Mystery Train (1989)

The third in our Jarmusch-on-the-Loosh festival, this is the only genuine anthology, and makes more sense under its working title One Night In Memphis. It is the stories of three parties visiting Memphis, Tennessee: A Japanese couple who are obsessed with the Memphis music scene (she, especially, Elvis, he more Carl Perkins—though it’s possible he’s just being contrary), an Italian widow who finds herself sharing a room with a hard-luck chatty girl, and selfsame chatty girl’s not-husband who ends up rolling around the city getting into trouble with a couple of pals because he’s despondent she’s left him.

The first story is about Mitsuko and Jun, a young couple traveling across America, putting together a scrapbook of iconic Americana. Jun is a despondent, desultory character, enough to perplex the more chirpy Mitsuko. Their relationship is so prickly and distant, I thought they were brother and sister for a while. A late story sex scene with pillow-talk disabused me of that, and is the closest thing we get to overt revelation of character. Jun is rapidly finished with their encounter, and Mitsuko apparently unsatisfied. Jun says, “Mitsuko, do women…always worry about their hairstyle?”

It's for an odd, quirky reason, though.
I can’t remember why he’s wearing the lipstick, though.

I thought the implied end of the sentence was “orgasm” but she doesn’t pick up on it, and instead berates him for not shaving more. (“But I shaved two days ago!”)

The second story is about Luisa (Nicolette Braschi) who, for no explained reason, is in Memphis with the coffin of her husband. Her good nature is gently abused by local Tennessee-ans culminating with her staying at the same flophouse the Japanese couple is, and ending up going halfsies on a room with Dee-dee, a flighty girl fleeing from her husband, who is in fact her boyfriend, and is inexplicably English. We learn all about Dee Dee and virtually nothing about the much more intriguing Luisa, because she can’t get a word in edgewise.

The only time she manages to get anything out, it’s to re-tell “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” that a local used to scam her out of $20. The Memphis version has Elvis as the hitch-hiker, naturally, which leads to the high point of the film. But Luisa doesn’t even get to finish the story because Dee Dee, of course, has heard it before.

At least he didn't skin her and eat her.
Tom Noonan (Manhunter, Last Action Hero) scams the polite Luisa.

The last story concerns Johnny (the late Joe Strummer, drummer for The Clash), Will (the late character actor Rick Aviles) and Charlie (Steve Buscemi, who mysteriously still lives). Johnny’s despondent over the loss of Dee Dee (and his job) and his pal Will calls in Charlie when Johnny starts waving a piece around. The three of them end up driving around Memphis, drinking more and more (a theme carried over from previous films), until Johnny gets the bright idea to stop for more booze and ends up shooting the guy behind the counter.

They end up ducking for cover in the same flophouse as the previous two stories, and several unexplained events from those stories are resolved here.

It's just a flesh wound.
The end of a long night.

The bellboy at the hotel is Cinque Lee (Spike’s brother) and the clerk is none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (who provided the song, “I Put A Spell On You”)  that the Hungarian heroine of Stranger Than Paradise was obsessed with). Other nice Jarmuschiverse tie-ins are John Lurie (of both Paradise and Down By Law) doing the music and Tom Wait (also from Law) providing the DJing over the radio.

Jarmusch had a $2.8M budget and netted a whopping $1.5M in the US, which suggests a pattern. A pattern unheeded by the producers of the last movie in the series: Dead Man. It was the only one shot in color, though the color is on a pretty narrow band, with so much being shot at night.

We enjoyed it, especially for an anthology. But again, it’s not hard to see why Jarmusch lacks a broader audience.

I put a spell on y—on your sister.
Cinque Lee and Screamin’ Jay!

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