Extract from
Postmodernism and American Cultural Difference
Dispatches, Mystery Train, and The Art of Japanese Management
boundary 2 21:1 1994, 220-232.

By Thomas Carmichael

Like Jim Jarmusch’s earlier work, his 1989 film, Mystery Train, is an ironic representation of desire and difference within a cultural matrix pervaded by simulation and the manufactured nostalgia of popular culture. The film’s three narratives, overlapping and interconnected in real time, are presented sequentially so as to emphasize both the repetition of the same and the endlessly displaced and deferred trajectory of desire in its successive manifestations. Mystery Train is set in Memphis, here presented initially as the sign of American cultural authenticity, and the film’s title, as well as the Elvis Presley rendition of the Junior Parker song from which the title is taken, and the opening shots of arriving in Memphis by train across the Mississippi are all designed to reinforce that claim. But Memphis is also the site of a nostalgia for the simulacrum par excellence, the deceased icon, Elvis Presley. Characteristically sentimental portraits of Elvis (preferably painted on black velvet) hang in every room of the hotel in which much of the film takes place, and the film’s unmotivated signs and empty repetitions everywhere signal an endlessly deferred and ungrounded process of signification. On one level, this return to a perceived origin of the culture of rock and roll is simply the occasion for an exploration of the humorous miscues of naïve cultural difference in Jarmusch’s earlier Stranger than Paradise (1984) and Down by Law (1986). While this might suggest that various forms of European and Asian difference in Mystery Train are to be set over against some authentic American cultural discourse, Jarmusch’s film emphatically demonstrates the more commonsense postmodern view that America is equally its won simulation. In this respect, it is most obviously to be read together with Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law.

In the earliest of these films, Eva (Eszter Balint) arrives in America from Hungary to visit her cousin Willie (John Lurie) in New York and her Aunt Lottie (Cecilia Stark) in Cleveland. Each of the film’s three American locations resembles nothing more closely than the gray, decrepit industrial landscape associated with a Cold War Eastern Europe. As Jarmusch himself has remarked of Stranger than Paradise , the conventional media [page 224 / page 225] representations of Eastern Europe as “completely gray and depressing, with people toiling in factories all day and coming home to freez in their little apartments” is also an American representation of itself: “I’m reversing that stereotype by showing that the same could be said for the United States.” [Richard Linnett, “As American as You Are”, Cineaste 14:1 (1985): 26.] This is possible, Jarmusch reminds us, not simply because these are ideologically laden representations but rather because the claims to difference in America are themselves specious, or as he puts it, “there’s a certain continuous tone in America, especially if you don’t have lots of money.” [Harlan Jacobson, “Interview with Jim Jarmusch”, Film Comment 21:1 (1985): 62] This is often hilariously true in the film, particularly when Willie’s sidekick Eddie asks him, in a moment of reflective curiosity, whether Cleveland resembles Budapest. The drive toward homogenization, suggested by Eddie’s idle query, is also represented in Stranger than Paradise at the level of cultural differences. In a phone conversation with his Aunt Lottie, for example, Willie maintains that he doesn’t consider himself part of this family of Hungarian immigrants and reinforces this on the linguistic levelby insisting that everyone speak English. He also defends himself against Eddie’s probing of his Hungarian roots, and he cuts off this conversation by insisting that he is as American as anyone. While Willie seeks to insist upon his personal difference, his place in a homogeneous America that would forget his Hungarian origins, he is ironically led, at the end of the film, to board a plane bound for Hungary in mistaken pursuit of his cousin Eva. In this respect, the ironies of cultural difference and its eradication in America are also the ironies and frustrations of gender relations in Stranger than Paradise. Willie acts hostilely and begrudgingly toward Eva but is also attracted to her, and the frustrations of their relationship suggest again an absence of a ground for communicative possibility that is signed in the text by the oppressively depthless cultural sphere provided by the American landscape. The same can be said for Jarmusch’s Down by Law, in which the urban decay of New Orleans provides the site of a return to the ironic frustrations of cultural and gender encodings. This film also looks forward to Mystery Train in its preoccupation with specifically American forms of actualization and fulfillment. Structurally, the film is a succession of escapes and enslavements, in which fantasies of choice and possibility are always haunted by a word of crime and marginality in which these fantasies are repeatedly undermined. But the film repeatedly foregrounds these fantasies as a distinctly American cul- [page 225 / page 226] tural code. Roberto (Roberto Benigni), an Italian immigrant, fondly recites Walt Whitman as well as Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to his American companions, Jack (John Lurie) and Zack (Tom Waits); however, these texts are always recalled in prison or in rooms resembling prison cells, and at the end of the film, Jack and Zack are forced to make a decision at a fork in the road of a Louisiana swamp, in which choice and direction make no apparent difference. The sameness that Jarmusch observes at the edge of American material abundance is presented in Down by Law as the condition that is obscured by characteristically American projections of liberal self-reliance. The possibility of any contemporary solution to the postmodern dilemma of relentless indifference is only ironically posited here. Roberto discovers Nicoletta (Nicoletta Braschi), also a recent Italian immigrant with a somewhat imperfect command of English, at her isolated Italian restaurant, Luigi’s Tin Top, on a deserted road deep in a Louisiana forest, and he decides to remain with Nicoletta. As the film suggests, however, Roberto and Nicoletta are as different as they are impossible, and here the representation of the other signals an unbridgeable gulf between the successful escape of Roberto and his relationship with Nicoletta and the undifferentiated experiences and frustrating relationships of the two Americans with interchangeable names, Jack and Zack.

Jarmusch’s preoccupations with the encodings of postmodern culture and gender are consistent: The second of the three narratives in Mystery Train essentially recapitulates the fantasy of fulfillment portrayed in the relationship of Roberto and Nicoletta in Down by Law, and the third returns to the worlds of deferral and disappointment we find exemplified in the figures of Willie and Eddie in Stranger than Paradise and in Jack and Zack in Down by Law. (NOTE. That these narratives essentially repetitions of the thematic preoccupations and narrative configurations of Jarmusch’s earlier work is also indicated by Jarmusch’s repeated use of a number of actors, particularly John Lurie, Nicoletta Braschi, and Tom Waits, in his films.) But the first of the three narratives in Mystery Train is the focus of my considerations here, particularly for its extension of these preoccupations to the representation of a specifically Asian difference. Entitled “Far from Yokohama,” it presents the pilgrimage of two adolescent Japanese lovers to Memphis, the site of Graceland and Sun Studios. The young Japanese woman, Mitzuko (Youki Kudoh), possesses an imperfect command of English idioms (her characteristic greeting is “Hi!, goodnight”), and her post-punk attire, like that of her companion, Jun (Masa- [page 226 / page 227] toshi Nagase), stands in sharp contrast to the declining, provincial Memphis they encounter. The first figure Jun and Mitzuko meet in Memphis is an African American who asks them for a match, and this figure, although apparently local in every respect, curiously enough, speaks some Japanese. The cosmopolitanism is, however, no more than a moment of unexpected confusion that blurs their expectations of difference, and the ironies of this encounter only look forward to the much more prominent role of the night clerk at the hotel, played by the former R & B performer, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. (NOTE. There is an additional irony here in that the first African American figure they meet is, of course, Rufus Thomas, also an R & B performer long associated with Memphis.) The presence of Hawkins in this film points toward the patterns of narrative self-consciousness in Mystery Train: Hawkins’s single hit song “I Put a Spell on You” (1956) is played repeatedly in Jarmusch’s first film Stranger than Paradise, and signals here an intertextual network that invites us to read all of Jarmusch’s work together. At the same time, and more significant for our present purposes, Hawkins’s heavily stylized portrayal calls into question any sense that the Memphis Jun and Mitazuko encounter is anything more than a parodic and depthless realm of essentially free-floating images. Similarly, the experiences Jun and Mitzuko share together are themselves not expressions of significant cultural difference but rather are signs of their appropriation to the international culture of the image. Elvis Presley’s 1956 rendition of the Rodgers and Hart song “Blue Moon” (recorded in 1954) plays three times in Mystery Train, and, in each instance, it is an ironic commentary on what transpires in the film. While the song celebrates the sentimental fulfillment of a dream of the other, Mystery Train repeatedly suggests that one’s own dream is always either someone else’s or a signifying field to which one’s responses are already appropriated and encoded. Mitzuko, for example, keeps a scrapbook of pictures of Elvis in several poses together with various look-alikes, including a Middle Eastern relief sculpture, Madonna, the Buddha, and the Statue of Liberty, so that Elvis is interchangeable with almost every other image. In the same way, Jun and Mitzuko live out their own identities and desires, signaled at the obvious level by their Japanese difference in America, according to the logic of simulation in popular culture. Early in the film, Jun tells us that if one removed 60 percent of its buildings, Yokohama would look just like Memphis; later, he reverses his view with the equally astute insight that America is different because it feel “cool” to be eighteen and so far from Yokohama. Jarmusch’s point here, of course, is that one is never far from Yokohama, [page 227 / page 228] and in a culture in which difference is homogenized to the unmotivated zero degree of eclecticism, one is only far from oneself or from an other who is always a projection and, at the same time, the field out of which the self is articulated.