Criterion // 1989 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 2nd, 2010
"At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would've weighed six-hundred-and-forty-eight pounds." -- Bellboy
The rough geographic center of the United States is located near the small town of Lebanon, Kansas. Though it is several hundred miles east of this geographic oddity, Memphis, Tennessee, might be the best candidate for the cultural center of the United States (at least for the twentieth century). Poised equidistant from the Deep South and New England North, between East Coast and West, Memphis is the birth place of one of the twentieth century's most potent phenomena: rock 'n' roll. No, it certainly didn't start there, but that's where it became a force to be reckoned with. There are lots of claimants to the throne of first and best early rock record, but few would argue the supremacy of the stable of artists at Sun Studios in Memphis: Elvis Preseley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis. It was an amazing time in an amazing place, and Memphis seems haunted by it to this day -- or so Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train would have us believe. Setting three interconnected stories about strangers and travelers in the city of Sun Studios, Jarmusch has crafted a fascinating look at what it means to live under the shadow of history. Criterion continues their commitment to bringing Jarmusch's films to home video with an excellent audiovisual presentation and some solid, if slim, extras.
Mystery Train consists of three interconnected vignettes:
* "Far from Yokohama" follows a teenage couple from Japan on a pilgrimage to the home of Elvis (the rocker she prefers) and Carl Perkins (his favorite). We watch them wander Memphis, visit Sun Studios, and eventually wind up at the Arcade Hotel, the film's central location.
* "A Ghost" is about Italian widow Luisa (Nicolette Braschi) who is waylaid in Memphis while escorting her husband's body back to Rome. She too wanders Memphis until arriving at the Arcade, where she shares a room with Dee Dee who has just left her husband. Dee Dee's troubles make it hard for Luisa to sleep, but when she does, she's in for a surprising visit.
* "Lost in Space" introduces us to Dee Dee's husband, Johnny (Joe Strummer of the Clash) who has just lost his job. With his friends (one of whom is played by Steve Buscemi) he robs a liquor store and goes to the Arcade to hide out from the cops.
In 2010, Jim Jarmusch completed his third decade as a filmmaker. For these thirty years he's been nothing if not consistent. Even apparent swerves like his odd take on the samurai film, Ghost Dog, fit perfectly into his overall body of work. Back in 1989, though, he'd only made three other features, and Mystery Train was the first major flowering of his obsession with weaving shorter pieces into a feature film (although there were hints in Permanent Vacation and Stranger than Paradise). This was also an era in which anthology films were almost exclusively used for horror films, so I can only imagine what Mystery Train might have looked like over twenty years ago.
Fans of Jarmusch's other films will find nothing surprising in Mystery Train, and that's a good thing. The director's typically elliptical narrative style is in full effect here, only enhanced by the brevity of each individual story. He revels in watching his characters interact with the Memphis landscape, following them in seemingly endless dolly shots as they walk down the street past landmarks and decaying cityscapes. There doesn't seem to be much narrative drive, much point, as the film unwinds, but something about Jarmusch's careful composition and minimal dialogue keeps the film riveting. The stories also maintain Jarmusch's typical balance between somewhat absurd humor and a melancholy awareness of the world. Mystery Train starts out fairly light with its two Japanese rock 'n' roll idolaters, but as the stories continue they get gradually darker, from the escorted dead body to the liquor store robbery.
Although he abandoned his New York City milieu for Mystery Train, Jarmusch maintains his connection with eccentric and talented casting. He casts rock 'n' roll madman Screamin' Jay Hawkins as the hotel's manager and punk rock icon Joe Strummer takes one of his larger film roles as well. Cult favorites like Steve Buscemi and Tom Noonan also make appearances, and best of all Tom Waits' voice gets separate billing (he plays a radio announcer).
Criterion has done right by Jarmusch in the past and they continue that tradition here. The 1.77:1 1080p transfer is simply stunning. Although not the kind of razor-sharp presentation we expect of new films, Myster Train perfectly captures Robby Müller's beautiful cinematography. He also worked with Jarmusch on Down By Law, and before that he lensed Paris, Texas for Wim Wenders. The similarities in color and detail between the two Criterion transfers are pretty striking. Detail and colors are strong, black levels are solid, and there are no digital artifacts to be found. The only limitation is the source print itself, which has a little bit of damage and dirt (but nothing that's at all distracting). The uncompressed mono audio does a surprisingly fantastic job with the audio, especially the film's musical score. I didn't expect a mono soundtrack from 1989 to sound so rich and clear. It's not quite reference quality, but it's far better than I would have expected.
With this fourth Jarmusch Criterion release, the well seems to be running a bit dry (which is to be expected considering the relative wealth of extras on the other releases). Still, we get a number of informative extras. There's a Q&A with Jarmusch in lieu of a commentary and he discusses his experiences making Mystery Train, his feelings on the various cultural landmarks that dot Memphis, and even questions about his other films. It's 70 or so minutes of Jarmusch, and that's nothing to complain about. The extras continue with an excerpt from a documentary about Screamin' Jay Hawkins, I Put a Spell on Me that runs about 15 minutes and covers Hawkins' experience making the film. Criterion also created a short documentary that goes back to the film's locations twenty years on to see how they're doing. Finally, the disc rounds out with a photo gallery including Polaroids and kind of production diary. The booklet includes two essays, one by Dennis Lim that talks about the film's impact and one by Peter Guralnick which is more about Memphis and its music.
When asked to describe Jim Jarmusch films, I usually say that he makes movies out of the bits that other people leave on the cutting room floor. Where most movies are concerned with showing their characters in one place and then another, Jarmusch would rather watch them walk between those scenes than actually see them played out. This gives his films a rather laidback vibe, one totally at odds with typical blockbuster filmmaking. Mystery Train is a wonderful film, but it takes patience to reap its rewards.
This release means that about half (more if you count the inclusion of Permanent Vacation as an extras) of Jim Jarmusch's films have been given to us by Criterion. As with the other Jarmusch releases, Mystery Train is a fascinatingly elliptical character study given a stunning audiovisual presentation and informative extras. Fans of Jarmusch's films will have to pick this one up, too, and anyone who isn't a fan but has an interest in American independent film in the 1980s should also take a look.
Mystery Train is rollin' on, not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.77:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Q&A
* Documentary Excerpt