Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

"Cavities in the teeth occur for good reason. But even if there are several per tooth, there's no conscious organization there against the life of the pulp, no conspiracy. Yet we have men like Stencil, who must go about grouping the world's random caries into cabals."

– Dudley Eigenvalue, D.D.S.

This movie (or, at least, this review) really started to come together for me when I began to think about it in these terms. People create systems and conspiracies and rituals, as a way of warding off the randomness of real life.

The two main characters in this movie are Louie, a Mafia soldier, and Ghost Dog, an assassin who views himself as Louie's "retainer" according to the code of the samurai, because Louie once saved his life. Since then, he has worked as a hit man for Louie. When Louie wants somebody dead, he contacts Ghost Dog (by carrier pigeon) and Ghost Dog carries out the contract. They live, in many ways, in two separate worlds, and in fact, as the movie opens, that have only met twice, but they are a lot alike in that they are each living according to a code which may have outlived its relevance.

"Nothing makes sense anymore," as Louie keeps saying in this movie. Ghost Dog says, "Everything seems to be changing all around us." They both talk a lot about "respect." The particular Mafia family that Louie belongs to seems to be especially outmoded and outclassed. For one thing, they're all middle-aged men, or older. There are no young men in this family. Also, they obviously have a lot of trouble paying the rent on the rather crappy social club which serves as their headquarters. So, they belong to the past as much as the book of the samurai code that Ghost Dog follows.

The difference between Louie and Ghost Dog is that Ghost Dog seems to know and accept that he's living according to rules that he alone cares about, and that this is not going to work forever. At the end he deliberately faces death because the code requires it, because the alternative is to give up the code and live in a world where things have no logic or purpose.

Bear Hunter: This ain't no ancient culture here, mister.

Ghost Dog: Sometimes it is.

This makes me think of another Jarmusch movie, "Dead Man," where William Blake travels cross-country from Cleveland to the town of Machine, confident that he will have a job there because he has a letter that tells him so. Of course, he doesn't have a job, all he has is a piece of paper. And it makes me think of gamblers, both in Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" and in Robert Altman's "California Split." In both movies, the gamblers have all sorts of hunches and theories and superstitions, and what is that but a way to pretend that the games aren't just totally a matter of chance.

The ending of "California Split" is a wonderful illustration of this, because a gambler says that he has a feeling that he's due for a big winning streak. He drags his buddy to Las Vegas, where he gambles and he wins big, but he feels hollow at the end, despite the money piled in front of him, because he had been lying. There was no "feeling," that was just a way to psych up his buddy, and that means that his winning was simply blind luck, just a random roll of the dice.

This is why the central image of this film (it permeates the film, though you see it only once) is the man building a large boat on the roof of his building. Raymond, Ghost Dog's best friend, brings him to see this, that a man is building a boat on a roof, with no way to ever get it off the roof and onto any body of water. They ask him why he is doing this, but since Ghost Dog speaks only English, Raymond speaks only French and the boat builder speaks only Spanish, not much communication is achieved.

And I wonder to what extent this might reflect how Jarmusch himself feels about his movies and why he makes them. After all, on one rooftop we find a man devotedly making a boat which will, apparently, never go anywhere, and on another rooftop we find Gary Farmer, who played Nobody in "Dead Man" delivering his most memorable line from that film, "stupid fucking white man." Jarmusch complained about the way Miramax failed to promote "Dead Man" at the time, and obviously the whole thing still bothers him (as well it should). I wonder how much he identifies with the guy building that boat.

Well, as I said in my piece on persistence, how does Robert Altman deal with how difficult it is to find some of his earlier pictures on video? He makes another one. Ultimately, that's all you can do.

And Jim Jarmusch obviously decided he was going to make a picture that would be more popular than "Dead Man," so this movie has a lot more humor, it has much more accessible music (by RZA, and it sets the mood as surely as Neil Young's lonely electric guitar did in "Dead Man"), and it's in color. But nothing was lost in this move toward (slightly more) popularity, it's just as much a Jim Jarmusch movie as any of his others.

Ghost Dog: Me and him, we're from different ancient tribes. Now, we're both almost extinct. But sometimes, you've got to stick with the ancient ways.

Roger Ebert thinks that Ghost Dog (the character) is crazy. Far be it from me to disagree with a review that praises a Jim Jarmusch picture, but I think this is missing the point, in a couple of different ways.

For one thing, I'm not sure the categories of "crazy" and "sane" apply here. Ghost Dog is a fictional character, and Jarmusch (as usual) avoids giving him much of an interior life. Some directors really want you to think the actors up there on the screen are real people, with histories and feelings and (perhaps) futures, but Jarmusch, like Hitchcock, for example, doesn't care about that.

And everything about the film reminds you that it is a film, that these are characters and not people. Everything from the artificial way people talk, to the series of books that Jarmusch shows us when Ghost Dog is talking with the little girl Pearline, to the perfectly synchronized conversations Ghost Dog and his friend Raymond have, even though they don't speak any languages in common, to the magical little devices that Ghost Dog solders together in the little rooftop shack where he lives with his pigeons, the devices which allow him to steal cars and break into houses, to the Mafia underboss who raps like Flava Flav, to the way Ghost Dog and Louie describe the final shoot-out as a scene in a movie (while they're in the middle of it), all of these things remind us repeatedly that this is not reality we're seeing up on the screen, it's a movie. One point of comparison might be Stanley Kubrick, since this is really a movie of ideas and images, not characters and motivation and psychology.

Also, is Ghost Dog really so crazy? He has, within the context of the film, taken a world with no order and imposed an order on it. Which is no different from what the Mafia guys are doing, trying to continue to live according to a code that seems increasingly pointless. As Vinnie says to Louie at the end, when Ghost Dog has wounded both of them and killed everyone else, at least he's taking them out the old fashioned way, like real gangsters.

In fact, another way of looking at the whole movie is as a dream. A young man being beaten in an alley for (as far as we know) no reason, might well imagine that a good man with a very large gun would show up to rescue him, and that he could then dedicate his life to that man. After all, if you look at the name Ghost Dog, the second word obviously refers to his devotion to his master, but does "Ghost" refer to his skill as an untraceable assassin, or is it meant to be taken more literally?

However, of course, I think it's falling into a pretty obvious trap to insist on any one "correct" interpretation of a movie which so explicitly invokes "Rashomon."

"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."

Hagakure (the book of the samurai)

Ghost Dog
(2000)

Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch
 
Cast:
Ghost Dog : Forrest Whitaker
Louie : John Tormey
Ray Vargo : Henry Silva
Raymond : Isaach De Bankolé
Sonny Valerio : Cliff Gorman
Vinny : Victor Argo
Louise Vargo : Tricia Vessey

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