Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   C R I S S A - J E A N   C H A P P E L L

The Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) has few friends. He rarely talks. In his rooftop shack, splattered with pigeon droppings, he pours over a well-thumbed paperback--Yamamoto Tsunetomo's Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai. The 18th-century warrior manual offers lonesome soliloquies: "Meditation on inevitable death should be performed every day." It doesn't matter that the Ghost Dog's modern incarnation--a hulking black man with a monastery-solemn demeanor--carries a pistol (with silencer) instead of a sword. His hooded sweatshirt is festooned with Japanese writing. His CD player blasts a rapper's rendition of pre-apocalyptic angst. The beat is threaded with Asian flutes. The lyrics are as concise as a haiku.

Jim Jarmusch, the much-heralded indie director responsible for such minimal masterpieces as Dead Man, Mystery Train, and Stranger than Paradise, has received unfair criticism regarding Ghost Dog, his seventh fictional escapade. Critics complain that his existential exercises ignore narrative logic. Characters "act irrationally" so Jarmusch might force-feed thematic content--often through an incomprehensible twist of events. His "noble failures" (touted on "best lists" long after their initial release, as in the case of 1995's Dead Man) call for second and third glimpses to absorb his playful nuances. This isn't Hollywood filmmaking, in which a condition of affairs is disrupted and put in place again. Jamusch wants to disengage the look of his dreary, urban landscapes and iconic characters. In classic Hollywood style, conflict is key, the camera remains hidden. Characters are psychologically defined. In postmodern cinema, such as Jarmusch's, we lose the chronological, plot-oriented sequences. The camera isn't human. It doesn't permit a sneaky perspective attained by eavesdroppers. It functions more like a hummingbird whizzing from one absurd set of circumstances to the next.

The juxtaposition of samurai creeds (flashed onscreen through elegant intertitles) with Ghost Dog's life lessons encompass a series of metaphysical conceits and lend interpretive commentary without disrupting the story. Ghost Dog belongs to an "ancient tribe," the last of a dying breed of gangsters. The same is true of the Vargo crime family, for whom he works. More than themes of blood lust or revenge, the film is concerned with codes of integrity. Louie (John Tormey), a middle-ranking member of the Vargo syndicate, once saved Ghost Dog's life. Therefore, the honor-bound "samurai" must serve as his retainer. The two communicate through an old-fashioned device--messages borne by carrier pigeons (one befuddled Mafia boss confuses the "sky rats" for passenger pigeons, the ill-fated species that met extinction in 1914).

A hit goes sour because of botched information given to Ghost Dog. The head of the mob, Vargo (Henry Silva) puts a contract on Ghost Dog and threatens Louie's life. The film, far more ambitious and thematically complex than any of Jamusch's earlier efforts, quotes Ghost Dog's Bible, the Hagakure, 13 times, comparing and contrasting ancient Japanese culture with their modern-day American equivalents. The Vargo crime family is depicted as a worn-out spectacle--more like an Elks Club for doddering old men. They spend their time squabbling over petty issues or watching a chronological progression of cartoons--the classic variety that involves fuzzy animals and a slew of slapstick violence. From black-and-white Betty Boop episodes, Felix the Cat, Woody Woodpecker, and their self-parodying counterpoints from the Simpsons ("Itchy and Scratchy"), these animated interludes (much like the Hagakure) lend foreshadowing to present circumstances. Like the timeworn cartoons, so heavy on self-related gags, the bickering, two-dimensional Mafia stereotypes belong to an outdated mode--one soon replaced by proceeding generations. Even Ghost Dog is a product of myth and popular culture, not unlike the angry rap anthems he blasts in his stolen convertible. This connection to rap echoes the Vargo family underboss, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman), who chants Public Enemy's "Cold Lampin' With Flavor" while wearing his bathrobe. He's a dusty product of his time, much as he tries to deny it.

DJs sample bits of previously-recorded flotsam and chisel it into audio collages. Jarmusch, the musician turned movie director, samples pop culture (gaudy cartoons; fast-talking Mafia dons; sleek, imported cars with built-in CD players) in a similar fashion. The soundtrack (by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA) and its visual equivalent, courtesy of Robby Muller's brittle cinematography, is a mixture of lap dissolves (two or more images slowly overlapping) and stuttery actions (in which a movement is broken into several instants--most often exampled in Ghost Dog's slow-motion assaults). What matters is the "moment" (according to medieval Samurai code), what French existentialists called the human condition.

Movies, books, and music have shaped these characters' identities, much as they have shaped our own. There are no heroes or villains, no classifications of "good" or "evil," only characters (sampled DJ-fashion through historic and cultural references) like the crazy man imitating Noah, building an ark-sized boat under Ghost Dog's balcony, awaiting Armageddon. Our media-savvy director goes so far as to sample himself when Nobody, one of the leads in Dead Man, makes a hilarious cameo appearance, uttering his signature line, "Stupid, fucking white man…" The trigger-happy Mafia can't decide if Nobody is black, white, or Hispanic. In fact, he's neither.

In the postmodern era, people aren't limited to narrow paradigms of identity (be it in terms of race, gender, or social status). Jarmusch's fictional cities have no proper names (consider license plates depicting New York areas as "The Industrial State"). He's convinced that everyone is a product of the media (that declares what's good for us), no matter what language we speak. The Haitian ice-cream man (Isaach de Bankole) befriends the black samurai despite a linguistic barrier (they utter few words to each other…but they share an uncanny psychic connection). The Italian mobster belongs to the same "dying tribe" as Ghost Dog (or American Indians or black bears or passenger pigeons).

In the park, Ghost Dog meets Pearline (Camille Winbush), a little protégé who totes a lunchbox stuffed with paperbacks. Her lunchbox parallels Ghost Dog's omnipresent suitcase--as does her appetite for the printed page and her apparel: bedecked with bears or Japanese letters. Ghost Dog lends her Rashomon, an Akutagwa anthology. Her favorite story, "In the Grove," suggests a multiple viewing of reality--the collage of past, present, and future (again, stressing the "moment" as all-encompassing). But how can we escape the "moment" if media culture continues to define it for us? Pearline stands guard at Ghost Dog's final confrontation with Louie, which the self-conscious characters regard as a movie ("This is the final shootout scene"; "Yeah, it is"). Jarmusch is evoking the Western (based on Japanese Samurai films such as Kurosawa's), only now, the characters (unlike the passenger pigeon) have become aware of their inevitable deaths.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Artisan Entertainment
Movie Web site: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai



Photos: (© 1999 Plywood Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.)