At nights in the summertime I heard lonesome whistles blowing, and dreamed of taking the train to the future. To romance. To the rest of my life. Or just simply out of town. Trains embody the fact of travel, the sense of moving through time and space and day and night. Airplanes are elevators whose doors close and then open in another city. The two Japanese kids in Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train" (1989) have the right idea. They're on a train to Memphis. With one suitcase suspended on a pole between them, they wander the bedraggled streets until passing by accident the door of the Sun record studios, which is a shrine for them.
This is not a Memphis approved by the chamber of commerce. The city seems forlorn and deserted: Vacant lots, boarded storefronts, hardly any traffic or pedestrians. I am sure Memphis, then and now, has pleasant outlooks. But Jarmusch isn't your man to look for them. His world view is by Nelson Algren out of Edward Hopper, Elvis Presley by way of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. He hears the train a comin', it's rollin' 'round the bend, and he ain't seen the sunshine since he don't know when.
Can you already guess that "Mystery Train" is a romance? Not a romance between people, but about the romance of the big city and its obscure corners where outsiders, seekers and the forlorn go to spend the night. I hope Charles Bukowski saw this film before he died. Then again, he didn't need to.
The film tells three stories, which are glancingly connected. The characters in all three check in, more or less by chance, at the same hotel. This hotel is on life support. It has no more furniture than a hotel in a Looney Tunes cartoon. People check in, look around, and say "No TV." Just a bed, a couple of busted chairs, a night table and a portrait of Elvis on the wall. The rooms are so small I'm sure the eyes of Elvis can't help following them as they walk around.