Travis MacKenzie Hoover on Dead Man and Ghost Dog
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 calls itself a way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all ways and become more in accord with his own.
The above quote is from Hagekure, the samurai code obsessively referred to by the titular hero of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Its implications are, quite obviously, that to be a samurai means that one cannot stray from the retainer’s predetermined role. But the hero who adheres to it so completely has already strayed from a predetermined role: He is a 20th-century black man who has embraced a centuries-old (and largely inoperable) belief system in spite of whatever personal and cultural history he might actually possess. He lives in one time and place while assuming the trappings of another: even though he wants to be his fantasy of one, he is two, and thus completely out of accord with the way from which he originated. But the fantasy is a common one. In fact, it underpins much of the so-called “independent” cinema of the Eighties and early Nineties, much of which depends on the yearning of a white-outsider “one” for a racially or economically disadvantaged second number. Directors like Jim Jarmusch, Alex Cox, Gus Van Sant, Quentin Tarantino, and the David Byrne of True Stories have gazed longingly and wistfully at punks (Cox), teenage junkies and hustlers (Van Sant), small-town proles (Byrne) and blacks and Southeast Asians as seen through the cracked prism of the movies (Tarantino). One can feel the desire, as with the title character of Ghost Dog, to live vicariously through a fantasy other that’s somehow more “pure” than their starting point.
Jarmusch, meanwhile, is unique amongst this group in that he’s aware—however dimly—of the impossibility of this project and the inchoate longings that compel its practitioners. Though he’s as beguiled as his colleagues by alien cultural artifacts (both ethnically and temporally), he’s aware of the circumstances that surround his fascination and the double-bind that faces the person who has decided to strip himself of his cultural baggage and problematically embrace some better, cooler other. More to the point, he’s aware that different people do it for different reasons: Where those at the top of the power structure yearn to lose their guilt by embracing the disadvantaged, those at the bottom seek the stability denied them by desperate circumstances. Hence, the trials of a white man in Dead Man and the work of a black one in Ghost Dog, forming a both-sides-now critique of the process of appropriation.
The white man is William Blake (Johnny Depp), hero of the western pastiche Dead Man, placed on the edge of ethnic treachery where all white hipsters find themselves—his odyssey is the process by which such persons find themselves embracing the other. First, Blake is introduced to the corrupt values that underpin white American society. Sent to the frontier town of Machine in search of an accountant’s job, he’s shown the ground-level foot soldiers of Indian genocide (bush hunters on his train shooting buffalo) and then the cruel face of business as metalworks magnate John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum) blows him off having already filled the position. Trapped in the back of beyond without a compass, he winds up spending the night with ex-prostitute Thel (Mili Avital) and subsequently shoots it out with her former lover Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), who happens to be John Dickinson’s son. What is important here is that the protagonist is not some virtuous Shane-like avenging angel or heroically compromised Wild Bunch thug—he’s an oblivious schmuck who blundered into being on the outs and is interested (at first) in self-preservation.
His salvation comes in the form of Nobody (Gary Farmer), an Indian who stumbles upon Blake while the white man is hiding out in the bush. Nobody is a textbook example of a hipster’s best buddy: not only is he the result of inter-tribal miscegenation (and thus a stranger to his own people), but he’s been abused by the American way in complimentary, if more substantial ways—symmetrical with the disaffected white while being “authentic” to the very core. But in between relating his story of childhood capture and exhibition across America and Europe, he bestows the mantle of specialness on our hero by mistaking him for the real William Blake, whose work gave Nobody comfort during his sojourn in Western hell. “You are a poet and a painter,” he says, approvingly adding, “and now you are a killer of white men.” The triple-threat gives the movie Blake literal and figurative outlaw status, coveted by every avid culture consumer who ever dreamed of life beyond his parents’ basement.
But Blake doesn’t exactly accept this mantle. In fact, he’d rather be comfortably ensconced in his native Cleveland than offing degenerate white settlers at the urging of the reverent Nobody. But as he’s inadvertently lost cultural enfranchisement, he’s got to rely on the help of others and so allows himself to be transformed into a poet assassin by his mentor. The standard Crusoe/Friday relationship is complicated by the fact that Nobody understands white America better than Blake and takes great pains to introduce him to its fundamental corruption, essentially dragging him outside of his own context so that he can better understand and subvert it. Blake’s frustrated desire to return to normalcy links him not with the phony levelling of Tarantino’s ethnic-transvestite extravaganzas but a space between the discredited dominant culture and the spiritually pure other. He’s lost the protection of the former but will never possess the exact righteousness of the latter.
Blake eventually takes on the holy-killer mission, but he never really understands it. Though he’s dimly aware that the various representatives of American force (epitomized in animal ruthlessness by Lance Henriksen’s cannibal bounty hunter) are in the wrong and need to be dealt with harshly, he never adopts a morally righteous stance—he takes his cues from Nobody and goes with the flow. Jarmusch is singular in defining the regret of the White outsider in terms of what his rebellious protestations really amount to: a lament for the lack of a defined place within the dominant framework. And he’s just as singular for saying that that lack does not equal actual oppression, merely a bad compromise between the real wretched of the Earth and the well-scrubbed elite with their shameless fellow travellers. The end of the film finds the critically wounded Blake floating out to sea on a funeral boat, witnessing the death of Nobody and Henriksen as they fire at each other; such, says the film, is the paralyzed choice of the reluctant white outsider.
So goes the white side of the equation: the matter of non-white appropriation is better left to Ghost Dog, where the stakes are completely different. There the eponymous modern-day samurai (Forest Whitaker) is not exactly trying to be someone else at all: in the absence of an enfranchised black history, Ghost Dog has lifted “ancient” Japanese ways in order to give himself the lineage hijacked by centuries of oppression. Though the film refuses to spell this out literally, there are enough shots of him staring out car windows at damaged black people to give a fairly good impression of what he’s trying to avoid: being lost without a solid identity and thus shattered by the system. Thus, after being saved from white thugs by a mobster named Louie (John Tormey), he becomes a mafia hit man (in his parlance, a “retainer”), the closest thing to a samurai that millennial America can give him.
The film is iconically clear about the power of fantasy to someone like Ghost Dog. A key scene has him striking up a friendship with Pearline (Camille Winbush), a young black girl with a fondness for reading: her current reads—to the approval of Ghost Dog—are The Wind in the Willows, The Souls of Black People, and a sexy pulp novel (“I just like the cover”), evoking the identity creators of self-willed fantasy, ethnic origin, and sexuality. Frankenstein also comes up, with him heavily identifying with the pieced-together monster. That the killer is himself pieced-together from various ethnic realities and inventions is clear, but like Frankenstein’s monster the pieces are meant to add up to a whole. Where William Blake faces the issue of becoming like something else, Ghost Dog takes to alien artifacts to become more like himself, with feudal Japan’s dignified cohesion used as a sort of primordial stand-in blackness.
Unfortunately, the mass appropriation doesn’t quite take. Once he’s assassinated a victim in front of his mob-princess lover (Tricia Vessey), he becomes expendable to that other “ancient” culture, the mafia: despite the serious loyalty he’s laid at now-beleaguered Louie’s feet, his lord’s colleagues see him merely as a weirdo “nigger” in need of termination. The film then becomes an exploration of whether Ghost Dog’s substitute blackness is heroic defiance or mere denial. The sight of him dispatching his mob adversaries is indeed thrilling, but it has a bitter aftertaste when you ask what, exactly, is the cost of his sideways self-affirmation, as it seems clear that it can only end in destruction—his and others.
The film ends as Dead Man does: on the fence as to the viability of the project. Long before Ghost Dog’s murder spree forces an embarrassed Louie to kill the assassin once and for all (an act which Ghost Dog, having pledged samurai allegiance, does nothing to stop), there’s no denying that his substitute identity has made him as lonely as William Blake. As his only real friend is a black refugee from some French colony (Isaach de Bankolé) who speaks only French, it becomes obvious that his choice to re-self has made him unrecognizable to all but the most alien. And yet, in the face of his actual options, his choice to go “ancient” gives him what the dominant culture cannot. The film’s quintessential scene has him gunning down some hunters who have killed an endangered black bear; linking the bear with himself, he notes to the surviving hunter that in ancient civilizations, bears were equal with humans. “This ain’t no ancient civilization,” says the hunter. “Sometimes it is,” says the killer. To which we might add—when someone has the creative power to give its utopian vision presence.
One could never mistake Jarmusch’s films as explicitly political. The auteur is simply too wrapped up in the fascination he attempts to examine: even these two films are riddled with otherness. Dead Man contradicts itself by slapping Eugene Byrd into a token black who’s killed off early on, and Ghost Dog’s cogent critique is undermined by the fact that all of its Italians are grotesques shipped straight from the mook joint. There’s as much fetishization going on as analysis, and his distance from the later film’s milieu makes it far less convincing than its white-centered predecessor. Yet alone amongst his peers, he measures the distance between what you are born and what you can become, and what it means to try to change your stripes—the cost of being one and the attraction of being two, and whether one can ever be in accord with any way other than his or her own.