American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Mystery train. The two most evocative words in the language, suggesting streamliners into the night and strangers whose eyes meet in the club car as the train's rhythm creates an erotic reverie. But trains are no longer quite like that in America, and the opening shots of Jim Jarmusch's new film show two young Japanese tourists in a faded Amtrak coach, listening to their Walkmans as the train pulls through the outskirts of Memphis.
The girl is an Elvis fan. Her boyfriend believes Carl Perkins was the true father of rock 'n' roll. They have come to visit the shrines of Memphis: the Sun recording studios, for example, where rock 'n' roll was born.
In the hands of another director, this setup would lead directly into social satire, into a comic putdown of rock tourism, with a sarcastic visit to Graceland as the kicker. But Jarmusch is not a satirist. He is a romantic, who sees America as a foreigner might - as a strange, haunting country where the urban landscapes are painted by Edward Hopper and the all-night blues stations provide a soundtrack for a life.
The tourists arrive in Memphis and drag their luggage through the cavernous train station, and walk to the Sun studios, where a guide rattles off her spiel about Elvis and Carl faster than an auctioneer could. Then they check into the Arcade Hotel, one of those fleabags that has grown exhausted waiting for the traveling salesmen who no longer come. This is a hotel out of a 1940s film noir, with neon signs and a linoleum lobby, and a night clerk who has seen it all and a bellboy whose eyes are so wide, he might be seeing everything for the first time.