Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene A Reel of Two Cities

Jim Jarmusch went to Memphis, Robert Altman went to Nashville--and thereby hangs a tale

By Jim Ridley

MAY 10, 1999:  The difference between Memphis and Nashville can be boiled down to a single question: Why did Jim Jarmusch go to Memphis, when Robert Altman went to Nashville? Both directors have reputations as mavericks; both directors chose Tennessee as the site of sprawling ensemble pieces about America in miniature. The movies they made, Mystery Train and Nashville, are even similar in some ways, from their large casts and lack of a central character to their crazy-quilt structure of interlocking stories. But at heart, Jarmusch's film is about outsiders, and Altman's film is about insiders. That's as good a line of demarcation as any between the two cities, and the films made in and about them.

Let's set the stage a little. For starters, Memphis prizes its eccentrics a whole lot more than its sister city to the east. In his amazing underground history It Came From Memphis, Robert Gordon makes a convincing case that the most influential people in Memphis' pop culture--and therefore everybody's--were often the craziest, most obscure, or least equipped to handle polite society. He cites such characters as zonked 1950s deejay Dewey Phillips, who incited Memphis teens to rock 'n' roll rebellion. But the best story he tells concerns a white wrestler named Sputnik Monroe, a bruiser whose motto was "I'll jump in the air and shit in your hair"--and who likely created the city's first integrated audiences by overselling tickets to black wrestling fans, who spilled over into whites-only sections.

Common to all these stories is an edge of innate civic disorder, which can explode in bursts of genius, bursts of irrational violence, or sometimes both. No wonder Nashville tends to view the Bluff City as a crazy, distant relative--one better remembered for its business blunders than for the musical triumphs that bought it the chance to screw up. In a bean-counter's view of music history, Memphis' Sun Records is the place that sold Elvis to RCA for a sack of marbles.

There's nothing at all crazy, however, about Memphis' status as a hot movie location. In terms of actual dollars and prestige, the Memphis film industry may be the one area of entertainment business that Nashville covets and resents. While Nashville's film industry clutches at straws, Memphis has been luring big-budget Hollywood projects steadily since 1988, in no small part because the same city film commissioner, Linn Sitler, has been allowed to keep her job (and contacts) for more than a decade. Due soon is Milos Forman's The Man on the Moon, with Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman; Robert Zemeckis' upcoming Tom Hanks adventure The Castaway will reportedly shoot some scenes there as well. (Even Robert Altman shot part of his genial Southern comedy Cookie's Fortune in Shelby County.)

Yet as connected as the Memphis film industry is, the movies filmed there almost always have the same outcast/outlaw edge found in Gordon's book. The heroes of the many John Grisham thrillers filmed in Shelby County are outsiders who fight an entrenched, corrupt establishment: Tom Cruise fleeing the mob attorneys of The Firm, Susan Sarandon defying grandstanding DA Tommy Lee Jones in The Client, Matt Damon fighting deep-pocketed mouthpiece Jon Voight in The Rainmaker. Who else do you find on the Memphis film résumé? Hannibal Lecter, Larry Flynt, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Not a mild-mannered company man in the bunch.

The prototypical Nashville movie, however, concerns the establishment, and the goings-on beyond the velvet rope--42nd Street on 16th Avenue, the story of the broken hearts behind all those gold records. At Quentin Tarantino's QTIII exploitation fest in Austin several weeks ago, one of the films du jour was Nashville Girl, an all-but-forgotten drive-in flick from 1976, in which Kentucky girl Monica Gayle hitchhikes her way to Nashville to make it in country music. And make it she does--with scheming musicians, surly country stars, even (almost!) a butch Metro workhouse guard. (Oddly, our empty prison facilities, used in Last Dance, Against the Wall, A Letter From Death Row, and the upcoming The Green Mile, have drawn more feature films to town recently than all of Music Row's millions.)

What's interesting in Nashville Girl is its emphasis throughout on the machinery of Music Row--like Nashville, it's less a musical than a musical exposé. So too, in its gentler fashion, is Peter Bogdanovich's unfairly maligned The Thing Called Love, which follows lovelorn country hopefuls Samantha Mathis, River Phoenix, Dermot Mulroney, and Sandra Bullock from writer's-night auditions at the Bluebird to endless rounds of Nashville handshakes (palm extended, tape enclosed).

Each of these films proffers the lowdown on how country music is manufactured--they depict music-making as an assembly-line slog through recording studios, auditions, and pitches. The resulting impression is that Nashville is ruthlessly well-organized and fortified against outsiders, to protect the wheeling and dealing within. The last time we saw Nashville onscreen, fittingly enough, was in Wag the Dog--where Music Row power brokers conspire with the White House to whip up war fervor against Albania. Obviously, we did a good job.

But the differences between the two cities on film are no clearer than they are in Jarmusch's Mystery Train and Altman's Nashville. Set on the eve of the Bicentennial, Nashville cuts back and forth between the country stars who rule the charts and the outsiders who arrive either to exploit or explore their popularity. A third-party presidential candidate with a vague populist platform is staging a rally at the Parthenon; a BBC reporter has arrived to see if America is hiding in Nashville. Surrounding them on the fringe are wannabes like Barbara Harris' guitar-toting hopeful, who gets a gig singing in the blaring midst of a stock-car race. In one of many instances in the film, music goes unheard, and communication is thwarted.

While there is no one central character who holds Nashville together, the figure that haunts Mystery Train, both literally and figuratively, is Elvis Presley, who serves by default as the movie's main character--the magnet at the center of Jarmusch's America. In the first of this trio of shaggy-dog Memphis stories, a Japanese tourist shows her cool-cat boyfriend a photo scrapbook she has made for their journey to Memphis. On each page, she has placed corresponding historical images for the face of Elvis, starting with the ancient Egyptians who inhabited the city's namesake. She flips the last page for the coup de grace: Elvis on one side, the Statue of Liberty on the other.

Her boyfriend is unimpressed--he's a Carl Perkins fan. And yet it's Elvis whose teddy-bear tender image graces every room of the fleabag hotel. The Clash's Joe Strummer turns up as an expatriate British hood who resents being tagged by everyone as Elvis. (He too prefers Carl Perkins--an ornery acknowledgment, perhaps, of the city's love-hate relationship with its most famous export.) The ghost of the man himself appears to Nicoletta Braschi (Roberto Benigni's wife and Life Is Beautiful costar) in her hotel room. "I think I'm in the wrong place," stammers the Spectral Elvis, his rhinestones twinkling sepulchral light. Then he vaporizes and returns once more to sender.

The music industry, so crucial to Altman's vision, barely exists in Jarmusch's. His protagonists are tourists, transients, scruffy low-lifes; the world of diners, liquor stores, and hotel rooms they inhabit is always in flux, unlike Altman's bedrock Music City locales of church, home, and studio. On the other hand, while you hear little, if any, actual Nashville music in Nashville, Mystery Train unwinds to the eerie, otherworldly lilt of Elvis' Sun recording of "Blue Moon." It isn't an ironic comment on the action, like the ersatz Music Row tunes of Altman's satire; it exists apart from the action, beautiful and inexplicable, a beacon that reaches out to lonely people of all races, countries, and classes in the night. However squirrelly and prone to mayhem, the movie's Memphis has the expansive, all-embracing quality found in Elvis' most transcendent music--the openness of heart and soul that gave Paul Simon reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.

Funny thing about the biggest movie star Memphis ever produced--he did his damnedest onscreen to erase any trace of the Man From Memphis. Elvis worked in Hollywood, the assembly line of dreams and the arbiter of image, where it was decided he should be plugged into more glamorous locales. So in his movies, Elvis raced cars in Vegas. He flew planes in Hawaii. He water-skied in Florida. Ironically, the farther he got from Memphis in his stage and screen persona, the more firmly he came to represent the city in the popular imagination, and in the city's public relations.

Hence Elvis' ghost continues to haunt Memphis movies long after Mystery Train--even The Firm had to go to some lengths to work an Elvis impersonator into the plot. The city's past echoes throughout these films like "Blue Moon" crackling from that cheap hotel radio. In movies about Nashville, however, the myth of star-making in general is far more potent and alluring than any one star could ever be.

Curiously, the difference between these two cities isn't defined just by the images that Jim Jarmusch and Robert Altman brought to the screen--it's embodied in the filmmakers themselves. Jarmusch, who kicked off the indie-film explosion with 1984's Stranger Than Paradise, went to Memphis; Altman, who made his most adventurous, groundbreaking films for major studios, chose Nashville. Even today, the films they made reflect the crucial divide that exists between two cities only three hours yet an entire world apart--the difference between a city where music is made and worshipped, and a city where music is made and sold.

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