Tag Archives: Jim Jarmusch

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Jim Jarmusch’s seventh feature length film, an homage to Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Le Samouraï, is a beautifully filmed meditation on race and social isolation. Quiet, nuanced, aesthetically rich, it’s a work of art that demands to be seen multiple times, an object to be contemplated from a variety of different angles as though it were a painting or a piece of sculpture. A critique after only one viewing will be limited, but a comparison to Melville’s great original is probably the best place to start.

Forest Whitaker, who takes over for Alain Delon, plays “Ghost Dog,” who takes over for Jeff Costello as the contract killer who follows the Code of Bushido. Where Delon is slim, elegant, ghostlike, Whitaker is thick, stocky, and substantial. But their characters have two things in common, a quiet, self-possessed intelligence, and a love of birds. Costello lives in a spare, white, minimalist apartment in Paris with a single bird in a cage, and a case full of mineral water. Ghost Dog lives on a roof in Jersey City with dozens of pigeons, a hidden tool box full of guns, and a collection of books. They seem too noble for their chosen work, murder for hire for a local crime boss, but they both carry their assignments with a dedicated professionalism so intently focused on the details of the process that it almost transcends the finished product. Is it possible to admire a professional killer because he looks so good while he’s doing the job?

Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall, there was this one,” Ghost Dog says, quoting a Master Ittei. “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”

Jeff Costello and Ghost Dog both meet their end when a small, seemingly insignificant detail in a carefully planned assassination goes wrong. For Jeff Costello, it’s Valérie, a black singer and piano player who witnesses him shoot a night club owner, her boss. For Ghost Dog, it’s Louise Vargo, the daughter of a mob boss. While we don’t know why Jeff Costello had been assigned to kill Valérie’s boss, we do know why Ghost Dog is assigned to kill Handsome Frank, a “made man” who’s sleeping with Louise. Ray Vargo, her father, objects to their relationship. He contacts Louie, a local mobster Ghost Dog considers his benefactor — Louie had saved Ghost Dog’s life years before — who, in turn, contacts Ghost Dog. Their method is as ingenious as it is low tech, notes tied to the legs of one of Ghost Dog’s many carrier pigeons, difficult to trace and foolproof. But then something goes wrong. Louise, who was supposed to have been out of town, is in the room when Ghost Dog comes through the door and kills Handsome Frank with one clean shot to the head. Vargo, her father, now decides that killing a made man was so dangerous that they have to eliminate his paid assassin, and orders Louie, on pain of his own assassination, to hunt down Ghost dog and have him killed.

Probably the biggest different between Le Samouraï and Ghost Dog is the nature of the hero’s antagonist. Jeff Costello faces a genuine menace, a sophisticated police dragnet as methodical and professional as he is. Ghost Dog, on the other hand, is never in any real danger. Vargo, Louie, and their fellow mobsters are really just buffoons. Jeff Costello escapes the police chase only because Valerie, who he’s later told to murder to eliminate he as a potential witness, covers for him. Le Samourai poses an almost unbearable moral dilemma. Does Jeff Costello shoot his benefactor and live? Or does he stay true to his code of chivalry and die? Melville resolves Le Samourai’s plot with such a clean elegance that, while the film justifies repeated viewings, we leave satisfied we know what was in Costello’s mind. We never see it coming. Yet after it’s all over, we realize nothing could have possibly been any different.

Jim Jarmusch has another agenda altogether. Ghost Dog’s benefactor is not a beautiful young black woman who’s willing to risk her life to see him go free. On the contrary, Louie is an ugly, sleazy middle-aged crime boss who’s mainly out for himself. Why is Ghost Dog so loyal? We never get a satisfactory answer. Jarmusch does not set up a narrative that gives him a choice between his life or honor. After he kills a group of men who threaten Louie, he could easily escape, but he chooses not to. He not only allows Louie to kill him. He traps him into it. Is Ghost Dog, like Jarmusch’s earlier hero William Blake, already dead, a ghost lingering between life and death while his consciousness catches up to what happened to his body? Or does he simply have a death wish?

Louise Vargo witnesses the death of her lover Handsome Frank with such a lack of affect that she initially seems either catatonic or just retarded. But the book she’s reading, Rashamon, the title, the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s famous film about how individual perception skews narrative, gives us a possible hint. Why does a clearly superior black “samurai” continue to serve a clearly inferior white mobster? Ghost Dog believes he owes Louie his continued loyalty because he also believes Louie saved him as a child. In a flashback, Ghost Dog is being kicked to death by a gang of thugs. Louie comes along, shoots their leader, and saves Ghost Dog’s life. In Louie’s flashback, however, he only shot the man beating Ghost Dog to save his own life. Ghost Dog’s attacker pulled a gun and he beat him to the draw.

This, it seems, is Jim Jarmuch’s statement on race. Why do black men give their loyalty to white men when they don’t really owe them anything? Indeed, while both Jeff Costello and Ghost Dog are loners, Ghost Dog has one friend, a Haitian ice cream truck driver who speaks no English. Ghost Dog speaks no French, and yet both men share a wordless fellowship, a silent understanding that comes from their both being black men in the United States, a bond that transcends language.

After Ghost Dog makes a second friend, a nine year old black girl who loves to read, he gives her Louise Vargo’s copy of Rashamon. Read it and tell me what you think, he says, first to the little girl and then, just before he dies, to Louie. Clearly Jarmusch considers Rashamon key to understanding Ghost Dog.

While the story, which Jarmusch is quite obviously telling us to read, is not identical to the film, and while a reading would probably deepen Ghost Dog even more, I keep coming back to Kurosawa’s famous meditation on the unreliable narrator. How does individual perception affect our understanding of an experience recollected? The 1990s, after all, gave us the OJ Trial, the split screen that showed blacks celebrating and whites disconsolate after OJ was declared “not guilty.” I watched Ghost Dog from the point of view of a white man, a fan of Jean-Pierre Melville, and the larger oeuvre of Jim Jarmusch himself. How would a black movie goer see the same film?

Jim Jarmusch is not a mainstream Hollywood director. On the contrary, he started off as a working musician, immersed in the world of Jazz and alternative music, an environment far and away more multicultural and multiracial than lily white Hollywood. From the Screaming Jay Hawkins song that almost becomes a leading character in Stranger than Paradise to Screaming Jay Hawkins himself in Mystery Train to Tilda Swinton’s eerie resemblance to David Bowie’s Thin White Duke in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch has always been obsessed with race, and the ability, or lack of ability of blacks and whites to understand one another. Anybody, black or white, knows why Jeff Costello dies in Le Samouraï. But why does Ghost Dog let Louie kill him? Am I, like Dead Man’s Nobody, who makes a brief cameo in Ghost Dog, says: “a stupid white man?” Would it make more sense to a black film goer than to me? Or does Ghost Dog take the mystery to his grave? Or does it really matter? Perhaps I’m trying to impose Jean-Pierre Melville’s literary sensibility onto Jim Jarmusch’s visual and aural sensibility. Why even try to make sense of a movie that, like a painting, invites contemplation more than it does explanation?

Indeed, how Jim Jarmusch managed to transform the industrial neighborhood around Journal Square into something as beautiful as the Tangiers of Only Lovers Left Alive remains another mystery.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

One of the best films of the 1990s was Dead Man. With its gorgeous score by Neil Young, and spooky performance by Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch’s black and white masterpiece went back to the site of the original sin, the genocide of the native Americans. Only Lovers Left Alive, which stars Tom Hiddleston as a brooding musician, shows us the inevitable result.

Whatever you call it, Dead Couple, Dead City, or Dead America, Only Lovers Left Alive takes place in a graveyard. The lovers, Swinton and Hiddleston, are not in fact, technically alive. They’re a pair of highbrow vampires who live in the hollowed out, abandoned city of Detroit, a beautifully filmed necropolis that symbolizes the rotting corpse of the United States of America. Adam and Eve — yes, that’s what Jarmusch names them — are alive only in the sense that they embody the remnants of civilization in a country full of zombies, which is what Adam calls humans. Adam and Eve don’t feed on humans. They bribe a corrupt doctor at a local blood bank, but they’re not exactly what you would call “good vampires” either. They’re effete snobs, worried that the supply of blood is being tainted by processed foods and environmental devastation.

The film opens in a luminous, ethereal Tangiers, where Eve has “lived” during a long separation from Adam. Her companion, a man named Christopher Marlowe, John Hurt, sells her bottles of fine blood, and speaks with the kind of poetic wit you might expect from another famous, Elizabethan playwright. Jarmusch is a Shakespeare Truther. Back in Detroit, Adam lives in a dilapidated old mansion, the J.P. Donaldson House in Thrush Park, and a drives vintage a sports car powered by technology invented by Nikola Tesla. He has an unlimited supply of money, a recording studio, and a loyal employee named Ian, a human who helps him collect vintage guitars. One day he asks Ian to buy him a 38 caliber bullet made from the densest wood he can find. After Ian acquires the bullet, and Adam puts it in a revolver, which he points at his heart, we realize that he’s contemplating suicide. So, apparently, does Eva, who jumps on a plane, and goes back to Detroit to join her centuries old lover.

Only Lovers Left Alive suffers in comparison to Dead Man mainly by the virtue of its not having an original score by Neil Young. Adam is a brilliant composer who, 200 years before, ghost wrote adagios for Franz Schubert but we really have to take the film’s word for it. The soundtrack is competent but uninspired. But it really doesn’t matter. Only Lovers Left Alive is a visual, not an aural movie. We suspend our disbelief because Adam looks like a young Trent Reznor and has a cool British accent, and because he consorts with Eve, Tilda Swinton doing her best impression of a female version of David Bowie’s Thin White Duke. They both look like members of a superior race of beings who dropped out of the sky, certainly more believable as a pair of angels than Damiel and Cassiel from Wings of Desire. Adam’s recording studio, full of reel-to-reel tape recorders, ancient Marantz tuners, and the above mentioned vintage guitars has all the archaic chic that a great filmmaker can bring. When Adam and Eve go for a drive in Adam’s Tesla powered car, we can only marvel at Jarmusch’s visualization of Detroit. If you like action scenes or genuinely witty dialog, you’ll probably come away from Lovers Left Alive feeling somewhat underwhelmed, but if you can appreciate good cinematography you’ll probably watch it through twice, or even three times. If you’re a fan of Detroit “ruin porn” you’ll probably wish you could blow up each individual frame, print it out, and hang it in an art gallery. The night photography of Only Lovers Left Alive might just surpass the famous black and white cinematography from Dead Man.

Midway through the film, Ava, Eve’s little sister blows in from Los Angeles. Eva, a sociopathic little imp played by Mia Wasikowska as a sort of Buffy the Vampire, vampire, not vampire slayer, is centuries old, but she looks, and acts, more like 19 or 20. Unlike Adam, who looks to be about 35, and Eve, who’s about 50, Ava doesn’t carry herself with a heavy, brooding aura that come from contemplating the wisdom of the ages. She wants to taste her sister’s supply of high-quality blood, not like an aesthete wants her fine wine, but like a heroin addict needs her fix. She’s not a beautiful angel fallen from the heavens like Adam and Eve but a real vampire with a lustful, obsessive desire that hides behind the persona of a flirtatious party girl. Poor Ian, Adam’s lackey, never sees it coming. He has no idea his employer’s a vampire, or that the pretty young woman in the dark sunglasses, and the bright, floral dress is so dangerous.

After Ava murders Ian for his blood, Adam and Eve realize they have to leave Detroit, lest the cops start snooping around the old mansion. They dissolve Ian’s body in a vat of hydrochloric acid — a surprisingly powerful scene that makes us feel the impact of the poor young man’s death — and jump on a plane to go back to Tangiers. But things have changed. Christopher Marlowe is dying. Tangiers is just as beautiful, but Adam and Eve are no longer just cultivated visitors. Ava’s careless, cruel murder of Ian has brought out the vampire in them after all. Hiddleston and Swinton are now white, malevolent, Aryan invaders in a brown, Muslim city, a toxic presence who have sprung from the rotting corpse of the American empire, and are now ready to feast on an innocent people abroad. The final scene, where they come upon a beautiful young man and woman, a pair of tawny, dark eyed, Middle-Eastern lovers may not be quite as shocking as anything in a film like Interview With The Vampire, but it’s a promise of horrors to come.

Western civilization, having destroyed its own ecosystem, has become the flesh eating virus of Anglo-American imperialism.