Friday, March 09, 2007

161. Another Way of the Samurai

Nicely done and so forth to Forest Whitaker for his recent Oscar in a real Godzilla role--Idi Amin, twice as ugly (and startling) as any life larger than life--staring us down with the liveliest lazy eye in cinema. But I'd rather we see him first blindfolded, playing a crying game, his accent so British it confused those of us who noticed him earlier in The Color of Money (1987) and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), let alone as Charlie Parker in Bird (1988).

Or better yet: Calm all the way down, just the way Jim Jarmusch likes 'em, a stolid lump of steady death and gentle, middle-distance reflection in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). I watched it for the second time last week, mostly because I was getting ready to see some Japanese movies--I've since viewed the previously blogged Harakiri, plus Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952), and soon something or other by Seijun Suzuki--who brings me back to Ghost Dog. Now, as I've just read, the Internet Movie Database does point out Jarmush's hommage to Suzuki, but movie-geek pride makes me assert I noticed it myself a few years ago on my first viewing of Jarmusch's film, seeing Ghost Dog shoot a guy up a sink drain, a gimmick right out of Branded to Kill (1967), Suzuki's koo-koo hitman shout-em-up (in black and white; it seems Suzuki was being punished for going nuts with the color in earlier films--oh, the palette-risks of '60s international cinema; but that's OK: his spinout take on "No. 3 Killer's" moody/full-tilt spree shows up swell in chiaroscuro).

Ghost Dog, however, is more than a collection of in-jokes and tributes--although it works pretty well as such, a post-mod almost-comedy, cutouts of lots of things, including Jarmusch's own work. Whitaker makes sure, though, that much more happens--and all almost on the inside of his character, his slo-mo rap punctuated by an unblinking gaze and a purposeful lurch. It is an irresistible performance, more mesmerism, like De Niro's Jake LaMotta, but turned down from 11 to ultra-shadowed 1. And Jarmusch knows what he has in Whitaker, refining the film's narrative to recitation, as Ghost Dog reads from Yamamoto Tsunetomo's seventeenth-century book of the philosophy of fatality, Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai. These interludes are not interludes at all, but emerge as central revelations and crises, resolutions and expositions. Whitaker reads them with a deliberate calm, the passions suppressed, so that all is left is the moment immediately preceding action, and then "the way of the samurai," in which "it is best to dash in headlong."

Eventually, Ghost Dog does just that, dispatching Mafiosi with classic cool, methodical and measured--but, again, headlong, part Spaghetti Western, part Wild Bunch--without, though, any Morricone madness or Peckinpah trajectories. For Ghost Dog, it is sturm without the drang, an inevitable front that builds with the certainty of barometric pressure. He has set himself on a Way that leads him to dire loss, but without panic. As he recites, "every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the way of the samurai." And he saves the girl--like Val Kilmer's Spartan (another code hero for another hard-bitten day)--and protects his friend, but he does so already dead--so should we move toward Jarmusch's other soft-sculpture genre-bender, Dead Man (1995), to understand the curve of the last turning in the road? Again, as Ghost Dog recites, "Even if one's head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty."

This is the context in which the movie's obligatory climactic slaughter unfolds. Ghost Dog "becomes like a revengeful ghost and shows great determination." In the end, it is easy to see the movie as simply another exercise in literary affection (and no, I did not write "affec-ta-tion"); but Whitaker puts his broad hands on Ghost Dog and holds him up, and hooks his big arms around the hitman's waist, and maintains forward motion, beautiful and sad, as life always seems to end up in a Jarmusch movie. His characters often fall upon the Romantic thorns of life, post-Millennium-style--you know, after all those revolutions and World Wars--moving like Shelley's leaves along the West Wind, but slowly; so, doing "one more action," Whitaker becomes the ghost in the hoodie, the last somnambulistic king of dreamland, his Picasso face turning this way and that, the two at once.


Anonymous said...

Lovely essay, as always.
One correction:
I beieve Hagakure was written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, not Miyamoto Musashi.


Paul J. Marasa said...


Thanks for the correction; I mis-pasted while searching for proper spellings and sources. I will change the post accordingly. As I tell my students, one must earn an editor; correction is a gift, not a punishment. "The Way of the English Teacher"!

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