Succinct Cinema: Ghost Dog – The Ties That Bind

In the scattered urban landscapes across many of Jim Jarmusch’s works, people can be cramped together yet miles apart, all emotionally adrift from each other in a sea of concrete and glass. In the particular 1990s New York of Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, these great emotional distances can be surmounted through spiritual connection; spirituality transcends nations and languages, race, age, and generation, binding so many different kinds of persons and lives together, even if only for the most fleeting of moments, through the foundations of respect, judgment, and personal integrity, connecting them into an established mutual understanding and shared code of honor. Jarmusch’s career-long fascination with urban disaffection is brought into a new light through the figure of Ghost Dog, a simple character brought to life by Forest Whitaker’s heavy-hearted performance to create a fully resonant portrait of a man outside his own time. Ghost Dog’s experience of severe isolation from society at large is both inflicted and transcended from by his spiritual identity. Although there is always some degree of arm’s length between them, even in the closest of bonds, this man is able to find and create these connections in spite of the sensation that creeps deeper with every waking breath and encounter both good and ill, the sensation that he is a living artifact who does not belong and cannot last.

Louie, Raymond, Pearline, and the mysterious ‘second samurai’ revealed very late in the film, each contribute to the audience’s understanding of Ghost Dog and in turn the film’s developing notion of spiritual micro-community in unique ways. Ghost Dog and Raymond understand and care for each other because their spirits are on the same plane even if their languages do not overlap whatsoever. Raymond demonstrates his integrity not only through his broad compassionate and congenial nature, but also in a particular grounding of the code of honor forhis life when the audience is finally shown that he is no deceptive salesman, he earnestly believed in the benefits of his ice cream, and when he learned otherwise, he was immediately upfront about it. What brings Ghost Dog and Pearline together is not only a mutual sense of loneliness within their respective peer groups, the samurai amidst gangsters and the thoughtful girl among children, but the quiet intelligence and care needed to endure that isolation.

Together on the bench, existing in such vastly different stages of life and being, the physical space between them speaks to a greater emotional distance, but the impact on each of them by the strands of connection that are made is immeasurable. When the girl says, “This ain’t no ancient culture here, mister,” she speaks centuries-old wisdom straight from the Code of the Samurai, reaching directly to Ghost Dog’s soul and inspiring a desire to support her quest for knowledge by the only ways he knows how, the literature that guides him. The relationship that is most vital to Ghost Dog’s code of honor, and has visibly lasted longer than most others in his life, is as the retainer to his master, the middle-aged sad-sack mobster Louie. “Not to forget one’s master is the most fundamental thing for a retainer.”

That central principle ultimately leads Ghost Dog along a path of tragedy due to a simple, misunderstanding on his part, a misperception of Louie: Ghost Dog and Louie are both living throwbacks to older worlds and cultures, but only Ghost Dog is earnest in his adherence, putting the spirit ahead of the surface. These men were brought together by an initial, individual moment of initial cosmic coincidence just like we know happened for the samurai and Pearline, and can suspect for him and Raymond or his fellow samurai, but the compassion that Louie showed to the younger Ghost Dog was merely a fluke, a brief flash of true honor from a weak man that inspired a life’s worth of misguided loyalty. The proof that Louie is a true spiritual failure and not merely a man struggling to do his best in the difficult modern world lies in the difference between him and his own original master, Ray Vargo. While Gene Ruffini’s older consigliere dies beside him consumed by fear and without dignity, when faced with Ghost Dog, Vargo stands up and declares, “I’ve been expecting you”, an act of recognition and respect for his foe, the man that heput the hit out on.

In the face of death, this man does not resist like his comrades, does not interfere with Ghost Dog’s work, his duty. Instead he treads a path much like Ghost Dog’s at the film’s end, accepting the inevitable and acting to preserve his spirit and code, through the simple motion of buttoning his jacket, which Ghost Dog does not interrupt in a return of the respect shown to him. Out of the many within this film, only these two parallel deaths embody the Hagakure virtue declared by narration: “Even if a samurai’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should 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.” When his colleague expresses bewilderment at this passage, Vargo grasps it instinctively: “It’s the poetry of war.” The physical death and the spiritual death are not one and the same, and to prevent the latter is the immediate goal when faced with the former. The true warrior recognizes this regardless of which side of the battlefield they are on. Vargo and Ghost Dog are still opponents, and have greater distance between them than the assassin has with Raymond or Pearline, but they can acknowledge each other as fellow warriors abiding by their respective does, and thusly understand each other and connect better than Louie was ever capable of doing with his retainer.

Jarmusch typically maintains a visual style that consciously avoids a sense of active flair, cultivating a look that matches the calm mundanity/mundaneness he’s capturing with head-on camera angles, long uncut takes at medium or close distance, and deep focus to bring out all of the textures of the image and setting, but in this genre film climax of Ghost Dog and Louie’s confrontation, he heightens the style to befit the heightened tone. With a church bell in the background in the place of a Spaghetti Western’s Morriconian twang, he match cuts rapidly between the two men to establish their physical and emotional distance, the escalating showdown tensions at hand, in the process contrasting the relaxed but respectful pace of edits during Vargo’s death, while their comments build the tension further and bring the genre element further into the foreground. “What is this, high noon? The final shootout scene?” A quick cut back to Louie drawing his gun. “I guess it is.” But to survive with his master’s blood on his hands would be a spiritual death far more unacceptable than any physical one, and so the samurai swordfight or Western shootout give way to a desperate attempt to perform that one more act with certainty and achieve transcendence and redemption.

This sequence brings the core of his character to a head. Longer takes and close-ups creep, restoring the one-sided intimacy and meaning of this not-long-for relationship, as Ghost Dog approaches Louie while vocally rationalizing to himself that his death is one last gift to his master. These words, and the warrior with them, are cut down by the sudden realization that his master is no master, but a weak-willed retainer to another. Louie’s ultimate spiritual weakness, his lack of will, in the face of Louise Vargo’s wrath and power-grabbing, renders him a vessel of the uncaring modern world’s path of emotional and spiritual destruction to finally reach Ghost Dog. It’s not just the bleeding or the bullets that kill Ghost Dog, but the knowledge that his spiritual moment has been compromised by the lack of honor in the man he died out of loyalty for, his strong shoulders at last giving way to the crushing weight of modernity.

This ultimate failure on Ghost Dog’s part expresses a key part of the overall thematic resolution, but not the totality of it: the equally vital other half arrives in the coda of Pearline, a full payoff of the generational and communal notions built throughout the arc of Ghost Dog’s life where she not only reads the Way of the Samurai but also narrates the book’s text in the same way Ghost Dog had throughout the film. Ghost Dog may have failed himself, but he still helped Pearline find her way. The complete notion from Jarmusch is that although preservation of the soul chafes against and may even be always ultimately impossible to accomplish within a modern social environment, spirituality and spiritual existence are perpetuated in the face of destruction and remain personally worthwhile by the everlasting connections they allow to be created. Collective spirituality can and must be preserved from generation to generation even as the world eventually snuffs out each individual spirit. “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 go, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation.” – Hagakure.

 

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