Living in Absurdity:
and Juxtaposition in Mystery Train

0. Introduction – the reborn of independent movies

Along with tide of the consumerism, the American film came to a new era of the uplifting phenomenon in the 1980s. The optimism is embedded beneath the confidence of the American ideologies, which again justified the function of the ideological apparatus machine. As a result, the blockbusters that made by the mainstream Hollywood studios tended to emphasize the self-awareness of the protagonists, as well as the consistency of the storyline. For instance, here we witnessed the coming of films like back to the future that highly relied on the inner power of the hero with the modern kind of masculinity. However, one thing was preferably in the second position to the big picture of American or any collectivist ideologies, the personal experience of living in the 80s. Are we really having a better life in these uplifting trends? It seemed few people got to think of this question in the cinematic sphere. As the introspective force in confrontation to the general social ideologies, the postmodernism bred some of the filmmakers to take an objective perspective to what was happening in the individual world, and they inherited the convention of the 60s and 70s films that voiced out the struggle as individuals. Of them, I would say the new independent filmmakers made the most efforts to do so. The indie films that were earlier referred to the works produced by small studios now applied to the movie with auteurs' personal aesthetics and philosophic approaches. This renewed independence came along with the progress of the technologies, namely, the liberation of filming devices like camera and exhibiting tools such as VHS, so the producers will not need to rely on the big studios fully. This liberation has popularized the confidence of indie filmmakers. In this essay, I would like to analyze an indie film that is not a typical 1980s film, Mystery Train(1989), directed by Jim Jarmusch. Just as the films that I covered for the first two papers, this film also sat between two decades, which empowered their critical and introspective essence in its setups and storylines, functioned more like a conclusive ending of all 1980s films. I would argue this film was a reverse to the uplifting ideologies in the 80s, but it was built with the same signifiers such as nostalgic and consumerism – it is just like we constructed two different buildings with the same Lego pieces. Composed of three sections of storylines, this film managed to show the conflicts and juxtapositions in Memphis in 24 hours. The characters' points-of-view are very limited while we audience witness all the linkages and karmas between them so that the audience can introspect their own lives at the brisk of the 80s. It is an unconventional move not to concentrate on the tension that triggered by the multi-narration, in fact, Jim Jarmusch left us plenty of calmness and vagueness which betrayed on the audiences’ expectation. And in speaking of Nostalgia, Jim treated the historical relics in a cruel way that they were used and played with without merely any respect to them. Another point that made it opposite to the mainstream trends is that the whole 1980s celebrated the feminism and embraced the new masculinity and made romantic images of them, however, Jim dismantled this expectation and dispersed the focus. What we see in this film is only the everyday constant impotence of the men-women communication. It seemed they get controlled over by their subjectivity as different genders, but this subjectivity is buried under the objective watch, the camera eyes, because there is rarely any POV shot. They are lonely and leading their absurd livelihood, as only the participants in the daily living – the romantic self-awareness gets trapped in the body of just a human being. So, inspired by the arguments above, I will try to give a thorough examination through the lens of postmodernism and modernism of this film, to see how the indie filmmaker pictured a life with absurdity (which I figure as inherited from the 1970s American films) employing alienation, displacement, and juxtaposition.

1. Alienation

The film started by two Japanese lovers talking on the train about Memphis, this sequence has offered enough hints of the Alienation that we are going to talk about. In short, they are invaders, strangers, and outsiders to this town. As the story begins, we gradually meet with other outsiders: the Italian widow and the English "Elvis." And this place the whole story takes places in is Memphis, a city in the middle American that much less international and much more "American" compared with L.A. or New York, and also a shiny town with glorious history with 1950s Rock and Roll icon Elvis. So, the first alienation is about American and its outsiders, and this alienation was condensed into a signifier, the language. There are lots of fractures and misunderstandings caused by the languages, started from the awkward communication of the Japanese lovers and a black local and ended with the incomplete conversation between the Japanese and the other main character. This linguistic frustration went through the whole story. But why Jim Jarmusch took so much attention to this issue? I think it is a counter-force to the overstating prosperity of globalization, in another word, when we finally had the chance to realize our dreams of globalization with the progress made with the transportations, sadly what came along is the frustration of not achieving what we expected because reality always ruined our fantasy. In short, it is also the alienation with reality and the dreams. The second alienation, I reckon, lies between the present and the past, and the visualization of this alienation is the city of Memphis, a ruined town. Although there still haunted the soul of Elvis and those streets and houses still have fancy names, yet we have to admit the history of glory has abandoned this town. It is a historical alienation that grounded the depressing tone of the whole film. The third kind of alienation is between men and women. Three sections of stories stand for three situations of relationships: being together; being a widow; separating. Sadly though, each couple can speak in the same language, yet they can never really communicate with each other. Take the Japanese couple as an example. Their dialogues were dull, repetitive and never reach an agreement – in essence, they don't understand each other. After their making out, the man asked the woman if every woman cares so much about her hairstyle, and the woman replied in the rage, blaming him for ruining the phenomenon; finally, they got into conflicts again. However, none of them was wrong in this conversation, neither should they be blamed, because they could not reach out to each other's world. But it is actually the saddest part of all, we have to admit this inaccessibility, and we have to live with it all the time. The final alienation is between the same-sexes. This alienation basically negated all the optimism of human's communication. In the third story, men were able to understand each’s situation, but they made decisions out of their own subjectivity, so the conversation did not lead to any uplifting results, the results are destructive. To conclude, this notion, alienation is embedded in many aspects, which we might figure as an exaggeratedly theatrical device so that it can call out the empathy in viewership because we audience only take our parts as observers, not participants. As we might all agree, the viewing experience is not as comfortable as those of blockbusters', anyhow, it is possible that we felt this because we potentially denied seeing the revelation of the absurd lives in reality?

2. Displacement

Displacement is a concept created by Freud to explain a kind of psychological behaviors that people tend to replace the activities that cause anxiety with the ones do not. Displacement fulfills the satisfaction of what we desired, at the same time avoids the mental conflictions. Basically, it is an escapist technique for everybody. In this film, I believe there are three manifestations of displacement. The first and foremost displacement comes in the name of Nostalgia. Jarmusch made the parody of the sweet memory of the old-times. With the representative of a ruined city with history, we the audience, as well as the characters inside the story all, felt subverted and uncomfortable of Nostalgia. Jarmusch broke the persona with the fact that by tracing back the 1950s rock and roll times, we were escaping from the anxiety of living in the present times 1980s. But precisely what we expected to be glorious is only another damaged place that we have to live in for the present so that we might realize our expectation is an illusion and there’s no place to escape. I also figure it as a parody to the 1980s trends of nostalgic films. Another displacement is about the impotence of continuous communication. The anxiety from the unsolvable loneliness found its coverage of sex. When the Japanese couple failed to talk, they threw all the problems to the sex. And here is an interesting setup: In the first section centering on the couple, the sex scene is not included, we can only see its overture and afterward, the failure of communication; however, their sex sequence was part of the second section where we can hear them making out in the next room. It is a brilliant analogy, with the real displacement of "sex." The last one I want to explore is about the red coat of the black manager. I think this outstanding coverage is a displacement of the hierarchical anxiety in which he as a black man still felt secondary to the white community, so he erased his anxiety by bragging himself in front of a junior black boy who was secondary to him in this hierarchy. And a red coat could be dazzling enough to call for the attention of this socially broad issue in the time of 1980s. So, shortly speaking, Jarmusch made many arrangements to visualize our orientation to escape, but I don’t think that Jarmusch is judging anyone on this vulnerable instinct nor he is persuading us to face the music. Instead, he was portraying the reality, with an objective eye. In opposition to the mainstream Hollywood products that "made" the dream-like reality for the spectators, he set his place as a counter-force only to show the truth.

3. Juxtaposition

The juxtaposition is a concept from the modern literature field referring to the technique with abandoned the narration happened in the linear time to focus on the meanings that established in the spatial relations. So this work is a most exemplary visualized work speaking to the structure of juxtaposition because the timelines of three stories are intertwined with each other, while the spatial relations played a vital role of all three accounts. As we all know, the overlapping stories lines is not a new approach to cinema, Griffith had made the talented Intolerance early in 1916, but I would say Mystery Train is still a unique one, because instead of using the intersecting timelines to create the sense of tension and the confliction, this film used the juxtaposition only to show an almost non-narrative story with bores and randomness. First of all, I would argue the scenes are juxtaposed of which the most significant one is the hotel. Though the three groups of people would not discover each other, they are set in the three adjoining cell rooms. The linkage is the radio that broadcasted Elvis’s song. They are isolated from the actual relationships, as the separated rooms implied. Moreover, the coincidence that happened in the space added on the absurdity of life. Besides the hotel room, there is one sidewalk that has been portrayed three times in the three sections, on which the characters walk from the right to the left and the cinematic shots are spanning shots. I would say the connection built on the space reduced their individuality because everyone looks just the same. Second of all, it is the juxtaposition of subjects. As I have mentioned above, they are isolated, but they shared the sense of loneliness. And it is the karma that connected them in the limited space that underlined and conveyed their unspoken loneliness, they relationships of each subjectivity are webbed in the spatial logic. Last of all, the juxtaposition of the endings. The final scene is a classic finale in the film history because the three groups are captured in the same frame again, on their differentiated transportations – the time freezes, so space takes the role of narration. As Borges said, it is a moment of zeroness, what happens before and after are all condensed into a frozen moment, a permanent moment.

4. Conclusion

Through the close-up investigations of three significant terms, alienation, displacement and juxtaposition, we might have enough evidence to state that this film has a pioneering origin to play with the structure, the ideologies and also the times. Some of the scholars render it as a typical postmodern text because it is fragmented and counters to the established ideologies. However, I think this statement is not conclusive enough. I would argue that first of all, this film was built on the modernism, the structuralism, for all the juxtapositions and displacements; while in respect of the theme, the movie as a whole advocated the postmodern way of thinking, because it tries in every aspect to dismantle the ruling ideologies; as a conclusion, Jim Jarmusch is both a modernist and a postmodernist, but anyhow, he is an absolute indie auteur of films.


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2. Jarmusch, Jim, John Lurie, and Jim Stark. Mystery train. LEVEL FOUR FILM DISTRIBUTORS, 1989.

3. Carmichael, Thomas. "Postmodernism and American cultural difference: Dispatches, mystery train, and the art of Japanese management." boundary 2 21.1 (1994): 220-232.

4. Carlson, Thomas C. "The comeback corpse in Hollywood: Mystery train, true romance, and the politics of Elvis in the ‘90s." Popular Music & Society 22.2 (1998): 1-10.

5. Lewis, Jon. American film: A history. WW Norton & Company, 2

Image: Walter de Maria