I don’t know about ya’ll, but I’m super-excited about The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch’s new film, which I’ll be seeing in an hour or so. Jarmusch gets a lot of credit for deliberate pacing, powerful visuals, sense of space and setting, spare and believeable dialogue, a humane sense of irony, getting deft and underplayed performances from actors, making silence crack with electricity, underplaying charged moments that sometimes burst.
Oh, and as an aside, he’s pretty dreamy. No hipster boy can mess with Jim.
Of course, one thing I think he does exceptionally well is use music. He’s woven in music from folks as disparate as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Holly Golightly, RZA, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Mulatu Astatke, and many others, in ways that seem so right as to be obvious when Jarmusch slid them in and made them essential. I uttered an audible “duh” when I heard that he’s using Boris, an ambient-noise outfit, for his new one.
But what about Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins? Personally, I’d go with Carl Perkins — a great guitar player, a classic songwriter (he wrote “Blue Suede Shoes”), and a class act of a Southern gentleman that didn’t get destroyed by Colonel Tom Parker. But young Japanese lovers Mitsuko and her boyfriend Jun (played by Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) constantly bicker about this in Mystery Train, Jarmusch’s 1989 movie that tells three stories about visitors, drifters, and locals who are loosely connected with one another. Mitsuko and her opinion will be the focus in this post.
Mitsuko loves Elvis. Way more than any of us can ever understand. Including her boyfriend, who is kind of a jerk about it. To Jun, Carl Perkins is clearly better, even though, ironically (or perhaps in response to his girlfriend’s obsession), he styles himself exactly like the King. He even tries to approximate Elvis’s mythic cool, attempting to be elliptical, impenetrable, and unapproachable, even at the risk of spoiling their trip and contradicting himself when arguing with Mitsuko, which he does often.
Embarrassingly for Jun, he tends to be wrong, perhaps Jarmusch’s attempt at critiquing the masculine masquerade inherent in much of hipster culture. Jun is wrong about what time their train is to arrive in Memphis (they are two days early). He is wrong about how to get to Graceland, but is quick to act like he knows where he’s going, only to be put out and annoyed with his girlfriend, who is chipper, personable, and ready to learn about the city that discovered Elvis.
I think it would be easy to crutch on staid notions of pan-Asian infantilized female sexuality and configure Mitsuko, with her quirky fashion sense, high voice, and girlish frame, as another example of this well-worn trope. But I think there’s more going on.
For one, unlike her partner, she is not afraid to be wrong or, perhaps more accurately, to learn. She’s open to what Memphis has to offer them, its geography, its history, its culture. She attempts to exchange in English with locals, handling the purchase of their hotel room. She is open and warm to other folks they encounter, including the African American gentleman at the train station (played by legendary R&B singer Rufus Thomas), who asks for a light for his cigarette in Japanese. And even when she doesn’t understand what everyone is telling her (a classic scene involving a motormouth Tennessean woman with a thick Southern accent showing a tour group around Sun Studio immediately comes to mind), she’s always willing to admit what she doesn’t know and learn.
She’s also able to create her own look. Mitsuko’s costumes are a bric-a-brac of blank American cool. She’s got her leather jacket, with the seemingly random but perhaps self-descriptive phrase “Mister Baby” scrawled across the back in red. She’s often applying lipstick, oscillating between mod white and rockabilly red (she puts some on Jun as well). She’s got a fuzzy leopard mini-backpack (perhaps setting the trend for Cher Horowitz and her friends six years later). She’s got a cherry-red suitcase she and Jun carry together with a stick. And she’s got a prized collection of t-shirts, each with a distinct graphic print (her favorite seems to be a white one with a black silk-screened image of big-eyed puppy). All of this tied together with a mop of hair messily gathered in a high ponytail, which she’s quick to defend when Jun makes a cruel and ironic comment about how some women care too much about how their hair looks during sex.
She’s also a bit of a media scholar, at one point peering at two photos and noticing that Madonna looks like Elvis. Jun rolls her eyes at the mere mention of the Material Girl and dismisses his astute girlfriend’s comments out of hand, deeming them ridiculous and perhaps assuming that, to his girlfriend, Elvis is everywhere (indeed, some may argue that he is).
While it may be easy to say that Jun represents the unfortunate stereotype of the stubborn, backward, ineffectual Asian male and his companion an impressionable, assimilable plaything, I think there’s more to it with this couple. With Jun, I think there’s a fear of being wrong. With Mitsuko, I think there’s a hunger for the unknown. Given that their relationship is new (Mitsuko mentions only having slept with Jun eleven times, suggesting that this is a young couple on their first vacation together), I think they’re still establishing their relationship.
Which brings us to their final scene, packing up and moving to the next destination. Jun steals a set of towels, trying to dupe Mitsuko into thinking that towels are included in the cost of the room. As the towels won’t fit in the suitcase, he suggests that she get rid of some of her t-shirts. Refusing, she defiantly puts on all five. The couple leave, with us not knowing where they’ll go next. I like to think it’s Graceland.