Top Ten Criterions #10: Mystery Train

MYSTERY TRAIN (1989), dir. Jim Jarmusch

Mystery Train is set in Memphis, and features a  scattered cast of people – two young tourists from Japan, an Italian widow,  the African-American hotel employees, a group of criminals. Their lives loosely converge at one run-down hotel. The film is ambient and meandering within a tight and clever structure. It is divided into three sections – each chapter presents the same basic location and a similar lapse of time, but from a different perspective. By the end of the film, it is satisfying to see how these three stories barely touch each other. It’s contrived, but gently so – the disparate stories are interconnected, but for no would-be-grandiose purpose à la Magnolia. Instead, the structure has a pleasant literary quality to it. Jarmusch, maybe even more so than Quentin Tarantino, is very good at being episodic. (See also: Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control.) Mystery Train leaves you with the sense that you’re sadly unaware of all the individual stories unfolding all around you, of all the lives that briefly and barely intersect your own.

Cinqué Lee and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Mystery Train is one of Jarmusch’s most entertaining and genuinely humorous films. It is full of quietly funny moments – the Japanese boy scolding his girlfriend for packing too many shirts and her solution of layering them, four at a time; the introverted Italian widow easily convinced to buy a dozen magazines; the hotel’s young bellhop discussing his uniform with the desk clerk.The recurring tale that locals tell about the ghost of Elvis Presley is just delightful.

Mitsuko and Jun explore Memphis.

The cinematography, by frequent Wim Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, is beautiful and oddly calming – I especially enjoy slow pans down the street that take in the whole environment in all its empty, faded glory, the eye of the camera moving with the traveling characters, but at a distance. It’s incredibly atmospheric. The nearly deserted streets, cracked pavement, and abandoned, decaying buildings have a mournful aesthetic that I particularly enjoy. One of the qualities I most admire in Jarmusch as a director is his ability to make the mundane beautiful; in this film, we first travel through Memphis with a pair of kids who soak in their new environment with infectious wonder.

Steve Buscemi, Joe Strummer, and Rick Aviles as criminals Charlie, Johnny, and Will.

The music is, of course, fantastic. (Elvis’ “Blue Moon” plays a pivotal role.) It is fitting that a film about the birthplace of a generation of American music would feature several musicians in its cast. Joe Strummer of the Clash plays a man named Johnny whose appearance has earned him a frequent and much-hated comparison to Elvis, and blues singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins gives a very amusing deadpan performance as the night clerk. Additionally, Tom Waits voices the radio DJ.

The director of photography, Robby Müller, also worked with Jarmusch on Down By Law, Dead Man, Ghost Dog, and Coffee & Cigarettes.

This film is about the allure of a place as much as it is about the people within it. It’s no coincidence that most of Jarmusch’s films are about travel. As Dennis Lim wrote in an essay about the film for Criterion, “Jarmusch’s career… has been consecrated to the possibilities of cross-cultural exchange, the satisfactions of “the drift,” the romance of “someplace else.” This film contains a particularly fascinating idea – that America’s equivalent of cultural landmarks or holy places of pilgrimage would be a ghost town that rock and roll legends once called home. The Memphis of Mystery Train is grimy, mournful, and desolate, but it’s also mythic.

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Top Ten Criterions

I love this symbol and everything it stands for.

If you’re a Criterion Collection fan enthusiast obsessive like myself, you’re probably aware that, every month, the folks at Criterion get cool artists of various sorts to make lists of their favourite titles in the collection. These lists are yet another great supplement on a website that’s practically a movie-lover’s travel guide: it’s wonderful to hear from folks who make movies as films fans themselves, and there’s something really satisfying about seeing an artist’s favorite film and then seeing its echoes and influence in their own work. Some of their selections just make sense in a way that I find very exciting. Of course Guillermo del Toro considers Terry Gilliam “a living treasure”, of course the Rodarte sisters have a deep respect for Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The Criterion Collection is extremely important to me – when I stumbled upon its existence by a happy accident several years ago, when I was first realizing just how strong my interest in cinema was, it literally ensured that I’d never be at a loss for what to watch again. Criterion provides us with beautiful, impeccable transfers of the best films both new and old, the most aesthetically pleasing packaging design in the world, amazing and informative essays, and special features that give you an intimate look at the production. I especially love that they release not only the essential, influential movies that made a strong cultural impact, but also smaller, stranger gems that are stylistically innovative or artistically bold. They’ve released Jules et Jim and Wings of Desire… but also Hausu and Tiny FurnitureThey include films from all over the world, and many from the still-too-small ranks of female directors. It takes a lot of self-control for me to refrain from spending ALL MY MONEY on Criterion DVDs, but despite how relatively expensive they are, they are purchases that I never regret.

The Criterion C that appears on their DVDs, posters, and other merchandise isn’t just a brand logo for me. It’s a symbol – of creativity, of artistic excellence, of cinema that is important to preserve, cherish, marvel at, and share.

As you’ve doubtless deduced, this isn’t just a love-letter to Criterion. In a series of upcoming posts, I’m going to present my own personal top ten list. These are the films in the collection that had a strong impact on me and are closest to my heart.

But first, because picking only ten is impossibly difficult, here’s a few (well, perhaps “a few” isn’t accurate!) of my favourite Criterions that didn’t quite make the cut: Repulsion, Harold & Maude, My Life As A Dog, Fanny and Alexander, Ratcatcher, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, The Gold Rush, Stolen Kisses, Time Bandits, The Red Balloon, Bicycle Thieves.

And now, feel free to improvise a drumroll…

“A dream we dreamt with our eyes open.”

For my introductory piece, I thought it would be appropriate to write about the title of this blog. On one level, it’s a quote from Ed Wood, one of my favorite movies and one that was extremely instrumental in sparking both my love of cinema and my serious interest in filmmaking. In its most improbably inspiring scene, a frustrated Wood has rushed off the set of Plan 9 From Outer Space where he has been haggled, pressured, criticized, and creatively compromised by his producers. In a nearby bar, he catches sight of none other than Orson Welles. Starstruck, he approaches him, and they commiserate over the obstacles they face as filmmakers. Welles leaves him with a sage piece of advice. “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”

“Thank you… Orson.”

This little encounter is all our fantasies about meeting and connecting with our heroes, idealized. The line is an almost naïvely inclusive celebration of artistic integrity. But taken out of context, these three words take on a different and even more significant meaning for me.

Movies are dreams. The comparison of the two is one of the most persistent and abiding art metaphors, and for good reason. Film’s harmonious progression of images, sound, and motion, together with the meanings it creates and the emotions it stirs, comes closer to capturing and evoking how we experience our world – or rather, how we imagine experience in our world – than any other art form in its isolated state. Movies, like dreams, are sensory and chronological experiences. Movies take what in our subconscious and our waking imagination tends to be vague and immaterial and make it present and nearly tangible – they give visions life and the glorious illusion of reality.

Oneiric film theory (as wikipedia informs me the idea is called!) has existed since practically the beginning of the medium. The frequency with which the greatest storytellers and visionaries in the history of the movies have employed this metaphor is impressive. The real Orson Welles once said that “A film is a ribbon of dreams.” Federico Fellini called a film “a dream we dreamt with our eyes open”.  Ingmar Bergman  wrote about the medium: Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” David Lynch, whose movies are as deliberately hallucinatory and literally nightmarish as any I’ve ever seen, said that “film to me is a magical medium that makes you dream…allows you to dream in the dark.”

This idea of movies as dreams is one that Martin Scorsese also believes deeply, and it recurs frequently in Hugo, his charming, moving ode to the earliest age of filmmaking. Early in the film, Hugo tells Isabelle that his father used to compare the joyful escapism of their cinema visits to “seeing his dreams in midday”. During a flashback to his glory days as a director, George Meliés tells a young visitor to his set to look around and see where his dreams are made.

The set of “Le Royaume des fées”, as recreated by Scorsese.

And finally, at the film’s triumphant conclusion, when Meliés is about to present his recovered and restored films to his enthusiastic audience, he extends to them a beautiful and apt invitation: “My friends, I address you all tonight as you truly are; wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians… Come and dream with me.”

It is this invitation, stated directly in Hugo but implied by every film’s existence, that makes this idea of movies as dreams so exciting and so beautiful. The three-word phrase that I’ve used to title this little site is a brief summation of what cinema is for me on a certain fundamental level. And the first two words are key – the dreams we can see, day or night on the proverbial silver screen, are the dreams of someone else. The traditional film-viewing experience is communal, but in every context, watching a movie is always an interpersonal experience in a different way. The films are shared with all of us by the men and women who dream them and create them. The images and stories of movies are all shown to us through the filter and precise framing of other people’s perspective and consciousness. Every composition and cut, every visual, aural, narrative or emotional choice is representative of someone else’s imaginative conception of life, and we are invited to immerse ourselves in it.

When we go to the cinema, we’re not just seeing moving light on a white surface, a piece of sensory entertainment or escapism, a technical achievement, or a story told through visual and aural means. All of those things are true, of course. But when I think about movies and the idea that these three words suggest, I’m reminded of some my favorite lyrics by Bob Dylan: I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours. It’s a beautiful statement. When we enter the world of a film, a group of people have invited you into their imagination in a very real sense. Movies have always been referred to as magical on a technical and experiential level. But for me, this sharing of self, this gift from the dreamers to the rest of the world – that is a kind of magic, and should never be taken for granted.