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Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Isaach De Bankol, Henry Silva, Camille Winbush

(Artisan; 2000)

Always See Everything

Jim Jarmusch’s new feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, is much like other Jim Jarmusch films: the pace is slightly slow, the characters slightly alien and alienated, the dialogue slightly offbeat, part poetry and part trash-talk. Forest Whitaker plays Ghost Dog, samurai disciple, carrier pigeon keeper, and for ten years the devoted retainer to an aging mafia foot soldier named Louie (John Tormey). When one of Ghost Dog’s contract murders goes wrong — the don’s daughter Louise (Tricia Vessey) is a witness — her father, Vargo (Henry Silva), decides that to save face, he must have the killer “neutralized.” The rest of the film follows Ghost Dog’s calculated efforts to survive, as he takes out the gang members while attempting to maintain his ceremonious, mutually respectful relationship with Louie.


Ghost Dog’s dilemma is both profound and ridiculous, produced by cultures colliding and coinciding. One of the film’s repeated jokes is his exquisite (and quite funny) samurai hit-style: he flips and spins his huge handguns so they whoosh with the impossible speed of a kung fu movie fighter, a device that manifests the movie’s heady hybrid sensibility, combining images from Hong Kong action, samurai, gangster, and hood movies. Caught between eras and genres, Ghost Dog is radically displaced and infinitely adaptable, as skilled with ancient warrior swordplay as with laser gun sights and electronic eavesdropping devices.


Living on a Jersey City rooftop in a makeshift shack with his carrier pigeons (his only means of communication with Louie), he practices martial arts and studies the Hagakure, an 18th-century samurai code book, from which he reads periodically in voice over. “The way of the samurai,” he intones, “is found in death. Every day when one’s mind and body are at peace, one should meditate on being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand foot cliffs, dying of disease, committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail, one should consider himself as dead.”


The overkill in this list of possibilities makes sense for Ghost Dog, a simultaneously representative and exceptional “young black urban male.” To “consider oneself as dead” on a daily basis is, of course, a fact of life for him, a fact that, for all its deadpan humor, Ghost Dog treats with a deferential and pointed irony. The character’s melancholy and sense of kismet reflect those of his peers, the young men he sees freestyling on a park bench (not incidentally, rapping about him, exalting his local legend), or the Bloods chilling on the sidewalk, who nod with respect as he passes them on the sidewalk. Shot by frequent Jarmusch collaborator Robby Muller in long-take, deep-focus imagery, these scenes reveal street culture’s strata of intricacy and intimacy, at least as intricate as those of ancient civilizations. Perhaps even more striking is the film’s lush, brooding hiphop soundtrack. Composed and compiled by the RZA, the Wutang Clan’s brilliant producer, the music is at once somber and celebratory, drawing deep connections among Method Man’s lyrics, reggae, free jazz, the sounds of traffic, weather, or woodpeckers: Ghost Dog tracks his prey to their country “palace,” where he’s momentarily distracted and brought back to himself by a hardworking bird’s rhythmic rat-a-tats. He checks his gunsight, smiles with wonder, and then, after a heartbeat, sets back to his task, which, he reads from the Hagakure, must be undertaken with speed and without too much thought.


Such thickness — sounds layered on images layered on ideas — resonates throughout the film. The soundtrack’s only previously released song is Raekwon’s “Ice Cream Man,” which plays almost as an introductory theme for Ghost Dog’s best friend, the French-speaking Raymond (Isaach De Bankole), a Haitian immigrant ice cream vendor with whom he converses regularly even though neither understands a word the other says. With this relationship, the film underlines a typically Jarmuschian interest in spiritual and moral communication, people bound together in shared quests, beliefs, and rituals, whether these be propitious or destructive.


As Ghost Dog struggles to “make sense” of his impossible situation — in order to preserve himself and his master Louie, he is forced to murder Louie’s masters, which in turn forces Louie to take vengeance on him — the film shows the ways that the codes governing his life and those of the gangsters are simultaneously principled and absurd. In other words, they are matters of faith, a means to define oneself amidst chaos. And so, while the contract on Ghost Dog is specific, it also exemplifies the routine violence in the big city, the murders that are unsurprising functions of power and racism. Instructed to take out a “big black guy” on a rooftop, two of Vargo’s henchmen, breathless after ascending a walk-up, accidentally come on another pigeon handler, a Kayuga Indian (deemed “Nobody” in the credits and played by Gary Farmer, who was Nobody in Jarmusch’s canny, deconstructed Western, Dead Man), who calls them out when they shoot his birds: “Stupid fuckin’ white man!” Holding their huge weapons, the assassins are stunned by his outrage. Even as they retreat, however, they see their worldview vindicated in his apparent lunacy: “Puerto Rican, Indian, nigger, same thing!”


With this and other brief exchanges, Ghost Dog, like Dead Man, deconstructs myths and conventions, those longstanding cultural investments in prejudice, machismo, imperialism, and self-righteousness. The film catches characters (Louise, Vargo, various mobsters) absorbing cartoons that appear on TVs intermittently to comment on the action, escalating in violence and explicitness, from Betty Boop to Felix the Cat to Woody Woodpecker to, as the climax, Itchy and Scratchy (who blow up the planet in order to destroy each other). Though no one in the film learns from these lessons, the audience can appreciate their resonance: such brutality is hardly an urban, black, samurai, or gangster problem, it’s global and perpetual, cosmic and commercial.


For all its grim commentary on the state of the world, Ghost Dog does offer hopefulness, embodied by its protagonist’s unexpected young disciple, a neighborhood girl named Pearline (the engaging Camille Winbush). They meet as Ghost Dog sits on a park bench, engaged in a staring contest with a small dog (intense in the vaguely disturbing way that small dogs can be). Intrigued, Pearline asks whether it’s true that he (Ghost Dog) speaks to no one. They soon learn that they share a passion for reading, in particular, The Wind in the Willows, Frankenstein, and The Souls of Black Folk. He offers her a book Louise gave to him on the night of the shooting, Rashomon (which suggests something about Louise, but it’s never clear what); Pearline agrees to read it and tell him what she thinks of it.


Pearline and Ghost Dog’s friendship develops alongside the rest of his adventures, but it serves as a kind of heartbeat for the movie, a reference to its filmic sources (including Kurosawa’s many samurai films and Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 Le Samurai), in which the young student is a familiar trope, a means for Ghost Dog to pass on his knowledge and legacy. But there’s something more immediate at work here as well, which makes the film less a kitschy fable than a keen contemplation on contemporary experience, the obligation and contrition you likely feel every day. This something else is in part the movie’s manifest respect for hip-hop and samurai cultures, and a considered deference to oldschool gangsterism, but more than that, it’s a respect for tradition and change, together.


The fact that Ghost Dog is so wry about mixing old and new into this wondrous strange pastiche makes it unusual, even among so-called independent films. It’s not smug or hipster, but reverent and smart. Its emphasis on communication that’s beyond language, or on books that speak across generations, might seem like standard big-idea mongering. But what makes Ghost Dog singular — funny but not scornful, wise but not imperious — is its ability to understand and really, appreciate, the myths of all kinds of cultures, from ancient to postmodern, from Rashomon to Itchy and Scratchy, that demented cartoon within a cartoon. The film attends to the nuances of fable: it’s filled with tiny, complexly reverberating moments, as when Ghost Dog paces down the street, passing the RZA, as “the Camouflage Samurai.” They pause to acknowledge one another: RZA says, “Always see everything.” And in return, Ghost Dog nods, “Positive embrace.” Like the film, their exchange is arcane, absurd, and fundamental.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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