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In February of 2019, musician Julien Baker was interviewed by a publication in New Zealand. The interviewer asked about Baker’s hometown of Memphis, and specifically about cultural associations of Memphis like Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train. Baker gave a long answer that you should read all of, but she said “The Memphis that people imagine and the thing that Memphis really is are sort of the same and sort of not. They’re sort of this quirky caricature of each other.”
Baker’s full answer includes two specifics: a local weirdo named Prince Mongo and a semi-landmark called Graceland Too. I grew up in Memphis and lived there for more than twenty years and both of those have deep history and are really resonant for me. Baker didn’t mention Mystery Train at all, but did tell the interviewer that people assume the experience of Memphis is like the film Hustle and Flow. I wasn’t familiar with Jarmusch’s portrayal, but I can vouch for Baker’s quote and say that the Memphis that I’ve seen on screen and in reference isn’t completely “not Memphis” but it isn’t exactly right, either.
Mystery Train is a fascinating choice for the interviewer’s prompt because it’s about people bringing their own notions of Memphis to Memphis and what they actually experience. It’s very literally a movie about examining the prompt the interviewer provided Baker with and how Memphis changes their ideas in exactly the way Baker answers. I have no idea if Julien Baker has seen Mystery Train, but there’s almost no better summary possible.
Mystery Train is a triptych where all three stories happen in Memphis and involve foreign characters. “Far from Yokohama” shows us a Japanese couple that wants to take in the music scene through Graceland and Sun Studios. “A Ghost” finds an Italian woman stuck overnight as her flight home with her husband’s coffin is diverted. “Lost in Space” follows three characters as they get drunk after a night gone wrong. All three sets of characters stay in the same hotel on the same night, which combines their stories very slightly.
Jarmusch says he didn’t try to find abandoned sets, but that in a search for bleak locations in Memphis he found the city to just feel like it was abandoned. In Criterion’s Q&A he talks about ghosts and the feeling that he had to make a movie with few extras and no traffic because that’s how he experienced the city. Any Memphian will be baffled by the traffic piece, especially, but the director is making a point about the part of Memphis Mystery Train is focused on exploring. This is a dangerous part of the world, is the suggestion, as the only times characters meet anyone outside of the hotel, something negative happens.
The Japanese tourists want Memphis to be a romantic version of a musical time gone by, but we also see them get off the train and hear that they’ve been to lots of places on a similar journey. This is what they do, is the suggestion, so their view of Memphis tells us more about them than it does the city. It’s still a smart introduction to Memphis, especially given the direction Jarmusch wants to take the story.
The widow speaks more of the local language than the Japanese characters, but she’s unavoidably not from around here. A shopkeeper nudges her into buying a comical stack of magazines, but it’s a particularly colorful grifter at a coffee shop that tells us what we need to know about this woman. He tells her a story about the ghost of Elvis needing a ride and telling him he would meet a woman bound for Rome. It’s hardly designed to be believable, but our heroine pays the fee anyway and tells him it’s in exchange for the story. Things break a little bad and the whole thing gets fairly magical, but she ends up back in the hotel with a new companion and certainly a complicated view of town. “I feel a little discombobulated,” she tells the hotel staff, and they commiserate and agree.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee are really unforgettable as the staff. Hawkins is a larger-than-life figure in the music world but only had a few acting roles. It simply wouldn’t be a movie with anyone lesser in this role for Mystery Train. The pairing of capable boss and put-upon bellhop is nothing new, but there’s something about how Hawkins plays the role that reflects what’s actually the story of Memphis. Most of the characters get a confusing or frustrating experience, but they do okay by the hotel, more or less.
The final trio of Rick Aviles, Joe Strummer, and Steve Buscemi ties everything together, but I don’t want to say everything that happens there. The gang knows the staff and needs a place to lie low, and their drunken conversation feels more like what other directors would do with a plot like this. Aviles plays a character named “Will Robinson” and they discuss life, love, and the guy from Lost in Space. It finally goes somewhere, but it takes a long time to get there.
There are no great revelations in Mystery Train, but that is exactly the point. All six characters leave the hotel changed, largely by what Memphis isn’t rather than what it is. The Japanese characters are disenchanted by Sun Studios, or at least by the fast-talking, rote speech they get on their tour. They wanted something unique, something truly Memphian, but they got something they probably are likely to get on every music tour. The mysticism of Memphis is enchanting for the Italian woman, but she also experiences the darker side of Memphis and her best experience with a local is still pretty mixed. The three guys talk about the job market falling out and how nearly everyone they know is out of work in Memphis.
The reality is that Memphis is two things. It is a historical center of the music world, filled with history you can still really access and a world worth walking around in. It also is a rough part of the world that’s seen much worse days and wears those days in ways that are unavoidable, especially around the hotel the film is set in. Mystery Train wants us to want the exciting hope of what Memphis represents but to wonder why there aren’t any people or cars anywhere in certain parts. When Steve Buscemi’s character is hesitant to enter a poolhall and says he’s uncomfortable in this neighborhood, he tells us a lot in one line. When Joe Strummer pulls out a gun confidently but casually in the same bar, he tells us even more.
Mystery Train isn’t Memphis, but neither is Hustle and Flow. It’s not really just Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, either, even if you’ll be consistently bombarded with The King if you go there. Even the Memphis of Mystery Train is more complicated than just that, but that’s the whole point of showing us slices of different experiences in the same place. There’s more to say, always, even just down the hall.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I do think this is better. When Marnie Was There is a strange movie to compare to Mystery Train because they really don’t have anything in common. I’ll always have a place in my heart for When Marnie Was There, but it’s a pretty messy movie even though it has a ton of heart in it.
Is it the best movie of all time? This is very close, but I think I have to stick with Badlands. Jarmusch’s film is frequently funny in a really surprising way and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins simply demands your attention, but Badlands is just so beautiful. You could make a really strong case here and my love of Memphis makes this hard for me to do, but if I pick “the Memphis one” we’ll be stuck in a loop here forever. Badlands really is a special movie, even if I think Mystery Train is more likely to make more people happy with the experience if they were to watch both.
You can watch Mystery Train on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or on Amazon Prime for $3.99 at the time of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.