Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000)

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Forrest Whitaker, John Tormey, Isaach de Bankolé, Henry Silva

 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai was my introduction to Jim Jarmusch, a filmmaker who I’d go on to really get into in my early twenties. When I first watched the movie, probably around 16 years old, I picked it up because I knew that all the music had been composed by the RZA and I knew that it combined two of my favorite things: kung fu/Eastern martial arts culture and old school New York City hip hop culture. While I expected to like the movie, simply based on its premise of a modern assassin who lives by the ancient code of the samurai, I didn’t expect it to strike me in such a way. Quentin Tarantino aside, I hadn’t found a filmmaker who seemed this interested in projecting a specific idea of “cool” through his cinema, by way of inscrutable references, impressionistic sequences that seem to exist outside the realm of the narrative, and an insistence on creating mood over narrative clarity. I enjoyed Ghost Dog a great deal, but it was never a movie that I watched very often. It isn’t terribly complex, but I did find it to be challenging when I was a teen, maybe because I wasn’t as steeped in the practices of a post-modern filmmaker like Jarmusch. Going back and watching it today, with a decade and a half of viewership under my belt, and a more than passing familiarity with Jarmusch’s brand of “cool” cinema, I think that I enjoy Ghost Dog even more.

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The film’s protagonist, the titular Ghost Dog (Whitaker), is a contract killer sworn to live his life by the strict code of the samurai. Shortly after the film opens, Ghost Dog is fulfilling a contract for Louie (Tormey), a low-level gangster who employs Ghost Dog, and to whom Ghost Dog has sworn fealty due to Louie’s saving his life when he was a teen. While Ghost Dog carries out the hit on Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), he doesn’t realize that there is a woman in the room with Frank, whom he leaves alive and who gives him a copy of the book Rashomon. It turns out that the young woman is the daughter of Louie’s mob boss, Vargo (Henry Silva), and Vargo puts out the word to his crew to find and kill Ghost Dog in order to distance the mob from the murder. This proves to be more difficult than expected, however, as Ghost Dog only contacts Louie by carrier pigeon and is notoriously secretive about his personal life. While the mobsters have difficulty tracking down a ghost, Ghost Dog begins turning the tables on them and hunting them down to save his own life.

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The first time I saw Ghost Dog, I was taken in by it almost immediately. Its overwhelming sense of cool was enveloping, and its style was unlike any gangster movie I had ever seen before. The movie is a pastiche of so many disparate influences that it seemed specifically engineered to my own personal taste preferences at the time. It blends classic gangster movies, Eastern philosophy and religion, hip hop culture, and classic American pulp, and the end result is a mélange of signifiers and cultural references that add up to a great action movie, all held together by the glue that is Jarmusch’s impressionistic, post-modern directorial style. Scenes fade in and out at random, intercut by passages from the Hagakure, an ancient Japanese text that defines the life and rituals of the samurai. These spoken passages serve as both counterpoint and context for the film, and help to define the personal philosophy of Ghost Dog, who is never outwardly expressive or outspoken. The movie is often dependent on its cultural references, using them to imbue otherwise mundane conversations or happenings with a greater import. This could potentially be seen as a weak storytelling device, but within the framework of the hazy world that Jarmusch has created, within the framework of the film as a dream, reliance on these signifiers is key. Just as in dreams, these cultural signifiers act as markers that help to orient the characters and the viewer, and there are enough delightfully strange elements at work in Ghost Dog that one could certainly support a reading of the film that paints it as one big dream, but I don’t necessarily agree with that reading. I don’t think that Ghost Dog is a film that can so simply be defined as representing a dream or objective reality, but, rather, I think it is a film that is primarily interested in exploring a dreamlike philosophy of existence.

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From its inception, theorists writing about the cinema seemed likely to compare the experience of watching a movie to that of dreaming. The idea of accepting images, sometimes strange and foreign to our consciousness, broadcast through a stream of light onto a screen in a darkened space brought to mind the somnambulant experience of the dream. Since then, movies have seemed to be a perfect medium to explore otherwise difficult to quantify psychological and dreamlike phenomenon, and Ghost Dog is a perfect example of the film working to codify and represent a dreamlike existence. The film explicitly references the dream in one of the interstitial passages in which Ghost Dog reads from the Hagakure, which says, “It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream. It is said that the world that we live in is not a bit different from this.” This passage, along with the presence of Rashomon, a classic tale about the illusory nature of concrete reality, indicate strongly that Ghost Dog is interested in representing not an actual dream, but a state of being in which the subject has some control over a dreamlike existence. Ghost Dog is awake, and I believe that the incidents depicted in the film are meant to be objectively real, but through his adherence to meditation and Eastern philosophy, Ghost Dog has achieved a state of being in which he floats through the corporeal world as if he would a dream world.

The film also supports this reading in more concrete ways, as Ghost Dog is frequently treated by all of the other characters as some sort of Other. He famously cannot understand the language of the man he calls his best friend, Raymond (de Bankole), an ice cream man who only speaks French, but the two have no trouble communicating with one another. The mobsters seem totally vexed by Ghost Dog, unable to track his movements efficiently, and unable to understand his strict adherence to the moral code of the samurai. In the film, Ghost Dog exists separately from other characters, communicating on different wave lengths, and often seeming to pass by strangers unnoticed, as would an apparition. It is also important to note that Ghost Dog is sometimes recognized by strangers who appear to be privy to some knowledge of the lifestyle that Ghost Dog has committed himself to. Perhaps this is because he is truly operating on a different psychological and existential plane. He seems to inhabit the place of the waking dream, existing in the real world and able to have a tangible effect on an earthly plane, but also readily able to slip back into an elevated and obfuscated level of consciousness, submitting to the logic of the dream state.

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Stylistically, Jarmusch insists on maintaining a tenuous grip on narrative reality, allowing the story to unfold out of sync, told from multiple points of view, and featuring several elliptically cryptic inserts. This narrative structure is obviously readily identifiable as a dreamlike structure, as are the aforementioned cultural references that Jarmusch packs in relentlessly. Ghost Dog is clearly an homage to several gangster films that came before it, including most obviously Melville’s Le Samourai and Suzuki’s Branded to Kill. These films, as well as Rashomon, heavily influence the movie in the same way that visual media and pop culture have an insidious way of sneaking into dreams. The cultural appropriations also serve to orient the ways in which the characters see themselves, for example all of Louie’s mob friends are paint-by-number gangsters. They lament their ineffectualness as criminals, and respect Ghost Dog for “taking [them] out the right way,” when he goes on his killing spree, but their entire identity is constructed from the gangster archetype established by classical Hollywood. Through a maze of signifiers, Jarmusch has created not only a framework of relevant texts through which to interpret and understand his post-modern gangster film, he’s also revealed the source material through which he, and by extension, his characters have come to understand the world. It’s a very meta- tactic, and the sort of filmic exercise that could certainly turn some viewers off, but it’s one of the things that I love Ghost Dog for the most.

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Of course, all of Jarmusch’s high-minded philosophical import would be largely irrelevant if he weren’t able to craft a film that was equally engaging as a crime thriller, and, luckily, Ghost Dog is certainly that. The movie is a satisfyingly grimy low-stakes crime caper. It reminds me of classic crime films like Cassevettes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Like in that film, the characters in Ghost Dog are down on their luck losers, for the most part, and though the stakes are high, individually, none of the action would resonate in the way that it does in epic crime films like The Godfather. It’s a hard-scrabble vision of the criminal underworld, and it’s peopled by memorable characters played by familiar character actors who all turn in impressive, understated performances. Forest Whitaker is the perfect Ghost Dog, relying largely on gesture and his expressive face to convey meaning in a role with very few lines of dialogue. Though he’s had at least a half dozen higher profile roles, I still always picture him as the stoic assassin Ghost Dog. I’m sure that most people would be content to simply enjoy Ghost Dog for its merits as a great, low budget crime thriller, and would totally eschew the sort of philosophical exploration that the film invites me towards, but, to me, Ghost Dog is the rare movie that is as cinematically satisfying as it is intellectually satisfying, and the ending of the movie begs for a sequel, although I doubt one will ever come. Still, the movie exists wonderfully as it is as an homage to supposed “low culture” art forms, such as kung fu, hip hop, and the gangster film, that combines all of these elements to transcend them in creating a movie that asks questions about the very nature of the human experience.

Dead Man

Dead Man (1995)

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henrikson

 

I’m excited to finally write about another Western for this project, as the Western genre is one of my favorite types of film to watch and think about. One of my overarching interests in college was writing about depictions of masculinity in films, and I often found the Western genre to be rich with films that explored examples of classic machismo and also depictions of traditional masculinities in crisis. As a whole, the genre has often stood for Americana, and classical American mythmaking, but individually, Western films can serve as prisms to explore the underlying tapestry that makes up these unifying myths or as powerful critiques on the societies that produced them. My favorite Westerns to think about, like Dead Man or Blazing Saddles, are revisionist Westerns, ones that challenge and critique the accepted myths of Americana and offer up alternative narratives to the settling of the West. I love the films of John Ford and John Wayne, and we’ll get to a few of those, but I more appreciate the later films of the genre that used the existing conventions of the Western to deconstruct the genre and allow some light to seep through the cracks in the linear narrative of conquest and Manifest Destiny that the Western has come to represent. Dead Man doesn’t offer much overt criticism of the Western genre or social commentary, but it does inject mysticism, psychedelia, and some trademark Jim Jarmusch “cool” into the genre.

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The film opens with William Blake (Depp) onboard a train from Cleveland to the frontier town of Machine, where he has been offered a job as an accountant with the Dickinson metal works. Blake is instantly set apart from the rest of the passengers on the train, as they eye him suspiciously from beneath the brims of fur hats, clutching long guns tightly. The film’s surrealism is apparent from the opening scenes, as well, as the train’s Fireman (Crispin Glover) emerges, covered in soot, to engage in a strange conversation with Blake in which he warns the newcomer against going to the frontier. All the while, the passengers are shooting buffalo from the moving train behind the two men. Undeterred, Blake arrives in Machine, and sets off to claim his job, however, when he arrives at the metal works, his job has already been filled and he is driven from the property at gunpoint by Mr. Dickinson himself (Robert Mitchum). Without the job he was promised, and having just buried his parents in Cleveland, Blake finds himself with no money for a return ticket and no prospects, but he shows some kindness to a flower girl, Thel (Mili Avital), who in turn takes him back to her room at the local hotel. Their post-coital bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Thel’s former lover, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), who tries to shoot Blake, but instead shoots Thel when she throws himself in front of the bullet. Blake, with some difficulty, uses Thel’s gun to shoot Charlie, and then realizes that he has been shot by the bullet that passed through Thel’s chest. Wounded, he jumps out of the window and steals Charlie’s horse, riding off into the desert. When Blake comes to, he meets Nobody (Farmer), a Native American who will act as a spiritual guide for Blake as they continue into the frontier, possibly into the afterlife.

I first became aware of this film in my Sophomore or Junior year of college in a class on Westerns. I don’t believe that we screened the film in its entirety in class, but we watched a handful of clips from it, and I saw enough that I was intrigued and purchased the film on DVD. I knew Jim Jarmusch, as my Wu-Tang obsession had led me to the RZA-soundtracked Ghost Dog in high school, and Broken Flowers had been one of my favorite movies of 2004, but I hadn’t explored much into the director’s filmography beyond these and a couple of other films. Even with this cursory introduction to the director’s style and having seen some clips from the movie, Dead Man was a very weird film to me the first time I watched it. I was used to modern Westerns that called into question ideas of national identity and American exceptionalism, but Dead Man is much more inwardly focused, raising questions of personal identity, life and death, and humanity. Critics, including myself earlier in this post, have called it a psychedelic Western, and it certainly is that, but perhaps it is more accurate to think of Dead Man as an Existentialist Western. It lends itself, with its moody score and monochromatic visual presentation, to the same sorts of reflection as Existentialist philosophy. Its subject matter, a dying man (who may or may not be actually dead already) being guided to the afterlife speak to these same concerns of being and nothingness, and of Man’s place in the spiritual and mystical realms. Dead Man has little time for inquiries into political or social commentary as it sets its goals on a higher level of exploration of the human condition. It was certainly a bit of an adjustment from what I had been expecting of the film at first.

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Of course, after consuming much, if not all, of Jarmusch’s oeuvre, these lofty thematic concerns don’t surprise me at all. His films often strike a balance between a perfect Zen koan and a late night, pot-fueled, dorm room philosophy session. They often provide deep truths about the human experience, but their presentation is a bit hazy and nebulous around the edges. From top to bottom, Dead Man makes for a great cult film. Like most of Jarmusch’s output, the film is just a little bit too strange to fully connect with the mainstream, but it has fared pretty well critically, and it has a fan base among critics and audiences. Its literary allusions, including a running gag in which Nobody believes that Blake is the deceased Romantic poet William Blake, and its philosophical context will satisfy the intellectuals in the audience, while its hazy, mystical presentation and brief moments of gore will satisfy the midnight movie crowd. The film celebrates the history of the Western genre with its casting of Robert Mitchum (in what would be his final role) as Dickinson, while also turning the typical Western narrative on its head. Like many Westerns, Dead Man depicts a great journey, but the nature of this journey is spiritual rather than physical, and it’s being led by Nobody, a Native American rather than a White cowboy. These type of inversions are typical of a revisionist Western, but Jarmusch pushes the genre to its breaking point, by merging the Western journey with a picaresque, peopled by strange, obtuse characters. The intended effect is to keep the audience off balance, unsure of whether Blake is really having these experiences or whether he’s hallucinating them, or if his journey is through some purgatorial space. What appears, initially, to be a stylish modern take on a classic genre turns out instead to be using that classic genre as a landscape upon which to project a rumination on life, death, violence, and human nature.

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These themes are primarily explored through the character of Nobody, played expertly by Gary Farmer, whose job it is to enlighten the dying Blake, whom Nobody often refers to as a “stupid fucking White man.” Nobody’s character walks between two worlds, having been captured by English settlers as a child and toured around museums as an attraction. In this way, Nobody has closely inspected and become educated by White culture, but as a result has been unable to fully assimilate into his own Native culture. Like Blake floating between life and death, Nobody, too, is pulled between two different types of existence. Farmer provides much of the film’s comic relief, though not in the typical Western style, with Native Americans and other marginalized characters serving as the butt of cruel jokes. Nobody is smarter and more cultured than Blake, and the film’s humor often stems from Nobody’s offhanded quips about Blake and White culture. Farmer, a member of the Cayuga Nation, brings authenticity and respect to his role, as does Jarmusch’s treatment of Native American culture in the film. The film employs several Native languages throughout, and it presents Native culture as more enlightened and sophisticated than the brutal, rapacious culture of the White characters. Though he’s capable of great violence, Nobody is full of joy and life, while Blake and the film’s other White characters are morose and associated with death. In fact, Blake becomes a sort of avenging angel over the course of the film. Though he is initially unable to shoot straight, Blake develops lethal potency during his journey with Nobody, who teaches him to let his pistol speak his poetry. Depp’s performance is worthy of praise, as well. He eschews the scenery chewing that will become his trademark later in his career, employing instead a laconic, trancelike performance style. It gives the sense that Blake is some sort of conduit, channeling the energies of the Universe as the mysteries of death are revealed to him in his spiritual journey.

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The rest of the film’s cast is excellent, as well. As is typical of a Jarmusch film, big names pop up in small roles throughout the film. Though this really is Depp’s and Farmer’s movie, several of these cameos are worth mentioning as they simply add to the overall strangeness of the film. Lance Henrikson is a standout as Cole Wilson, the deadliest of three bounty hunters that Dickinson sends to bring Blake in for the murder of Charlie, who happens to be Dickinson’s son. His performance is built around his quiet menace and the rumors that the other bounty hunters whisper about his sadism and depravity. His riding partners, Conway Twill (Michael Wincott) and The Kid (Eugene Byrd), hatch a plot to kill Wilson and split the ransom among themselves, but Wilson is too crafty for them and in a memorable scene, proves the truth in the rumors of his cannibalism. Alfred Molina has a brief but memorable cameo as a bigoted frontier missionary. Blake and Nobody come upon his outpost late in the film and the missionary feigns piety when dealing with Blake, but treats Nobody with disdain and malice. Finally, Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton are fantastic as two thirds of a group of outlaws who plan to rape and kill Blake. Thornton is almost unrecognizable, covered head-to-toe in fur, but his distinctive drawl is hard to mistake, while Iggy Pop is very obviously himself, despite wearing a dress and a bonnet. Their brief scene is an interlude, and not particularly important to the film’s overall plot, but, like many of Blake’s encounters in Dead Man it deepens the sense of alienation and psychedelia that the film traffics in, and it enriches this offbeat world.

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Dead Man is a film that exists wholly within its own space. While it certainly comments on and dialogues with the Western genre, it is not wholly of that genre. The film offers up little in the way of concrete narrative resolution, but instead leaves the audience with a profound sense of mood. The film’s visuals, its idiosyncratic performances, and its spare, improvised, Neil Young score, all enhance the strangeness of the film, and help to build this mood. Viewers looking for a traditional Western action film might be disappointed by Dead Man, although the film does have plenty of action, but anyone who wants to immerse themselves in a cinematic journey would be well advised to check out this somewhat lesser-known movie. It’s often said that a trip is less about the destination than about the journey, and Dead Man is a perfect example of this. While the film ends without much narrative clarity, its presentation of a moody, psychedelic trip is as enjoyable as it is inscrutable.

 

Post-script:

I missed a post last week for the first time during this project. My plan at the outset was to post once a week. The film that I had planned on writing on for my post on the 22nd of October was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, however when I opened up the case, the disc was missing. Rather than replacing the disc, as I had with Better Off Dead, or advancing my schedule by a week, I decided that my project would be better served by me taking a week off to catch my breath. I have a demanding and time consuming job, and I also devote a good portion of my free time to volunteering and community service, so I needed to take a brief break to get my writing back on schedule and to ensure that I could continue providing the quality of content that I have striven to maintain throughout the life of this blog. I hope to not miss any more posts going forward.