Mystery Train Revisited
Is it still worth booking a seat for Jim Jarmusch's 1989 movie?
Certain films capture your heart at 15, but how awkward and old-fashioned would they make you feel if you watched them with a teenager now? And what horrifying things might they reveal about the person you once were? Avoid embarrassment, and the waste of £1.49 in rental fees, by letting us take the risk on your behalf.
Mystery Train (1989)
One seedy hotel, one hot and endless night, one Chekhovian gunshot: Mystery Train portrays three experiences of a single evening in Memphis. It’s all bound together by criss-crossing stories, Tom Waits playing Elvis records on the radio, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in a beautiful red suit.
The stories that make up this anthology movie are - as anyone who’s seen a Jarmusch film might expect - largely small. Stories in which nothing, and everything, happens; stories that are intimate, open-ended and frequently silly in an offbeat kind of way.
Mitsuko and Jun are two Japanese rockabilly teenagers searching the States for rock n’roll; Luisa is an Italian widow come to fetch her husband’s body home from the US; and Johnny is an English punk who has just been laid off from his factory job. These foreigners all end up at the same dilapidated backstreet hotel where they proceed to talk, drink and meet the ghost of Elvis.
Jim Jarmusch is too old to actually be Generation X, but his films of the ‘80s and ‘90s were perfect for a certain kind of young Gen Xer. They are full of people doing nothing and trying, unsuccessfully, to be cool.
Can we show the kids?
Yes, but only some of them will really like it. Young people of a particular type will always love the films of Jim Jarmusch, because his films very much take the point of view of young people of a particular type. His movies look at the adult world as if seeing it for the first time, like tourists in the world of adulthood, astounded by the small differences; every mundane detail is unexpected and new, worth examining and thinking about. Mystery Train carries this idea to completion by featuring teenagers who are also tourists, and who are therefore pretty much the perfect Jarmusch characters. And audience members.
Sex: Some uncomfortable sexual threat when Nicoletta Braschi is trailed by creep supreme Tom Noonan.
Bechdel test: Fail. Women talk to each other (well, Elizabeth Bracco talks, Nicoletta Braschi listens), but mostly about Joe Strummer and Elvis.
Violence: A couple of people get shot. First a racist, fatally; then Steve Buscemi, comedically.
Racism: See above. The overt racist gets his comeuppance pretty emphatically, though.
The look: This a beautiful film (which is not unexpected with the brilliant cinematographer Robbie Müller behind the camera). The nighttime scenes in particular are full of vibrant neon and close heat.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
“You sleep too much. You spend half your life in your dreams.”
“Yeah, But sleep is wonderful. And when you're dead, you don't get to sleep ever again. Which means no more dreams.”
“To be 18 feels cool.”
Heartening afterlife of the stars: We usually call this bit ‘Disappointing afterlife of the stars’, but following 9/11, Steve Buscemi - an ex-firefighter - volunteered at his old firehouse, working a week of twelve hour shifts sifting through rubble to find bodies.
Is it as good as you remember?
Mystery Train is a reminder not just of what it’s like to be 18 and to desperately want to feel cool, but also what it was like to be 18 in that moment, in the late ‘80s. Jarmusch’s thrift store aesthetic, beatnik affect and ‘50s decor perfectly fits the pre-grunge Gen X approach to style, raiding charity shops for ‘60s cast-offs and bin diving for all the records the Boomers thought were too old fashioned.
But this isn’t only a look. His backstreet settings, rundown diners and seedy hotels are not just ironic set dressing; he values them. This is captured perfectly by the scene in Sun Studios. Jun and Mitsuko, the rockabilly tourists who have come to Memphis to discover rock n’ roll history, are hustled through a perfunctory tour of Sam Philip’s shabby little studio by a tour guide rattling through her schtick in a patter impenetrable to the Japanese teenagers.
The scene is played for laughs, but the smallness and anticlimax matters. In the ‘50s the studio was so inconsequential that they sold recording time to anyone who walked in off the street, including, one afternoon in 1953, a country kid named Elvis Presley who wanted to record a song as a present for his mother. Unbelievable and glorious things happen as much in shabby and inconsequential places as they do in great ones.
Because these places seem unimportant we pass them by, oblivious and incurious, and miss the hidden glory. And even if we do know what they might once have been, custom makes them quotidian; we forget their significance or become numb to it, reducing them to just another item on a list of must-sees for tourists. It takes an outsider - like the the Japanese teenagers, like cultural outsider Jarmusch - to see them for what they are.
Jarmusch is fascinated by this promise of the extraordinary within the ordinary. Life and death (and the injuring of Steve Buscemi) happen in seedy hotel rooms, and over coffee and cigarettes in a rundown diner you might hear the story of a life.
This is another way in which he is a perfect Gen X director: he is a snapper up of unconsidered trifles. He examines the overlooked ordinary for the clues it might contain to the big questions: life, history, ‘us’. He embodies the sort of attitude that might lead you to write newsletter essays about the weird byways of Gen X culture. For instance.
It’s not only the places; it’s also - mostly, really - the people. Most of Jarmusch’s characters are bumbling idiots, but then most humans are bumbling idiots. Where the Coens tend to treat their idiots as stooges, and Wes Anderson treats his idiots as props, Jarmusch sees them as humans and is fascinated by the small importances and important smallnesses of their lives.
This also means that his films age well. Everyone is treated with equal dignity by Jarmusch films, if not by the universe, and so his work remains fundamentally life-affirming.
Which - in the ceaseless, unavoidable turmoil of the twenty-first century - is something of a relief.
For more late 80s indie movies, why not revisit Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire?