LITTLE ROCK — With all due respect to Cleveland, America’s neediest city and a perfectly appropriate location for anything so ridiculous as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Memphis is the mythic cradle of rock ’n’ roll.
Not just because of Elvis Presley (though that might be enough considering that Elvis effectively established and codified the set of gestures we now recognize as rock ’n’ roll), but also because it is where the Delta begins (“in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel,” the famously precise David Cohn wrote in 1935, the year of Elvis’ birth) and where W.C. Handy heard some weird and terrible song while he was waiting for a train. He left and took that snatch of jazz with him.
Memphis is a city of confluences and transient notions, a river city on a border, America’s busiest distribution hub. Things mingle there, people pass through, it’s the first city you come to if you’re walking north from Clarksville, it’s where Martin Luther King Jr. and the dream he stood for took a bullet in the neck. It’s the home favorite sons Elvis and Nathan Bedford Forrest returned to after setting the world afire.
It’s not a lovable city, only an essential one. It is shabby genteel and just plain shabby, run down and - in the words of one of the characters in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 movie Mystery Train - “antique.” (Another character observes that it is just like Yokohama, with 60 percent of the buildings subtracted.)
The movie - which has just been rereleased to DVD and Blu-ray disc by Criterion Collection ($39.95 suggested retail price for either edition)- is the quintessential Memphis film because it is about the discreet charms of drifting, finding yourself in alien precincts with all sorts of possibilities (and impossibilities) manifesting themselves. It is a movie about how close we are to what we never realize, a sort of poem about the worlds we just miss - that just miss us. It’s a movie about the shots we imagine we hear in the night, and about the other people, unknown to us, who also hear (or feel) them.
It is a movie about a night in Memphis, about three stories - told sequentially rather than through intercutting - concerning foreigners who pass through the same fleabag hotel, The Arcade, presided over by a desk clerk played by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
The first story (“Far From Yokohama”) involves a cute teenage couple from Japan, rock ’n’ roll pilgrims intent on seeing Sun Studios and Graceland. Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) is the purest form of Elvis fan; she keeps scrapbooks while her boyfriend Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) is a hep cat- too cool for Elvis, he prefers Carl Perkins.
The second (“A Ghost”) is about a freshly widowed Italian woman, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), who while carrying her husband’s ashes home to Rome, finds herself washed up for the night in Memphis . After encountering a creepy hustler (a skin-crawlingly wonderful Tom Noonan) who tells her a ghost story about the King, she ends up sharing a room with Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), who has just broken up with her British boyfriend, Johnny (Joe Strummer).
The third story, “Lost in Space,” follows the disappointed Johnny and his friends (Steve Buscemi and Rick Aviles) as they drink and fight - Johnny objects to being called “Elvis,” a reference to his pompadour - and hatch a desultory plan to rob a liquor store.
While these stories glance off each other, they never really connect, at least not in the ways that movies have trained us to expect. Jarmusch is interested in the concurrent realities of his characters, and while they occupy the same night (like American Graffiti, a radio signal stitches the stories together), the same general geography, they are of different worlds. Memphis and its ghosts - and the America they suggest - appear to each of them in different forms and mean different things.
Mystery Train is one of my favorite movies, and it was a critical favorite when it was released. It won the Best Artistic Contribution award at Cannes and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized that it had become fashionable to regard it as one of Jarmusch’s lesser films, a cut or more below his masterpieces Down by Law, Stranger Than Paradise (one of the quintessential Cleveland movies, by the way) and Dead Man. (I recently came across a review of the film that described it as Jarmusch“crawling in place.”)
But while the deliberate pacing and evocative, oblique storytelling are removed from typical plot-driven Hollywood features, Mystery Train has the same weird beauty as a Van Morrison vocal, a mannered eccentricity that somehow cracks open and lays bear the stuttering, fervid heart of what could have been banal material.
Or maybe you just have to know Memphis to get the movie. Maybe you have to know Memphis to get America.