© 2016 by James Clark
Though the three early films by Jim Jarmusch—Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law and Mystery Train—provide so many laughs that the mere reading of the titles comes to us as a shot of merriment, with the quite emphatic Night on Earth and subsequent Dead Man the pain that is the populace asserts itself in an exponentially severe and transformational way. Arguably the first test run with a view to dynamic viability on that rocky road is Ghost Dog (1999), seemingly infused with the sense of millennial showdown. There we find, at the outset, the eponymous central figure leaving at dark a shack which he calls home on the rooftop of a Rust Belt hulk to (in the capacity of a contract killer) exterminate someone from out of that sea of annoyances rendering planet Earth, to all intents and purposes, a perpetual night.
However, it is not the darkness of this action which most effectively touches us. No, the first figure we meet is a buoyantly soaring large bird (all but hawk-like), its dark coloration punctuating a not-quite-black, unlimited sky and then tracing a course over a cluttered industrial area of a city, probably that gold mine of the gross, Cleveland, but having licence plates reading, for the sake of global reach, “The Industrial State.” The big bird, soon seen to be a very appropriate pigeon, is (as with wild beasts across the board here) an undiluted joy sustained by the musical uncanniness of luminary RZA, who, like the rest of his band, Wu- Tang Clan, constitutes an electronic river of rhythm and melancholy—assertive and unassertive— (and goes so far, as we shall specify, to dip, rapper-style, into the ultra-obscure 1950s ballad, “Man in a Raincoat”). Hieing to Ghost Dog’s aerie, which we find to be a pigeon sanctuary of sorts, the only-seemingly random sprite ushers in for us the woeful state of the shelter, with its adjacent rickety coop. Nevertheless, we are promptly given to understand that much more than squalor is occurring. The cooing of the birds gives way to a study of sorts where we are introduced to the protagonist at a kind of peace with life in reading (with a quiet and ardent inner voice) a text clearly of great importance and satisfaction to him, namely the Hagakure, that Bible of ancient samurai warriors. The thrust of this treasure is pure hawk, with no signs of pigeon. (Or not yet.) “The way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day, when one’s body and mind are at peace… And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the way of the Samurai.”
Selecting a hand gun with a silencer from an array of weapons, he departs for places unknown with his bulky constitution and tired, dead eyes. But there are other aspects of this litany to consider, which, though not materially present, transcend and crucially temper what might be supposed to usher in the affairs of a strictly limited thrill-seeking nihilist. On the face of it, you wouldn’t suppose that Ghost Dog is much of a reader, beyond that perhaps one-hit wonder. Soon we’ll hear him pledging an array of children’s literature which could derive from one of two sources in the context of a flashback wherein he is about to be beaten to death by a gang of white, confirmed-non-reader punks in the black ghetto where he lived. A white man intervenes by shooting up the miscreants—a white man in the form of a Mafia official, Louie, who, some years later, agrees to hire him in the capacity of killing business competitors and disappointments. It seems to be likely that this was the beginning of interest in martial arts as evolving to Samourai theory. However, he just might have been an annoying egghead in a head-banger precinct and already aware of the poetics of death to be discerned and savored in the Hagakure. One way or another, it’s a damn certainty that our sharp-shooting auteur has installed Jef, the Paris Samourai in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), to add problematic depth and direction to a goof-ball narrative. Canary-fancier and resident of a place with filthy walls, Jef, who, you can bet on it, would have nothing to do with carrier pigeons in taking marching orders from an unreliable and too-long-in-the tooth law-breaker, though he does eventually have a deadly falling-out. Rather than approaching wildly-balanced beasts as advantageous machinery (though our protagonist will soon express affection for them), Jef silently appreciates his companion for its carnal and lyrical tone. In this way we have access to a see-saw between a dog and a cat, an ideologue and an artist. We also have Jef’s activating, by way of his badly-treated girl-friend, Valeria, the Michelangelo Antonioni film, Red Desert(1964), a revealing scene of which taking place in a shack amidst an industrial shambles. (Ghost Dog’s digs are papered with newspaper and a tiny, lovingly-framed cameo of a young girl instils the badly-treated protagonist, Giuliana, of the Italian film, and her reverie of a sensuous delight of great moment functioning as navigation, decidedly unlike the navigation Ghost Dog counts on. This trope is a notable factor of the actions of young Corky and middle-aged Victoria, in Jarmusch’s film, Night on Earth .)
Thus, before we behold the silencer with a silencer easily silencing an over-the-hill target of Louie’s, the former sitting on his bed in his underwear watching Betty Boop cartoons in a flat with no a/c and accompanied by a Wynona Ryder (she of Corky) lookalike, Corky being known to emote, “I don’t care what he does. As long as he loves me right… with his soul…,” there is a cut back to the Good Book (Ghost Dog carried to that raison d’etre by way of a rap disc and a streetscape letting him down; and light vectors in a roadway tunnel picking him up), and we have a chance to digest a bit more of the Japanese program he has mastered the words of which, at least, by heart.“It’s 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 we understand things in this manner, we should be able to learn about all Ways and be more and more in accord with our own…” It is, I think of pivotal significance, regarding Ghost Dog’s far from compelling performance, to comprehend that that alert about one becoming two has intrinsically to do with disinterestedness in the form of one’s actions being purposefully keyed to an upshot of a fundamental creativity, whereby the specific intention is overtaken by a primordial initiative. Such deft and difficult management of interaction includes thinking for oneself and not succumbing to short-cut blueprints from others (like the writer of the Hagakure) which might go so far as counselling against an undeserved loyalty to a common thug like Louie, and anyone who, like the unexpected girl at the stuffy room soon to receive the coroner, reads in translation Japanese books like Rashomon, a saga of intrinsic volatility. Departing the bedroom with two stiffs but only one dead, his malaise about the less than fully predictable operation (or is it about an unfaced malaise about a wider mess-up?) spills over to the homily, “If we were to say in a word what the condition of being a Samurai is, its basis lies first in studiously devoting one’s body and soul to a master. Not to forget one’s master is the most fundamental thing for a retainer.”
In sharp contrast to the gung-ho idealism of the dictate we’ve just heard, we have a crime network manned by testy but halting operatives sneered at by creditors for insufficient funds. They coincide with a concern noticed in many of Jarmusch’s films, expressed by the term “jerk-off,” especially that drift of unhinged coercion to be seen in the vengeance of Dickinson, the exponent, in Dead Man, of rage for the sake of proving the unprovable, namely, that he is strong and significant. During the approach by our loyalist protagonist to the home of out-of-favor, “Handsome Frank,” there is a cut to Louie bragging to Sonny, the special pet of the don, Mr. Vargo, “Ya, it’s goin’ down tonight… Using my special guy…Handsome Frank’s a nice guy, a good soldier. I feel a little bad…” Sonny, a fashion plate with aviator glasses and a hip-replacement limp, brushes off this nuance on the occasion of some unforgivable faux pas (perhaps, against all odds, becoming irresistible to Louise, the boss’ daughter): “You can pay your respects at the funeral.” His sudden reversal next day could have been a case of biological dementia; but, truth to tell, it’s a case of that intentionality somewhat blurred in the strange and violent ancient Japanese manual—that playable enough intentionality intercepted and twisted by flabby and frightened geezers into rage for the sake of causing others to cringe. Louie is summoned to Mr. Vargo’s lair (in a corner of the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant) and learns, to his bewilderment and horror, that today’s menu is featuring Handsome Frank as a martyr having been taken from them by a hellish outsider.(It is necessary to track in detail such dangerous ridiculousness in view of essentially shabby and unforgivable priorities which our protagonist has brought upon himself. The mob, which Ghost Dog could not do without, functions here as a true to life death-trap, its farcical aspects by no means alleviating the nightmare. The seemingly honorific moniker, as to elusive destructiveness, may in fact put into play subservience being crushed in a nightmarish storm.) Lap dog Sonny introduces the party line, “We got a really big problem here, Louie… Seems like you’re directly responsible for it. Your Mystery Man fucked up.” Retorting, “You wanted Handsome Frank whacked, so he got whacked,” he’s soon abreast of a feeding frenzy in total denial of logic. The failure of Louie’s (other) boys to get the girl away from the target is soon seen as a negligible mishap (just as the set-back of his son’s being killed is merely an occasion for forming up a posse to speak to his own geezer’s glory—an aged Robert Mitchum making an uncharacteristic, unseemly fuss in his last film role as Dickenson). But the way the demise of Handsome Frank has become a cause is verbal theatre of great fascination. “What we need to do now,” Sonny sings, “is eliminate the scum-bag who whacked Frank. Frank was one of us. His killer needs to be neutralized, erased from the face of the planet…” Louie makes one last effort to maintain that the protagonist is more than alright (we being obliged to recognize what several dozing commentators miss, in affixing some hypothetical Mafia creed which Louie, the argument would run, has forgotten, about Vargo’s daughter being violated in surprisingly inferring that her father is a bloodthirsty piece of shit, with the same kind of embalmed look we get from late-Mitchum); and he’s met with all three of those on the other side of the table—the third being some kind of Senior Home outpatient, deaf, lame and very dumb—doing some batting practice for the fun ahead. “Louie,” the resident magpie demands, “unless you wanna be buried next to Frank, now is the time to tell us everything you know about this mysterious, ghostlike, untraceable fuckin’ button.” In shamefacedly explaining Ghost Dog’s communicating by carrier pigeons, that he’s “a big guy, a big black guy,” he’s howled at by the hard of hearing, hard-faced ancient, “Passenger pigeons became extinct in 1914! He said the guy’s a nigger!” Responding to Louie’s, “He’s always shown me complete respect,” Sonny the Jackal, like a TV anchor- man expert at satisfying the politics of his boss, gives a much more professional touch to this skewering: “Well, a whole new century is comin’ in and Mr. Vargo wants every member of his Family to erase this weirdo… Handsome Frank was one of us. So now we gonna peel this nigger’s cap back!” All three have a gratifying few minutes ridiculing the hit man’s name and its link to native Indian names— “Yeah, Indians, niggers…same thing!” the shouter notes. And the scene closes with Sonny in an echo of the three gunslingers rounded up to kill that weirdo, William Blake— “Get Sammy the Snake, Joe Razer and Big Angie!”
The mayhem to come is, in its many specific forms, only important for tracking the phenomena of Ghost Dog’s misplaying the gifts at hand for an outlaw ready—but not fully able—to savor breaking away from that jerk-off law so brilliantly undermined in Down by Law. In explaining to the Boardhow he met Ghost Dog, Louie’s testifying evokes the fateful rescue and its including the younger protagonist’s wearing a jersey with Japanese lettering. That would be weighing the scales of surmise in favor ofa bookish, besieged loner having engaged the uncanniness of that land’s ways but not yet having absorbed the warrior necessity. Louie tells Sonny (a most faux warrior) that four years ago Ghost Dog had resurfaced and, declaring he “owes me,” that henceforth he would be his warrior retainer. Thus explicitly provided with the elementary contours of his deadly faux pas, we can dig in to pick off deluxe horrors of sensibility on tap within an easily supposed to be cinematic failure of delivering thrills.
On the heels of the mob veering to juvenile delinquency, Louie sends one of the telegraphic birds (the exceptional and affectionate black and white leader of the colony) to the penthouse/shack announcing an urgent “problem.” This serious business is fielded by our overly precious renegade awakened by the dependable friend on the sunny deck. And, after a few seconds of consternation, he pops the little jarring note into his mouth and swallows it in a manner very similar to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ rudely gobbling the bellhop’s plum (courtesy of a Japanese tourist) in Mystery Train. Dozing off again, his sense of darkness brings an unrestful dream and a self-serving passage of the only too assured blueprint of holiness. “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 whole world is not a bit different from this…” Coming back to real life, he opens the pigeon coop and, with a red flag waving the fliers on (whereas the girl, Louise, at the kill of Handsome Frank, saw to Betty Boop happily waving a black swatch of material to bring her blackbirds home), he, smiling radiantly, plunges into a dazzling airshow wherein grace, agility and power meld cogently. (The hip-hop component to this kinetic carnality brushes aside questions of musical status. Striking a slightly ominous note here is a closing close-up of the protagonist’s pseudo-cosmic locket.)
Although aged minions fan out in hopes of impressing the town with their sense of boundless ire—one of the two-retiree-units making their way to a pigeon-friendly rooftop replete with pigeons cared for by actor, Gary Farmer, who had played the part of Nobody in Dead Man, and shooting down one of the birds, and they’re referred to in the familiar way, “Stupid fuckin’ white men…” (the coincidence with the comportment of Ghost Dog being an alert about a “problem” for our ecstatic-proneprotagonist)—the motif even more to the point at this juncture has to do with Ghost Dog’s bringing to our attention a more flexible and down-to-earth half, consisting of a black French-speaking ice cream wagon dealer, Raymond, an elementary-school pupil, Pearline, and a stray, nondescript dog with no name, all living in the black ghetto a walk away from our protagonist’s inflected think-tank. That the adult is played by Isaach De Bankole, the Afro-Parisian cabbie having a hell of a time with a doctrinal fare in Night on Earth, speaks for the no doubt hellishly difficult, but on the other hand still in play transcendence, about to wend our way. In fact, this workaday scene introduces such a flood of unprecedented lightheartedness (approaching shock of effective joy), with its candy-color caravan, infectiously smiling good-humor man and street-smart, dialogue-smart, Pearline, her Gallic identifier in the range of Delphine and Solange, that it traces with apt giddiness to Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, from 1967, the same year that Melville’s Le Samourai hit the cobblestones. The kid’s lunch-bag-cum book-bag reminding us of the French film’s Bou-Bou and his book-bag which creates a pregnant explosion. Pearline’s mom had bad-mouthed the gentle gangstah as someone who never talks to nobody and has no friends. But, though that is substantially accurate, the bounce of budding affection between the protagonist, the candy man, hanging on every report as to the hygienic potential of ice cream, and the sharp little cookie proud of her reading list, constitutes an outlook at least discerning something about unprogrammed passion.
Returning from a whimsical rooftop discovery on the part of the ice cream man—a house boat which could never be circulated off its perch (perhaps a form of Noah’s Arc, or a version of the landlocked ferry seen from above at the outset of the big ambitions in Rochefort)—causing the retailer to shout, “It’s crazy…He’s a genius!” Ghost Dog is shocked to find that his sanctuary has been discovered and his birds have been butchered. He butchers in turn Mr. Vargo, Sonny and the whole tribe of out-of-shape hallucinators (in the course of which re-enacting once again that Smiley Burnette dinger without looking, which we saw Nobody [a poor prophet] perform in Dead Man). Packing the impact of a Dean Martin action thriller, the vengeance leaves us feeling a lot worse for the killer than the killed. Returning to his two and only friends, the self-unimpressed result rankling in ways he can’t make right, he learns that Louie, whom he spared, has been unable to resist becoming another Vargo and wants to terminate their oddly nuanced partnership. Having hit a wall of his own making (as did Jef, that other Samourai with much to offer to the saga of the Ghost Dog), he, like Jef, prepares for a final act by emptying his weapons of their bullets and, in a showdown with High Noon clock chimes meant to be troublingly unimpressive, he dies from multiple wounds, just as Jef did at the hands of a SWAT-team, though within a scenario design emphasizing mysterious motions rather than a mysterious obstacle course. The two friends and the one surviving pigeon (who landed on his chest to wake him up happily during the highlight moment with the birds taking to the skies and lacerating integrity fully and very briefly in play) embrace his body as William Blake embraced the dead fawn in Dead Man—though now with more tentativeness. Louie runs away to Sonny’s appropriated limo. His graceless scramble recalls the race and panic to catch the plane to Rome, in Mystery Train. Also onboard is Mr. Vargo’s clinically nuts daughter and Betty Boop junkie—devolving to Corky’s having even less excuse to fink-out—who recognizes the copy of Rashomon which Ghost Dog, bleeding to death, urges Louie to read. Neither passenger of Sonny’s horsepower, we know for certain, will open the book, being inured to cheap advantages. (The girl had been fleetingly curious about it at Handsome Frank’s; but her subsequent rich-brat cruising could only head for embarrassing melodrama on the order of a Winona Ryder lookalike. That the Luisa in Mystery Train is an opportunistic conformist and facile-praise junkie seems to confirm the intractability of vast currents of sensibility.) The film ends with Pearline reading the Hagakure, another last bequest. She seems to be in the process of getting a game face on, game faces being not for children.
Within this delivery of ruthlessly observed unforthcoming, there are craftily-buried counter-forces, to leave us with the full complexity of the war which Ghost Dog was well to recognize, though lacking sufficient acuity. The most egregious force of destruction, Sonny, has a surname, Valerio—the first name of Red Desert’s Giuliana’s horrifically mainstream son, unwittingly prompting from her a strategy to foil another family. It is not going too far describe her as a far more resolved and effective warrior than the protagonist of this excruciating rout. Louie’s surname, Botticelli, envisages for us the seeming heresy that famous resources of verve and goodwill had best be vetted with rigorous skepticism. That is to say, the whole enterprise of the samurai is—for all its poetic pop—vastly suspect. (In addition to the death-trap of blindly following the needs of a “master” [master of what?], there are throughout several recalls of the ancient text serving to undermine dictates confidently proffered. As the heat of the ghost hunt increases, the homilies become increasingly prescriptive of nuts-and-bolts advantage and resentment—how to focus on one target amidst many; to make one’s move within 7 seconds… And then, on the edge of annihilating the mob, surely we have an amateur’s improvisation on the theme of resolve, becoming less and less profound: “If the Samurai’s head were to be suddenly cut off he would still be able to perform one more action with certainty. If one becomes like a revengeful ghost and shows great determination, though his head is cut off he should not die.” It is from this kind of ill-conceived desperation that Ghost Dog maintains to the Demy commercant, just before welcoming his own murder, “I’m his retainer… Now we’re both almost extinct. Sometimes the ancient, Old-School ways are best…” [ways like “Man in a Raincoat”?])
Killing two redneck bear hunters—including a coup de grace for one—in an affinity to William Blake’s ridding the world of some wrong energy, Ghost Dog maintains, dubiously, “In all ancient cultures bears were considered equal to humans.” Irrespective of the fantasy-history, our flagging aristocrat does, with this claim, bring himself to a love (of sorts) for far more than being a mere self-indulgent exterminator, namely, his pigeons and other naturally dignified beasts. A dark brown mutt at the ghetto, who wanted to join the Samurai—Ghost Dog supposes he just wants his ice cream cone, tosses it down and the dog keeps his eyes on him; prompted by emotionally suspect Pearline, he tells the drifter (the real title-figure?) to go, and he goes, leaving us impressed—and being far more valid a figure than Louie (who, on shooting his retainer, blurts out, “Better you, than me”) is disastrously underestimated. William Blake could discern in the dead fawn heights which he wanted to scale and which Ghost Dog, programmed to Old School, effectively lacks, while still carrying us to regions of failure we all need to comprehend. In the last scene Pearline, the bookworm, makes a mess of what the Hagakure might have been saying. She’d have been on more promising footing taking in that brave and unselfpitying dog.