Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) 3 of 4

** only minor spoilers **

The publication on Bright Lights Film Journal of my essay brought to mind this Jim Jarmusch indie.  In 1999, The Sopranos was briefly in the shadow of Analyze This, about a mobster (Robert DeNiro) in therapy.  Less noted was the overlap with Ghost Dog, which could almost be The Sopranos as seen by an African-American, if a self-taught samurai.  Here's more evidence of television's resistance to change: as HBO launched David Chase's novel-for-TV, the American New Wave was well into a second generation of (postmodern) gangster films: see also Miller's Crossing, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Summer of Sam.

Forest Whitaker is ideally cast as a reflective loner living off-the-grid in a modern U.S. city: no amnesiac, he's a spiritually awake hit man.  He steals a car but prioritizes the sound system, pumping eclectic hip-hop.  He'll break his meditative isolation for other noncomformists: a man building a boat on a rooftop; an elderly man who's a poor choice for a mugger.  Perhaps most resonant: an encounter with white hunters who've killed a bear.  When the bearish Ghost Dog objects, the elder hunter says, "This isn't an ancient culture."  Ghost Dog: "Sometimes it is."

Even as conflict rises, Ghost Dog stresses its title character's mutual respect with the local mafiosi, for they too have a code.  Arguably, these Italians are too comic: they watch cartoons, are fatter and older than The Sopranos, even more clearly on-their-way-out.  But maybe that's why Ghost Dog is reading (the basis for) Rashomon: it's how he sees the Mafia.  Consistent with the slowed pulse of his oeuvre, Jarmusch counters the chop of culture-change with Ghost Dog's Zen calm.

Like any Jarmusch film, Ghost Dog has cinematic cool and a great soundtrack (by RZA), while being not-for-all-tastes.  If Analyze This was cute but disposable, Jarmusch tends to improve on second viewing, as we adjust to the intriguing protagonist aloof from Western society.  As a substitute, Ghost Dog liberally quotes his dog-eared copy of "The Book of the Samurai": he's relation to the seekers in The Tao of Steve, Amelie, and The Matrix.  And like Marlo on The Wire, he keeps pigeons, a chance to practice patience, even as he gently urges the birds home to roost.

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