“You only need one leg to get around. Sure helps to have two.”
In a scene from Coffee and Cigarettes (2004) that could be described as actors acting like they are actors acting like bad actors, Meg and Jack White give long-overdue recognition to Alfred Tesla, a man who felt there was electrical energy perpetually throbbing from the earth. Later in the film, Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina have difficulty meeting each others’ needs and end up parting with as little reconciliation as the friends and family who never share a moment of joy in Jarmusch’s appropriately stark and minimalist Stranger Than Paradise (1984).
Jim Jarmusch makes films that focus on the subtle nuances of communication. Whether an amusing moment of hurt feelings between hilariously oversensitive rock stars Iggy Pop and Tom Waits in Coffee and Cigarettes or Ghost Dog (1999) plugging a bullet into his master in a misunderstanding stemming from an ages-old tradition, the failure for human beings to connect and then spark and the consequences of this typical human failure to communicate is not only a running concern through one of America’s best filmmakers’ work, but it is his strong suit.
On the surface, each of the three vignettes of the richly complex Mystery Train (1989), Jarmusch’s first foray into color, is connected in being about aliens making their way in Memphis, trying to reconcile their foreignness with perhaps the most mythically “American” city. Depth-adding motifs also occur visually and through repeated situations, scenes, and characters such as the crazed rock pioneer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ grumpy night manager and Cinque Lee’s youthful bellboy.
But a closer read reveals more because with a work of art as at once compelling and obfuscated as this film, clues offer rare help in discerning meaning. Since it is a film taking place in and using as its mythical center Music City USA, the tunes provide a good jumping-off point. “Mystery Train” is a song about an unearthly yet commonplace vehicle that may just as easily give or take away. In just nine lines of lyrics: “that long black train got my baby and gone . . . it’s bringin’ my baby, ’cause she’s mine all, all mine.” “Blue Moon” haunts the film, brilliantly reiterating the theme of loss as well as the Elvis mythos. The broken-down elegance of Memphis resonates. Most powerfully, though, the train works as a heavy metaphor in Jarmusch’s brilliant examination of connection, disconnection, communication, and the innate ability and need to focus on escape rather than the simple yet daunting task of discussion.
Mystery Train and the Far from Yokohama chapter of the trilogy begin, ironically, lacking the music one would expect.1 Train sounds against black establish this inexorable multiperson vehicle as the first and, as such, possibly most important character. After a short, pointless conversation, the Japanese tourists, Mitsuko (Youki Kordu) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase), load their walkman, share headphones in a rare display of intimacy, and hit play, the titular tune’s ghostly reverb oozing through the balance of Mystery Train.
The first vignette focuses on this fascinatingly mismatched couple. Mitsuko is over-expressive, unable to stay quiet and still. A tougher James Dean to her superCOOL babydoll, Glum Jun seems incapable of showing any emotions. One pregnant minute of the film focuses on a two-shot of their longest conversation and most passionate argument — Jun arguing “Carl Perkins” to Mitsuko’s “Elvis.” Jarmusch is renowned (and reviled) for his ability to take his time and extract the most from a situation. Here, the emphasis works twofold. The viewer finds the pair’s mispronunciation of such entrenched icons amusing and cute. Later, after Jarmusch’s razor script plainly establishes that no one seems to understand anyone, and as we watch Mitsuko struggle to be as nice and communicative to everyone as possible, we come to understand — or perhaps, feel — that this plain, seemingly pointless argument is actually emblematic of deeply entrenched (cross) cultural problems with communication.
Jun quips that Memphis is simply Yokohama, lacking 60 percent of its buildings. Perhaps he has simply miscommunicated, but he’ll take it back, the title of this vignette speaking to how perceptions change. As Jun squares up a nice angle of the velvet Elvis this fleabag hotel has used to cheaply redress as an “Elvis memorial,” Mitsuko explains that he only takes photos of rooms and nothing outside. Jarmusch leaves it to the viewer to decide whether he understands the irony. Jun later remarks that she spends half her life in her dreams. Roy Orbison’s Sun single exploration of a coolguy extraordinaire, “Domino,” fades in the background and Elvis’ chillingly expressive “Blue Moon” hyper-mystically drifts in. The spiritual power of music taking over, Mitsuko says “hold me,” Jun complies, the camera squares up the couple, and we know that, at least for now, everything is okay between them.
In episode two, A Ghost, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi, right) is on layover due to complications with her husband’s coffin. As a single woman with no relationship, utter freedom for better or worse, more happens to Luisa to make her a surrogate for the viewer than any other character in Mystery Train. Theaters being temples for the cowards of life, we can identify with her from the safety of the 14th row as she treads the sparse landscape of depressed Memphis, with its heavily symbolic abandoned gas stations; decrepit landmarks like the Stax studio, signified sadly by mere spray-painted boards; and lone cowboys passing her by. This is all filmed in viewer-involving profile, adding a perspective and feel of passing in a car, windows rolled up and air conditioner competing with the blasting Rufus Thomas (who has a cameo in the first vignette).
Invading the interiors of Memphisians proves equally fascinating and frustrating for Luisa. One thing Jim Jarmusch is never given enough credit for is his writing. A few years back, when Tarantino’s stiff, unnatural, yet undeniably amusing and larger-than-life screenplays were hogging all the press, Jarmusch’s little Mystery Train should have picked up at least 5 percent of that for a line such as this from a pushy news-vendor (Sy Richardson) trying to thrust a worker’s paper on the bewildered Luisa: “You only need one leg to get around. Sure helps to have two.”
Later, as she tries to devote a peaceful moment to a meal, a man accosts Luisa with a ridiculous story about why he has and is willing to sell her Elvis’ comb. This is lyrical, shown again from that off-putting/involving profile, and told so well it earns the man $20 with the promise he’ll leave her alone. He tries to follow her outside, but fades and withers, much in the same style of the great city.
Seeking refuge in that one and only hotel, Luisa agrees to take in the desperate Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), listens to her endless tales of problems with her boyfriend (and a subsequently planned flight to relatives in Natchez, Mississippi), quaffs the same beautiful view of the train and bridge through the window we see in each vignette, and is also utterly transformed by the power of “Blue Moon.” Elvis’ ghost (Steve Jones) appears to offer silent guidance. We hear a gunshot, and the women part, having ironically shared nothing — despite their utter commonality in romantic loss.
The final part of the trilogy, Lost in Space, begins in Shades, a dive that appears in each story. The actively trouble-making Johnny (Joe Strummer, right) produces a gun. His friend Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) gathers Elizabeth’s brother Charlie (Steve Buscemi) to help rein him in. Chekhov’s rule of drama deems that the gun must be used and once it is, the trio flees on a seemingly eternal drive through the inky wasteland. The same lyrical shot of the train passing over the bridge reappears, but in this disturbing part of the story, an ugly, old pickup peels underneath to imply the similarity of time and place but difference in character — that which fills time and place.
The same gunshot we heard in A Ghost brings the bellboy to the room. An electric and highly memorable three-shot of Charlie, Will, and Johnny reacting to his reaction charge the story and add energy to the getaway, which seems to work out okay — the classic riding into the sunset image is turned on its ear as we see the cops headed in one direction while the truck heads in the other.
The train, meanwhile, has its own trajectory to fulfill. In an epilogue that further unites the film and truly drives Jarmusch’s case home, Dee Dee asks perfect stranger Mitsuko if this is the train to Natchez. She replies with “ohhhh . . . matches!” Frustrated, Dee Dee ends up taking a seat directly behind the Japanese couple and a wide profile shot shows all three of them, granting the viewer plenty of time to chew on this cinematic illustration of how the women share so much in common — disappointing boyfriends, obsessive chattiness, yet a stark inability to effectively communicate when necessary. Varying shots of trains fill out the credit sequence and end the film, suggesting that this problem is universal, beautiful, mighty, complicated, old, possibly unstoppable, and most of all respected as a thing of deep human beauty by Jim Jarmusch (below).
- Jarmusch’s love of rock may have influenced choosing Yokohama for the couple’s native city, suggesting something of a whole other film behind Mystery Train and love of one of our culture’s true pioneers, who coincidentally wrote a song called “Memphis.” Chuck Berry’s 1956 hit, “Too Much Monkey Business”: “Been to Yokohama/Been fighting in the war.” [↩]