Archive for the Ghost Dog Category

Ghost Dog: Cross Cultural Communication, The Melting Pot, and Final Notes

Posted in Ghost Dog on May 27, 2010 by moviemoses

Cross cultural communication is the study of how cultures are different and similar to one another and how they communicate among each other.  One recurring theme of Jarmusch is of showing differing cultures in America.  In Stranger than Paradise, we see a New York integrated American take his Hungarian cousin (who happens to love Screamin Jay Hawkins) on a road trip, in Down By Law we see Roberto Benigni as an immigrant in a Louisiana jail, and in Mystery Train we see Japanese tourists who are enamored with Elvis on the way to Graceland.  While they keep their cultural roots, they do take in American influences (mostly music).

In Ghost Dog we see Americans of many different cultures: Italian, African American, Native American, Haitian, and Spanish.  We also see many examples of characters taking up interests from other cultures.  For example we have Sonny Valerio who loves rap music, Mr. Vargo has a passing interest in Native Americans, and our main character is an African American who dedicates his life to the Samurai code.  In fact, the music itself has cross cultural influences.  Part of what makes Wu Tang Clan so popular is its fusion of rap music and its appreciation of Asian cinema; particularly the kung fu film.  So even though these cultures do have differences, their influences do rub off on each other.

We also see these characters interact in a variety of ways.  I find it amusing that the racist mafiosos hold their meetings in the back of a Chinese restaurant and are short on their rent to a Latino landlord.  They of course want to stay on good terms with the landlord or else he will evict them.  Ghost Dog has the majority of the contact with different people and he has differing ways of communication with each.  We see him pass many people in the neighborhood, and they give gestures or nods of recognition in passing.  In a featurette on the DVD, the RZA describes Ghost Dog as an OG (Original Gangster) or someone who is a staple of the block.  With his conversations with Pearline, their common enjoyment is in reading.  Ghost Dog shows he has not only read the Hagakure, but also approves of her choices such as Frankenstein and The Souls of Black Folk.  And of course we come to Ghost Dog and Raymond.  These two people are so similar that they practically have a psychic link as to what the other is thinking.

This doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of this chapter, but I suppose I will put this in as a final note of analysis.  My last topic will be that of the use of various media in the film.  A common theme in the movie is at various points in the movie when characters watch cartoons.  Many of these cartoons are mirrors of the action in the film.  There is one cartoon which has Betty Boop catching pigeons in the same way Ghost Dog trains them.  Another has Itchy and Scratchy competing with progressively larger guns which is similar to the final show down between Louie and Ghost Dog and so on.  At this time this is the only significance I see in the cartoons.  If anyone else spots anything to this let me know.

Books also play a theme in Ghost Dog.  Chapters of the movie are separated by quotes from the Hagakure that the audience reads at the same time Whittaker reads out loud.  These fit the theme of the coming chapter in the film.  Also reading brings with it enlightenment to the characters.  Ghost Dog is educated as indicated by his scene with Pearline, and he has more cunning than his enemies.  Louise Vargo is reading Rashomon and later becomes the head of the Valerio family.  And the final shot we see Pearline sitting in her mother’s kitchen reading the Hagakure and being transformed by it.  The meaning I take from this is that of reading becoming a pathway to enlightenment.

Ghost Dog: Racism and a Changing Generation

Posted in Ghost Dog on May 26, 2010 by moviemoses

Ghost Dog shows many facets of American culture.  Part of its focus is on the issue of race relations and marginalized cultures.  This topic was handled earlier in Jarmusch’s masterpiece Dead Man which was a deconstruction of the Western film.  Ghost Dog is an acknowledgement of a checkered past, with the hint of a new multicultural generation taking over.

The white Mafioso’s as represented in this film partially represent the white power structure combined with an early attitude of racism.  There are many scenes which show the racist and even misogynist nature of the mobsters.  For example, there is a scene where two of the mob break down the door to Gary Farmer’s place and have an argument on the ethnicity of Farmer.  One almost wants to kill Farmer because “indian, nigger”; there is no difference in skin color.  This prompts Farmer to give his signature line in Dead Man “Stupid fucking white man.”  There is a strong resentment to Louise Vargo.  In addition, we have another scene where Louie and an injured mobster are pulled over by a female state trooper.  The mobster shoots the trooper to which even Louie is shocked by his behavior.

A strong scene that highlights the race theme is where Ghost Dog comes upon a pair of bear hunters.  An earlier scene Raymond compared Ghost Dog to a bear, and seeing it tied up with rope could be construed as coded imagery to lynchings.  One of the hunters remarks that they killed it because they don’t see many of the “big black fuckers” around and the other notes there aren’t many “colored folks” in the area also while threatening Ghost Dog with a shotgun.

The race/sex dynamic is played out better in the representations of both cultures.  The white mob, which at one time represented power and a ruling culture, is now run by a group of washed up retirees who can’t even pay the rent.  African Americans are young, fresh and vibrant with their culture and music permeating the entire film.  Ghost Dog is almost the embodiment of that and his strength and cunning allow him to defeat his enemies.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – Comparisons to Le Samourai

Posted in Ghost Dog on May 19, 2010 by moviemoses

Ghost Dog was not created in a vacuum.  Jarmusch is a student of both music and film and it is easy to see the influences of this work.  Many ideas from Ghost Dog are from the 1967 film Le Samourai by Jean-Pierre Melville who mmany consider the father of French New Wave.  Le Samourai is considered Melville’s masterpiece and has influenced many artists from different countries.

The film is about hit man Jef Costello.  He is a man who leads a Spartan life but performs perfect hits.  He is sent to assassinate an owner of a night club which he performs but is spotted by the singer in the club.  The police superintendent believes Jef did the crime but cannot prove it due to Jef’s alibi and the singer not identifying him (for some reason).  The criminal that hired Jef then try to eliminate him for fear of Jef being arrested.  There are many similarities between Jef and Ghost Dog.

Both characters own birds.  In fact during a hit, a bird lands on Ghost Dog’s rifle which appears to be the same as Jef’s.

Both hit men wear white gloves during jobs and have universal keys.  Jef has a key ring with all types of keys for different types of cars.  Ghost Dog has an electronic key which can hack into the electronics of a car.

Both are spotted during a hit and in danger of being exposed by women.

Both are nearly silent characters.  Loners.

Both practice strict professionalism which leads to death.

While they share other themes and plot characteristics, they also branch off in different directions.  Ghost Dog embraces more of a humorous approach to the subject matter (while not a comedy) and immerses itself in African American culture.  Le Samourai is a minimalist thriller that is almost in an alternate world of stylish gangsters and an overbearing police presence.

I don’t want to get too much into Le Samourai here (at least in this discussion).  It is a brilliant film in its own right and if you liked Ghost Dog then you will find the originator very interesting.  There is a reason Jarmusch chose to emulate this film.  It is because there tremendous skill behind the camera in the telling of a story.  It is a great introduction to French New Wave.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch) 1999

Posted in Ghost Dog on May 19, 2010 by moviemoses

Ghost Dog is a personal favorite of mine and the movie that got me into Jim Jarmusch.  It is about an African American hit man only known as Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker).  His life was saved in childhood by a mobster name Louis.  Ghost Dog follows Louis orders as a samurai to his master and does hits for Louis.  One of the hits goes wrong, and Louis is ordered to kill Ghost Dog and sets off a war between the two sides.

As I said this was a favorite of mine so I wanted to include it in this month’s reviews.  Not only was it the break out performance of Forest Whitaker but this movie is a little about black culture.  The original soundtrack was done by the RZA of the Wu Tang Clan and is almost another character in the movie.  Instead of doing a straight up review (I would just recommend you watch the movie) I thought I would do a brief analysis of the theme of the movie.  That is of the death of two cultures and the problem of not adapting to the times.

For as much as Ghost Dog is painted in a kind of positive light (Forrest Whittaker on commentary states he is noble because of his faith.  I have to disagree because, well of my own opinions, but also from the very Hagakure that Ghost Dog lives by.

“It is said that what is called ‘The Spirit of an Age’ is something to which one cannot return…For this reason, although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done.  Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation.  This is the mistake of people who are attached to past generations.  They have no understanding of this point.”

Both sides of this war are outdated; an endangered species.  When we look at the state of the Vargo crime family it is desperate.  All of the members of the family are senior citizens, they are low on members, and most important (to them anyway) they are making no money.  Seemingly their crimes (more explained in the deleted scenes) are outdated also and they struggle to pay their rent for a back room in a Chinese restaurant for their meetings.  Their biggest problem is seemingly that of adaptability.  They have no idea of what to do with themselves or even with the culture they live in.  Even Sonny, who loves rap music and sings it comically to the other bosses, is by Jarmusch’s statements, still about ten years behind the times.

I guess another major problem they have is they do not have what some would classify as “honor among thieves”.  At the first sign of trouble, they decide to sell out Ghost Dog and try to betray him.  Ghost Dog is their best assassin who does perfect jobs every single time.  Despite all that, they expect Louis to eliminate Ghost Dog because they are scared of Vargo’s daughter selling them out.

By the same token, we see the flaws in Ghost Dog’s way of life and his morality.  The way of the samurai was in giving your entire life to your master which in some cases is seen as a living god.  Unwavering loyalty and subservience to your master is equal to being a spiritual person and anything less is dishonorable and should be punishable to death.  The obvious flaw being you have no choice in who your master is.  He could be moral/immoral, or intelligent/rock stupid.  In this case we see these flaws in full force.  Ghost Dog is in debt to Louis because he saved Ghost Dog’s life.  Louis though, is a simple underling in a small time crime family on its last legs.  He is an immoral criminal who is fine with murder and theft and has no qualms about selling out even his most loyal retainer.  Sure enough, Ghost Dog is tasked with doing the immoral act of murder and is also by extension and immoral/evil person.  Many people try to excuse their actions by saying it is part of the job or “I’m just a professional.”  That still doesn’t change the fact you are choosing to commit an immoral act in the name of that person/organization.

In the end, both groups get what they want.  The Mafioso are happy in the knowledge they died as “real gangsters” instead of wasting away as irrelevant goons.  Ghost Dog makes his “noble sacrifice” to his retainer and is happy in the knowledge he lived and died as a samurai.

The end is also a reminder of the new replacing the old; the strong overtaking the weak.  Louis is now working for Vargo’s younger daughter.  Vargo’s daughter is riding in a limo, already more high class than her father, and is able to finish the job Vargo could not complete.

This is also a deconstruction and parody of the mob/gangster genre of films.  Films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, and even Le Samourai (of which this film is based) portray gangsters as being stylish and cool.  From my own personal experience I have seen more Scarface memorabilia than I ever wanted to see.  These items are not so much an endorsement of the quality of the film itself but a glorification of the lifestyle.  People want to be Scarface because he is a symbol of wealth, power, and masculinity.  Its strange but I believe many people put Scarface on their Top lists because it is a way of showing to internet geekdom they are masculine and have a big penis.  But to get back on point, Ghost Dog mocks the representation of the mob as stated earlier.  They are feeble, old, out of touch with the world around them, unable to pay the rent, unable to control an unruly daughter, unable to control kids throwing toys from a window, etc.  They are racists and misogynists with not a penny to their name and dead to the world.  Even Ghost Dog is not completely glorified.  Samurai films usually are stylish with the samurai in decorative armor.  Here, Ghost Dog wears dirty baggy clothes and lives on top of a rooftop with pigeons.  We are not mislead by flashy clothes or masculine coded imagery.  Instead we focus on the characters and their actions.

This is not the only theme or message to note on; it is simply the one I chose to explore.  I still recommend you watch it for yourself for the performance by Whitaker, the atmosphere/music, the action, and the quirky humor.  You will absolutely love Ghost Dog’s friendship with a Haitian ice cream man who both speak different languages.  But give it a shot.