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"Almost Extinct" Spirits of the Ages Meet: Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog under partial study

by Dave heaton

In the BFI (British Film Institute) Modern Classics book on Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes, "In many ways, Dead Man has to be regarded as a distillation and fusion of a good many traditions, literary as well as cinematic, underground as well as mainstream, chemical as well as spiritual." This quote applies just as aptly to Jarmusch's most recent film, Ghost Dog. That film is, on an obvious level, a fusion of a handful of cinematic traditions: gangster films, martial arts films, comedies, "arthouse"/cult films, etc. And it also integrates elements from a myriad of aesthetic traditions outside the realm of cinema: hip-hop music and culture, television cartoons (from Betty Boop to the Simpsons), Japanese samurai literature, etc. Yet while Ghost Dog is an obvious fusion of traditions, it is also a film about the fusion of traditions, about long-lasting traditions meeting in a time when the meeting and blurring of cultural strains and traditions is taken for granted.In the same book, Rosenbaum relates part of an interview he had with Jim Jarmusch, and quotes Jarmusch as saying that Dead Man is about "the relationship between these two guys from different cultures who are both loners and lost and for whatever reasons are completely disoriented from their cultures." In Ghost Dog, the two major characters, the hitman Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), who models himself after the ancient Japanese samurai, and his boss, Italian Mafia man Louie (John Torney), are not disoriented from their cultures, but represent cultures which are disoriented from modern times. In one scene, Ghost Dog describes their relationship like this: "Me and him, we're from different ancient tribes. Now we're both almost extinct." Each man has the perspective of an outsider, and bears a tinge of sadness about the current state of society, yet they find themselves at odds, when Louie's bosses call for the death of Ghost Dog after he carries out a hit without following all of their rules.

Both Ghost Dog and Louie belong to cultures with strict sets of rules. The film includes as segues a series of recitations by Ghost Dog fromHagakure, a Japanese Samurai guidebook. These detail a code to follow, one about "seriously devoting one's body and soul to his master" and following orders in a swift, precise manner. This code of behavior, as Ghost Dog describes it, is a firm one. One of the Hagakure directions says that the samurai "should be able to hear about all ways, and be more and more in accord with his own. Louie and the other members of his gangster "family" follow a similarly strict set of rules. When Ghost Dog lets the daughter of the head of the Vargo crime family, Louise Vargo (Tricia Vessey), witness him carrying out his job, the execution of Handome Frank (Richard Portman), he must be taken out. When Handsome Frank's father, also part of the family, is consoled about Frank's death, his response indicates nonchalant acceptance of the rules: "They whacked him, what are you gonna do?"

As much as the samurai and Mafia traditions follow firm guidelines and rules, in Ghost Dog they've also been inevitably affected by modernity. Ghost Dog swings swords like the ancient samurai warriors on a rooftop in one scene, but when he fights he generally uses state-of-the-art guns. In a few scenes he even swings those guns as if they were swords, and flips one to his side like he's placing it in a scabbard. He slowly stalks the streets of the city, yet also drives an expensive car filled with fancy gadgets and a CD player, which he uses to blare hip-hop. Similarly, the Mafia follow the "old ways", yet one of their members, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman), is not only a hip-hop fan (who, in the film's funniest scene, breaks into a Flavor Flav impression) but occasionally co-opts the language of hip-hop ("we're gonna peel this nigga's cap back," he says in one scene) [Of course, it's important to note that Valerio seems a little behind the times when it comes to hip-hop, listening to PE's second album, while Ghost Dog blares the Wu and their compadres]. Most of the gangster characters bring with them old-fashioned, downright racist views. Yet they seem oblivious to the fact that their headquarters are not in an Italian-owned restaurant or bar (a la Goodfellas), but in the back room of a Chinese restaurant owned by a Hispanic man.

Of course, all of this is part of the humor of the film as much as it is a discussion of cultures meeting. Jarmusch is not above drawing laughs at the absurdity of these Mafia types holding steadfast to their traditions no matter how out-of-time they are. And Ghost Dog gets a similar treatment occasionally, as when he recites the samurai rule that it never hurts to apply some powdered rouge before heading into battle. The whole film is filled with incongruence, not just in the way that Ghost Dog and the Mafia family's ancient traditions slam up against this (post)modern world, but in Jarmusch's depiction of that world itself. It's a world where everything's been mixed together, where nothing stays in the lines. An seemingly weak old man fends off a mugger with a high-powered martial arts routine. A man builds an intricate wooden boat on the roof of a skyscraper.

In Ghost Dog, a line is drawn between the samurai and Mafia cultures, but there's also a connecting line between them. Not only do both follow codes of honor, but they sometimes demonstrate a clear understanding of each other's culture and its code. When Ghost Dog delivers a message (via his usual message, carried by a bird) to the Mafia family, family head Ray Vargo (Henry Silva) understands it when no one else does, saying "It's poetry, the poetry of war." The film draws a line between the two outsider cultures, yet also evokes other outsider, "almost extinct" cultures and draws lines to and from them. In a hilarious scene, the gangsters, while discussing the seeming absurdity of Ghost Dog's name, follow a line to the names of Indians, then to "the rappers," and then, without realizing it, right back to their own tradition (with names like Sammy the Snake, Joe Rags, Big Angie).

"The rappers," as Sonny Valerio puts it, form a recurring background culture in the film. Not only was the film's soundtrack produced by the RZA, but the RZA himself appears near the film's end, greeting Ghost Dog in the street in a way that suggests that he, too, has the samurai spirit within him (fitting given the Wu-Tang Clan's obsessive attitude toward martial arts). In an earlier scene, a few MCs on the street greet Ghost Dog in a properly equalizing way: "knowledge to knowledge, baby." And in most of the film, hip-hop is lurking somewhere, either through a blaring stereo or through MCs rhyming in the park. Hip-hop is also used as commentary on the film's action (take, for example, the early scene where Ghost Dog drives late at night on his way to Handsome Frank's execution, as the MC on the car stereo raps about "creeping through the evening"). Television cartoons are another artistic medium used as an echo of the film's events, from the scene when Handsome Frank watches Betty Boop trying to catch birds on a roof to the scene where Sonny Valerio's bodyguard watches a cartoon character shoot up the pipes into another character's bathtub, minutes before Ghost Dog does virtually the same thing as one of his tactics.

Yet there's even more cultures and perspectives present than the ones mentioned thus far. Ghost Dog's best friends are Raymond (Isaach De Bankole), a Haitian ice cream vendor who speaks no English, and Pearline (Camille Winbush), a young girl who carries books in her lunchbox instead of food [these books include, tellingly enough, some famous works about people who have the perspective of an outsider, including W.E.B. Dubois' The Souls of Black Folk and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein]. There's also a recurring theme of the interactions between humans and the natural world, another pair of cultures who have both conflict and commonality. In this duality, Ghost Dog sides with nature. He has an affinity for birds, has "dog" in his name (and, indeed, there are two scenes where a mysterious dog shows up to greet him), and throughout the film is compared to a bear. In an early scene, Raymond has a book about bears and compares Ghost Dog to him, saying, "the bear is a solitary animal." And there's a powerful scene where Ghost Dog comes across two hunters who have just killed a bear and takes vengeance on them (a scene Jarmusch admits to Rosenbaum could have just as easily been part of Dead Man). This scene also again brings up the subject of race, and the status of African-Americans as historically an "outsider" culture in the U.S. [the film doesn't gloss over race, or the fact that Ghost Dog is a black man, something that would have been easy to do given the somewhat fantastical nature of the film at times. Nor does it overlook aspects of modern society like racial profiling or police brutality; both make appearances, though in an oblique way in the case of the latter]. Yet this scene, while having clear racial overtones, deals equally with the idea that Ghost Dog is part of an "almost extinct" tradition, living in a world that is all about the new and the immediate. Ghost Dog's exchange with one of the hunters goes like this, after Ghost Dog asks about them shooting the bear:

Hunter: "You see, there aren't too many of these big black fuckers left around here, so when you get a good, clear shot at it, you sure as hell take it."
Ghost Dog: "That's why you shoot them, cause there's not that many left?"
Hunter: "There ain't all that many colored people round here, neither."
Ghost Dog: "In ancient cultures, bears were considered equal with men."
Hunter: "This ain't no ancient culture, mister."
Ghost Dog: (after shooting the hunter) "Sometimes it is."

Like Ryunosuke Akutagawa'sRashomon(filmed by Akira Kurasowa), the book that is passed from character to character during the film (from Louise Vargo to Ghost Dog to Pearline), Ghost Dog is about perspectives, the different ways people look at the world (in one scene, Pearline describes Rashomon by saying, "It's like a story, but each person in it sees a completely different story"). Ghost Dog clearly sees the world through "ancient eyes," and finds himself out of step with the world of today. In one scene, he says "Everything seems to be changing all around us," to which Louie replies, "You can say that again" (and indeed, Louie does say it again, toward the film's end, reinforcing this idea). One of Ghost Dog's most important actions in the film is his passing on the samurai tradition to Pearline, through both his example and his gift of Hagakure (on a side note, notice the bear PJs Pearline wears as she reads the book at the film's end). It is Ghost Dog's last attempt to preserve his "tradition," yet he does so without expressing much anger at its passing. Instead he takes it as a unfortunately inevitable step. This idea is expressed in one of the film's final onscreen quotations from Hagakure: "It is said that what is called "the spirit of an age" is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world's coming to an end. For this reason, although one would like to change today's world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation."

[Ghost Dog and Dead Man are both unbelievably rich documents for study, cinematic texts filled with allusions, stories, meanings and rich characters. Both are as open to critical study and interpretation as any film I can think of. They are also both fun movies, plain and simple, with humor, action and the other elements of entertainment that most people go to the movies for. The BFI book on Dead Man marks what will hopefully be a full future of critical study for Jarmusch's films (especially Dead Man and after, for that film and Ghost Dog mark a substantial increase in the scope and depth of Jarmusch's filmmaking).]

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