Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

Dir: Jim Jarmusch
With Forest Whitaker,
Isaach de Bankolé, Henry Silva
(1999)

ghost-dogOf all the millennial-themed movies around at the end of the last century, and for a few years before, this is one that has kept its flavour freshest.

There was a a rising sense of dread at large in 1999: existential dread, technological dread, theological dread, things moving towards their end. So we got doomy, dready zeitgeist-defining offerings like The Matrix, Fight Club, Summer of Sam, films called things like End of Days. And, the doomiest, dreadiest of them all, The Blair Witch Project.

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“It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream.
It is said that the world we live in is not a bit different from this.”

It’s not a watertight theory. Ghost Dog came out the same week as the first of the new Star Wars prequels

But Ghost Dog felt, still does, fresher and cooler and had more interesting things to say than many of the other offerings that year. Watching again, 17 years after it was released, it still has plenty to say about themes that have come to define this age too: urban decay and alienation, multiculturalism, the demise of the old order, the terminal decline of the New World and its eclipse by the Far East.

And as much as it’s a twist on the lone hitman movie – a philosophical Dirty Harry, a zen Leon – it’s also a film about the enduring relevance and validity of the old codes of honour, respect and valour and what happens when they disappear.

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It is said that what is called “the spirit of an age” is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world’s coming to an end.
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.

I love Ghost Dog for many reasons. I love its humour, its stealth, its grace. I love its clever use of text, its bookishness. I love its cast of mad gangsters gone to the wall, gone to seed. I love that it’s set in a North American version of Glasgow. I love the music.

Above all, I love Forest Whitaker’s performance. He brings something simultaneously fragile and threatening to the title role. His beautiful, serene face and lazy left eye suggest tranquility, passivity, possibly even weakness, but also deep intelligence, compassion, humility. His size and agility suggest strength, danger: you completely believe in him as a assassin who cuddles pigeons. In other hands, the pigeon thing could have been an affectation; the hitman thing laughable. If there had been anyone else in Jim Jarmusch’s mind to play the part, I’d be astonished. He is Ghost Dog.

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There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road.
But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking.
This understanding extends to all things.

Leaving aside the whole hitman scenario, if we can, Ghost Dog is the story of a man who has overcome hardship to find peace within himself, who has made peace with his outsider status, who has found a way to live – at one with nature, and with his own nature – who by doing so has earned the respect of his community, his peers. In the face of a dog-eat-dog world that’s turned to bear-baiting, where values are eroding along with the infrastructure, where the system’s dying but the ancient ways are not yet dead – this is an achievement that’s nothing short of heroic.

It’s an achievement that’s managed to elude me, anyway. Like the best, art, Ghost Dog contains philosophies I still yearn to live up to. Like, I’ll never learn that lesson about rainstorms. Certainly not literally, living in a country where you’re only usually a couple of days from receiving your next soaking. Even figuratively, I’m still dodging along under the eaves, still getting wet.

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There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there is nothing left to do, and nothing else to pursue.

I tried to live by this code, once upon a time. Living in the moment, taking care of now…

Perhaps I needed to take better care of my moments. Perhaps I lacked the necessary understanding and insight. Perhaps texts like this exist for one only to aspire to, never achieve – which is surely the point of all codified systems of thought, from diets to religions: peddling false hope to the credulous.

I fall for it every time.

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

Could almost be a motto for this blog.

 

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Swagger

The Blue Aeroplanes
(1990)

swagger1. Jacket Hangs

Pick a card. Any card.
Wrong.

If you could condense The Blue Aeroplanes’ sound, make a thumbnail of it, as it were, you could boil it all down to the opener of this album. It’s all there. Jangly guitars. Fab riff. Deadpan delivery of clever lyrics. No wonder they called the album Swagger. The whole thing just shimmers  and shivers with it, brazenly, brilliantly.

I’m listening to the deluxe CD version reissued in 2005 . . .

2. World View Blue

. . . my original cassette copy is kicking about somewhere. I picked it up on a whim, back when I had whims I could act on, from Our Price in East Kilbride soon after its release. I don’t think I’d heard of them, or had even heard a note of their music when I parted with the cash. Though they do say inspiration is just unconscious reminiscence, so maybe I’d read about them and forgotten. Maybe I just liked the cover.

But that line, that opening riff, had me hooked from the off; the rest of it, the more I listened, made me a life long fan.

There’s something about the way the vocalist/ lyricist Gerard Langley delivers his lines

I love the way you shake yourself to continent and time.
I love it all, I really do.

I love it more than you.

like an actor, more than a singer. You still believe in him, even though you have no idea what he’s on about. He’s got the emotional range, the intensity, all shot through with something I’m struggling to call anything other than cool. Beat cool.

3. Weightless

Many lines stick in the memory

Like diagrams with consequence.
How much falls to anyone else?

but evade precise understanding. Which I love. It’s an album I come back to occasionally, so listening back to it this time doesn’t bring back any great surprises.

4. …And Stones

I’m trying to document my thoughts, memories and associations in real time as I listen back right now.

This track I also have as a 12″ extended dancefloor remix.

Hey you in that dress.
Yeah, we’ve all been long-ex.

I went to a place that played dance music maybe three times through the whole of the 90s.Dance music, night clubs, those things were for other people. But I loved the idea of my beloved Aeroplanes having a remix. All those guitar lines looping around, Gerard’s crazy words. In my eyes, it made them very of the moment, made me feel cool too.

Smaller than thought, but wayward in intention.

These days – does it feel dated? The 12″ remix certainly only gets to about 3″ before I have to take it off. And jangly guitars were very 80s. The lead guitarist, Angelo Bruschini is clearly a superstar, but he owes a debt to Johnny Marr, the Edge. But honestly,

4. Love Come Round

you really wouldn’t bat an eardrum if you heard this as album of the day on Radio 6 Music tomorrow. It’s as fresh as the day it was minted.

They say you hurt the ones you love, but I don’t think it’s true.
The ones you love are just prepared to be hurt by the things you do.

There’s a very strong association I have for a girl I went out with during the height of my infatuation with this album. I was briefly infatuated with her too, but we were hopelessly mismatched – she, a computer science student who self-described as “ambitious to a fault”; me, not. I had just come back from my epic European rail adventure and had found a momentary peace with myself which gave me the confidence to ask her out.

Love come round and let me know
That a love unbound won’t let me go

But it was a confidence that was short-lived.

5. Your Ages

I was drifting, aimless. I had opinions about music, none about a career. (Still don’t). She was coming back from uni with stories about this wonderful new thing called “email” that was going to change the world, about how she was going to buy a big flat in Hyndland, set up her own company, make a fortune. I was dodging lectures to browse music shops.

Autumn into Christmas was lovely, all mix tapes and heavy petting, but by new year the shine was coming off. I was terribly rude to her at a party, got drunk, smoked a joint, whiteyed, called her boring. I had it coming to me, but even still, it didn’t stop the inevitable dumping from stinging deeply. It was years until I found another girlfriend.

6. The Applicant

First, are you our sort of a person?
Do you wear a brace or a hook?

I’ve buried a lot of memories from my first stint at university. Not a happy time. Not a great education, either, but you make your own education in these places I guess. Or you’re supposed to. I felt beyond naive. A mummy’s boy. A stay-at-home. I escaped into music and free association word nonsense. Beat lit. I liked stuff with a lack of narrative. No big picture, no story. The Blue Aeroplanes were the soundtrack to all that. Just the relation of line to following line, of word to beat, hooky riffs and attitude.

7. What it is

I bought two pairs of tickets for each of the two gigs that the Aeroplanes played at King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut in 1991. I dreamed of asking a girl I fancied from my high school Spanish class who I still saw working in a shop in East Kilbride town centre. I never found the courage, of course, so I asked my brother along.

Let you arms rotate like helicopter blades.

Not strictly a line from that song, but I picture him every time I hear it, whirring about eyes shut in that sweaty room.

Little jump, skip the rest.

He’s a few years younger than me and at the time he was still at school, so there was a risk we’d be knocked back from the the gig, refused entry into the licensed venue. But nobody cared about those things in those days. We got in fine and had a ball. The

The morning was evening,
the train was a bus
It was dull, dull, dull.

band were anything but dull. The tine venue was crammed. The even tinier stage seemed to have about fifteen guitarists on it. Gerard was wearing shades.

8. Anti-pretty

Wojtek their dancer was throwing mad shapes all over the place, helicoptering for all he was worth.

I loved going to gigs with my brother. We saw Gong (actually, Gong Maison) at The Garage. I was wearing my “trademark” (ahem) trenchcoat, prompting some “chilly for Julember” patter from the bouncers. We saw Hue and Cry. We saw U2. We saw The Pixies – well, all four songs that they played before the show was cancelled because the crowd was mental and people got hurt. Test Dept at the church in Hyndland that became Cottiers. Others possibly.

9. Careful Boy

At King Tuts we swayed and swaggered and let our arms rotate. Or G did, at least. I was, and remain, way too inhibited & awkwardly self-aware to let myself go like that. We cheered when it was Rodney’s turn – a young Aeroplane, not much older than us, who was small with a big 90s fringe who played a Gibson semi-acoustic that looked massive on him. He had a gentle, folky voice. We liked him a lot.

You and I just sat down there
All we did was sit down there.

And writing now, I’m struck by just how folk-flavoured this album is. There are mandolins, 12-strings, rhythms and melodies that seem to borrow from an English pastoral tradition. It could easily sit alongside Fairground Attraction/ Fairport Convention.

10. Picture Framed

imageAfter I got the bug with Swagger, I acquired other Aeroplanes releases. The Loved EP, obviously, a transition to their follow up Beatsongs. That 12″ I mentioned. Bits and pieces of back catalogue & re-releases that I “sourced” from various rummages in Tower and Fopp’s vinyl bins. One of the LP covers inspired a recent gift to a pal and his new wife on the occasion of their (surprise) wedding. There’s a blue aeroplane-shaped cookie cutter cutting about my kitchen somewhere.

11. Cat-scan Hist’ry

After Beatsongs I lost interest. Perhaps they too lost their way. They never seemed like a major label act, though they carried the fame they earned from supporting REM’s Green world tour with grace and, well, swagger.

Since I decided I was going to do this, I’ve been listening back to their old vinyl. I enjoy their B-sides, their sketchy early work. I love Loved. I love their multitudinousness, their jangling, razorwalking, swaggering legions of guitarists. They are undoubtedly a force for good.

And rather perfectly, they are still going strong and coming to Glasgow in the new year, January 2017. Not to King Tut’s this time, but to Stereo. I’ve already bought two tickets but, as yet, have no-one to go with. Although, there’s a girl I know who keeps catching my eye. Maybe I’ll work up the courage to ask her out…