Monday, 3 February 2014

Past train to Memphis… Mystery Train (1989)

There’s something about Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train that perfectly captures the feeling of dislocation fractious travellers can get when visiting even their favourite places. My wife thinks we saw this in our first holiday as a couple - Barcelona (surely that was Sullivan’s Travels, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Lawrence of Arabia?) or possibly our second, in Italy, but I’m thinking it was on home turf: yet it’s the feeling of “the holiday”, of late night rambling in search of a hotel, down darkly-shaded unknown streets… that’s what we remember in this film, not specifically the where.

In the first part of this inter-connected triptych a young Japanese couple, Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) try to align their feelings on their first big holiday abroad. Mitsuko is openly excited about the prospect of seeing Graceland whilst Jun is cool, claiming to prefer Carl Perkins in the time-honoured way of all 18-year old hipsters the world over: pick your own smaller niche and avoid the obvious… bit of a mistake to head for The Kingdom of Memphis then.

Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase
But Jun is also trying to impress Mitsuko and this trip is clearly early in their relationship – they are still looking to find the common ground in those awkward hours between their natural sexual connections,   

Far From Yokohama features the couple arriving in Memphis and their disparate attempts to experience the place and themselves….on a blues pilgrimage will they establish enough common ground set alone, apart from family, friends and location in Yokohama. That’s what our holiday’s as young couples all reveal.

Mitsuko and Jun chance upon the Arcade Hotel - a run-down establishment off the beaten track as they head from Sun Studios through avenues of rust and distressed plastic fascia’s that once trumpeted the best new music and the biggest movies… all gone now, but providing atmospheric reminders of the transience of architectural ambition.

They are greeted by the concierge, a rather splendidly attired Screaming Jay Hawkins and his bell boy (Cinqué Lee – brother of Spike) who rent them a double for $22. There’s no TV just a portrait of Elvis and an ancient radio.

The couple make young love and then fall apart and into a deep sleep… They are wakened in the early hours by the sound of Roy Orbison. The DJ (Tom Waits with the gravel turned on full…) who announces Elvis’ supernatural cover of Blue Moon from his early Sun sessions… strange things can happen around music like this….

A gun shot is heard and they quickly make their exit…

Nicoletta Braschi
The next story, called A Ghost, features an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the city overnight, as she waits to ship her husband’s dead body back to Rome. Braschi’s probably the most engaging character in the film and takes everything in her stride; reactions numbed by grief or just calm and collected?

She gets hassled by some of the locals who feed her a line about seeing the ghost of Elvis and then circle around with evil on their minds. She keeps calm and finds her way to the Atlantic Hotel where, she meets Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco) – a woman seemingly capable of talking without either breathing or thinking. The kindly concierge puts them together in a $22 room possibly seeing a way of helping them both.

Nicoletta Braschi and Elizabeth Bracco
Dee Dee has just split from her English boyfriend and is leaving town with what little money she has, her new roomy lets her talk herself out and the two fall asleep in their beds, the light left on for one and the radio for the other.

In the night the Italian woman awakes to find the ghostly figure of Elvis in their room… he’s confused but polite and disappears somewhere else before Dee Dee can awake to witness him.

Then the radio shifts from Orbison to Elvis, Scotty and Bill and as Blue Moon fades a gunshot rips through the early morning: we better get out of here panics Dee Dee, “sounds like a 38…” ponders her new friend who may well know more about such things than she has shown…

Elvis haunts the wrong location...
The final part of the film ties the ends together…  Lost in Space starts with an Englishman, Johnny (Joe Strummer), getting blind drunk in a bar – his girl done left him and his job also called time on his services: he’s having a bad day and he has the gun to prove it.

His friend Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) is called to help haul him out of trouble and he in turn contacts Johnny’s brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi) – Dee Dee’s brother and a moderately respectable hairdresser.

Steve Buscemi, Rick Aviles and Joe Strummer: white riot
But all attempts to calm Johnny down fail and he ends up shooting a drug store owner after they steal some hooch… and off they go on the run, easing their way by drinking copious amounts of whiskey. They finally end up at the Arcade Hotel where the Bell Boy calls Will by his Lost in Space nick-name (they were a Space Family Robinson…) and the concierge again offers to help.

The three share a dingy room and drink themselves through to morning… the outlook looks just as bleak to Johnny day or night and, as he moves to end it all, Charlie jumps in to prevent him… Blue Moon comes on the radio, a train passes by and a gunshot is heard…

No spoilers: I’m not giving the ending away but even if I did this film is worth watching for the excellence of its atmospheres and the brilliance of the performers. Even Joe Strummer does well and is possibly the best punk rocker-turned-actor I’ve seen… Jarmusch was keen to use him not just because of his fondness for The Clash but also because of his persona and when his scenes work well it’s because it’s Joe Strummer not Johnny.

Mind you he is ably supported by Rick Aviles and of course by Steve Buscemi who can have few rivals in modern televisual acting. My daughter spotted him as Nucky Thompson within seconds in spite of the 20-odd years between Mystery Train and Boardwalk Empire: he’s only got better as an actor over that time.

Cinqué Lee and Screaming Jay Hawkins
I watched the MGM DVD which is a good copy and widely available, but Criterion have now done an Blu-ray overhaul with all kinds of trimmings...

No matter how you play it, Mystery Train still retains its mystery and that nostalgic pull of being a little lost and enjoying it… that’s something we should try not to lose, no matter how organised life gets!

No comments:

Post a Comment