In Jim Jarmusch's 1989 "Mystery Train," a young rockabilly-loving couple from Japan arrives in Memphis as few contemporary Americans would: on a train.
When not soaking up Sun Studios's legendary output on their Walkman headphones, they're conducting a minimalist debate over Sun's greatest practitioner. In accents so thick the words become comical, the impossibly cool pilgrims go back and forth simply uttering the names of Elvis and Carl Perkins.
"Mystery Train," which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on June 15, is just one example why in the future, foreign cinephiles trekking to Manhattan are never going to debate the city's coolest filmmaker. The melting-pot names Cassavetes and Scorsese would enter the fray when arguing over innovation or raw cinematic power. But when discussing sheer cool, the only name is Jarmusch, an artist who can walk into intimidating environs from the Louisiana bayou to the drunken streets of Helsinki and immediately prove he's as with-it as the locals.
"Train" is a critical part of Jarmusch's filmography in a number of ways. Here, the director broke from the gritty black-and-white that made him famous in "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Down By Law," letting Wim Wenders' stylish cinematographer Robbie Müller fill the screen with cheap-hotel hues. (It's only one of many Jarmusch/Wenders overlaps, the most important being a to-the-bone fascination with Americana — although while the German filmmaker romanticizes American iconography, the New Yorker is simultaneously steeped in and detached from it.)
More importantly, "Train" crystallizes structural tendencies that would recur throughout Jarmusch's career: In a single dilapidated hotel, he stages three discrete chapters that are happening concurrently, three stories that refer to each other just enough to establish a sense of shared space and time. Jarmusch went on to chronicle an hour in the life of five corners of the world in "Night on Earth," to repeat himself for effect in "Broken Flowers" and "The Limits of Control," and to craft a whole feature from a collection of hipster coffee breaks.
Criterion's new edition replaces an old MGM disc that offered not a single bonus feature. Now, predictably, we get a couple of excellent ones. Jarmusch refuses to do audio commentaries for his DVDs (it's painful for him to rewatch his work, he has always said), but instead spends more than an hour answering questions Criterion solicited from fans.
The questions are great, allowing the director to drop all sorts of choice insights. Yes, the DJ we hear in the film is the same character Tom Waits played in "Down by Law." Jarmusch's literary influences are extensive enough to shame an English major (and he's in the "Shakespeare was a hoax" camp!). And he knows where he stands in the Presley/Perkins debate. ("I have to say that I'm a Carl Perkins man, musically," he declares, saying he was "more innovative, more pure," though he admits that "vocally, you cannot discount the angelic beauty of Elvis' voice.")
Oddly and disappointingly, the Q&A is audio-only. For a glimpse of the auteur's famous crown of white hair, you'll need to watch the disc's excerpt of a doc about "Mystery Train" co-star and rock-'n'-roll wildman Screamin' Jay Hawkins. There, Jarmusch recalls trying to get the singer to act in something other than his flamboyant stage persona ("It's like you ordered a nuclear device and now you're telling it not to explode!" Hawkins complained) and tells of how, after licensing "I Put a Spell on You" for "Stranger Than Paradise," Jarmusch realized that all the money was going to a third party and tracked the singer down to give him more than his fair share.
The doc also offers Hawkins' account of getting dragged by a girlfriend to see a singer he'd never heard of named Elvis Presley. Afterward, he went backstage to get her an autograph, and declared, "My woman seems to find you amazing, and I don't."
You'd never find Jarmusch making a statement that so brazenly revealed feelings of superiority toward a fellow artist. With work as effortlessly cool as "Mystery Train" under his belt, he doesn't have to.