In the first few minutes of Mystery Train, an eccentric and deliriously funny movie made in 1989, it becomes clear that Jim Jarmusch, the director, did not put the word "train" in his title lightly. Elvis Presley's Mystery Train can be heard on the soundtrack, and the first two characters we meet, a Japanese couple, are coming to Memphis as pilgrims to Graceland. Those are the first of many transportation images and sounds. Among other things, Mystery Train demonstrates that Jarmusch can work more variations on the road movie than anyone thought possible.
Directors like Jarmusch seem to have been created for the age of the video; he probably finds his best audience in rentals. Having made seven features since he emerged from Columbia University 25 years ago, he's never had a great success, but he's earned a considerable reputation. The fact that he's played bit parts in 20 films by other directors suggests how much they respect him. They use him more as symbol than performer, displaying him like an icon that sanctifies the enterprise.
Jarmusch has a lot to say, and he says it with such loveable and complicated wit that his films can be revisited often, and always with profit. If you see a new Jarmusch movie, as I recently saw Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, there's a great pleasure in getting out an earlier one to compare them.
His affection for travel is perhaps his most blatantly American quality. He works a vein in American culture that goes back to Huckleberry Finn and proceeds through The Grapes of Wrath to On the Road and Lolita. The American style is to light out, like Huck, for the territory, and if possible keep moving. It is understood that going is more important than arriving.
Moving toward Memphis on Amtrak, we glance out the window and see evidence of mass transport everywhere: an auto graveyard, gigantic bridges, a huge highway overpass. Later we'll meet a woman from Rome who is stuck in Memphis because of airline trouble. Someone briefly considers stealing a white Cadillac, then goes off instead and robs a liquor store in a friend's pickup. There's a man who resentfully insults his truck, to its face, because it won't start.
In Stranger than Paradise (1986), three Hungarians travel from New York to Ohio and then to Florida, never once indicating why they are moving around. Night on Earth (1991) concerns taxi rides in five cities and brings them alive with magnificent performances, like those of Rosie Perez and Roberto Benigni. At every turn, Jarmusch characters face the mundane problem of getting from here to there.
He seems anxious to take us into every routine corner of life. He's usually called idiosyncratic, but there's also an insistent ordinariness in his work. Watching Mystery Train, it occurred to me that it might be just as accurate to attach the term "eccentric" to the well-plotted, well-paced movies that fill the theatres. After all, successful movies usually describe something totally artificial. Jarmusch involves himself instead with people who, however weird they may be, don't just live from plot point to plot point.
He often makes his pictures out of what other directors routinely discard. Once he explained: "Say a guy breaks up with his girl over the phone and he decides to go to see her and we cut from him leaving his apartment to him entering hers." That's missing the good stuff, Jarmusch thinks. He wants to show the man on the way to her apartment, show "how he was feeling, what he did and how he got there." In Mystery Train, the Japanese couple walk slowly through a rundown section of Memphis, stupefied by poverty while enchanted by musical history. They see everything fresh, and make us see it fresh, too.
Jarmusch's attitude to narrative comes across as defiant: "I will not be dramatic! I will not explain!" Biographical articles call him a protege of Nicholas Ray, who directed Rebel Without a Cause, but Ray's films, however well made, are direct, explicit and literal. Jarmusch's are oblique, vague and full of hard-to-decode allusions. If Jarmusch learned something in the time he worked for Ray, he learned what he didn't want to do.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai concerns a black man (Forest Whitaker) who imagines himself following the code of ancient Japanese warriors as he carries out Mafia killings while listening to hip-hop music. (He's a one-man multicultural project.)
At the beginning of the film we inspect Jersey City's harbour from a helicopter. Pretty soon we're in a stolen luxury car, gliding quietly through the city. The windows of dead storefronts deflect the moonlight toward us, wrapping cars and streets in silvery light. This city has apparently grown so poor that even the Mafia is impoverished: Its meetings take place around a pathetic little table in the back room of a Chinese restaurant. But in Jarmusch's hands, the worn old streets, seen through a car window, have a shimmering magic.
Jarmusch's angle on reality is so unlike anything we're used to that he has to calibrate it with care: Too much this way and it turns into a standard movie, too much that way and it becomes intolerably slow. He wants to hint at meaning, but if his hint is too guarded, he misses.
He missed me with Dead Man, the Johnny Depp western he made in 1996; I couldn't figure out why he made it. There's a thin line between the extremely subtle and the entirely meaningless -- or the simple-minded, as in "Indian good, white man bad," which was among the messages of that film. Jarmusch leaves himself a dangerously narrow margin for error.
But when it works, his way of observing life can be stylish and enriching. He insists that nothing should be lost on us; it all matters. William Blake (whose verse is quoted in Dead Man) wrote of the visionary's desire "To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower." Something like that goes on in almost every frame Jim Jarmusch shoots.