Monday, January 13, 2020

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #234 - Mystery Train (1989, dir. Jim Jarmusch)

            Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 anthology film Mystery Train gathers up all of the uniquely Memphis things and presents them to us through the eyes of aliens, people who aren’t natives but who have come to Memphis. The film consists of a trio of short stories that all take place on the same night in Memphis; of a young Japanese couple, an Italian widow, and a Brit as they search for the real Memphis - or at least what they think is the real Memphis. These stories all have common threads that are typically Memphis: a seedy run down motel, Elvis, and a touch of that feeling that maybe locals aren’t so kind to folks that aren’t from 'round here (there is a skepticism in the voice of every Memphis native in the film). Jarmusch takes you on a ride through the nighttime streets of Memphis and leaves you with a mysterious feeling, like maybe it didn’t, or couldn’t, really happen.- Anna Lathem
            Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a Japanese couple, Italian widow and Joe Strummer walk into a seedy hotel in Memphis, Tennessee…. In Mystery Train that’s exactly what happens, along with a ton of other things. Like many of Jarmusch’s films, there is a common thread that flows through all of the stories that in the end connect them all together. This time it just happens to be the lovely Arcade Hotel. I use the word "hotel" lightly - this place might not even count as a motel; they don’t even have TV’s in the room! Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinque Lee are perfectly out of place as the Night Clerk and Bellboy of the Arcade Hotel. They play off each other well, snarky and strange the entire time, almost as if they had snuck in, replaced the normal staff, and decided to set up strange shop running this hotel. The “hotel” sees all of our characters come and go at some point in the night.
            I think there is a law somewhere that says you can’t talk about Memphis without talking about Elvis, and there is plenty of that in this film. In the first story “Far From Yokohama” Jun and Elvis-obsessed Mitsuko make a pilgrimage to Sun Studios, experience strange American customs like tipping the busboy, and argue over who is better - Elvis or Carl Perkins. In “Ghost” Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) gets firsthand experience with the phenomenon of everyone having a “ghost of Elvis” story, including getting conned out of twenty bucks by a very enthusiastic story about a man picking up a mysterious hitchhiker that turned out to be the ghost of The King himself just trying to catch a ride back to Graceland. She also experiences her own ghostly vision of The King - or maybe it was all a dream. “Lost In Space” shows us that while Memphis natives might love The King, a surly Brit named Johnny (Joe Strummer) absolutely hates being called Elvis because of the way he looks, stating that he would much rather be nicknamed “Carl Perkins Jr.” as he gets in trouble at a bar and a liquor store.
            Mystery Train, oh how you capture the dirty, dusty and hazy feel that Memphis still has to this day. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen another film that captures what it looks, feels and sounds like on a hot summer night in the south, but somehow Jarmusch manages to do just that. It could be because all scenes interior or exterior that were set at night were actually filmed at night, which gives the film a consistent southern nighttime buzz. Jarmusch brings Technicolor to the darkness of Memphis; polarizing street lights along a pitch black road, railroad crossing lights that beam across a deserted intersection. It is the perfect mysterious setting for these three stories.

- Anna Lathem

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