"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

DVD of the Week: Mystery Train: Criterion Collection

Jim Jarmusch is a filmmaker who has always been interested in outsiders, people who live on the fringes of mainstream society. His first three films took a look at America through the eyes of a foreigner. With Stranger than Paradise (1984), a young Hungarian woman visits her hipster cousin in New York City. Down by Law (1986) follows the misadventures of three men who escape a Louisiana prison, one of whom is an Italian tourist that hardly speaks English. Finally, there is Mystery Train (1989), three different stories that take place simultaneously in the same in the run-down hotel in Memphis. Each story prominently features people from other countries like Japan, Italy and England, and how they react to a city steeped in rich, musical history with the ghost of the King, Elvis Presley himself, present in one form or another.

In the first story, “Far from Yokohama,” see two teenager Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) visit Memphis to take a tour of Graceland and the legendary Sun Studios where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and so many others recorded numerous hit records. She is a big fan of the King but he digs Carl Perkins. The key to this segment is miscommunication. The couple don’t get much out of the Sun Studio tour because their guide talks too fast and they don’t understand English all that well, but they do care about each other and in the end that’s enough. There are all kinds of atmospheric tracking shots of the Japanese couple walking through the empty streets of Memphis. They decide to stay in a slightly run-down hotel operated by man played by none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Once the couple gets situated, there’s a funny bit where the girl goes through a scrapbook filled with famous people and landmarks that resemble Elvis.

The next story, entitled “A Ghost,” concerns a woman (Nicoletta Braschi) from Italy who has arrived in Memphis to take her deceased husband back home. There is a problem with her flight and she has to stay the night. After being hit on by a creepy guy (Tom Noonan) in a restaurant, she takes refuge in the nearby hotel where she meets a woman (Elizabeth Bracco) unable to afford a night there. The two women decide to share a room. In a memorable scene after retiring for the evening, the Italian woman is visited by the spirit of Elvis in what is a touchingly poignant and yet also whimsical moment.

Finally, “Lost in Space” features a trio of inept knuckleheads in the film’s funniest story. Johnny (Joe Strummer) is a cranky Englishman recently fired from his job. After drunkenly waving a gun around in a bar, his friend Will (Rick Aviles) and his brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi) arrive to diffuse the situation. After Johnny robs a liquor store, he and his friends hide out in the hotel. Charlie and Will try to calm down the mercurial Johnny and keep him under control but it’s not easy. There’s a lot of fun to be had watching Joe Strummer and Steve Buscemi bounce off the walls of the small hotel room they hold up in.

Mystery Train is a fascinating snapshot of Memphis through the eyes of foreigners and the disenfranchised. The stories in this film run the gamut from romantic to touching to amusing but all with a humanistic streak running through them. Jarmusch would follow this film with Night on Earth (1991) which would adhere to the same structure but on a much more ambitious level.

Special Features:

There is a “Q&A with Jim.” As he has done for past Criterion editions of his films, Jarmusch answers questions submitted by fans in lieu of an audio commentary. They are by no means restricted to the film but the bulk of them do pertain to it. Jarmusch confirms that Tom Waits’ D.J. heard in the film is in fact the same character he played in Down by Law. He talks about how he worked with the Japanese actors and the origins of their segment title. He also talks about his favourite Elvis era and addresses the barren and bleak look of Memphis in the film.

“I Put a Spell on Me” features excerpts from a 2001 documentary on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Jarmusch is interviewed and talks about when he first heard Jay’s signature song, “I Put a Spell on You,” how he used it in Stranger than Paradise and then cast him in Mystery Train. Jay talks about working on the film and shares some amusing anecdotes on this fantastic extra.

“Memphis Tour” revisits many of the locations used in the film. We get a brief history of each location and what happened to it since filming. The restaurant used is the oldest in the city. Unfortunately, the hotel featured so prominently in the film was torn down a year after it was made. This is a fascinating extra that takes a look at how these locales have changed over the years.

“Polaroids” features snapshots taken on location during filming.

Finally, there is a gallery of behind-the-scenes images from a photo book published at the time of the film’s release.


  1. Great piece.

    I love this film, It and Down By Law tie as my favorite Jaramusch.

    Something about him and the south go together well.

  2. Yeah, this film is a keeper. And funny you should mention it, DOWN BY LAW is my fave Jarmusch film, followed closely by DEAD MAN.

    As always, thanks for stopping by.

  3. Excellent! I really need to see this again to know exactly where I'd place it in Jarmusch's oeuvre, but I do remember it being clever and quirky and evocative and just overall quite intriguing. Of course I'm a complete sucker for Criterion (who isn't), and I will add this title to my ever growing list of desired discs. Good stuff J.D.!

  4. I have to admit, I've not heard or seen this. I've only viewed a couple of his titles. I'll try and check it out. Thanks, J.D.

  5. I've never seen this one. Never actually even heard of it. Enjoyed the post.

  6. Drew:

    Yeah, I like this film quite a bit but there are other films of Jarmusch's that I would definitely rank higher. As I mentioned in my review, in some respects it anticipates NIGHT ON EARTH.

    Thanks for the compliments.


    If you get a chance, I highly recommend it but if you haven't already, I would highly recommend checking out the Criterion edition of DOWN BY LAW.


    Thanks for stopping by. If you can, check it out. I think you'd like it.

  7. "Mystery Train is a fascinating snapshot of Memphis through the eyes of foreigners and the disenfranchised. The stories in this film run the gamut from romantic to touching to amusing but all with a humanistic streak running through them."

    Aye, J. D., I must agree on all counts. For me this film rates with STRANGER THAN PARADISE at the top of Jarmusch's output, though I also like DOWN BY LAW and NIGHT ON EARTH. Bucking the majority, I am still searching for the magic in DEAD MAN.
    I've owned this Criterion DVD since it was first released, yet I haven't yet gotten to the extras, which you sharply and passionately delineate here!

  8. Sam Juliano:

    Yeah, STRANGER is a good one to be sure. I seem to recall you not being a fan of DEAD MAN. It is an odd film to be sure and definitely an acquired taste.

    As always, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  9. I'm not sure I fully appreciated Mystery Train when I saw it years and years ago. It's a film I think I might appreciate more now. Thanks for writing about it.

    By the way, I did enjoy Night On Earth better, especially the story portion featuring Roberto Benigni.

  10. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    MYSTERY TRAIN, like pretty much all of Jarmusch's films, is an acquired taste.

    And yeah, the Benigni story in NIGHT ON EARTH is hilarious. Probably my fave one of the bunch too. I also loved his character in DOWN BY LAW. Jarmusch certainly knows how to write for him.

  11. BTW, I thought you might be interested in this, J.D. The N.Y. Times film critic A.O. Scott did another of his great video retrospectives, this time on Jarmusch's fabulous western DEAD MAN.

  12. Mystery Train is a moody and atmospheric gem surrounding a flea-bag Memphis hotel. Great performances are dished out all around, but I favor the dynamic duo of Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase.