Guest post by Kristian Segerberg.
There is a certain beauty in not knowing what life has in store for us. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch touches upon similar ideas in his earlier films which depict foreigners traveling in novel places and exploring the unfamiliar. In his 1989 film, Mystery Train, Jarmusch shows a typical night in Memphis through varying points of view. Through rundown hotels and late-night diner conversations with strangers, Jarmusch makes one night in “the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll” unforgettable.
The film consists of three loosely intertwined stories. The first episode, “Far from Yokohama,” tells the story of two Japanese teenagers on a romantic getaway to the birthplace of Elvis’s music. The second episode, “A Ghost,” shows the journey of Luisa, a recently widowed Italian woman, who has an unexpected layover and has to spend the night in Memphis before she can fly her husband’s coffin back to Rome. The final story, “Lost in Space,” shows the chaotic night of English immigrant Johnny with his friend Will and his so-called brother-in-law Charlie. While the characters walk through the same streets and past the same buildings, they experience Memphis in vastly different ways that night. However, all of the characters converge at the Arcade Hotel, where they each take a room for the night, waiting for the sunrise.
The Japanese lovers, Jun and Mitsuko, arrive in Memphis while listening to “Mystery Train” by the King, Elvis Presley, ready to wander through an unfamiliar city. Jarmusch doesn’t use a picture-perfect part of America to be the backdrop for the film. Instead he uses the dull and lifeless Memphis to be the place of exploration for these tourists. And these young lovers manage to find beauty in walking through the empty streets and past deteriorating movie theaters. The two have quite an uneventful day of walking around, visiting Sun Studio and then checking into Room 27 at the Arcade Hotel for the night. In the room, Jun goes over to the window, looks at the city at night and says, “To be 18, feels cool. And so far from Yokohama. It feels cool to be in Memphis.” Through the dreariness and mundanity of the city, Jarmusch reminds us of the beauty that can be found in life when we make an effort to look.
Luisa doesn’t share the same enthusiasm of being in Memphis as the Japanese lovers do. She merely had an unexpected layover and had to spend the night in Memphis. She walks alone around the city just as the Japanese couple walked through it. However, we don’t get the same sense of adventure and discovery that we got from seeing Jun and Mitsuko exploring the city. Instead, the city projects a barren dreariness and presents an uninviting feeling to Luisa. After being hustled by the locals for easy cash and being frantically followed by some creeps, she ends up at the Arcade Hotel. Once there, she runs into Dee Dee, a girl down on her luck unable to afford a room, arguing with the night clerk and bellboy, who were comedically played by Blues legend Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee. Luisa and Dee Dee end up sharing Room 25 together, where we learn that Dee Dee just broke up with her boyfriend and decided that she needs to get out of Memphis.
Jarmusch gives us a front-row seat to the grittiest parts of Memphis, the parts only the locals would go to, in the final episode “Lost in Space.” The story starts with Johnny, who was fired from his job and dumped by Dee Dee that day, drinking away his misery in a dark, shady bar. One drunken idea leads to another and before you know it, Johnny, along with his pals Will and Charlie, are on the run from the police. The three went to a liquor store and the owner made a blatantly racist comment toward black Will, which caused Johnny to overreact and shoot the owner. Needing a place to lie low, the three crash at the Arcade Hotel in Room 22 for the night.
Through all of the different events taking place that night, all the characters find themselves at 2:17 A.M tuned in to the radio, listening to the early morning favorite “Blue Moon” by none other than the King himself. And as it does each morning, the sun rises, and a new day begins (this day starting with a mysterious gunshot coming from Room 22). Confused by the gunshot, the Japanese couple leave the hotel and head back to the train, on their way to their next adventure in New Orleans. Luisa is last seen trying to catch her flight back to Rome while Dee Dee is on the train, headed for a fresh start in Mississippi. The three outlaws are fleeing town and headed down to Arkansas with Charlie in the bed of the trunk, wailing in pain from the accidental bullet wound in his leg.
It is through these interactions that we have every day with people we will never see again that seems to be at the forefront of the human aspect of the film. Each person, with their own story, on their own paths whose lives happen to traverse with another, if only for a brief moment. And it is through learning about the lives of others that makes us understand and appreciate our own pain and solace more. It’s what lets us appreciate the mystery of what is to come; the mystery that makes life exciting. Because it is our own life, our own suffering, our own happiness which we must experience because they are all fragments that make up the human condition.
The Criterion Collection has added Mystery Train to their collection and it is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Kristian Segerberg is a junior studying Information Systems with a minor in Creative Writing. He has a strong passion for film with his favorite directors being Stanley Kubrick, Richard Linklater, Andrei Tarkovsky and Quentin Tarantino. Along with his love for a film, he is also very passionate about music with some of his favorite artists being Beach House, Sigur Rós and Wu-Tang Clan. He creates his own short films while aspiring to one day be a film writer-director.