Tuesday, July 4, 2017

JRO's #73: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)

Starring: Forest Whitaker, Henry Silva, John Tormey
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Release Date: 19 May 1999 (Cannes)

IMDB Synopsis: An African American mafia hit man who models himself after the samurai of old finds himself targeted for death by the mob.

Availability: DVD

First Time
2000? I don't think that I saw this in any theater, but maybe I saw it somewhere in Buffalo. Maybe it was a DVD rental. Or maybe I bought the DVD immediately. I know that it's one of the oldest DVDs in my collection (bought my first DVD player in '97!).

Why it's on the List
By 2000, I was a Jarmusch fan. Stranger Than Paradise had been one of my favorite films since '93 or so and I watched Dead Man when it came out on VHS in late '95. I had also spent at least a year in the mid-90s getting high and listening to various Wu-Tang Clan solo projects. What I don't think I had done was seen any of the samurai and hit men movies that Ghost Dog references and builds on. Though maybe I had already seen some Kurosawa. And I had definitely seen enough gangster films to enjoy the gangster/samurai mash-up happening.

Ghost Dog is formally exciting. It is held up by excerpts from Hagakure, channeling an ancient text into a living motion picture representation of a dying code.
It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything else that is called a Way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.
Since I was reading a lot of Ebert in 2000, I'll go ahead and quote him at length here:
It seems strange that a black man would devote his life to doing hired killing for a group of Italian-American gangsters after having met only one of them. But then it's strange, too, that Ghost Dog lives like a medieval Japanese samurai. The whole story is so strange, indeed, that I've read some of the other reviews in disbelief. Are movie critics so hammered by absurd plots that they can't see how truly, profoundly weird "Ghost Dog" is? The reviews treat it matter of factly: Yeah, here's this hit man, he lives like a samurai, he gets his instructions by pigeon, blah . . . blah . . . and then they start talking about the performances and how the director, Jim Jarmusch, is paying homage to Kurosawa and "High Noon." But the man is insane! In a quiet, sweet way, he is totally unhinged and has lost all touch with reality. His profound sadness, which permeates the touching Whitaker performance, comes from his alienation from human society, his loneliness, his attempt to justify inhuman behavior (murder) with a belief system (the samurai code) that has no connection with his life or his world. Despite the years he's spent studying The Way of the Samurai , he doesn't even reflect that since his master doesn't subscribe to it, their relationship is meaningless.
I think that Ebert's reading is mostly right, but wrong exactly in the one specific way that he thinks unlocks the film for him. Ghost Dog is definitely not insane. The world around him has gone insane. He has adopted a Way that gives him purpose in the world.

"Sometimes you have to stick to the Ancient Ways. The Old School Ways."

Besides being a lot of fun in mixing up genres, it's a film about self-discipline and about authority structures. What I wrote about The Sopranos a while back is applicable here. Both gangster films (white or black) and samurai films deal explicitly with morality and rule of law. They are always about how we are governed from within and from without. https://fecundatingmanure.blogspot.com/2015/06/singing-soprano-in-choir-harmonies-with.html

Additional Notes/Stats
  • Edelstein: The problem is that Jarmusch panders to his left-wing art-house audience the same way Clint Eastwood panders to his right-wing audience. The African-American hero is meant to be a pure, noble warrior in spite of the fact that he lives by murdering unarmed men. It's easy to overlook that fact, though, since the only men he kills on screen are representatives of the vicious white patriarchy. Ghost Dog is largely a meditation on the death throes of that enfeebled ruling class. The Italian gangsters are either skeletal (Henry Silva, as the boss) or grotesquely obese, and they're broke, too—hounded by creditors and living in houses that carry "For Sale" signs. (The real-estate company is called Alighieri Properties.) Still, there's enough life in their arthritic bones to mow down innocent African-American bird-keepers and female cops and other threats to their dying white-male hold. Jarmusch can't contain his hatred. He throws in a sequence in which Ghost Dog encounters a pair of cretinous hunters toting a dead bear—just so the hero can invoke Native American lore and shoot two white people on principle. At the end, a little African-American girl fingers his big gun and his samurai manual. Am I the only one who finds the substance of this movie repulsive? 

1 comment:

  1. This was another movie on my now famous "Netflix DVD Queue Before I Canceled" list. I'll check it out someday. Too busy watching Wolf instead of Dog. Happy 4th!