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.

 

Spirit of Eden

Talk Talk (1988)

imageI listened to this album a lot throughout the summer of 1990My cassette version had been copied, back-to-back with The Colour of Spring, from a couple of LPs belonging to the singer of a band I was in, who cited them as an influence. Love at first listen, I don’t think it had anything like the effect on him as it did on me.

I took the cassette with me on a month-long adventure, criss-crossing the continent on an InterRail pass. Sleeping in trains, in stations, in parks, the odd youth hostel. Getting on overnight trains to anywhere. I spent most of my time in Germany, or West Germany as it was still called. The GDR. I had several friends from my exchange year dotted about the country – in the north near Dusseldorf, another near Munich, another near Stuttgart – all of whom I planned to visit. My main objective was to see The Wall in Berlin – still, unbelievably, not part of the West; you had to get on a bus in Hanover to take you there.

aachen

As much as I loved The Wall, and as momentous as that concert was, it long ago disappeared from my shelves. My memories of that summer are bound up with Talk Talk. I tended to listen to it late at night, very early in the morning. Whenever I hear Spirit of Eden I’m instantly transported to dawn sidings in Aachen. Grinding points. Reverse shunting. Midnight layovers. Coaches coupled and uncoupled. Sweaty compartments full of boozy Yugoslavians. Passport control. Your papers, please.

I was still listening to it a lot towards the end of the summer when a schoolpal, P-, suggested we do mushrooms. They were coming into season, his folks were away. He collected hundreds of them (in an old crisp bag) from the moist grass of a nearby park, and infused them in hot water and a sachet of mushroom flavoured Cup-a-Soup in his parents’ kitchen. There were three of us: myself, P- and his girlfriend at the time, L-. A fourth invitee, another schoolpal, had declined at the last minute.

It was quite late by the time I got there – a Friday night, probably around ten. I’d been rehearsing with my wind band in Glasgow. I had my bass clarinet, my lapelless suit jacket, and my walkman. Dressed to the 90s.

We drank the (somewhat less than magical tasting) soup and decided to go out for a wander. We walked to the swingpark along the road where things started to get interesting. Each of us retreated into our own worlds. Snowflakes – massive fucking snowflakes, of all colours – started appearing in the cloudless sky. Red berries popped out glowing from the trees. The grass had become a silent, stirring sea. If it hadn’t been so wondrous, so beautiful, it would have been terrifying.

We went back to the house, conscious we were drawing attention to ourselves. It was weird being indoors again, a little bit too real. P-‘s trip started to go bad. He was turning in on himself and L- started trying to bring him round. I was confused about what was happening. It seemed to come on suddenly, but it also appeared to be a pattern, something they had been through together before.

I felt clumsy and helpless, out of my depth. I knew about “bad trips”, had been reading psychedelic literature, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey et al. But I had no idea what demons P- was battling with, what the psychoactive ingredients in the mushrooms had unleashed that night, and which he continued to battle with for the rest of his life. There was something dark at work here. There was also something between him and L-, something intense and difficult that I had nothing useful to offer. I left and hoped they’d be ok.

That night was distinctly in two halves. First half with them, drinking mushroom soup and wandering the parklands, ending on the stairs in P-‘s house with L- soothing him, feeding him orange juice to bring him down. The second half was my journey home across town towards the dawn, bass clarinet in hand. Spirit of Eden on my walkman.

If the whole night was like being let in on a great secret, Spirit of Eden was the perfect accompaniment. It too has secrets to reveal, hidden dimensions, an underlying magical order. I walked home filled with wonder and amazement. I sat on a swing and played my clarinet for the longest time, in thrall to the sound. The sleeping world around me was properly alive in a very real way, faces in the undergrowth, patterns in the sky, beauty in stillness. It moved me profoundly and would change me forever.

I felt no need to repeat the hallucinogenic experience – once you know, you just know – but I have returned to Spirit of Eden often. Hearing it back again for the first time in several years, that very first note sounds like a nod to Miles Davis – a muted trumpet, his signature sound. But what else is going on? Those strings, that organ – could be something from Arvo Part, John Tavener – a kind of spiritual minimalism. There’s something of Erik Satie in the piano work. Something John Cage-y about the whole thing, especially where traditional instruments cede to silence, to the sounds behind the silence, the stillness between movements – metallic grinding, mechanical murmuring, stirrings in the dawn, dew dropping. Is that a railway axle turning? Are those creatures in the undergrowth?

P- took his own life last year. We didn’t really see each other much after that night. I went to the funeral, met other old schoolpals. We didn’t talk about P-, much: “He had his troubles”. Otherwise, we chatted kids, careers, catch-up stuff mostly forgotten by the time we all got back to our cars.

I frequently cross paths with L-. I played in her band for a time, even went to her wedding party. But I see her and feel the same awkwardness I had as a 19 year old in EK. Maybe she does too. But we have something unsaid between us, something unsayable, that exists because of EK, because of P-, because of that night.

Something I’ve only asked myself since starting to write this – and it’s been hard writing this. What is the spirit of Eden? The music is its own answer to that, I guess. But we all have our notions of what Eden might be like, where we might find it, and what we might find there.

I remember P- with great affection, as someone who allowed me to find the spirit of Eden right there in front of my eyes, under my feet, and between my ears.

Heaven bless you in your calm, my gentle friend.
Heaven bless you.

Brel

BrelI have loved Jacques Brel deeper and longer than I have loved any singer, with the possible exception of Tom Waits – whose lyrics I can understand but still perversely choose not to really pay all that much attention to. I did try to get into Brel’s words – a book of his lyrics sits on my shelf, pretty much untouched from when it came home with me from a trip to the Gibert Jeune bookshop in Place St Michel – but it’s always been about the music for me, his emotional content (as Bruce Lee might have put it). And I didn’t just listen to Brel’s music, but to every nuance in his voice, to every breath, to every rolled or growled or clipped or popped consonant, to every hushed or barked vowel, to the lively universe of characters that he invented for you and the drama he invested them with.

More than any other singer, he made me want to sing. He made me want to find and give voice to the well of otherwise inaccessible, inexpressible emotions – the kind that language always disappoints. In Brel, they found their way into the world with an immediacy and a clarity that was utterly astonishing, frequently breathtaking, rarely less than moving. It still thrills me to hear the intensity of feeling in that voice carried by the beauty of the melodies he invents. I still want to sing. And to sing like that.

The closest I got to manifesting my love for the man and his music was, well, I made a bust of him – a canny unlikeness – for my proposed pantheon of personal gods that never really evolved beyond a trinity. He sits on my shelf, coarse hewn and tragically earnest but permanently on song, like a Hogmanay drunk.

Amsterdam: I listened to Jacques Brel for the first time in my flatmate’s bedroom in Spain some time in 1996. V- thought I’d quite like him. And she was right; I loved his voice instantly. I’d never heard anything like it. Which is because there is no-one like Jacques Brel. V- had French; I hadn’t a clue what he was singing. Then, I’ve never been big on words in songs. Never been big on songs. But whatever that man was feeling when he put that track on record, I was feeling every single shred of. V- translated but it didn’t really go in. Something about drunks and whores and accordeons.

Au Suivant: Once you’ve heard The Sensational Alex Harvey Band doing this, you kind of want to hear Brel bite a bit harder. Which isn’t to diminish Brel’s version, rather to underscore the sensational ferocity of Alex Harvey’s.

La Chanson de Jacky: Singing the English version unaccompanied at a New Year party to a room full of mortified strangers, relatives of my brother’s then-girlfriend, who had demanded that everyone sing a party piece. I listened to myself, in a kind of disembodied horror, as my already quite shaky grasp of the melody modulated into a lost continent of uncharted harmonics and unattainable registers. The host, an insufferably smug woman with a nasty streak, smirked uncontrollably throughout.

Not sure which is worse: that memory, or the recollection of the first time I heard the song  – before I’d even heard of Brel – in an abominable, unforgivably flaccid, version by Marc Almond. If you need to hear it in English, Scott Walker sings it like he at least means the camp insincerity.

Many years later, trying to shoehorn karaoke versions of Jacky and Jacky Wilson Says into a failed play about Jocky Wilson playing darts with himself in a nightclub in hell.

Les Coeurs Tendres: In maybe 1999/ 2000, I was in a band of sorts with my brother that existed for maybe four or five rehearsals and possibly only two performances. We played Jacques Brel songs and Serge Gainsbourg songs and a song by Charles Trenet.

And the band was definitely born in Oblomov on Great Western Road, on a snowy winter’s night early in the new year. Graham and I were out with his flatmate A- and his pal, who were both busy gigging jazz musicians and fancied a bit of the exotic. Graham was just about to graduate in French and could also sing. I could play accordeon (a bit). We called ourselves Jacquesattaques – or Jacques Attack, I don’t think we ever wrote the name down.

We played our first gig at a graduation party for Graham’s French class at a pub in town for which he earned much respect from his – mostly female – classmates. This was one of the songs. The slow and loping rhythm insinuates itself into your ear. It’s coarse rather than tender, I think, and fails to take on much of a shape. I prefer Mary Coughlan’s version to Brel’s, unusually, though I fancy we treated the song with equal tendresse.

Tenderness of a brotherly kind was missing from our second and final gig at the old Uisge Beatha in Woodlands. We had a set-to about something that felt very important to Graham at the time, and a punch was thrown. But time heals these lesions and we all learn our lessons. A- still calls us the Gallagher Brothers.

Mathilde: Playing the Scott Walker version full volume in the car and singing “Matilda’s coming back to me!” at the top of my voice, full of excitement and longing heading to the airport to pick up my (long-distance) girlfriend (not called Mathilde) trying to drive away the bitterness and sadness of the realisation that the end of our relationship was inevitable and drawing closer, as she drew closer, temporarily tethering our diverging paths.

Ne Me Quitte Pas: Brel recorded two studio versions I know of, one with a weird annoying musical saw intro, and one that sounds like they raised Ravel or Debussy from the dead to record the piano accompaniment. Both will shatter your stone hard heart into innumerable pieces and cast them into the coldest corners of your life where they will bleed for Eternity.

Vesoul: Judith’s party. Playing DJ with the less popular CDs in the collection at an age when these things really mattered (to me). My stint on the decks resulted in a snack fight, throwing cheez puffz around the room, mostly at a girl who wanted to get off with me. Ended up getting off with her better looking pal. The song has that kind of frantic madness about it. And accordeons.

Voir un Ami Pleurer: For every friendship squandered, for every love lost, for near souls once so dear to us but never again to be encountered. “Of course our hearts lose their wings.”