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.

 

Slacker

Dir: Richard Linklater (1991)

SlackerI’m still not sure I want to watch this film, even as I slide the box out of its yellowing sleeve. Even as I press play on the DVD remote I’m not sure it has anything to say to me any more. And as the trailers play out (remember trailers?) I’m recalling the last time I tried to watch it and got no further than about 20 minutes into the movie.

Why this film? Why now? As various online articles attest: We get older, Slacker stays the same age.

I saw the film probably in 1992 or 93, a year or so after its US release, at the suggestion of a friend. I don’t think either of us really appreciated the kind of film it would turn out to be. I don’t think we properly knew what a “slacker” was, at least not in the director’s coining of the word, but something about it spoke to us. Generation X was out and had started to catch on as an idea in a tabloidy kind of way, McJobs and all that.

But we didn’t really have slackers in the UK – we had the Protestant work ethic. We had loafers, layabouts and scroungers, the feckless and the workshy, dole-ites, people asking you when you were going to pull your socks up, get your finger out, get a job, get a real job.

I was definitely a slacker. Signing on during the extended summer holidays from uni. Staying up late, waking up whenever. Playing in bands. Playing chess. Wandering the streets of a New Town in decline, secondhand Pentax K-1000 round my neck. Making animated cine films in my attic bedroom. Painting in the greenhouse. Reading the Beatniks. And travelling. Always looking for my next ticket out of a town I was completely at odds with.

We might have had The Jesus and Mary Chain, we might have had Roddy Frame, but if East Kilbride had once been the Town of Tomorrow, it was never going to be Austin. It’s just not big enough, or warm enough. You don’t really get flâneurs in cold, wet climates. We had Rockschool, the Key Youth Centre, the Village Theatre, John Menzies, the entertainment section of the EK News, and the bus into Glasgow.

What were my concerns back then? What were my ambitions? I had a curious mind, but an undisciplined intellect. I was doing a version of what I’ve continued to do my whole life, trying to find my place in the world by wandering about and sort of bumping into it.

A line in the film jumps out:

The First Hurdle of the True Warrior:
To those humans in whom I have faith,
I wish suffering, being forsaken, sickness, maltreatment, humiliation.
I wish that they shjould not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust and the misery of the vanquished.
I have no pity for them.
Because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not: that one endures.

The Slacker generation is my generation. I was too young for punk. Punk sent its energy outwards, a seismic shockwave that took years for its ripples to reach the suburbs. It was performative, social, communal. Slacker/ Generation X was an equivalent force for introverts, nerds and misfits filled with self-contempt and self-mistrust.

There’s a community-of-sorts being defined in this film. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the film’s structure, but it feels like the people who form this community are more like individual links in a chain rather than a mass gathering of like-minded souls. A collaboration of coordinated individualism, perhaps. Relationships are almost always, one-to-one, personal, intense.

Watching the film requires a bit of work, it’s not a film you can tune out of easily. There’s no protagonist, no plot, no “stakes”, no denouement. Nothing really happens. It’s like a giant mix tape of eavesdropped campus stoner chat. I take notes. I list the scene transitions, give the characters nicknames. I list the subjects of conversation. I’m not sure I get any closer to the truth of the film than if I’d just sat back and let it happen, but I’m more engaged with it. I breeze past the 20 minute mark.

There’s a lot of conspiracy stuff – Warren Commission, JFK, FBI, moon landings. Pop culture stuff – Smurfs, Scooby Do, Wizard of Oz, Madonna, Elvis. Politically it veers from anarchy into a kind of freelance conservatism. There’s stuff about dreams/ reality, freedom/ slavery, destruction/ creativity, ways of seeing/ ways of being. A lot of ripped jeans and terrible shorts. Meaningful t-shirts. Beers n smokes. Sex n (traffic) violence. Philosophy n prophecy. And walking. A lot of walking.

Where do the film’s philosophical insights take us? I watched Slacker, and later its follow-up-of-sorts Waking Life, hoping some of that sagacity would rub off, that I would incorporate at least some of it into my everyday life, that it would lead me out of my own self-contempt and self-mistrust towards something like an enlightened self-sufficency which would allow me to create great art, or at least create something.

In 25 years, nothing has changed. Still with the self-contempt, still with the self-mistrust. No closer to enlightened self-sufficiency. Still ambling, still looking to bump into my reason for being.

I watch Slacker now as a 44 year old and I want to say to half of the characters, “Quit wasting your time with that shit, man. Read some real books. Get some real skills.” I catch myself shaking my head, thinking, “You’ll learn, kid”. I’ve become the one saying “When are you going to get a real job?”

To the others, I want to say, “I totally get where you’re coming from!” I want to join in their conversations. I realise I’m engaging with these characters as if they’re real. I simultaneously wish I was one of them, while accepting the world they inhabit isn’t just gone – it’s ancient history.

These characters gave rise to the hipster – essentially, a slacker with an iPhone and a job in the digital economy. The Austin they inhabited in 1991 is now a hipster boom town, the Austin of SXSW, the live music capital of the world, unofficial headquarters of corporate creativity that now, ironically, campaigns to hang on to what remains of the place that Linklater’s heightened sense of the local helped to define, that made it attractive to the kinds of homogenising forces that are now levelling out the kinks.

Globalisation in 1991 really only meant Coca Cola. Now it’s the very air we breathe. Every conspiracy is available online to indulge – no need to go ferreting in bookstores. No need to visit the scrapyard to fillet junked cars for parts – just hand your car back to the leasing company and get another. The guy who disappeared leaving a pile of cryptic postcard-length messages – all the mystery lost in a series of tweets.

The film ends with a convertible full of kids with Super8 cameras, riding around in the dawn, making movies. The last scene shows one of the group tossing a camera off a cliff, the resulting whorls and swooshes, one imagines, are the retrieved (and processed and edited) film. Derek Malcolm found this scene “tiresome”. I find it exuberant and joyful and beautiful. It recalls every night staying up till sunrise in the company of fast friends and lifelong alliances. It wordlessly recalls every moment of unselfconscious creation, of earnest conversation, of endless possibility. It’s the blur and the tumult of youth, the “fuck it, why not”, the leap into the void.

We may grow old; Slacker may stay the same age. But like the best of all art, its message is timeless.

Three Colours: Blue

Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski (1993)
with Juliette Binoche

three_colors_blueIt begins with a woman taking back control of her life and ends with a song for the unification of Europe. Could there be a more fitting film to mourn our country’s departure from the European Union?

The Song for the Unification of Europe which ends the film, poignantly, is sung in Greek. Greece, the cradle of democracy. Also, the country that gave us Grexit, that begat Brexit. The disastrous handling by the European Union of the Greek debt crisis over the past few years nearly brought about the collapse of the shared currency, and created a wobble within the Eurozone, the reverberations from which saw the UK vote to leave the EU only this morning.

I remember seeing posters for the film – Juliette Binoche, that tall typeface – in cinemas in Tel Aviv when I travelled to Israel in 1994. I didn’t see the film itself till over a year later, late one evening on Channel 4. Then, in the summer of 1996 and living in Edinburgh, I went with my flatmate Eduardo to the Cameo cinema to see the full Three Colours trilogy, of which Blue is the first, that was being shown there over one day. We sat in that cinema close to 7 hours, with only short breaks in between to get a quick cig and a breath of fresh air. It was one of the best cinema-going experiences of my life. The beauty of the filmmaking, the tone, the interlinking narratives, the themes of love and loss and hope and desire and redemption and everything magical that Kieslowski puts into his films leached out into the fabric of my life. I felt as if I was living in Kieslowski’s world.

I had just spent the previous year in Poland, the year before that in Turkey and would be heading off in the autumn to spend a year in Spain. I would have a beautiful and intense Before Sunrise kind of romance with an Italian girl called Monica later that summer. I was surrounded by Germans, Austrians, Catalonians, Spaniards, French, Poles, Russians, in my day job as an English language teacher. Edinburgh was Europe. The summer was suffused by a cinematographic light, everything seemed interconnected, open. Everything seemed possible.

Three Polish artists – director Kieslowski, writer Piesiewicz and composer Priesner – along with a team of Polish and French collaborators, cinematographers, editors etc., conspired to create Three Colours in 1992 when the European project was still emergent – still a Community; not yet a Union. Poland wouldn’t become part of that united Europe for over a decade – they were still discovering democracy, their artists were starting to explore the freedoms available to them after the collapse of Communism three years before. Elsewhere, Soviet Russia and the whole eastern bloc was disintegrating, making the Cold War a thing of the past; Clinton and the Democrats were in the White House bringing fresh hope after years of right-wing Republicanism; and apart from a series of niggling tremors from Israel, Iran, far far away, the fallout from the Gulf War, peace seemed finally within our grasp.

To many of us, the European Union represented that peace. Working together across borders and languages. Finding shared languages, shared beliefs, shared dreams. Common ground as well as a common market. The European Union was about nations working together to transcended nationalisms, to build something that was bigger than us all. It seemed to usher in a new era of international openness, the dissolution of borders, the expansion of freedoms.

Fairly early in the European project, the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was adopted as a European international anthem, with its celebration of the ideals of freedom, peace, and solidarity. As unification grew ever more likely, the words of the French motto – “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” – seemed to resonate across the continent, so it seems entirely apt that Kielsowski should choose these as the themes for his cinematic trilogy. And for him to choose as a unifiying plot device the creation of a piece of music that unites a continent – and for his composer Zbigniew Priesner to rise to the challenge and succeed – is truly majestic, one of the greatest achievements of this film.

The film’s take on liberty is a curious one. Isolation is liberation, it seems to say. One cannot find liberty in love; one cannot love without losing one’s liberty. Interestingly, like Brexit, Three Colours: Blue is built on a paradox: that finding one’s freedom and taking control of one’s life means isolating oneself, severing all connections to the past, to those nearest you. Happily, however, Julie comes to realise that in order to love again, she must unite with the world, the people around her. She embraces love and extends her care to those around her, making her world and theirs, better.

For Kieslowski, for Priesner, and for his screenwriter Piesiewicz, hope resides in art, specifically in music. Music penetrates the main character Julie’s inner life at every opportunity. It steals up on her in her quietest moments, invades her dreams, crops up unexpectedly on the telly, and every time when she thinks she has buried her memories. In the melodies he improvises outside the cafe on Rue Mouffetard, the music of the flautist offers Julie a way of connecting her past musical associations with future ones.

I want to believe in art.

I want to believe that music will bring us together in joy. I want to believe that the glorious harmonies and polyphony of voices that resound in the chorus of the song that ends this film represent in some way the best of our species, the highest aspirations our culture – our shared musical and political culture – is capable of. I want to believe that the ideals of a united Europe are somehow not lost in the cacophony of hatred and isolationist nationalism that seems to be rearing its ugly, violent head across the continent once more and frighteningly ever closer to home.

I want to believe that. But as I watched this film back again, I watched through tears. There were tears, certainly, for the plight of the character of Julie who lost her daughter. The unimaginable horror of that, of having to live with that pain forever. Then following her story, her learning to trust love again, finding purpose in living again, making a piece of music to unite people across a continent in song. It is beautiful, and it is moving. This is what Europe can be for the millions across the world, fucked by our oil wars, whose dead children wash up on beaches across the Mediterranean – a place to find purpose in living again. Imagine what they might be capable of if we let them, imagine the beauties and wonders they might create out of the hell of this world.

I cried for my generation who have been betrayed by the politicians we trusted to look after our dreams. I cried for the death of that dream.

I cried for my own daughter, who will remember nothing of the best aspirations for the European project, who will know nothing of this bleak episode in our history. She will live through its consequences, though, and she and her generation will face challenges in her lifetime that will exist as a result of this moment.

I cried because where there was liberty, we chose restriction, closed borders, isolationism. We chose to highlight our differences with the world around us instead of the similarities. Where there was equality, we chose inequality, injustice, we chose to deny our history and geography. We chose fuck-you, me-first. Where there was fraternity, we turned our backs on our friends and neighbours and those who most need our help. We walked off alone into a cold, friendless darkness.

I cried because where there existed dreams and hope and love and unity, we chose hate. And I don’t know that art is good enough or powerful enough to stand up to all of that.