The polar ends of East Coast independent cinema: Kevin (Clerks, Dogma) Smith, suburban Jersey child of Sundance, sitcoms, and blockbuster Hollywood, and Jim (Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man) Jarmusch, serious-minded downtown New Yorker with an allegiance to high modernist European and Asian cinema. In America, college kids relate to Smith.
He's their hairy, t-shirt-hanging-out, main man: the ex-video store guy as auteur. In Europe, it's Jarmusch, the sleek and prematurely white-haired hipster, who's the director-as-superstar. At Cannes in 1999, I was shut out of three sold-out screenings of his new feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, before I finally caught it back in North America at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The wait was definitely worth it: Ghost Dog is prime Jarmusch, a perfectly rendered, moody and mimimalist, formally elegant, slice of estrangement and alienation, a gangster genre piece filtered through self-conscious French and Japanese reworkings of the American gangster movie and then brought back to America, still resonant with the foreign trappings.
Jarmusch's protagonist, Ghost Dog (a stirring Forest Whitaker), is the embodiment of mythic Lone Hero-dom, a melancholic, monosyllabic African-American hit man who resides on a rooftop among carrier pigeons and steps through his solemnly violent life by adhering to, and constantly quoting, the rules of an early 18th century Japanese warrior text, The Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai. A Samurai 101 path is to find a master and then devote your very being to obeying and defending that master. Ghost Dog grabs onto Louie (John Tormey), a below-the-line Mafia capo who once saved his life. Now it's Ghost Dog's turn, and he spends much of the movie standing up for Louie, killing for Louie, whether Louie wants him to or not!
Obviously, there's black humor in this black Don Quixote following so obsessively, and so destructively, seemingly outmoded chivalric rules. Is Ghost Dog a hero or a total fool? To Jarmusch's credit, he keeps things on screen wonderfully ambiguous, allowing the viewer to decide whether Ghost Dog's trip toward his own annihilation is pure nobility or sheer stupidity. Whatever, Robby Muller's cinematography makes it all cool and alive, as does the sublime RZA musical soundtrack.
"I started with the actor," Jarmusch said, when we talked at Toronto. "I wanted to write something about Forest. He has this big physical presence that could be intimidating and also his soft side. I like watching him. I like that poignancy. I collected a lot of fragments and details and observances. Eventually, I connected the dots, and a story came from that."
Jarmusch was inspired by a remark from his late friend, Rebel Without a Cause filmmaker, Nicholas Ray. "I remember Nick saying that dialogue is in the left hand, melody is in the eyes. I wanted to make Ghost Dog a character who doesn't speak much and yet who is very expressive.
"The lonely hit man? I've been a fan of crime fiction: Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett. I also like gangster films: White Heat, Public Enemy. There are a lot of inspirations and references, from the book Frankenstein to John Boorman's Point Blank to the Japanese films of Siejun Suzuki such as Branded to Kill. Suzuki's films about a lone hit man, black-and-white and widescreen, were so strange that Toho cancelled his contract."
I mention another clear influence: the great French gangster works, Le Doulous and Le Samurai, of Jean-Pierre Melville. Jarmusch agrees. "There was an inside joke in Melville's films: the killers wore white film editor's gloves. Ghost Dog also wears these gloves, and, like Ghost Dog, Melville also refers to Eastern philosophies."
Jarmusch offers a term he has coined for Melville which, by extension, I might apply to his own cinema: "melange films." He explains: "How do you classify Melville's works? They are so French, and yet he want them to be so American. Is his vision American? Western? Eastern? Hip-hop? What is it?"
I ask Jarmusch whether Ghost Dog is, in his view, a ridiculously deluded Don Quixote. "He is Don Quixote as a fool in a way, but there's something beautiful too. By choosing a code from another century and another place, he keeps it intact and in focus. It comes from a spiritual place, where the gun is an extension of his body and being."
And the other gangsters in his movie, who are slow-witted, non-charismatic, sub-par Scorsese? Even Louie is an obvious loser. "They may have had a code, but it's unravelled. It's outmoded. They came up from the street in the 50s and early 60s and it started unravelling in the late 60s and 70s. They are dinosaurs. I saw the Gambino guys in New York on Mott Street, and they are patterned after these guys. I worked with the casting director, Ellen Lewis. Some of these guys were in Casino with Marty, but I was trying to get faces that were not so well known. John Tormey who plays Louie is a theater actor. I met him and he seemed like Louie. He has a particular spirit and look, he's not a leading man type, he'll never be a movie star. He's a capo, not a boss."
And Tricia Vessey, who plays Louie's astonishingly in-denial daughter? Amidst piles of dead bodies, she watches TV cartoons and reads the novel of Rashomon. "She was a young actress I met while auditioning in Los Angeles. She's not an ambitious, bustling actor. But there's something about her presence. She could be a silent movie star. I wanted her enigmatic, with not much to do. I wanted her off-balance psychology. As for Rashomon, I like that people you don't expect to read books. I love books and that people still read them."
Could Jarmusch talk about the person behind the soundtrack, RZA (pronounced "Rizzah"), who is the producer and founder of the acclaimed hip-hop group, The Wu-Tang Clan?
"He's 29, and a brilliant businessman, marketing genius, and I've been a fan of their music since the first Wu-Tang CD. His music is very cinematic, and always refers to martial arts films, quoting their music tracks or their dialogue. He's an incredible afficianado of martial arts projects. He said to me, 'You make films like music. I make music like films. We're both stupid.' He's a very busy man. He'd look at a rough cut of the film, then he's make music, give me a tape and say, 'Check this out.' He'd say, 'Meet me at a van at 53rd and lst.' He'd have a tape for me. By our third meeting, he gave me so much beautiful stuff I couldn't use all of it. I would have drenched the film."
I tell Jarmusch that critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, a friend of the filmmaker and an enthusiastic booster of Dead Man, had been puzzled a bit by the extended sequences of violence in Ghost Dog. He couldn't decide if Jarmusch had tried in some way to deconstruct them, as he had done in Dead Man.
"The hell if I know," Jarmusch said, not defensively. "That's for me to find out from critics like you and Jonathan. Also, my problem is that I don't look back on my old films. They're shadowy. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about them." Still, Jarmusch tried to ponder the issue, if the violence in Ghost Dog was undercut. "In a less conscious way than Dead Man," he decided. "Some of it is elaborate and dramatic, the way Ghost Dog kills people. But it's not meant to be visually dramatic in a Peckinpah way, or the remake of Scarface. It's part of his efficiency as a warrior.
"Violence is part of human culture, and this is a story about a warrior. The Bible is extremely violent, and I don't hear a lot of right-wing Christians complaining about that. Or that God in the Old Testament is violent, when people piss Him off."