Recently, I was checking off my list of reviewed Jim Jarmusch movies on Letterboxd and had a little trouble finding a streaming option for just one title. Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999) isn’t for rent to stream and nor is it available to buy new on DVD or Blu-Ray. eBay was the only option to find an out of print DVD, adding to a shopping list with Scorsese’s Kundun, another out of print film from a great filmmaker. Scorese ran into a bit of problem with continued distribution of his Dalai Lama biopic as the government of China didn’t appreciate the political swipe.
About ten bucks later and standard wait time for shipping, and I was transported back to the late ‘90’s. These old DVDs have trailers for movies from the time and loading up a disc to them feels like stepping back in time to the era of video stores. For me, we didn’t have any chain stores in my town until I was out of college. We had an indie store, Video Visions, that seemed to have every single movie you could possibly think to watch. There are movies you cannot find to watch now that they had in VHS collection, available either for $3 for a couple of days or ten movies, for ten bucks over seven days. They had everything, it was a college town so they had foreign movies, little known indie movies and there was even a heavily stocked LGBT cinema collection. Eventually, they grew a DVD collection that wasn’t as comprehensive as the tapes, but was fairly healthy in its own right.
Ghost Dog is the seventh feature of Jim Jarmusch’s career, a career that was established in the 1980's. He was mostly known for his films with scenes that could linger in a room with nothing in it, with a slacker doing nothing, talking about how they don’t want to do anything with minimal score. And his movies could be captivating when nothing was happening without being pretentious. Jim Jarmusch is cool while making the audience feel they are as cool as him. His friends are cool, musicians John Lurie, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop and even RZA. Lurie, RZA and Neil Young have scored his movies as if Jarmusch is cinema’s older brother passing down his cool record collection to the viewer.
The character of Ghost Dog acts like this “older brother” character passing down a book that he likes, a book that is a through-line in the movie. During his first hit, a girl is reading the book Rashomon, a story that has a few differing versions that were adapted into Akira Kurosawa’s breakout 1950 film of the same name. Ghost Dog is reading it throughout the middle of the movie and he passes it on to a little girl in the third act. Whether it is the book or the movie that is being passed around, it is Kurosawa’s movie that is most readily brought to mind. It is the object that is passed down like Jarmusch’s musical tastes.
To get into the mood for watching Ghost Dog this month, I paired the viewing with Rashomon. Ghost Dog is a reinvention of samurai movies and Rashomon is sort of the first of a wave of Kurosawa samurai classics. I also read a book about Kurosawa’s life and the making of Rashomon so that I could have my own little Rashomon book to walk around with.
While there are books on Jarmusch’s uses of music in his films, I think some of the more interesting threads are his continued references to poetry and his subversion of genres throughout his career. The Forest Whittaker character corresponds with his mob handler with messages on pigeons. One of the mobster character refers to these as poems. Jarmusch’s movie just before Ghost Dog was Dead Man, a movie where the main character is named William Blake as a reference to the poet although he has never heard of his namesake and the Gary Farmer character idolizes his poetry, confusing the character with the poet. Jarmusch gives Farmer a great opportunity in Ghost Dog to echo a bit of a catchphrase from Dead Man by calling someone a “stupid fucking white man.” Jarmusch is a bit less subtle for his admiration of poetry in Paterson, a movie about a bus driving poet named Paterson living in a city by the same name that is the hometown of several famous poets.
Dead Man is a subversion of westerns, not just of action movie westerns of the ‘90’s but of shallow black and white westerns of the days of John Ford and John Wayne. Ghost Dog brings the samurai of Kurosawa’s films to urban america, fighting with organized crime with a hip hop soundtrack rather than a noh flute. In this context, it is probably Yojimbo, a movie about a samurai without a master righting against organized crime Yakuza to clean up the town that Ghost Dog is closer to rather than Rashomon, a movie about a rape and murder trial in feudal Japan told from many different perspectives.
Later Jarmusch films Limits of Control and Only Lovers Left Alive subverted other genre pictures, spy movies and vampire stories. Limits of Control is surreal and metaphorical, hard to follow at times, and closer to Twin Peaks than James Bond. Only Lovers Left Alive doesn’t linger much on the consequences of blood sucking vampirism rather it is more interested in nocturnal lifestyles and the boredom and secrecy of eternal life. It cares more about actual characters rather than vampires becoming dark souls. Although he might be known as the ultimate indie movie cool guy, he is still more interested in popular topics like spies, cowboys, samurai, vampires and an upcoming zombie movie than typical character studies. But since 1995, most of his movies have been genre movies, plus one about a poet (I kinda think he sees poets as superheroes), one episodic movie, two music documentaries and one character study film.
Akira Kurosawa was a little similar in his focus on topics more likely to be found in a comic book for children. Most of his movies were Samurai films, a few more were crime films and he had only a couple of character studies. His first screenplay, one that unfortunately was lost through the years, was a baseball movie, and a baseball movie or a color remake of Rashomon were the two projects that he had hoped to make at some point in his career but was never able to accomplish. Much like Jarmusch’s love of poetry, Kurosawa loved Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. Jarmusch is an older brother that hands down the cool music, Kurosawa had his own cool older brother that got him into silent films, exposing him to western cinema. It was this influence that led many Japanese viewers to see Kurosawa’s films as more American or European than Japanese.
Kurosawa loved his family, he was one of seven siblings, and it isn’t a coincidence that he tended to write his main characters in groups of seven. His older brother worked in a silent movie house vocalizing the performances of non-Japanese films. That brother was the member of the family thought to have the most potential, but he died soon after sound was introduced to film and long before the younger Kurosawa's film career even started. Kurosawa was known to depict barren landscapes in his movies alluding to the hellscapes his ruined city of Tokyo after surviving both the Tokyo Earthquake of 1923 and the firebombing of World War II.
With both films, Ghost Dog and Rashomon, my first viewings were around high school or college. They were both part of seven movie rental deals to watch with my friends. I’m not entirely sure where the recommendations of those movies came from but it was as though they came passed down world of mouth of essential cultural viewings. As if handed down from a cool older brother, and more likely in the case of my friends, passed down from cool older sisters or cool parents. The quality of these movies on VHS back in the late ‘90’s was not great, I know there were a lot of classic movies that I didn’t care for at the time because watching them was like watching movie through sedimentary pond water. The used DVD’s from eBay aren’t perfect quality, but they still look a lot better than a VHS tape. Rashomon now has a Criterion print that is absolutely beautiful. The movies are actually more enjoyable to watch now than when I was younger thanks to better prints, and bigger and better TVs, but that feeling of seeing a rental store movie is of pure nostalgia.
Next Month: Something a bit different. The movie listed will probably be A Matter of Life and Death from 1946, but that doesn't seem to be available to see anywhere so Avengers: Endgame is just as good to watch. We're going to get a bit experimental and create an alternate universe of film making where we ask, what if great directors from the past had a shot at directing a super hero property? For example, based on the afterlife sequences and world building of A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger would make great directors for a Thor movie in a black and white Asgard.