Mystery Train hasn’t aged well, exactly, but it hasn’t aged poorly, either. Recently given the full Criterion Collection treatment on DVD and Blu-ray like a lost classic, it seems like exactly what it seemed like during its first run: a charming, quirky, but inert film, full of odd characters who never really get up to much other than provoke a few wry laughs. In a way it’s most appealing as a snapshot—of director Jim Jarmusch as he matured his early style, but most especially of Memphis before it made its way back on the hipster map.
Released in 1989, Mystery Train was Jarmusch’s first film in color after the deadpan black-and-white shenanigans of Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. At the time, it was a bit of a revelation to see the director’s nighttime world in Edward Hopper color, with purple and green gels and multicolored neon filling in the shadows left by the streetlights. And the deep, gleaming ebony of R&B cult legend Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ skin against a five-alarm red suit jacket left an indelible visual impression, one that Criterion’s Blu-ray reproduces beautifully.
Hawkins plays the night clerk at a busted-ass South Main area hotel that serves as one of two links to three different storylines. In the first, a couple of Japanese teens (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) arrive by train to pay homage to the birthplace of their favorite music. In the second, a recently widowed Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi) arrives by plane and winds up stranded for the night. In the third story, three mismatched friends (Clash frontman Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, and Rick Aviles) drink and commiserate and wind up involved in a shooting. The second link between the three stories is, well, Elvis, of course.
You could call Mystery Train character-driven, except the characters don’t really drive it anywhere. Hawkins and Cinque Lee, playing the hotel’s underemployed bellboy, have fun with non sequiturial banter, and Nagase and the adorable Kudoh are fun to watch; it’s in their segment that Jarmusch is most tender, to both the characters and the city. Braschi just isn’t enough of a presence to make anything of her aimless story. There’s no shortage of presence with Strummer, Buscemi, and Aviles sharing a screen, but after Jarmusch works his way up to the only real moment of urgency in the whole film, he almost immediately defuses it with a slow-burn laugh. More jawing and drinking ensues.
At one point, Nagase’s character delivers what, for him, amounts to an epic speech while staring out the hotel window at a dim street. The gist of it is that being in Memphis feels cool. And that’s Mystery Train. Shot before the South Main area was revitalized (and shortly before the original Stax building was leveled), it recaptures the notion of Memphis as a city of dreams and fate without belying its seedy, weed-choked reality. It’s not so much a movie as a mash note.
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (IndiePix DVD) offers another, very different perplexing movie experience. If the title rings the faintest of bells, that’s because it’s also the title of a 2009 album by the criminally undersung Chicago-based band Califone. This is no coincidence, as Califone’s main singer/songwriter Tim Rutili also wrote and directed the film, his first feature. It’s every bit as odd and beguiling as the band’s music.
Zel (May’s Angela Bettis) is a small-town psychic living in her grandmother’s house along a busy highway. But she doesn’t live alone. Her home is overpopulated by ghosts, white-clad men, women, and a child whom no one else sees, even though they fill almost every room. (The four members of Califone play blind ghost musicians, who spend all their time banging on odd instruments in a little room.) They are the secret of her psychic success and her constant companions. But change is afoot in Zel’s life and the ghosts’ afterlives, and change is often difficult but usually for the best.
All My Friends is a first-time quasi-experimental indie feature with all the trimmings: inscrutable pretense, the barest hint of a plot, good country people, feeble secondary performances, mixed-bag visuals, an overdeveloped soundtrack, the works. And yet it remains surprisingly watchable. The ghosts aren’t quite the clichés you might expect (one—a priest—muses about a three-way with Jesus) and the few actual Califone songs that pop up—with their primitivist feel and mournful melodies—ravish. It certainly helps that Bettis finds an emotional performance in her one-liner of a character and holds the film together with fierce determination. If All My Friends the movie can’t supplant the experience of listening to All My Friends the album (which you need to do if you haven’t), it won’t ruin it for you either, which is saying something.