Chapter Four: Mystery Train

In the course of one day and night, three different episodes converge at the Arcade Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Far From Yokohama”

Jun and his girlfriend, Mitzuko, arrive by train in Memphis. Walking side-by-side with a large suitcase slung on a stick between them, the couple do a tour of Sun Studios. They check into the Arcade Hotel and are escorted to their room by the bellboy. Here Mitzuko shows Jun her scrapbook of Elvis-themed photographs and the two discuss how their hometown of Yokohama differs from Memphis. After making love, the couple listen to Elvis singing “Blue Moon” on the radio. The next morning as they leave, they hear a gunshot from a nearby room.

“A Ghost”

An Italian woman, Luisa, finds herself waiting for a flight that will allow her to escort her husband’s coffin back to Rome. She checks into the Arcade hotel where she agrees to share a room with Dee Dee – a talkative woman who has just left her boyfriend (“Elvis”). The couple swap stories and fall asleep listening to “Blue Moon” on the radio. During the night, Luisa is woken by the ghost of Elvis who apologises for having visited the wrong address. The next morning as the two women leave, they hear a gunshot from a neighbouring room.

“Lost in Space”

Johnny drunkenly plays with his gun at a bar after having lost his job and his girlfriend, Dee Dee. His work-mate, Will Robinson, and Dee Dee’s brother, Charlie, persuade Johnny to go out for a drive with them in Will’s van. The three pull over at a liquor store and Johnny shoots the clerk and steals two bottles of bourbon. The three men check into the Arcade Hotel where they stow themselves in a decrepit spare room. In the morning Johnny tries to shoot himself; as the others struggle to save him, Charlie is inadvertently shot in the leg.

A Modern Minimalist’s Version of the Canterbury Tales

Although Mystery Train has much in common with Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law in terms of its roaming protagonists, it seems apparent that thematically the final film in Jarmusch’s trilogy is something of a departure from its predecessors. Whereas the monochromatic tones and predominately static composition of Jarmusch’s two previous films seemed to convey a sense of uniformity and inertia, Mystery Train’s colour photography and extensive use of energetic tracking shots in my view seem to signal what one might refer to as a new sense of buoyancy. This chapter will explore how this feeling of optimism could be seen to be indicative of a change in Jarmusch’s outlook from doubt and disillusion to one of hope for a society in the midst of change.

In terms of narrative, Mystery Train is clearly a more ambitious film than either Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law in its presentation of three “separate” episodes that are gradually revealed to be taking place simultaneously. As each episode effectively offers a different perspective of the same period in time, it is perhaps unsurprising that the film has been described as a play on the process of cinematic interpretation (Andrew, 1998: 146-153). Indeed, during the course of the film the spectator effectively finds him/herself evaluating and re-evaluating events from one episode within the context of the other episodes. The result of this process would appear to be that the viewer develops their own perspective of events as they uncover not only the numerous intratextual references in the film but also several other transtextual elements.[14]

In my view, Mystery Train is a film capable of being read on many levels – an argument perhaps borne out in Jarmusch’s description of the film as “a modern minimalist’s version of the Canterbury Tales”. (New Statesman, 5/7/96 [15]) Elaborating on this comparison, it is perhaps interesting to recall critics’ views that Geoffrey Chaucer’s book can be studied as a story of a pilgrimage, an anthology of medieval literature types/genres and also a representative view of all walks of life in fourteenth-century English society (Monarch Notes, 1/1/1963). I would argue that Mystery Train is a similarly intricate text. Clearly the film is self-reflexive, plays with genre, has several references to popular culture as well as allusions to Jarmusch’s previous films. Although one could possibly refer to this as indicative of a postmodern sensibility permeating Mystery Train, it is quite apparent that Jarmusch does not partake in “negative postmodernism”.[16] Certainly, his film can be seen to question the legitimacy of history, progress and reason. However, it is also apparent that his characters insert a sense of humanity into the proceedings. Indeed, it seems evident that, although the protagonists in Mystery Train are going through similar turmoil (i.e. they generally seem unable to find direction in life and clearly find it difficult coming to terms with their identities) as those in Jarmusch’s two prior films, this time around they seem more able to articulate themselves. They succeed in relating their worries and doubts to their counterparts and concurrently manage to recognise each other’s basic humanity. In my view it is this sense of humanity combined with Jarmusch’s apparent celebration of diversity (evident in his narrative’s apparent play on the spectator’s interpretation of the text) that recalls Gallagher’s proposed antidote to negative postmodernism (i.e. the aforementioned notion of “creative postmodernity”[17]).

In this chapter, in an attempt to highlight the multitude of levels from which Mystery Train can be interpreted, I will apply the notion of transtextuality explored in Palimpsests. (Genette, 1982) Whilst this may merely provide an inventory of some of the levels from which Mystery Train can be read, I should point out that the intention of this part of my dissertation is merely to draw attention to what might be considered some postmodern elements in Jarmusch’s film. Following this section, the chapter will conclude with some brief commentary on the evidence of humanity in Jarmusch’s apparent postmodern sensibility.

An Inventory of Mystery Train’s Transtextual Elements

Intertextuality: The most relevant of Genette’s subcategories of transtextuality in terms of my analysis is intertextuality – the “effective co-presence of two texts” in terms of quotation, plagiarism or allusion. Stam et al. subdivide this notion of intertextuality to term additional categories within the same theoretical paradigm. Most interesting in relation to Mystery Train is the notion of intratextuality whereby a film refers to itself through mirroring or microcosmic structures (Stam et al., 1992: 206). Each “separate” episode of Mystery Train is connected into the structure of the whole as certain events are shown to be common to all three narratives. Sound plays a key role in establishing these connections. For example, the sound of the gunshot is common to all episodes, as are the sounds of ‘Blue Moon’ on the radio and Jun and Mitzuko making love. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that several intratextual relationships could be seen to be constructed between the characters from all three episodes in Mystery Train. For example, the man Dee Dee has just left in the “A Ghost” episode turns out to be the character of Elvis from the final episode. Also, Charlie from the final episode can be glimpsed briefly outside a barbershop in the first episode.

Another interesting subcategory of Genette’s notion of intertextuality is auto-citation whereby the author can be seen to quote from his or her own prior work (Stam et al., 1992: 207). In Mystery Train, the voice of Tom Waits (effectively reprising his role as the DJ Zack from Down By Law) is heard introducing “Blue Moon” on the radio. Also Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ - whose “I Put A Spell On You” formed the musical backdrop to Stranger Than Paradise - appears playing the role of the night-clerk at the Arcade Hotel.

Also interesting in relation to Mystery Train is the notion of celebrity intertextuality whereby the “presence” of a film or television star evokes a genre or cultural milieu (Stam et al., 1992: 207). In Jarmusch’s film the spirit of Elvis Presley can be seen to appear in several guises. Examples include the title of the film itself which refers to one of Elvis’ songs, the Japanese couple in the first episode who are fans of Elvis, Luisa in the second episode who buys Elvis’ comb from a con-artist, the character “Elvis” in the third episode and the appearance of Presley’s rendition of “Blue Moon” on the soundtrack. It seems clear that these various references to Elvis together function as a kind of a running joke throughout the film. Whilst the relevance of this joke could be contested, it is perhaps worth alluding to a scene in the first episode where Mitzuko shows her boyfriend Jun a scrapbook of Elvis look-a-likes including Madonna and the Statue of Liberty. This in my view could be seen to be aligned to the notion of the film as a play on the notion of cinematic interpretation. Indeed, in my view it is almost as if Jarmusch is articulating how far interpretation can venture.

Paratextuality: Genette’s second type of transtextuality refers to the relationship between the text proper and that which surrounds the body of the text – such as titles, headings, prefaces, epigraphs, dedications etc. (Genette, 1982). The most apparent case of paratextuality in the film perhaps is the appearance of captions before each episode. Each of these captions in my view has the same basic function – to forewarn or hint at the content of each episode before it actually appears on screen before the spectator. In “Far From Yokohama”, for example, the initial shots depict a Japanese couple arriving in Memphis and almost immediately the relevance of the title becomes evident. In the second episode, the title “A Ghost” foreshadows the appearance of the ghost of Elvis. Similarly, the third episode’s title “Lost in Space” foreshadows a casual conversation between the characters in the final episode regarding the television series of the same name (as well as the fact that one of the characters shares the name of the protagonist in that television series - Will Robinson).

The actual title of the film may be suggestive in terms of detecting Jarmusch’s own view of America. Obviously, as I have previously mentioned, “Mystery Train” is the name of an Elvis Presley song and could be seen to be merely an extension of the recurrent Elvis joke throughout the film. However, the phrase “Mystery Train” is clearly suggestive of a journey with an unpredictable outcome. This could perhaps be seen to be aligned to Jarmusch seeing virtue in the mystery of the present rather than (as he seemed to articulate through the clearly disillusioned states of many of his characters in Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law) expressing unease about the future. The title of Jarmusch’s film could therefore be seen to represent hope in the one certainty - that lived experience in America is ever changeable and fundamentally unpredictable.

Architextuality: This subcategory of Genette’s notion of transtextuality has to do with a text’s willingness or unwillingness to consign itself to a genre or genres (Genette, 1982). Although in my view Mystery Train as a whole does not easily align itself to any particular genre, Geoff Andrew has suggested that the three episodes can be viewed respectively as “offbeat variations on the romantic comedy, the ghost story and the crime thriller” (Andrew, 1998: 152). Certainly, the episodes are offbeat in the sense that Jarmusch’s style can once again clearly be said to be in counterpoint to any notion of Hollywood convention. Like Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, the film features the return of several devices characteristic of its director’s individual style. Frequent fades to black, use of inter-titles and a playfully ambiguous narrative feature prominently and clearly could be seen to place the film at a distance from the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema (Bordwell et al., 1985). In the sense that generic norms in Hollywood have been said to offer a simplified decision making process to the spectator by making films predictable (Altman, 1996: 279), it could indeed be argued that Jarmusch’s film is, as Andrew argues, a play on genre convention. Indeed, by virtue of its resistance to genre convention, in my view Mystery Train can clearly be seen to challenge the audience’s expectations. For example, Jarmusch’s “romantic comedy” features Japanese rather than American protagonists, his “ghost story” is more humorous than frightening and the explanation of the “mysterious” gunshot in his “crime thriller” is made purposely anti-climactic when it is revealed that one of the characters has been accidentally shot in the foot.

Metatextuality / Hypertextuality: There is a subtle difference between Genette’s subcategories of metatextuality and hypertextuality. Metatextuality refers to the explicit or implicit citation of one text in another. Hypertextuality on the other hand refers to the relation between one text and a preceding “hypotext” – i.e. a text on which it is based but which it transforms, modifies, elaborates or extends (Genette, 1982). Both can be seen to be relevant in terms of Mystery Train. In light of Jarmusch’s aformentioned comparison between Mystery Train and Canterbury Tales, perhaps it can be said at this point that the film could be read in terms of hypertextuality as a reworking of Chaucer’s book. In terms of metatextuality, there seems to be only one direct reference to Canterbury Tales; in the first episode of the film, as Jun and Mitzuko stroll through the streets of Memphis, they are shown walking past “Chaucer Street” – Jarmusch’s intention clearly being to acknowledge the parallels between Canterbury Tales and his own filmic text.

Obviously, the possibility for misinterpretation always exists.[18] For example, from the context of having viewed films such as Flirt (Hal Hartley, 1995) and Schizopolis (Steven Soderbergh, 1996), a retrospective analysis of Mystery Train could be said to reveal other metatextual and hypertextual elements. As these two later films could be seen to recall Mystery Train’s employment of foreign characters, deadpan humour and a playful narrative, it could be argued that in certain situations they could change or alter how one might perceive Jarmusch’s film. For example, it might be said that, a spectator who had seen Flirt or Schizopolis prior to Mystery Train and were unaware that Mystery Train had preceded these films might be of the opinion that Hartley or Soderbergh’s work represented the “hypotext” rather Jarmusch’s.

The above inventory of transtextual elements in my view can be seen to highlight what might be referred to as Jarmusch's postmodern sensibility – his ability to mix texts and contexts to produce a highly ambiguous whole. However, it seems apparent that, with Mystery Train, Jarmusch seems to invite a celebration of diversity and contingency rather than suggesting that mankind should wallow in doubt and disillusion (i.e. partake in “negative postmodernism”). Elaborating on this point, it might be said that what appears to be evident throughout Mystery Train is that Jarmusch allows for various democratic processes to take place. Firstly, given the textual levels highlighted above, he is clearly leaving his film open to the spectator’s interpretation (and most certainly I have overlooked several possible interpretations of Jarmusch’s filmic text). Also it seems evident that the director is altogether less judgmental of its characters in Mystery Train than he was in Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law. He does not seem to distance himself from them to the same extent as I have outlined in the first two films of his trilogy.[19] Indeed, it seems interesting that in Mystery Train Jarmusch has been said to treat his characters with the utmost respect –

“He doesn’t single out any one of them for special treatment, or for poking fun. Their obsessions are funny, yes, but he seems to be saying, so are everyone’s”. (Hartl, 1990)
This apparent change of attitude from the director towards his characters will be explored briefly in the next section of this chapter.

The New Ideal of Humanity

One may recall Long’s aforementioned emphasis on the difficulties inherent in defining the meaning or goal of the American Dream as a result of the fact that, as an ideal, it means different things to different people. It could be argued that, in Mystery Train Jarmusch proposes a new ideal – an ideal that is perhaps more feasible in a universal sense. By way of elaboration, it is worth highlighting that a key element of Mystery Train (glimpsed only briefly in Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law) seems to be the sense of togetherness between the characters. In both Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, the protagonists appeared to bond only temporarily before being separated again for various reasons. In Mystery Train, however, the bond between the characters seems stronger. For example, Jun and Mitzuko in the first episode travel and sleep together. They argue but manage to resolve their differences and ultimately remain in each other’s company. In the second episode Luisa and Dee Dee share a common condition – the loss of a partner. They share their stories, laugh together and console each other’s woes. Indeed, in that they both find consolation for their unhappiness, when they go their separate ways at the end of the episode, in my view the feeling is that they have mutually benefited from their encounter. In the final episode, obviously the character of Elvis is depicted killing an innocent man. However, it is clear that he is not shown to be altogether amoral. Indeed, overcome with guilt as a result of his actions, he attempts suicide. His friends rescue him, in the process demonstrating their own humanity. They see Eddie as a friend and put their lives in danger to save him.

In Mystery Train, in my opinion the notion of individual enterprise is replaced with a new feeling of togetherness and humanity. Instead of an “every man for himself” attitude, the characters can be seen to make an obvious effort to reach out to their companions. In conclusion, it could perhaps be said that Jarmusch has dispensed with the themes of disillusion and miscommunication characteristic of the first two films of his trilogy and has rediscovered what fundamentally can connect us all in a world of apparent disparity - basic humanity


#14 The notion of the “transtextual” here refers specifically to Gerard Genette’s Palimpsests (1982) in which the author defines trantextuality as “all that which puts one text in relation, whether manifest or secret, with other texts”. Intratextuality on the other hand is a type of sub-category of this term referring to “the process by which films refer to themselves through mirroring, microcosmic, and mise-en-abyme structures.” (Stam et al., 1992: 207).

#15 A comparison criticised in Hal Hinson’s review of the film – “ “Canterbury Tales” was actually about something. “Mystery Train” isn’t ”. (Washington Post, February 2, 1990.)

#16 According to Gallagher, this strain of postmodernism is scornful not only of reason, history and progress but also of the permanent achievements of modernity; these achievements include the improvement in the quality of life due to progress in science and technology and also the deeper sense of human dignity associated with modern democracy (Gallagher, 1997: 88-91).

#17 Although, as I have previously mentioned, the possibility of “Creative Postmodernity” could be seen to be alluded to via the character of Roberto in Down By Law, in Mystery Train the characters and situations are clearly less overtly fantastical or whimsical than those in Jarmusch’s previous film.

#18 This is not necessarily a bad thing according to Jarmusch. Indeed, in an interview conducted three years after Mystery Train’s release, he remarked that, “I respect other people’s opinions of my films more than my own because I’m so inside – I don’t even know if I like my own films, sometimes.” (Sight & Sound, August 1992)

#19 It is perhaps worth recalling here Jarmusch’s apparent ridicule of Willie’s assumed American identity in Stranger Than Paradise (dealt with in some detail in Chapter Two). Similarly, in Down By Law, one may recall how Jarmusch seemed to poke gentle fun at the futility of Jack and Zack’s arguments (alluded to in Chapter Three).

Works cited in Chapter Four

ALTMAN, Rick (1996), “Cinema and Genre”, From The Oxford History of World Cinema, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ANDREW, Geoff (1998), Stranger Than Paradise, London: Prion.

BORDWELL, David, STAIGER Janet and THOMPSON, Kristin (1985), The Classical Hollywood Cinema, Reprinted in 1994, London: Routledge.

GALLAGHER, Michael Paul (1997), Clashing Symbols – An Introduction to Faith & Culture, London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

GENETTE, Gerard (1982), Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree (Stages), (1982), 1998 Edition Translated by Channa Newman & Claude Doubinsky, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

HARTL, John, “Review of Mystery Train”, (

Monarch Notes, “Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales”, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 11/1/1963.

New Statesman, ‘Christopher Cook meets the lone rider of American movies’, (Jim Jarmusch interviewed by Christopher Cook), Vol. 125, 5/7/1996.

Sight & Sound, “Home and Away” (Jim Jarmusch interviewed by Peter Keogh), August 1992.

STAM, Robert, BURGOYNE, Robert and FLITTERMAN-LEWIS, Sandy (1992), New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics, London: Routledge.

Washington Post, Hal Hinson, February 2, 1990.

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