational cast, there are the familiar language breakdowns of a Jarmusch film, and some other untranslatables (Johnny, a Brit, doesn’t get why Will, whose last name is Robinson, has to endure Lost in Space wisecracks).
Multistrand movies have proliferated in the two decades since Mystery Train, and it’s almost shocking to see how little Jarmusch’s wise, unassuming film ultimately has in common with the sleight-of-hand flamboyance of Pulp Fiction or the reductive fraudulence of Babel and Crash, which yank their narrative threads together in the hope of producing grand, unified theories of the human condition. Jarmusch isn’t remotely interested in convergence. Quite the opposite, in fact. When strangers become aware of one another in Mystery Train, the connections are all the more melancholy for being transient, partial, matter-of-fact. As the train pulls out of Memphis, some but not all of the characters on board, the film leaves the lovely impression that what we’ve seen is special for its ordinariness: three stories among many.
Dennis Lim is the editor of Moving Image Source and a contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.