Stuart’s Log: MYSTERY TRAIN (1989)

November 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Mystery Train is a compendium of three synchronous stories that has lyrical and absurdist fun with the music capital of the American South, here depicted as an urban wasteland haunted by the ghost of Elvis Presley. The first is a tale of a tourist Japanese couple on a pilgrimage to a city they know only as the home of their idols Elvis and Carl Perkins, the second a tale of two women newly out of relationships (but for markedly different reasons), and the third a tale of three men on the lam that literalizes Chekhov’s gun to unsettling ends. Each vignette builds on its predecessor in menace and mystery, but all are swallowed up by the same downbeat, minimalist aesthetic—for Jim Jarmusch, the vibe is key.

The film is the first of Jim Jarmusch’s anthology movies, which have since come to include Night on Earth (1991) and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). On the whole, these are structurally and stylistically similar to his narrative features—carved up into episodes that are bracketed by fades to black and shot from the same deadpan remove—but they are rarely as successful. This is not only because they suffer, as do most anthologies, from hit-or-miss syndrome, but also because they push the limits of Jarmusch’s programmatic approach to filmmaking. In Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Dead Man (1995), and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), the evenly spaced out time intervals, the geometrical cleanliness, and the visual and musical reoccurrences serve to punctuate and poeticize an otherwise fluid and unpredictable narrative. In the anthologies, each fade to black heralds not a new chapter in the story, but a return to ground zero. Yet another batch of characters will converse over coffee and cigarettes, share a taxicab in a far-flung part of the world, or check into this rundown Memphis hotel. The full impact of these movies is the product of an inch-by-inch accretion of amusing, largely similar sketches—the subtleties of how they diverge from one another and thematically interrelate. But interrelation is not necessarily coalescence, and there is rarely the sense of a complete picture or totalizing effect.

So where does that leave Mystery Train? It has its inventively drawn characters, its enticing repetitions, its entrancing visuals, and there is certainly a beauty to the way Jarmusch coasts along on vibe—never really going anywhere but making the atmospheric most of being thrice holed up in the same dingy patch of downtown Memphis. But, for this Jarmusch fan, the appeal lies less in how its three stories relate to one another than in how the film proper relates to the rest of Jarmusch’s filmography. It’s a movie that repeats and anticipates stray bits from all over his oeuvre—dreamlike train rides, clattering musical nocturnes, strangers in a strange land, storefront lateral tracking shots, runs from the law, seedy late-night locales, and, most noteworthy to me, the line ‘it’s America’ used in relation to gun violence (to be repeated almost verbatim in Dead Man).

These career-spanning echoes and omens are, in their own way, more satisfying and fascinating than the internal rhymes of the movie’s cubistic structure. Mystery Train is not a great film, but it remains an important piece of the Jarmusch jigsaw.

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