Mystery Train: The American Mirage

Jim Jarmusch's Rockabilly Love-Letter to the Heartland

Text: Olivia Whittick

Mystery Train is a filmic love letter written by Jim Jarmusch but read aloud by the varied characters that traverse the American landscape. Sure, the film is set in a location steeped in Americana, but it points to an idea that feels especially pressing at this moment in history—there is no America without the diversity of the people that pass through it. With no players, there is no main event, without characters, there is no story. The desolate streets of Memphis remind us that we are all wandering strangers, and that—along with an undying love of rock and roll—is exactly what unites us.

FAR FROM 

YOKOHAMA

Jun and Mitsuko sit on a train, a drab industrial landscape drags past the window—they have made their way from Yokohama, Japan to Memphis, Tennessee. Although hardly the ideal vacation vista, Jun and Mitsuko are music fanatics, and they’ve fetishized the American southwest as the quintessential haunt of the rebel without a cause. They’ve come to bear witness to the place where Carl Perkins and Elvis recorded their biggest hits, where Johnny Cash and Otis Redding laid down their first licks. What they find is a tumbleweed factory town, filled with working-class southerners with very little interest in pandering to tourists. They take a tour of Stax Records—an uninspired, over-rehearsed speech rattled off at the speed of auction speak. Despite the disparity between fantasy and reality, Jun and Mitsuko remain mesmerized. The charm of the everyday is reactivated, the magic of the commonplace conjured in the adoring eyes of the superfan. 

Hailing from the home of cosplay, Jun is the prototype of the Japanese Americana style producer. He is role-playing—stoic, he lights cigarettes or slicks his hair with a comb to break up his stoney-eyed silence. Jun doesn’t take pictures of Stax Records or Sun Studios, but reserves his exposures for locations obscured by their banal familiarity—“Those things are in my memory, it is the hotel rooms and the airports I’ll forget.” Mitsuko’s casual rockabilly sense of style has a similar power over the everyday, one which make the classic Perfecto seem new again. The iconic jacket was first designed by Irving Schott in 1928, and has since been seen on everyone from James Dean to Joe Strummer (who appears in the film), to the many devotees of 80s Gaultier. The black leather Perfecto is arguably as much an American icon as The King himself. 

Jun and Mitsuko carry their shared suitcase down Chaucer St. on a bamboo pole. This is not a real street in Memphis, but one which Jarmusch erected to establish his film as something of “a minimalist Canterbury Tales.” A group of disparate characters cross paths on their pilgrimage—the allusion sets up the film as a frame tale, a story not about the plot itself, but the characters that move through it. There is no moral or theme, it is a simple account of meandering the American ghost-town. No place has any essential character, but acquires one through the events and experiences of the people that inhabit it. 

GHOST

In the film’s second vignette, Italian widow Luisa finds herself trapped in Memphis after her husband’s death, biding her time until she can return to Rome. The soft femininity of her character is contrasted with the hyper-masculinity of her surroundings. She interacts primarily with men, all of whom seem to want to hustle her. No doubt experiencing some version of Paris syndrome, Luisa is confronted by the ghost of Elvis late one night in her hotel room. His gold lamé suit twinkles in the dark of the room, his body transparent as he makes apologies for his apparition. The American icon stalks the sidewalks of Memphis, the spirit of Elvis completely saturating its cultural identity. Any major city on the map is defined more by its reputation than its realities—a landmark place is landmark because of its history, its aura, the ghosts that haunt its streets.

LOST IN 

SPACE

Joe Strummer plays down-and-out Englishman nicknamed “Elvis” on account of his meticulously coiffed pompadour. He is the look of working-class middle-America, complete with sideburns and rolled sleeves. In this get-up, Strummer is a Bruce Springsteen type of All-American boy, but it is a complicated kind of iconography. If the Japanese rokabiri tell us anything, it is that truly powerful icons are magnetic, they are universal and unifying, possessing people of all walks of life, from all backgrounds, of all nationalities. A British punk icon plays a down-and-out working-class Memphis greaser, named after the pinnacle of American icon by all his black southern co-workers. His look challenges stylistic authenticity—it reads 100% Americana on the surface, but this America isn’t born-and-raised. 

The film, like Memphis itself, is littered with legends—Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Rufus Thomas, Tom Waits, Joe Strummer, Cinqué Lee (younger brother of Spike). Many of them are actually from the south, acting out roles that could be alternate realities to their real lives. The film smudges the line between reality and fantasy—and is either one more real than the other? If you look the part, does it matter that you’re only playing it? Two Japanese teenagers come searching for the heart and soul of American pop-culture, hoping to experience a religious connection to the easy-cool of 1950’s Americana. Like falling in love, it is a fantasy, a connection based on worship. There is no value inherent to a run-down building rotting on Marshall Avenue—it is the fantasy that determines the reality, and it is a fervent love that produces the fantasy. 

Text: Olivia Whittick