Saturday, 6 October 2012

Mystery Train

Great characterization, clever narrative structure, and very entertaining. This film takes its time, but the world and the characters will grow on you.

Jim Jarmusch is an American independent filmmaker, whose name most closely resembles 'muscular', according to my spellchecker here (if you look at the guy though... he isn't.) What he is is talented, and Mystery Train demonstrates why.

The film follows three groups of characters, and their experience of one night in the city of Memphis. First, a young Japanese couple from Yokohama. The girly, Mitsuko, is bubbly and excitable and totally obsessed with Elivis; the guy, Jun, is quiet, aloof, cool, and prefers Carl Perkins. After exploring the town for a day, the two settle into a hotel for a night,  The second story follow Luisa, an Italian woman stranded for a night in Memphis; she flees some creepy strangers, and ends up in the same hotel. In the lobby she meets Dee Dee, who has just broken up with her boyfriend and needs a place to stay. The two agree to share a room together. The final story follows Johnny, Dee Dees former boyfriend, and Charlie, her brother. Through a complex chain of events, the two also end up crashing at the same hotel.

The film works on a few different levels; a tribute to the city of Memphis, a tale of the tourist experience of Memphis, and more broadly as a comment on the state of American pop culture.  The film constantly talks about Elivs - every room in the hotel has a painting of Elvis, Johnny is nicknamed Elvis for his hairstyle, Elvis's ghost comes up, his statue is visited, and the Japanese girl has a photo album of people that look like Elvis (people like Madonna, and the Statue of Liberty).

There is no doubt that Memphis is Elvis's city. But the city is represented as a ghost town - all the buildings are dilapidated, the hotel is cheap and rundown, only two cars are seen (one of which breaks down constantly), and the streets are cracked and empty. There are a couple of shots with the city skyline in the background; silver skyscrapers shining in the distance. But that's all they are: distant. Like the grand American culture the Japanese couple has idolized before arriving here, like all the representations of Elvis throughout the picture, it's just an image. A shadow of what it once was.

There are some clever narrative devices at play; the three stories play out one after another another, but all occur simultaneously. There are a few time indicators present that keep the stories closely linked and help the viewer understand how the fit together, such as the one moment that night where all three groups of characters turn on the radio, and listen to the same song (Elvis, of course). Realistically a stretch, but it works beautifully because we come to anticipate it, and the song plays out in different ways in each story.

The first story is extremely effective at setting up all the constants that play out over the course of the other two; the grimy hotel, the quirky desk clerk, the radio and the mysterious gunshot - a point that comes up in the first story but isn't resolved until the third (and then, not how you would expect it). The best part about the film, though, is the couple themselves. Despite the striking contrast in their personalities, they gel so well. Mitsuko is especially cute and excitable, wishing the desk clerk "Good Night!" as she greets him.There are some hilarious miscommunications between them and the American characters, but perhaps the best moments of the film are when the two interact with each other, with such sweet, honest, charm; they are the heart and soul of the film.

I've said a lot more than I expected about things I love about this movie. There are a few things I didn't love: one was that the film is slow paced. Really slow paced. There are a lot of long, quiet moments where not a lot happens. The other is the character of Dee Dee. She's very annoying. Indeed, much of the second story is just a bit uninteresting, especially once the focus shifts away from Luisa. But, the second story is absolutely necessary to mesh with the other two, and it has some great moments as well.

If you give the film a little patience, a little brainpower to process the way the stories are linked, the way the characters are portrayed, then this film will absolutely reward you for your time. And when it's not being slow, it's very clever, and often funny. Give it a try.