Mystery Train; Dir. Jim Jarmusch. 1989. 113mins. Masatoshi Nagase, Youki Kudoh, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi.

Die-hard Elvis fans might find this cooky-noir tribute to the King unsettling, but Jarmusch succeeds in capturing the simple, elegant seediness of Memphis in three droll, loosely-connected tales.  Centered around a cheap hotel run by a flamboyantly-dressed clerk (Hawkins), this film, more than any other I’m aware of, anticipates Tarantino’s ideas of cinematic cool, including sliced & diced chronology, cavalier gunplay, and the humorous skirting of racial and linguistic boundaries.  The art-house ethos thrives on this sort of a screenplay, devoid of strong leading characters and rigid plotlines, so that the mundane flavor of real life can be toyed with by a gallery of losers and budget travelers.  The initial vignette is in Japanese without subtitles, but if we pay attention we can pick out names like Carl Perkins and Elvis from the smoke-filled dialogue of Jun & Mitsuko (Nagase and Kudoh).  Jarmusch would go on to explore the theme of unlikely cross-cultural pollination in films like Ghost Dog.  Visually, the director excels in framing seemingly ordinary events (a purchase at a magazine stand, breaking glass, a guided tour in the tiny Sun Studios), and then stepping back and allowing their core absurdity to distill at it’s own pace.  The vintage Rock-a-billy soundtrack is the perfect complement to the gritty nostalgia of a decaying American city.  Star performances include Nicoletta Braschi as a slightly confused Italian widow, and Steve Buscemi in perhaps the first of many roles as the obligatory recipient of gruesome bodily harm.

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