Criterion Sunday 521: Mystery Train (1989)

Having not seen this film for many decades, not since the first flush of my cinephilia in my early-20s, I was inclined to assume this was a fairly minor Jarmusch, but honestly I think it may be one of his best. Sure the plot itself is slight — various people converge over a single night in Memphis, centering around a run-down hotel presided over by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee’s younger brother. First up there’s the young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) who seem to be on a train journey across the country’s musical heritage spots and land in Memphis for an evening, then an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the town trying to get back to Italy, and finally a trio of barfly characters who get into trouble because of Johnny (Joe Strummer), who’s in a bad mood as a man who’s lost his job and his girlfriend (the other two are Steve Buscemi in an early role, and Vondie Curtis-Hall). The circumstances this trio in particular get into seem to stretch the otherwise quiet and observant tone of the rest into something close to melodrama, but overall the film is a brilliant evocation of a particular little heart of Americana, with a deep love for old music and an eye (no small thanks to Robby Müller’s beautiful cinematography) for the picturesquely derelict byways of culture. Even when the high drama starts to pile up, it somehow doesn’t ruin the mood that Jarmusch has built up, and somewhere buried in those showy characters is a keen sense of economic instability and of a country and a culture balanced on a fine edge of a precipice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏, Youki Kudoh 工藤夕貴, Nicolette Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, Vondie Curtis-Hall; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997).

Criterion Sunday 501: Paris, Texas (1984)

The Criterion Collection had just released Wim Wenders’s other big 1980s feature film Wings of Desire before this one, and though Wenders had garnered a fair amount of attention for his 1970s German road movies, I think it’s Paris, Texas that remains his most well-loved. And it would be easy for me to try and dismiss this as I wanted to dismiss Wings of Desire but both have a depth and complexity that is more than their slightly sentimental stories of family and healing might on the surface suggest. Here we have the poise and emptiness of the desert setting, the mysterious entrance of Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis and the unfolding of his story. Familial love is important here — the love of his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) for Travis, the love of Travis for his son Hunter (Hunter Carson, the screenwriter’s son), and even the love he seems to have, however fleetingly, for his ex-partner Jane (played by the much younger Nastassja Kinski). The relationship they had is only really ever hinted at — and it seems like it must have been a strange, strained one, possibly one rooted in drugs and nihilism — but the story becomes far more one about the child they had together and what is best for that child, and this is the moral quandary that Travis is dealing with. Wenders of course, along with cinematographer Robby Müller, do a beautiful job of framing this quest, and a climactic scene is almost perfectly blocked between Stanton and Kinski. But beyond the technical credits the acting is exactly right for the setting, and so the film remains iconic almost 40 years on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers L. K. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, Nastassja Kinski, Aurore Clément; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 30 January 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017.