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‘Mystery Train’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 02, 1990

"Train arrives," warbles Elvis Presley. "Sixteen coaches long." There's something primally exciting about the song, something about Presley's tremulous voice, Scotty Moore's scratchy, energetic guitar, and the rawness of producer Sam Phillips's recording. One of the legendary Sun Records songs that helped launch rock and roll in the mid-'50s, "Mystery Train" also starts up Jim Jarmusch's film of the same name, and brings the movie rattling and rolling on into Memphis, with about 16 coachloads of Jarmusch touches shuttling behind and Elvis's ghost hovering memorably overhead.

It's a train that Jarmusch cognoscenti have seen before, passing through the director's previous work ("Permanent Vacation," "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Down by Law") with its by-now-familiar fades to black between scenes, shots of paths stretching into infinity, traveling shots of America's deserted, seamy streets, and long, free-form sequences in which Old World transients pace, breathe, yawn and essentially kill eccentric time in the New World (or Jarmusch's offbeat vision thereof).

But if "Train" seems like a repeat journey, it's only so in form. Certainly Jarmusch brings back his favorite predilections (and probably always will), but he makes his passengers interesting, kicks the plot off the platform whenever possible and keeps the way ahead refreshingly uncertain.

There's no sense of destination in "Train," in the narrative sense, just comings and goings in Memphis, ghost town for musical greats from Elvis to Otis. The activity, the dramatic behavior if you will, occurs at the seedy Arcade Hotel, through which all manner of fly-by-nighters are passing -- all for their own, peculiar reasons.

In "Far From Yokohama," the first of the movie's three vignettes, Japanese pilgrims Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase, have come to visit Memphis's greatest musician . . . .

"Carrrle Perrkins," argues Nagase.

"Errrvis," replies Kudoh.

In the second ("A Ghost"), Italian widow Nicoletta Braschi, who's transporting her husband's remains to Rome, has an encounter with a much more famous cadaver; and in the third ("Lost in Space"), low-lifers Joe Strummer, Joe Buscemi and Rick Aviles, ducking the cops for armed robbery, do that trademark-Jarmusch cage-pacing thing.

Watching over these diverse visitors with a certain, local wisdom are night clerk Screamin' Jay Hawkins, bellboy Cinque Lee (a cap perched like a Dixie cup on his head), and the spirit of Elvis Himself, who watches them from oil portraits in every room and whose haunting rendition of "Blue Moon" seems to be playing every time you switch on the radio.

The three sections dovetail together only perfunctorily -- these existential wayfarers are in roughly the same place at roughly the same time, and that's about it -- so any attempt to make structural sense of "Train" is an unnecessary viewing chore. Jarmusch appears to ask only that you respond to what's in front of you -- the film's nothing more or less than his set of stylistic feelings about Memphis, with a little help from a lot of friends. The great thing about "Mystery Train" is its open-endedness. It's a generously scripted ride that gives equal berth to all its characters, then cuts them loose with unfinished business, which also leaves them alive and drifting in your thoughts for a long time. That doesn't seem like a bad achievement at all.

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