Dir: Jim Jarmusch
With Forest Whitaker, Isaach de Bankolé, Henry Silva
Of 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.