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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai ***

Fatiguing is probably the most accurate word to describe this film directed and written by Jim Jarmusch, whose Black hero played by Forest Whitaker, a high-tech professional assassin working for mafiosi, dutifully follows the precepts of the Hagakure--a seventeenth century Japanese treaty for samurai--and treats his mafia boss, Louie (John Tormey), as a medieval lord to whom he has pledged his fealty (For the benefit of the uninitiated, here are a few words on the subject of the Hagakure from Zen and Japanese Culture [1938] by the great Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki. Commenting on the relation between the code of the samurai and Zen doctrines, Suzuki states that: "There is a document that was very much talked about in connection with the Japanese military operations in China in the 1930's. It is known as the Hagakure, which literally means 'Hidden under the Leaves,' for it is one of the virtues of the samurai not to display himself, not to blow his horn, but to keep himself away from the public eye and be doing good for his fellow beings. To the compilation of this book, which consists of various notes, anecdotes, moral sayings, etc., a Zen monk had his part to contribute. The work started in the middle part of the seventeenth century under Nabeshima Naoshige, the feudal lord of Saga in the island of Kyūshū.")  When one of Ghost Dog's contracts goes awry, the mafia dons, a positively decrepit lot, order his execution--an unwary move which arouses the wrath of Ghost Dog, who then ploddingly eliminates his adversaries although sparing Louie. An almost painfully slow moving film, Ghost Dog made me think at some moments of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo on downers. Prospective viewers should be forewarned: it may take the patience of a samurai to make it through Ghost Dog.

Ghost Dog uses the framework of an action movie to preach a multicultural sermon. Not only is the main character an African-American, but he lives in a neighborhood populated mainly by other people of color, and his best friend is a Haitian who sells ice cream on the street. This seems to me as valid a premise as any for making a film, but it has some rather peculiar results in the end product. First of all, Jarmusch goes in for some of the same heavy-handed ideological allegorizing that afflicts Boys Don't Cry. All of the people of color who show up in the film--including Ghost Dog--are kind, gentle characters who respect all beings, honor life, etc., while the whites nearly without exception are thugs or sadistic killers. (Ghost Dog, by contrast, only kills out of obligation to Louie, who has rescued the former when still a youth from racist attackers, as a flashback informs the audience.) The film goes especially far in this direction  when Ghost Dog, driving back to town from a sojourn to a mansion in the country where the mafiosi have holed up, encounters some redneck hunters decked out in combat fatigues who have just downed a bear and are gloating over their kill. After delivering a solemn lecture on the sacred place accorded the bear among the Native Americans, Ghost Dog takes them all out when one of these jerks uses a racist epithet and pulls out a shotgun with murderous intent. Although I would certainly admit that white people have a lot to make up for in their treatment not only of African-Americans but of anyone with a dark skin in in the USA, this sort of allegorical settling of scores--which reeks of the equally obnoxious and equally allegorical conclusion to Easy Rider--hardly seems the answer.

In the second place, this allegorization of races has disastrous consequences for the film's stylistic coherence. Unlike Boys Don't Cry whose style is quite unified and controlled, Ghost Dog is stylistically torn in two directions. The scenes with white characters--and these are primarily mafiosi--are staged in an almost Brechtian style, while the ones with Ghost Dog and his friends in a local park have an intimate, low-key quality resembling cinéma vérité. I can get the point that the white men act like robots--especially the gang boss Ray Vargo (Henry Silva), who is constantly photographed with an absolutely waxen dead look on his face, giving him the appearance of an enormous, inertly stupid doll--and that the people of color show the spontaneity anyone would expect of a sentient being. But this opposition produces a gaping stylistic abyss Ghost Dog never succeeds in bridging, nor am I sure it could be bridged without rethinking the entire concept of the film. In Jarmusch's attempt to employ such an "estrangement effect" in the movie, it is not hard to detect the influence of Godard at work here, but in an undigested form. Unlike Godard's characters, Ghost Dog's are not world-weary Europeans but de facto nomads cut adrift in a fragmented, centrifugal culture in which they are trying to create a viable identity for themselves out of what the dominant white culture has discarded or dispatched to the ash heap. Nor are there any cultural references in the film which have the same kind of resonance as do the ones Godard liberally strews through his early movies--and a work as deeply rooted in Japanese tradition as Hagakure, arbitrarily  transported into an American setting, can hardly play the same role as the allusions to Homer and Hölderlin in Contempt. Moreover, Jarmusch's attempts to overcome this problem by literally incorporating  the Hagakure into Ghost Dog with full screen quotations  from the text frequently inserted throughout the film not only further slows down an already leisurely paced motion picture but drastically points up the difficulty of trying to forcibly bring East and West together.    

I wish I could like Ghost Dog more than I do, since Jarmusch has a highly original vision to which he remains true from beginning to end. In fact, seeing the film the day after having viewed High Fidelity with its complacently conformist aesthetics, I almost wish I could rush out and embrace it as a masterpiece. The difference between Ghost Dog and High Fidelity almost epitomizes the polarization of the American cinema today between imaginative but often erratic works by directors like Jarmusch,  Darren Aronofsky, Todd Solondz, or Todd Haynes, on the one hand, and artistically banal, dramatically shallow productions like High Fidelity or American Beauty, on the other. Roland Barthes, in a passage entitled "Blackmailing with Theory" ("La chantage ŕ la theorie")  in the little volume he put together on himself for the collection Écrivains de toujours published by Seuil, commented that there are certain experimental works of art that say in effect, "love me, protect me, defend me, since I conform to the theory you advocate. Don't I do what Artaud has done, what Cage has done?" And Barthes goes on to answer: "But Artaud is not just the avant-garde--it's also writing. Cage also has charm...." I don't wish Ghost Dog were any less demanding or adventurous; I do wish it were leavened with some of the humor and eccentricity of The Limey, or Erin Brockovich, or even Fight Club. The film, which at times creates an oneiric visual atmosphere akin to that of Boys Don't Cry--particularly at the beginning, when Ghost Dog goes off on his first mission--is well photographed by Robby Müller. Even more impressive is the sound design credited to Anthony J. Ciccolini III and the extraordinary score by the RZA, available on a CD from Ghost Dog's most powerful asset, however, is the magnificent, implacable mask of Forest Whitaker, whose image dominates the movie like that of a great silent star.


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