Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ghost Dog, The Way of the Samurai

What Happens?

The film opens on a pigeon flying towards a city,. We enter via his view. The pigeon joins many others on a rooftop, which has a large coop, with room attached. Inside the building, a small simple room, we see Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) reading from "Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai" We hear, in voice over, the passage he's reading

"The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's mind and body are at peace, one should meditate on being ripped apart by arrows, [we see on his desk a collection of weapons, guns, a knife, electronics] rifles, spears and swords, [lit candles and Japanese statues] being carried away by surging waves, thrown into the midst of a great fire, [a handful of books on a shelf] struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, [a lone photograph of a girl on his newspapered wall] falling from 1,000 foot cliffs, dying of disease, or committing seppuku at the death of one's master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai."

Ghost Dog steps out of the room, briefcase in hand, bows toward the skyline and enters the stairway for the building below, heading to the street. He walks a ways and finds his car, giving it a wary inspection before driving off through the city. Ghost Dog in voice over reads more from Hagakure,
"It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything else that is called a Way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own."
We then see Louie, (John Tormey) a gangster, leaning outside a Chinese restaurant while his boss, Sonny ( Cliff Gorman) pays cash to a Chinese restaurant owner (Dennis Liu) inside, promising he'll get him the rest the next day. We then see Ghost Dog parked outside a house with a walkie talkie which lets him hear inside the house. He hears a man, Uncle Joe, talking to Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow) reminding him that "Rule #1, you don't fuck around with the boss's daughter." further explaining that the girl in question has serious psychiatric problems. Joe warns him that he's going to "get whacked." but Handsome Frank insists that he isn't dead yet. Ghost Dog puts the walkie talkie away and grabs a pistol.

Sonny is having a meeting with his fellow mobsters, including Ray Vargo (Henry Silva) when Big Angie (Frank Minucci) interrupts, announcing that Louie has arrived. Sonny gets up to meet Louie outside. Sonny takes Louie for a walk and asks if everything's set up. Louie says it is and tells Sonny he's using his "special guy." Sonny asks about "the girl" and Louie says she was put on the bus. Louie explains that he's no comfortable with the situation as Frank is "a made guy." Sonny reassures him, saying "Forget about it. Handsome Frank fucked up. You can pay your respects at the funeral with the rest of us." We then find Handsome Frank in his room watching old cartoons on TV, while Louise Vargo (Tricia Vessey) reads a book. Frank notices Ghost Dog is standing in the doorway to the room with a gun pointed at him. Frank assumes he's being robbed and mentions his Rolex. Ghost Dog doesn't say anything, just shoots him in the chest and through through forehead which surprises Louise, who sees Frank fall, but can't see Ghost Dog from around the corner. He quickly comes around the corner and seems disappointed to see her there, but is then interested in the fact that Louise was reading "Rashomon" She tells him "It's a good book. Ancient Japan was a pretty strange place. You can have it when I'm finished with it." We then see another passage from Hagakure, narrated.
"If one were to say what the condition of being a samurai is, its basis lies first in seriously devoting one's body and soul to his master. Not to forget one's master is the most fundamental thing for a retainer."

We then find Louie in his apartment explaining to his friend Vinnie (Victor Argo) that he has a bad feeling. One of Ghost Dog's pigeons is in the apartment and Louie is writing a note to give the pigeon to carry back.  The note says "We have a big problem" The pigeon flies home where we see Ghost Dog sleeping in the open on the roof with the pigeons all around him. He recalls a scene of himself as younger, being attacked by a man with a gun, when Louie shows up and saves his life. He wakes and gets his message which ends "We have a big problem. contact me immediately. Urgent." We see that he is reading Louise's book. He goes back to sleep and we get another passage:
"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."
He opens the coop and smiles letting all of his pigeons out. He whistles to them and waves a colored flag. Louie and Vinnie are walking down the street when a kid throws toys at Louie from a window starting a yelling match. Johnny (Vince Viverito) and Angie come to get Louie, explaining that Ray is waiting and they're late. Louie questions Johnny about Louise not being on the bus like she should have been, although Johnny has no explanation other than that she was on the bus. Ghost Dog witnesses an attempting mugging in which the intended victim kicks his assailant in the face, sending him running. We see another passage:
-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."

Louie arrives for the meeting, and everyone exchanges sympathy for Frank. Louie is greeted sternly by Sonny, Ray, and an old consigliere (Gene Ruffini,) who tell him he's directly responsible for a big problem, and that "your mystery man fucked up." Louie explains that the girl should've been on the bus. Sonny says that she was, but got off the bus to see Frank. Louie says "Lucky he didn't do her too, right?" which prompts Ray to tell him "If he had, you would be fucking dead." Sonny explains that Frank's killer needs to be "neutralized." Louie protests, citing 12 "perfect" contracts which Ghost Dog had performed "like a ghost" Sonny demands that Louie tell them everything he knows unless he'd like to buried with him. Louie explains that he doesn't pay Ghost Dog per job, but once a year, on the first day of autumn.  He also tells them that he doesn't know where Ghost Dog lives, but that a bird comes to visit every day to relay messages. He recounts their first meeting (similar to Ghost Dog's recollection but with different attackers) and that four years later Ghost Dog had come to his door saying he "owed him." Louie lies, saying he hadn't sent Ghost Dog a message that morning.
Louie: Like I said, I realize the arrangement I made with this guy is pretty weird, but he's always shown me complete respect.
Sonny: Well, a whole new century's coming, and Mr. Vargo wants every member of the family to make it a priority to erase this weirdo.
Louie: This guy is a professional. Going after him could be very dangerous.
Sonny: Handsome Frank was one of us, so now we're gonna peel this nigger's cap back. Better him than you, right Louie? Now what the fuck is his name?
Louie: Ghost Dog.
Sonny: What?
Louie: Ghost Dog.
Ray: Ghost Dog?
Ray seems to have a hard time believing the name, but Louie and Sonny compare it to the "rappers." Sonny even quotes a rap song for illustration. Ray says "I don't know about that, but it makes me think about Indians. You know they got names like, uh, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Running Bear, Black Elk. [makes loud elk sound]
Sonny: That kinda shit
Old Consigliere: [yelling] Indians, niggers, same thing.
Sonny calls Johnny in the room and tells him to get a crew together.

Ghost Dog is on the roof meditating before practicing with his sword and fists. We then see a parked ice cream truck with a Haitian man, Raymond (Isaach De Bankole) calling out advertising over the loudspeaker. Ghost Dog sits on a bench nearby eating an ice cream cone, and listens to group of young black men practicing rap lyrics. A sad looking dog sits down in front of Ghost Dog and stares at him. He stares back non threateningly for a moment. A little girl, Pearline (Camille Winbush) sits on another bench and asks if it's his dog, remarking that the dog's really staring at him. Ghost Dog suggests the dog wants his ice cream but the girl doesn't think so. She reveals that she live in the same building and her mother says "you never talk to nobody, and you got no friends." and then asks if it's true. He says "I'm talking to you, right?" She then volunteers to show him the books she keeps in her lunchbox, which he is happy to look at. She shows him "The Wind in the Willows," "The Souls of Black Folk,"  "Night Nurse," and "Frankenstein" which they agree is much better than the movie. He reads her the ending of Frankenstein and gives her his copy of "Rashomon." as long as she promises to tell him what she thinks when she's done reading it. She asks if it's true that he has no friends and he tells her his best friend works at the ice cream truck. He introduces Pearline to Raymond, who we realize only speaks French.
Pearline: Do you understand French?
Ghost Dog: I never understand a word he says.
Pearline: And that's your best friend?
Ghost Dog: Yeah
Raymond compares Ghost Dog to a bear, reading them some French from a children's book about bears, although neither understands him. Ghost Dog moves a chess piece on the board Raymond has out. and tells Raymond: "I gotta go. I've got some business to take care of." Raymond responds in French: "I don't know what he said, but I guess he's gotta go. Must have some business to take care of."  Ghost Dog reminds Pearline to read Rashomon and tell him what she thinks. Ghost Dog leaves and Raymond tells Pearline that he's tried to learn English and Spanish but it was too hard. He asks if she plays chess, but she just stares at him not understanding a word.

Some older mobsters have found what they believe is Ghost Dog's building and get winded as they have to take the stairs to get to the roof. Rather than Ghost Dog they find a large Indian man on the roof. They discuss whether to shoot him, but remember that Ghost Dog is supposed to be a black man. "What the hell are you?" they ask him. He answers "Cayuga." One of the men suggests "Puerto Rican, Indian, Nigger, same thing. I think we should just waste him." The other argues that it isn't authorized. The hotheaded one shoots a pigeon, and the Indian says "Stupid fucking white man." prompting them to ask him to say it again, which he does. The calmer of the two warns him to watch his mouth before they back away and leave.  Ghost Dog, meanwhile is putting together a silencer for his pistol. He narrates another passage:
"According to what one of the elders said, taking an enemy on the battlefield is like a hawk taking a bird. Even though it enters into the midst of a thousand of them, it gives no attention to any bird other than the one it has first marked."
Johnny and another mobster check out another rooftop, finding an older black man with pigeons, they shoot him dead. Johnny says he doesn't think it's him, but they were instructed to shoot anyone who even looks like him. Ghost Dog is now on the street and he stares at Sonny who drives by. Louie has a cigarette in an alley, and discovers Ghost Dog's gun pointed at his head. Louie says "Fuck, I knew that was gonna be you."
Louie: You gonna kill me? You might as well kill me.
Ghost Dog: I'm your retainer. I follow a code. I've always given you my respect.
Louie: Is that why you've got that big fucking gun to my head?
Ghost Dog: I don't mean you no disrespect.
Louie; How the fuck did you find me here?
Ghost Dog: You called me in for a meeting.
Louie: Yeah
Ghost Dog: Everything seems to be changing all around us, huh Louie?
Louie: You can say that again. When you did that guy the other night, was there a girl there?
Ghost Dog: I wasn't instructed to whack no girl.
Louie: Yeah I know. It's just that things have gotten all complicated now. They're gonna whack you Ghost Dog. If they don't find you, they're gonna whack me instead. They're probably gonna whack me anyway.
Ghost Dog: Ray Vargo? And the underboss, Sonny Valerio? He's looking for me?
Louie: Of course, he's pulling all his...Hey, how the fuck do you know so much about our organization?
Ghost Dog: Where's the girl Louie?
Louie: Forget about her. I can't talk about that. I'm trying to warn you that they're gonna kill you and maybe me too.
Ghost Dog: Better me than you Louie.
Louie: Well, right now I'd have to agree with that.
Another mobster approaches them with his gun out, but Ghost Dog shoots him. Louie explains that the thug was Ray's brother in law, and asks Ghost Dog to shoot him now, since he won't be able to explain it. Ghost Dog tells him it's against his code as his retainer. Louie demands that he shoot him, so Ghost Dog shoots him in the shoulder so he can claim they were both attacked.
Ghost Dog visits Raymond for Ice cream and chess. They go for a walk together, Raymond explaining that he just went up to his roof for the first time (although in French) They watch Raymond's neighbor building a boat on a lower roof.
Raymond: What a beautiful thing. But how in the hell is he ever going to get it down from there? That's completely crazy. this guy's a genius!
Ghost Dog: It's amazing. But how the hell is the guy ever gonna get it down from there?
Ghost Dog steps away from the edge and Raymond says "I guess you got some business to take care of, because the sun's gonna be coming down." Ghost Dog answers "I gotta go. I've got some business to take care of. The sun's gonna be coming down.They bump fists and Ghost Dog leaves Raymond to watch the boat building. Ghost Dog gets to his rooftop and finds his pigeons all dead and his property trashed. He opens a secret panel in the floor and pulls out weapons including a sniper rifle. He narrates another passage:
"In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side."
He assembles the rifle and inspects his other guns, when one of his pigeons shows up alive. He tells the pigeon. :there is something you can do for me." He sends the pigeon off and heads to the street.
We see Ray watching Felix the Cat cartoons in a room with Sonny, Louie and many members of the family.  Sonny questions Louie's story, but Louie points out his sling and that he was shot. Ghost Dog's pigeon flies into the room and Sonny gets the message. It says "If the samurai's head were to be suddenly cut off, he should still be able to perform one more action with certainty." Sonny asks "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Ray answers. "It's poetry. The poetry of war." Ghost Dog narrates the complete passage from the message:
"If the samurai's head were to be suddenly cut off, he should still be able to perform one more action with certainty. If one becomes like a revengeful ghost and shows great determination, though his head is cut off, he should not die."

Ghost Dog goes to his car and cruises the streets, taking the clothes from a man and a prostitute. He narrates:
"It is good to carry some powdered rouge in one's sleeve. It may happen that when one is sobering up or waking from sleep, a samurai's complexion may be poor. At such a time it is good to take out and apply some rouge."
He puts on the man's clothes and trades license plates with another car at a parking lot/ rest area. He then positions himself in the woods outside Ray's house. We see Ray and Louise being driven home without speaking to each other. Ghost Dog watches them leave the car in his sight. He has a clear shot at Ray when a bird lands on his rifle blocking his view allowing Ray to get into the house. He returns to his car and enters the property by hacking into an access code at the entrance gate. He narrates:
"When one has made a decision to kill a person, even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead, it will not do to think about going at it in a long roundabout way. The Way of the Samurai is one of immediacy, and it is best to dash in headlong."
He pulls right up to the house and when questioned, claims he's a real estate agent and that Ray gave him the access code. When one of them goes into the house to check his story, he kills the men outside and enters the house, where he starts shooting the others. He finds Ray and the old consigliere together and the consigliere dies of a heart attack before he can shoot him. He has a laser sight on Ray, who stands up and says "I've been expecting you." and straightens his jacket. Ghost dog shoots him in the chest and Ray takes a moment, sits back in the chair and dies. He aims at Louise who remembers him, but doesn't shoot her. He shoots some other men and when he sees Louie, he shoots him in the same spot where he shot him before. He tells Louie he still needs to get Sonny and leaves.

On the road he finds two men in hunting gear with a bear they shot. He stops and tells them he didn't realize it was bear season. They ask him if he's a game warden or a fed, but he says no, he's "just asking. One of the hunters says "Well I'll tell you. There aren't too many of these big black fuckers left around here. So when you get a good clear shot at it, you sure as hell take it.
Ghost Dog: That's why you shoot em, cuz there's not that many left?
Hunter1: I don't think I understand your question.
Hunter2: [pulling out a rifle] You know, there ain't that many colored people around here neither. Maybe you oughtta get back in your fancy car and go about your business.
Ghost Dog acts as if he's listening but turns back around with his gun out, shooting Hunter #2 in the arm and #1 in the back of the knee. He tells the Hunter "You know, in ancient cultures, bears were considered equal with men.
Hunter #1: This ain't no ancient culture here mister.
Ghost Dog. Sometimes it is.[shoots]
He narrates:
"Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness. Existing where there is nothing is the meaning of the phrase "Form is emptiness." That all things are provided for by nothingness is the meaning of the phrase "Emptiness is form." One should not think that these are two separate things."

Louie is driving Vinnie (who was shot) and Louise (watching cartoons in the back) Vinnie remark that Ghost Dog is sending them out in the old way, "like fucking gangsters." He assures Vinnie that he'll make it, but they get pulled over by the police. Louie gets frantic with the cop, who is suspicious and unsympathetic.  She approaches Vinnie's side of the car and asks him about the situation. Vinnie shoots her and tells Louie to go. Driving off Louie says "Jesus Vin, you just iced a woman, you know that?
Vinnie: You know what you are Louie? A fucking male chauvinist pig.
Louie: What do you mean I'm a male chauvinist pig? You just shot a broad.
Vinnie: A cop. I just shot a cop. They want to be equal? I made her equal.
Vinnie, gasps and dies in the car.

Ghost Dog returns to his neighborhood to see Raymond. Raymond tells him that Pearline was looking for him and again Ghost Dog repeats what Raymond said. Ghost Dog gives Raymond the suit he stole and narrates:
"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 will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue.

Later that night, Ghost Dog walks down an alley and runs into the dog who stared at him earlier. The dog stares at him again. Ghost Dog looks for a moment then walks off. He notices a blonde woman run into a corner store leaving her car running. He gets in and takes off with the car before she gets out of the store. He drives around at night and narrates:
"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. By 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 will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to all things."

Ghost Dog finds Sonny's house and shoots a mobster in the living room, using tape on the window to shoot through. He then enters the house through the garage. We see Sonny in the bathroom dancing and trying to rap along to a song. Ghost dog removes the trap from the pipe that runs from the bathroom sink. When Sonny looks down into the sink, Ghost Dog shoots him in the forehead. He then narrates:
"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."

The next day, Ghost Dog walks the street again. He catches up with Raymond, and says "You look worried man." Raymond says "I'm worried man. Earlier there was a strange guy here. A strange white guy. I don't know if he was here to deport me or what? In any case I had a bad feeling. He had his arm in a sling. [imitates sling]
Ghost Dog tells him it's Ok. and tells him he needs to let in the truck. Ghost Dog opens his case in the truck, checks his pistol. He puts his Hagakure in his pocket and then leaves a big wad of cash in the case. He notices that Raymond has a pistol tucked down the back of his pants. He takes the pistol away and locks it in his case and gives Raymond a chain around his neck with the key on it. He says "I don't want you to worry about nothing. Everything happens for a reason. You know that guy that was here before, with his arm in a sling?"
Raymond: Yeah, the guy with his arm in a sling, what?
Ghost Dog: I know that guy. His names Louie. I'm his retainer. See, once, a long time ago, he helped me out and I owe him for that. See, a samurai must always stay loyal to his boss.No matter what happens. Anyway, me and him, we're from different ancient tribes. Now, we're both almost extinct. Sometimes you gotta stick with the ancient ways, the old school ways. I know you understand me.
Pearline shows up with the book and tells him she liked all six stories, "especially the first story, where it's like one story, but every person in it sees a completely different story. That was a good one.
He tells her that was his favorite too and thanks her for returning it. He gives her the Hagukure, and tells her to read it sometime. She asks "Is it good?" He tells her "I liked it a lot."

Louie calls him and Ghost Dog heads over to meet him. He asks "What is this Louie?"
Louie: I knew?
Ghost Dog: This is the final shootout scene.
Louie: I guess it is [pulling his gun]
Ghost Dog. It's very dramatic. It's very dramatic.You know I understand [walking towards Louie] you have to avenge the death of your boss. Right? [Raymond and Pearline watch from the truck] Well, ok then. [pushes his jacket back to show his gun]
Louie shoots him in the shoulder similar to what Ghost Dog did earlier. Ghost Dog approaches again, then pulls his gun. Louie shoots him in the other shoulder. Raymond starts yelling at Louie that it isn't fair because Ghost Dog's gun isn't loaded, Louie doesn't understand French, and warns him to stay back.Ghost Dog drops his gun and approaches again, pulling Rashomon out of his pocket. Louie shoots him in the chest. Ghost Dog says "Now you're going to be the boss of your own clan, right Louie? Cuz, there ain't nobody else left. Right Louie?
Louie: Not exactly, Ghost Dog.
He falls to the ground. Raymond starts to approach but Louie warns him to stay back. Louie stands over him and says "It's like you said, better you than me right? Nothing makes any sense anymore.
Ghost Dog: It's Ok Louie. I've seen everything I need to see. Do me one favor though?
Louie: What do you want me to do?
Ghost Dog: You take this book and read it sometime and then later on, you can tell me what you think.
Louie: Yeah, sure.
A pigeon comes down to the ground to see Ghost Dog and his eyes close. Louie runs off and Pearline picks up Ghost Dog's gun and fires although it isn't loaded. He seems to pause a second but keeps running for his car. He gets in the back and we see Louise waiting in the backseat. She recognizes her book. She tells Louie "It takes place in ancient Japan. You should read it. Louise then tells the driver he can go.

Raymond finally gets to Ghost Dog, along with Pearline. We see Pearline later, reading Hagakure on her kitchen floor. She narrates:
"In the Kamigata area they have a sort of tiered lunchbox they use for a single day when flower viewing, Upon returning, they throw them away, trampling them underfoot. The end is important in all things."

What About It?

Ghost Dog, The Way of the Samurai, is a film about the power of a code, and the rarity of those who follow one. This is well illustrated by Jarmusch's impeccable character work. While this is a hit man/gangster film it's characters are all original enough to make them powerful and distinctive. While many hit man/ gangster films have borrowed in different degrees from the Samurai mythos, never have those ideas so obviously isolated the central character. Ghost Dog feels unique, not only for his code, but the strictness with which he follows it, making himself very much a man out of time. Casting a black man surrounded by black culture, gives this a striking effect, as does having him associated with an Italian crime family, who profess to live by codes, yet do so very poorly. The codes of the mafia and the samurai have often been linked together in gangster films, but making Ghost Dog such an outsider lets us look at them in a different light. Here, the gangsters give their codes lip service compared to Ghost Dog's dedication. He is devout while they are simply creatures of habit.

The regular excerpts from Hagakure reinforce his devout nature. The actual passages give the air of authenticity, and the actual code which could be followed by anyone of a mind to. This is reinforced terriffically at the end by Pearline reading the book. This also speaks to the difficulty of extinguishing such strength of spirit and the tenacity of the individual against extinction. It's notable that Ghost Dog uses not only pigeons but passenger pigeons, which the consigliere exclaims are extinct. This also explains Ghost Dog's  kinship with them. He belongs to a tribe made up of many different tribes, bonded by being remnants of what was in the past. Thus Ghost Dog's exasperation with the hunter's who kill a bear "because there aren't many left." . The Italians blending of minorities is also very telling in that the blending has both good and bad applications. When the old consigliere says "Niggers, Indians, same thing,"  we see this. It's worth noting however that the consigliere is not of "this generation" but a holdout from the last, although his influence is present, just as the influence of the Samurai code is present.

This is adressed in the Hagakure "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." Essentially, Ghost Dog can use the code which is of the past, yet the world has changed and it doesn't fit naturally. The mobsters also encounter this, Louie especially, who notes it and towards the end says "Nothing makes any sense anymore."

Ghost Dog's identification with extinction is always present. His confrontation of the bear poachers shows this directly. He tells them that bears were given the same consideration as men "in ancient times." and fittingly gives the men the same fate as the bear. Raymond's comparison of Ghost Dog to the bear is very fitting, particularly his mention as the bear as being, not aggressive but dangerous when cornered or wounded. Ghost Dog himself is large and powerful like a bear, but generally passive, his samurai code putting his actions in the service of his master. Forest Whitaker is simply amazing in the way he exudes a meek and gentle nature while housing an extraordinary competence at great violence. Even his violence is typically an act of service.

The world has changed and some things no longer fit "the spirit of the age." THis is shown very well by the mafia group, who come across as inept, in some ways as anachronistic as Ghost Dog, yet lacking his dedication. Even so, they are a group, and as such are supported by each other. And despite their clownisheness still present some threat. Ray, the boss shows this very well and Henry Silva gives him almost an otherworldly quality, unconcerned with time or others perceptions. He seems at ease whether making an elk sound on the spur of the moment or calmly greeting the man who is going to kill him. Cliff Gorman's, Sonny on the other hand, seems as if he would acclimate, considering himself well versed in rap music, even imitating it when he's alone. However, he can only imitate (and poorly) the surface of the culture and the ill fit shows quite clearly.

Things have changed since the ancient times to which Ghost Dog devotes himself. He certainly knows this as he is of modern times. His devotion to the ancient code only began when Louie saved his life. In a sense, this is a rebirth and it likely makes it easier for him to accept the main samurai principle   "The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily." The bond between him and Louie is a very real debt. Louie gave him his life and he does not forget this. The fact that Louie is not worthy of such a retainer is irrelevant, only that for one moment in time, he did something that earned this great respect. John Tormey's Louie is terrific as well. He comes across as a man who is always in over his head. He does feel some loyalty to Ghost Dog but he doesn't have the same depth of conviction. He is also torn between Ghost Dog's unwavering respect and the fact that Ghost Dog destroyed his "family." The fact that this was done for his own benefit does not erase his loyalty,a s thatwas his own code and way of life. Still Ghost Dog must force his hand, knowing that honor demands it of Louie, even if Louie himself doesn't come to it easily. Ghost Dog is a loyal retainer and desires the good of his master, whether or not his master fully understands.

It's easy to assume that the film presents the past as a "better time" but not altogether true. It does hold up "that it's important to make the best out of every generation." And we see goodness in this world. Ghost Dog is greeted with respect by people in the street. He witnesses a mugging, but finds the victim can defend himself. This is an age like any other where people are good and bad and everything in between, a world where an Italian mobster can stop to save a black kid's life.  The other fact that is easy to overlook is that the Samurai code is simply a guideline, it is only given value by Ghost Dog's devotion to it, and Ghost Dog is not a product of ancient times, but born of modern ones. His character is what has value, not the code itself.

The friendship between Raymond and Ghost Dog, is the most beautiful element of the story in my opinion. Pearline's disbelief that two men who can't even speak the same language can be "best friends" is priceless. Their unknowing repetition of each others words in their own laguages, was in a way a comic element, but I also found it quite moving.  Issach De Bankole created a unique and fascinating character, who was endearing and engaging strictly by "how" he spoke and physically expressed himself. The audience having knowledge of his actual words added to this, and it was amusing to watch him speak, seemingly satisfied that he'd said what he meant to, despite the fact that he wasn't understood. The moment he and Ghost Dog shared watching Raymond's neighbor build a boat on a roof, explains their bond well. "Amazing, but how the hell is he going to get it down." Neither man was concerned with practicality, but willing as the code requires to believe "There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment." The moment at the end when Ghost Dog exclaims "I know you understand me." is profound. They do understand each other very well and that is the main requirement of their deep friendship.

Jarmusch's strength has always been finding the grace in seemingly ordinary moments, without elaborate polish. He does that very well here and each moment is filled with such depth of character besides that the film is utterly compelling. The cast is impeccable, with even bit characters adding texture to the film, and Forest Whitaker as the centerpiece, being a stroke of genius. The score by Rza, is another perfect piece to the whole, his Wu Tang clan association giving him the perfect sensibility for the seemingly unlikely pairing of an urban black samurai story. Jarmusch fills the movie with nods to the genre, such as many to Rashomon, and very clear links to Le Samorai, but only in the most affectionate way, informing rather than copying. He's created a tough and unsparing but finally hopeful story. His oulook is well illustrated by the "final shootout scene," with Ghost Dog informing Louie that that's what they're doing, also adding in terrific deadpan "very dramatic, very dramatic."

Ghost Dog is a fable of sorts, but unconcerned with the conventional happy ending.  There is a happy ending of sorts, Pearline reading a book which was only given to her by an extraordinary set of events, and in Rashomon fashion, you could well evaluate at the ending, whether this was Ghost Dog's story or Pearline's, because ultimately we're watching the past move forward, informing the present as it goes to find the "spirit of the age." The modern world keeps what fits and gradually sheds what doesn't making the world these characters inhabit a wonderful and terrible place.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Prophet

What About It?
(For a full summary of the film, scroll to "What Happens?")

A Prophet is an interesting film in that it's actually a good example of several different kinds of movies. It's a prison movie as much as it is a gangster movie and it certainly gives detail and attention to both sides. Prison life is shown as gritty and dangerous, survival dependent on more loyalties than you could manage. The division between the Muslims and the Corsicans is especially clear. But while it presents ethnic and racial struggles as a part of this existence, they are only a part of it. Survival in this prison is dependent on loyalty to a larger group, whether you feel you need it or not. Initially the control of the prison is obscenely in Cesar's hands, as he uses even guards with impunity. The balance of power changes a bit, and eventually the Corsican's numbers are thinned, thanks to a court decision, and some bad decisions. For Malik who initially doesn't want to make any choice at all, content to be on his own, his placement with fellow Arabs is the very thing which forces him to be tied to the Corsicans. His proximity to Rayeb, the thing which Cesar needs to use. His options are taken away, he can do commit murder for the Corsicans or be killed himself. Cesar at the beginning is too powerful for anyone to protect him from.

Audiard gives us a realistic prison environment. It's not pretty or glamorous, but it does have its own rules. And even Cesar, who essentially runs the place, must at times follow the appropriate channels, just like everyone else. Guards can be made to turn their heads, so as to miss a murder or a blow job, but they need to be dealt with. It's a very structured manipulation of the system, which allows Cesar's power to be eroded over the course of the film, by the court decision, his own bosses, and by Malik's actions. The prison and Cesar are both tied to convention. Cesar's rules require him to be contemptuous of Arabs, despite the fact that Malik is the most competent of his gang, he can't help but treat him and speak to him, as a servant. Cesar himself remarks on this, but only by asking Malik about his behavior. It's telling that Malik doesn't dignify the question with a straight answer, deflecting it with the contempt that it deserves. Malik points out that he performs tasks because he is asked, but makes Cesar admit that he doesn't really care about his feelings on the matter.

The performances here are all fantastic and completely believable. These are not stock characters, but people that live with any number of factors on their minds at any given moment. Niels Arestrup's Cesar is wonderful, an aged man, used to power, who by all appearances, can't face the fact that it's slipping. He is equally convincing as prison controller, or the man who lost his grip but can't face it. He's a man with many blind spots, most caused by his failure to acknowledge that he can't always be the center of the universe. Adel Bencherif is amazing as Ryad, his performance making a deep friendship believable, and reminding us that there is more to Malik than what Cesar wants. Tahar Rahim is perfect in an interesting role, where he is the star without calling for star recognition. His blankness is his characters main feature, although he fills it in as he goes.

The character of Malik is interesting in that he is not at all your typical gangster on the rise. We first meet him as someone with no direction at all. We're told that he beat up some cops but the aggression is not obvious in him. He is reactive, but has no skills. He can't work or read or write. In a very real sense, his life education only starts at his incarceration. He has little interest in learning anything at first, and it's his learning to murder that sets him on the path to reading and writing. His victim, Rayeb is the first to tell him he can make use of his time. Making use of time is a concept it seems he's never encountered before. Clearly, his interaction with Rayeb made a deep impression, and his visions of the man seem more than a symptom of guilt. Rayeb doesn't appear to give him a lecture, as much as to give him company. He seems to accept this easily, perhaps moreso after Rayeb is dead and the sexual element which repelled him is a non factor.

Quickly after Rayeb's murder, Malik decides to learn, and once his mind is engaged, he really enjoys learning. Not content to read and write in his own language, he learns Corsican on his own. This insatiable need for learning extend to his whole life, including his criminal activities. Once on that path, he is unable to sit by idly and must learn more about everything he encounters. He is also unable to say he works for anyone but himself although this would have made his life easier many times. He is a quick study, as we see on his first leave day. Cesar has arranged some business for him but he also manages to start his own business completely independent of Cesar in the course of one day out. But again, he is not the typical gangster, out to make a spectacle of himself or his power. He is more interested in using all of his tools to their best effect. When he makes a connection, he makes sure that he puts it use, as with Latif. What should have been a grudge is turned into a long term business assett. His limited experience at the beginning proves an assett to him once he starts moving forward. He isn't aware of what he can and can't do. When speaking with Lattrache, you would think that the last thing he should do is admit that he killed Lattrache's friend. But it's this admission which forces Lattrache to revaluate his own thinking towards Malik, changing an unpleasant negotiation on Cesar's behalf into his own deep and personal connection. Malik is content to keep his own counsel, although he's always open to being informed.This is not a usual gangster trait and makes it appear fairly easy for him to gain power.

Malik's true nature comes through in his relationships. His relationship with Cesar being the largest one. He owes Cesar a great deal, good and bad both. He doesn't deny that, yet he won't act in a way he doesn't feel either. He will make coffee when asked, but he won't say he "works for" Cesar or even that Cesar "protects" him, knowing that however valuable he is, Cesar will always see him as a "filthy Arab." Cesar will use Malik to keep an eye on his own men, but he'll never really treat him with respect. It's fitting that Malik cuts Cesar's power, not by an action, but by intentional inaction. He gladly kills Cesar's intended targets, except for Cesar's direct boss, the one who would take the attempt the most personally. Malik turns away from revenge, in the case of Cesar and in the case of Latif as well, another trait which a gangster doesn't usually have. He doesn't cut off his nose to spite his face. For Malik, relationships are his currency, whether with Jordi, Ryad, Cesar, or Lattrache. He build relationships and honors them, but only ever works for himself. He doesn't stop Cesar from undoing himself, but it isn't his hand that knocks Cesar down.

Malik's character pays attention and he's "a prophet" in that he speaks for something larger than himself. He has constructive loyalties everywhere and builds with them typically, rather than settle into a label, his main insistence being that he works for himself. This is not necessarily mystical as much as it's practical. He sees a deer crossing sign before he sees a deer hitting the car. He is able to say things that others wouldn't say, such as admitting that he murdered Rayeb. When faced with an armored car, he simply opens the door. His lack of pretense is what makes him unusual and "prophetic" unbound by conventional knowledge. He does and says based on what he sees, which makes him a voice outside the norm. Whether his visions of Rayeb are actual or hallucinations isn't clear, but they are real to him in any event.

While there is certainly a bit of religious symbolism in the film, it's established that Malik is not concerned terribly with religion as a thing on it's own. The references may occur to the character and add depth to the world, but I didn't feel the focus was there. He's twice asked about eating pork and his answer both times is a lack of concern. His character is not one seeking redemption, even the opposite at times. He's a blank character, seeking knowledge and depth, gradually becoming aware of his own vision and filling himself in.  When Lattrache tells him "Fuck, you've come a long way." he isn't referring to the physical journey but the mental/spiritual one that is obvious to him. A prophet is typically a voice that speaks truth, not someone looking to grab power. While his actions at times suggest a usurper mentality, and he even mentions "owning the market" he isn't out for power as a goal and it doesn't hold his interest. He doesn't overthrow Cesar to become a new Cesar, instead he leaves the prison and attends to his new life. While he certainly retains the power he's built, it isn't what he's about, just a tool he uses to inform himself. He never settles for his own victimization, but finds an active part to play. Although his actions can be morally questionable they are sensible given the facts at hand.
This is a film well worth seeing. It has terrific performances and a realistic and interesting world. The characters go outside the lines you expect. It's gritty and raw but full of compassion and hope just the same. It's great to see this character and story move outside the genre conventions and define themselves. It makes statements about religon and society, but treats such observations as part of the background, like the prison or city he's in. Everything around him informs his decisions, but ultimately it's all up to him.

What Happens?

19 year old Arab, Malik, (Tahar Rahim) is sentenced to 6 years in Brecourt, a French prison. We first see him beginning his sentence. When he's questioned by a guard, we learn that he beat up some cops, and that he has no family, job skills or any firm religious convictions.

Malik keeps to himself, a fact which makes him easy prey for athers. He quickly has his sneakers taken from him, and although he fights back, he finds there's little he can do.

An influential inmate and Corsican gang leader Cesar (Niels Arestrup) has almost free reign over the prison, including influence with the guards. Cesar is asked to kill another Arab man, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) who is incarcerated while waiting for a trial at which he will testify. With ten days before the trial date Cesar has very little time to accomplish this, particularly since the man stays in his cell all day in the Muslim cell block.

Reyeb happens to be neigbors with Malik. Malik is repulsed when Reyeb offers him hash in the showers in exchange for oral sex (Malik has no money.) Cesar however quickly learns that Reyeb spoke to Malik and informs Malik that he is to befriend Reyeb and then kill him in exchange for the protection of Cesar's Corsican gang. Malik is also informed that if he fails, Cesar will kill him, since he's now, "in on it." Cesar's men help Malik prepare, showing him how to hide a razor blade in his mouth. The plan is that he will act as if he's going to perform fellatio and then spring up and cut Reyeb's neck with the razor in his mouth.

Malik agrees to make a deal with Reyeb, who then bribes a guard to let Malik into his cell. Reyeb is courteous offering coffee, and finding out that Malik is illeterate, he encourages him to use his prison time to learn to read. Malik with some struggling, manages to cut Reyeb's throat, making a big mess. Due to Cesar's influence, however, he gets away with it and is then under Cesar's protection.

Malik starts learning to read and write. He also has violent dreams of the struggle with Reyeb, and "sees" Reyeb in his cell wishing him a happy birthday. Although part of Cesar's gang now, Malik still naturally keeps to himself. Being an Arab, he doesn't fit in naturally with the Corsicans, some of whom resent an Arab being present with them. Cesar, however, uses Malik's close quarters with the Muslims to keep informed. Malik begins to learn to speak Corsican as well. He's helped with his studies by another Arab inmate, Ryad (Adel Bencerif)  And the two start developing a friendship. Some fellow Arab's start resenting Malik as well, treating him as a Corsican.

A court ruling occurs which causes a shuffling of Corsican prisoners to a prison "closer to home" and promises to leave Cesar without much of a gang. Ryad tells Malik he has testicular cancer and is getting out soon for treatment. Without the rest of the gang, Cesar and Malik spend more time together. Malik reveals that he's learned Corsican, which initially upsets Cesar, who sees it as "spying." He quickly comes around though, and gives Malik a phone and gets him moved to the cell next to him, along with setting up a job as porter, so Malik can be his "eyes and ears." Malik is pleased with his new cell and it's TV and refrigerator. Malik takes his "eyes and ears" job very seriously, even keeping tabs on the other Corsicans left (who don't know he speaks their language.) In short order, Malik gets to know everyone in the prison. Malik also starts doing business with another inmate, Jordi (Reda Kateb) Jordi is wary, because Malik is with the Corsicans, but Malik insists that he works for himself. Jordi discusses his plans after release, which are to deal massive amounts of drugs. Malik doesn't reveal any plans of his own.

Cesar asks Malik what he knows about his business. He also tells Malik that he can apply for leave days since he's already done three years of his sentence. He instructs Malik to apply for parole, insisting that he'll have the application treated "with priority." Cesar offers Malik the chance to work for him on the outside. Malik meets with his lawyer, bringing Cesar along. Cesar tells the lawyer to call one of his contacts, who will tell him what to do.

Ryad sends a letter, telling Malik that things are tough outside, and that he has a new baby and a telemarketing job. Malik, on leave, soon meets Ryad out of prison, and becomes the godfather to Ryad's kid. Jordi starts pressuring Malik to bring him drugs from outside, although Malik is hesitant to risk everything for a couple of joints. Reyeb still appears to Malik, who now treats him as if he's nothing out of the ordinary.

Ryad helps him get a job with a mechanic. He also runs "errands" for Cesar, dealing with his contacts outside, who have been assured that Malik asks no questions. His first job is to drop off a briefcase, which has a hitch in that the recipient was not expecting an Arab. They check the case with Malik held at gunpoint, and satisfied that it's what it should be, they give Malik Santi, one of Cesar's they'd been holding (and Malik knew nothing about.)

Malik and Ryad start running a drug operation outside, working with Jordi inside. Cesar suspects other activities and tells Malik that his leave "belongs to him." Malik doesn't reveal his other operations. During his prison time, he gets closer with Cesar, telling him that he can no longer spy on the Arabs as he's now Corsican to them. Malik doesn't care for Cesar's animosity towards Arabs, although he helps Cesar's concern over the Arab's now greater numbers by telling Cesar to have some guards start hassling them, which will cause them to ask Cesar for help.It works according to Malik's plan and the Arab's approach him to ask for Cesar's help, leaving the Arabs indebted to him.

Ryad is hijacked while Malik is inside by Latif, the Egyptian, (Mamadou Minte) who takes the Ryad's drugs and then demands money as well. Malik instructs that they give Latif what he wants. Malik is concerned that after three days he has no news of Ryad, although Jordi assures him that they'll hear as soon as there is news. Malik learns from the Muslims that Latif's brother in law is imprisoned with them. The Muslim's give Malik two men to help, and he sets up an operation to take Latif's brother in law's mother hostage outside, while he beats the brother in law inside with a sock full of batteries and tells him to tell Latif to return Ryad and his drugs if he wants to see his mother again.

Cesar confronts Malik about Jordi, who he calls "the gypsy" He admits that he's dealing hash with Jordi, and Cesar then asks how he gets it into the prison. Malik assumes he wants a cut but Cesar assures him that it's his business. He then gets angry however, because his smuggling method could get him caught which would risk his leave. Cesar wounds Malik in the eye with a spoon and the tells him to "get lost." Cesar reminds him again that everything he does is due to his influence.

Malik is given a special assignment by Cesar. On his next leave he is to negotiate for him, with a Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi)  in Marseillles to "cut out the Italians." This requires him to take a flight, which he's never done before, in order to get back the same day. On his leave day we see that Ryad has been released although he still looks beat up., he drives Malik to the airport. Malik meets the people for Cesar, and they insist on tying his hands while they drive him to Lattrache. Lattrache is suspicious of Malik, not understanding why an Arab would work for Corsicans. Malik takes offense when it's suggested that he sucks them off, which prompts Lattrache to put a gun to his head. Lattrache reveals that he had a friend named Rayeb, who never left prison. He demands to know if Cesar had Rayeb wasted. The moment is broken when Malik sees a deer crossing sign and tells them an animal is coming just before the car hits a deer. Outside the car Lattrache is still puzzled and asks "What's your thing? How do you do it? Are you a prophet or something?"
Malik tells Lattraches that he killed Rayeb. Lattrache answers "Fuck, you've come a long way." Lattrache's men gather the deer and then go their destination, where he gets cleaned up.

At their destination, now with his hands free, Lattrache keeps calling him "prophet." He asks how he manages to straddle all his loyalties and asks if Cesar knows that the Italians have a Corsican snitch. Lattrache tells Malik he'll accept the offer if Cesar finds the snitch and cleans house. Malik then asks Lattrache for a personal favor, that he tell Latif the Egyptian, that the two of them work together.

Returning home, Malik tells Ryad that he'll meet with Latif as Lattrache will tell Latif to meet with them. Ryad is surprised at this since Malik was meeting Lattrache for the Corsicans rather than his own interests. Malik tells him to work it out so that they pool resources with Latif, saying "we take over the market and we rule." Ryad reveals that he's sick again.He arrives back at prison 30 minutes late but they let it go. Cesar is discussing the Corsican snitch with his lawyer, who tells Cesar that he is not to worry about it as it's being handled. When he's alone with Cesar, Cesar asks "Why do you still make the coffee? Why do you act the servant? You go out for me, you see Sampiero, you see Lattrache. You deal with my business, the casinos, the Lingherris, and when I ask for a coffee, you hop to it. Nothing to say?"
Malik: What's the question? Why do I do it, or how does it make me feel? I do it because you ask. Want to know how I feel?
Cesar: I couldn't care less.
Malik: Still need me?
Cesar: You're the one who needs me.
Malik: Can I go?

Outside, Ryad picks up their take from Latif, and following Malik's instructions drops off his share at a mosque for an Imam.  In prison, the Muslim's corner him and ask him if it was dirty money. They head of the Muslims in prison, tells him not to go straight to the Imam again, as he should go through them.  And suspects that he only gave the money to set up the meeting with him.

Cesar asks Malik if they can speak sincerely, telling him he wants to ask a favor "not because you work for me, but because I trust you.Understand the difference?" Cesar reveals that he say one of his men getting information and knows who the snitch is. He tells Malik that he wants him to form a team to whack his bosses in Paris. Malik considers it and Ryad urges him to accept, as he only has 6 months to live anyway. He reminds Malik that it will make his future easier when he gets out, since he won't be around, but the job will help take care of his kid.  Malik agrees and Cesar tells him he'll have his man get in touch with Ryad. Malik's nerves start getting too him and he sees Rayeb spinning in circles and chanting. Ryad meets with him, panicked, tells him his team won't be any good for the job, and that Cesar's man, Vettori, treats them like shit, but Malik insists that they do it, finally proposing that he and Ryad do it themselves.
Malik gets leave and he and Ryad drive up to Vettori in a van. He asks about the rest of the team, and they tell him they're in the back, but then mace him in the eyes and beat him, before heading to the job. They miss one opportunity due to too many onlookers in the street. They follow the targets, who are in an armored car. Malik solves the problem by simply opening the door of their car and firing when they stop. The firing in the car causes him to lose his hearing for a bit. Malik leaves one of them alive however, Marcaggi, Cesar's direct boss. He informs Marcaggi that Cesar wanted him killed, but tells him he won't do it, and says "get your revenge." Malik elects not to return to prison that day, knowing he'll get time "in the hole." staying at Ryad's instead. Ryad questions him about it, and Malik says he'll be in the hole while they tear each other apart. Ryad says that he isn't going to do chemom as it's hopeless anyway. Malik has breakfast with Ryad and his wife and kid, spending time with with the child, before returning to prison.
He's immediately escorted to solitary where he jogs in his cell and we see bloody upheaval going on in the main prison. Ryad dies in the outside world. Malik is released from solitary and he talks with the Arabs in the yard. We see Cesar sitting alone. He motions with his head for Malik to join him, but he ignores him, which causes Cesar to get up and approach, until some Arabs knock him down.

Malik is released and allowed to claim his personal items which are nothing more than a cigartte and a bill. Ryad's wife and child are there to meet him. They walk down the middle of the road as cars follow behind them.