Welcome to another blogathon post! This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the renowned US video label. Their releases have formed in many ways an ever growing canon of great cinema, ranging from mainstream American releases to indie classics to world cinema. This post covers my personal favourite film, Jim Jarmusch’s indie classic Mystery Train (1989). Enjoy!
Many film critics have noted that the films of Jim Jarmusch often tend to skip on detailed plots and rather focus on detailed and interesting interaction between a multitude of characters. This analysis cannot be more apt when considering his 1989 film Mystery Train.
There is little in the way of conventional plot in Mystery Train. Rather, viewers are treated to three chapters all set in the same night in the rock’n’roll capital of the United States, Memphis. The first chapter deals with a young Japanese couple who are going on a music tour of the USA, and cannot stop arguing over who was better – Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins. The second chapter follows an Italian widow who is carting her husband’s body back to the home country and stays in Memphis overnight. The third chapter follows a jobless Englishman and his two American friends as they go on a night of drinking and looting.
In many ways Mystery Train is the film that most captures the aesthetic of Jarmusch’s work. It’s anthology structure prevents the film from having much connected narrative tissue, and the 40 minutes or so we get with each character gives us just enough time to understand and come to know them intimately. It’s this film, I think, that feels the most real in Jarmusch’s filmography. If you were to show this film to someone who had no understanding of cinematic form, they would think these people were real. This is partly thanks to the naturalistic acting on display, but most of all it is thanks to the superb screenplay.
If someone was to ask me what Mystery Train is ultimately about, it would be a hard question to answer. You could say it’s about the way people relate to others, or fail to do so. You could say it’s about nostalgia and the past glories of the 1950s. You could say it’s about the breakdown of any positive form of the American dream. Jarmusch’s film is put together in such a specific way, that you could easily say it’s about none of these, and rather just about spending time with some flawed but interesting people.
The main focal characters of each segment are all foreigners in the United States – Japanese, Italian, and English – and the space they are occupying, Memphis, is a town stuck in the past. It’s desolate and falling apart, but it sticks together because nostalgia haunts it. It’s held together by the love all of these people have for the music that originated there, and for Elvis Presley, even if Joe Strummer (who acts as the main character, Johnny, of the third segment) points out how completely oversaturated his presence in Memphis is. The fact that these characters are foreigners allows them to make astute observations not only about Memphis but about American society as a whole. No moment in the film sticks in my head as much as when Jun, looking out of the flophouse window that he and his girlfriend are staying in for the night into a desolate street, announces: “this is America.”
It’s my personal belief that Mystery Train is one of the most underrated and underseen films in American cinema. It’s a masterpiece, and is as relevant today as it was in 1989, if not more so after the 2008 crash. It’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholy, full of wit, humour, and passion. It’s Jim Jarmusch’s best film, and without a doubt one of the most important films of the American independent scene. The fact that the Criterion Collection label have honoured it with a place in their canon of great cinema is only a testament to the film’s power and importance.
I hope you have enjoyed this third blogathon post. Please go over to the Speakeasy blog for a complete listing of blogs that have participated.