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Jim Jarmusch – Mystery Train (1989)




Mystery Train is not the best entry in Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre but it is an interesting one in the context of the director’s artistic evolution. Thematically, Jarmusch doesn’t offer anything new, again taking on themes of loss, alienation, and the decay of U.S. American culture which are all motives in his previous films Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. Stylistically, he expands on his more sophisticated frames in Law and adds a lot of camera movement. The one-shot-one-take approach of Stranger Than Paradise is not totally forgotten, but his camera fledges. Maybe the most notable development in Mystery Train is the director’s approach to structure. The three episodes comprising the film all take place in Memphis at the same time in the same neighborhood and overlap sometimes. It is here that we can consider how the director progressed as a storyteller during the early years of his career.

The first episode, entitled “Far From Yokohama”, follows Jun and Mitzuko, a young Japanese couple who, on a train trip through America on the tracks (no pun intended) of their idols Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, stop in Memphis to visit Sun Studios and Graceland. It is a well-observed character piece full of little surprises and irony but it also lays a solid foundation for the story and provides us with a few first pieces of the puzzle we’re meant to put together by the end of the film. We get a glimpse of Steve Buscemi’s character Charlie we will meet later on in the film, there is a very real sense of decay and emptiness symbolized by an abandoned movie theater and gas station (sitting at the train station, Jun observes “I like Yokohama station better. It has a more modern atmosphere”), there are a diner, an empty lot and a hotel that will serve as visual signifiers, the antics of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinque Lee who man the reception desk at the hotel, there is a picture of Elvis in the couple’s hotel room, the monologue of Tom Wait’s DJ announcing the King’s song “Blue Moon”, and a gun shot in the morning.

“A Ghost”, the second episode, fills in a few more pieces of the puzzle. We open at the airport where Luisa repatriates her husband who died during their honeymoon. We follow her with lateral tracking shots as she walks through destitute streets (like we did in the previous segment). At one point, she passes Rick Aviles’ character Will who works on the engine of his pick-up truck. We will meet him later together with Charlie. She reads a book at the diner Jun and Mitzuko passed by. She glances at the empty lot where the Japanese couple lingered earlier. She decides to spend the night at the same hotel the love birds occupy. There, she meets Dee-Dee who doesn’t have enough money to afford a room for the night and shares a room with her. They both hear Jun and Mitzuko have sex. Dee-Dee talks about her ex-boyfriend Johnny who everyone calls Elvis and who is a crucial character in the next segment. They hear the Tom Waits DJ routine and “Blue Moon”. There is a picture of Elvis on the wall and the King’s ghost even appears to Luisa. A gunshot in the morning.

The third and last segment “Lost In Space” (easily the most contrived and disappointing part of an otherwise charming film) finally puts all the pieces into place. Buscemi’s character Charlie is Johnny’s brother-in-law and has to pick him up at a bar together with Will where Johnny is wielding around a gun. They go to a liquor store where Johnny shoots the clerk. They flee, pass the ruins of the theater, hear Tom Waits and “Blue Moon” on the radio, and seek refuge at the hotel where Screamin’ Jay Hawkins owes Will a favor. They spend the night in the shabbiest room available where Johnny instantly complains about the Elvis picture. They drink more and talk about cult TV shows. In the morning, Charlie accidentally shoots Johnny in the leg. They have to flee again. The last shot of the movie shows us the train with Jun and Mitzuko on board leaving town alongside the truck with Willie, Johnny and Charlie taking off in the same direction. I was waiting for Luisa’s plane to pass by in the distance as well but that might have been too much synchronicity for Jarmusch.

Now the puzzle is solved. To be sure, Jarmusch doesn’t use any revolutionary screenwriting tricks. But he hones his storytelling. Consider Stranger Than Paradise, a film told in three separate segments, and Down By Law, also in three segments taking place in distinctly different locales – both films are less episodic and feature a continuing story, but laid the groundwork for Jarmusch's more fractured approach to storytelling. Some might argue that the two earlier films follow the traditional three-act screenplay structure more closely and are thus divided into three different parts, but even if that were accurate (and I don’t think it’s a compelling argument) Jarmusch dispenses with it in Mystery Train and doesn’t even think about it in Night on Earth which expands even further on the episodic narration that would culminate in the feature length version of Coffee & Cigarettes.

Linking the three segments in Mystery Train superficially is, of course, a shtick but Jarmusch does try to put the major characters on an even thematic playing field. Jun, Mitzuko, Luisa and Johnny are all concerned with relationship issues mostly having to do with loss. The Japanese couple might be the happiest duo in the film but Jun is distant and Mitzuko craves more raw emotionality from her beau. Luisa just lost her freshly wedded husband and doesn’t even mention him to Dee-Dee when they talk about male-female relationships. Johnny and Dee-Dee just broke up and try to deal with it as well as they can. The fact that all of the characters spend most of their time in closed spaces (hotel room, bar, diner, car, train, airport) and seem adrift when they walk or drive around suggests that they are fundamentally trapped in those relationships and that leaving Memphis at the end of the film is an however ill-fated attempt at breaking free.

As fun as it is to play “spot similarities” in Mystery Train, Jarmusch makes a much more convincing case for his episodic storytelling in Night on Earth where he uses theme to link unrelated plot events instead of the opposite. The five episodes of that film reference each other constantly but the film is not meant as a plot puzzle the same way Mystery Train is. It may sound vague and lofty, but when two lonesome taxi drivers (who express their loneliness in fundamentally opposed ways) circle a monument in different cities the same night for similar but different reasons, Jarmusch tries to say something about a transcendent humanity that links us all. In Mystery Train the gun shot in the morning is meant as a puzzle piece and a sort of inside joke between the writer/director and his audience who both know more than the characters and can thus smile at their ignorance or puzzlement (pun intended).

The problem with this approach is that Jarmusch sets up plot incidences in the first two segments and has to use almost the entire third segment to pay it off. Where “Far from Yokohama” and “A Ghost” were both intimate character pieces, “Lost in Space” is purely plot driven and as a result feels oddly out of place. The director wants to explain the gun shot, wants to show us why Dee-Dee is ambivalent about Johnny and why Buscemi and Aviles were seen earlier in the film. It is this quest for explanation that gives the last segment a different feel. Arguably, Jarmusch encounters the same problem in Down By Law where the first half hour goes through a lot of unimportant plot to justify why the three main characters end up in the same jail where the film switches to a more intimate character study, but I would submit that Mystery Train’s ending is more problematic than Down By Law’s opening. The latter film’s first 30 minutes at least provides context, whereas Train’s last 35 minutes don’t offer much more than explanations to seemingly random plot signifiers without giving them any deeper meaning.

On the other hand, using the gunshot as a big reveal at the end of the film keeps us interested to a certain extent in the proceedings in "Lost in Place". The characters are rather bland and the narrative is oftentimes unconvincing (also see Rosenbaum for how Jarmusch misread social interactions in the South) but by offering a sort of reverse "Chekov's gun" introducing the gun shot in the first act and revealing the actual gun in the third act, we want to know what happens with it. At the moment the gun goes off, we connect the dots of what is happening in the two other rooms of the hotel we have seen and for a short moment Jarmusch's narrative trickery seems to work. But ultimately, the director's minimalism in the first two thirds of the movie works against him - finding out what makes Johnny, Charlie and Willie tick would have been much more satisfying than seeing the machinations of why there is a gunshot that vaguely ties together three otherwise unrelated stories. Less story, more character is Jim Jarmusch's strength. Mystery Train might be the most compelling case for that.

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