April 19, 2017

Putting Poetry in Motion With Chuck Berry and Jim Jarmusch

I love poetry. I love rhyming.

—Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

If he had not become such an extraordinary director, Jim would now be a rock star.

—Wim Wenders on Jim Jarmusch

Several times a week I drive up the hill into Kingston, always with music on the stereo. One morning it’s Ella Fitzgerald singing “Lush Life,” and I take the hill nice and easy, true to the late-night flow of the lyric about “those come-what-may places/where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life/to get the feel of life.” But when Chuck Berry’s singing, the axis is tilting, the wheel of life is spinning, the come-what-may places have gone south, the car’s “rocking like a hurricane,” Beethoven’s rolling under the wheels, Tchaikovsky’s running for his life, and my CRV is a Coupe de Ville with mad Maybellene in the passenger seat urging me on (“go, go, go!”) as Chuck comes up from behind in his Ford V8. Now we’re side by side, Kingston’s turned into Cape Girardeau, and we’re motorvatin’ down I-55 on our way from Chuck’s St. Louis to Elvis’s Memphis, the setting of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. The method behind my vehicular madness is simple: one of the wisest, most interesting, most humane filmmakers in the world is in town today, Wednesday, April 19, and will be appearing on campus at 4:30 in McCosh 50.

The Fascinated Foreigner

“Everything was car culture and rock-and-roll,” Jim Jarmusch told the New York Times in 1992, three years after Mystery Train had come and gone. That midwestern-American high school truth about music and cars was uttered by someone who became “an immigrant in the teenage world” after his hair turned white at the age of 15. That’s according to Tom Waits, the voice of the late-night DJ in Mystery Train. The key to Jarmusch, Waits says, is that he’s been “a benign fascinated foreigner” ever since: “And all his films are about that.” No wonder, then, that viewers of Mystery Train first see Memphis in the company of a lovably conflicted young couple from Yokohama (perky Mitzuko, deadpan Jun), and later through the wide wide eyes of a woman from Rome (Nicoletta Braschi) gazing at the vision of Elvis in midnight-blue lamé that just appeared in her room at the Arcade Hotel.

The “fascinated foreigner” has made the rounds in the urban Americana of New York, Cleveland, New Orleans, L.A., Detroit, and Jersey City, from the Memphis of Elvis and Sun and Stax to Paterson, the little city Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams put on the map, not to mention worldwide surfacings in the wilds of Canada, Tangiers, Rome, Helsinki, Paris, and you might also add the city Mitzuko and Jun see in Memphis: “If you took away sixty percent of the buildings in Yokohama, it would look like this.”

Poetry in the World

“Say it, no ideas but in things,” says William Carlos Williams in Book One of Paterson. In a December 1989 Philadelphia Inquirer interview about Mystery Train, Jarmusch says, “I think of my films as being somehow more related to poetry as a form than to prose …. I like the spaces that happen between things, even between dialogue. Sometimes that’s a lot more meaningful than the dialogue itself. There’s even a word in Japanese that comes from the Chinese idiogram ma, that we can’t translate into English …. It basically means the space between things which defines those things by not being a part of them.”

Jarmusch’s cinematic poetry is about more than things and spaces, it’s in the rhyming of gestures, of moods, and places, like the poem of continuity that happens when Mitsuko (Yûki Kudô) offers a Japanese plum in lieu of a tip to a Memphis bellhop while 28 years later Laura, the bus-driver poet named Paterson’s Iranian partner and wannabe country singer (Golshifteh Farahani) bakes perfect little Persian miniature cupcakes for market day in Paterson, a film about both poetry in the world and poetry on the page. You get a nice sense of Jarmusch finding poetry in the world when he tells TIME: “I just loved riding for a week, shooting on the bus — just the point of view of looking slightly down on the sidewalks, and all those little shops and things. It’s almost theatrical, in a beautiful way.”

The poetry of continuity illuminates the film’s denouement when a Japanese poet (Masatoshi Nagazse) visiting his hero William Carlos Williams’s hometown runs into Paterson (Adam Driver) at a time when his poetry notebook has been savaged beyond saving by Laura’s bulldog, a loss that threatens his faith in his art, so that when he’s asked what he does, he says he’s a bus driver when he wants to say he’s a poet. The man from Japan knows better and presents him with a book of blank pages. Paterson’s benefactor, the saver of his poet’s soul, is played by the actor who was sullen Jun in Mystery Train. So, in a rhyme that spans decades, the 20-something rock and roll fan paying his solemn respects to Elvis and Carl Perkins shows up as a middle-aged poet tourist paying homage to the space-between-things poetry of William Carlos Williams.

And they’re all passengers on the director’s mystery train by virtue of a Japanese word for which there is no translation.

St. Louis Hero

Right now Jim Jarmusch is probably the only person on the planet capable of devising a film that would do justice to Chuck Berry’s hometown, St. Louis, where the Walk of Fame on Delmar Boulevard includes T.S. Eliot, William Burroughs, Miles Davis, Yogi Berra, Dizzy Dean, Josephine Baker, and Tennessee Williams. Imagine that group frequenting an imaginary Hotel Maybellene, with, say, T.S. Eliot as the desk clerk and Chuck Berry as bartender of the Club Nadine.

Having outlived Elvis by almost 40 years (and T.S. Eliot by 52), Chuck Berry is buried in Bellevue Heritage Gardens, Creve Coeur, St. Louis County, Mo., after the funeral for “a St. Louis hero” reported a week ago in the New York Times. The story featured a photo of Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll in his coffin with his sailor hat on and his red Gibson laid against the white plush of the coffin lid.

Poetry in Motion

Anyone who doubts Chuck Berry’s poetical instincts should compare his “Downbound Train” to the one Elvis sings about at the beginning and end of Mystery Train, “coming down the line and around the bend.” Berry’s train is a drunken stranger’s dream, the engine “sweaty and damp” with blood, and “brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp” with “imps shoveling bones for fuel while the furnace rang with a thousand groans.” This song train steams and howls and burns along like an infernal “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with the devil yelling and passengers shrieking with pain: “Wider and wider the country grew/faster and faster the engine flew/louder and louder the thunder crashed/Brighter and brighter the lightning flashed.”

In an early Rolling Stone interview, asked by Greil Marcus where he gets his ideas for songs, Berry says it all begins when he hears a riff “going over and over” and someone says “It’s too dark in here,” which becomes “the story of a girl who hardly could go anywhere, ‘cause at the movie it was too dark, at the party they went to it was one dim light burning,’” and “when they went back home there was no one there and the lights were out and the fuse was blown and it was dark in there. And that’s the way it ends.”

Blue Moon

In spite of songs like “Downbound Train” and “It’s Too Dark in Here,” Chuck Berry’s music doesn’t evoke the sense of darkness and big city nights Jarmusch expresses so effectively. Somehow it’s always daylight on Maybellene’s highway, the street where Nadine is “walkin toward a coffee colored Cadillac,” and the basepath where the “brown-eyed handsome man” is “rounding third and headed for home.”

How to explain why Jarmusch is so good at doing night? Maybe it’s his inner vampire, the one that conceived Only Lovers Left Alive. Or maybe he identifies with Walt Whitman in “The Sleepers”: “I dream in my dream the dream of all the other dreamers.” Whatever it is, there’s poetry in the way the ghost of Elvis haunts Mystery Train and the Arcade Hotel, where every room has a portrait of the King in his charismatic prime, except in the ruins of Room 22 with its unhung, knocked-about image of the grinning overweight Elvis in his Las Vegas decline.

Finally, one reason I revisited Jarmusch’s Memphis was to see if could find a hint of Chuck Berry somewhere on the premises, like a casual reference at the bar or over the pool table, or maybe it’s asking too much of a film that has room for Joe Strummer of The Clash and Screaming Jay Hawkins.

But look what happens as soon as I get in the car and “Too Much Monkey Business” comes on, and Chuck’s singing “I been to Yokohama, been fightin’ in the war.” Hold on, weren’t Mitsuko and Jun from Yokohama? Is that just a coincidence? Or is it the poetry of continuity? A sonnet to serendipity? A verse on versimilitude? Or is it just that this man’s music is everywhere. Like John Lennon said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”