Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Quintessential Tennessee film

The Quintessential Tennessee film: Mystery Train

Tennessee is what I like to call the horizontal Chile of the US: a rectangular slab so thin and long that people on one end have virtually nothing in common with people on the other end.

Only Tennessee doesn't have two distinct regions that have nothing in common with one another: It has three centered around the state's three major cities of Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville as signified by the three stars on the Tennessee state flag. Look at Tennessee's state quarter and you'll see a guitar on the left, a violin (or fiddle) on the right and a trumpet in the middle with three stars on the outside and the inscription "Musical Heritage" written in the center. The message is clear: The state is three distinct regions defined by musical styles.

In the West, the port city of Memphis was a convergence point in the development of the Blues as musicians traveled up and down the Mississippi in river barges. The city is the home of Beale Street, Graceland and Sun Studios where Elvis got his start. In addition to the King, Memphis was instrumental in the musical journeys of Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin, Al Green and pretty much every other icon of rock and roll you can think of.

In the center, Nashville is the world capitol of country music. Like Memphis, the city's tourist scene is also nearly synonymous with its music scene, counting Mercy Lounge, the Gran Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame as its greatest landmarks.

While Memphis is the classic Midwestern city and Mississippi River port and Nashville is a bastion of the glamorous side of Antebellum South, Knoxville is squarely in the heart of a distinct cultural sliver of the U.S. known as Appalachia where one of America's most distinct musical styles is king: Bluegrass.

The quintessential Tennessee film is an ensemble film in which different strangers' lives are united through musical fandom and, no, its not Rob Altman's landmark epic "Nashville." That film is more about aspiring dreamers and politicians than people living in the present reality of Tennessee.

Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train has three interlocking stories set in a seedy Memphis hotel all tied together in time by a local radio station playing the Elvis version of "Blue Moon." The first story centers around a suspicious woman on the run who needs a room for the night and is taken in by a sympathetic woman as a roommate. The second one centers around three lowlifes (Steve Buscemi is one of them) for whom a night of drinking turns into all-out criminal activity from which they seek shelter at the Memphis hotel.

The third is the one with the largest Tennessee connection although the other two stories provide a much-needed backdrop of the ebb and flow of urban life for this story to bounce off of.

A young Japanese couple is making pilgrimage to Memphis to witness its musical history. They're heavy rock and roll buffs who have an ongoing debate over whether Elvis or Carl Perkins was the true father of rock and roll. The young man looks out of place as a Japanese tourist dressed like a greaser. In addition to his attempts to look cool smoking (much like Godard's film "Breathless"), there's another motif of him flicking out his comb and running it through his hair. Still, the film portrays this young couple's relationship to the musicians they idolize with delicacy and sincerity.

Roger Ebert wrote in his review:
In the hands of another director, this setup would lead directly into social satire, into a comic putdown of rock tourism... But Jarmusch is not a satirist. He is a romantic, who sees America as a foreigner might - as a strange, haunting country where the urban landscapes are painted by Edward Hopper and the all-night blues stations provide a soundtrack for a life.

The message is that true passion of music transcends any superficial disconnects (much like the theme on the state quarter suggests). It's also a film that delves into nostalgia and how the pervasiveness of Elvis is both haunting to some and a source of beauty to others. Lastly, it's worth noting that for a state defined by its musicians, it features blues musician Screamin' Jay Hawkins in the role of the desk clerk.

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