Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: the black samurai and the conceptual cinema

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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.”

Jim Jarmusch is not a movie director. Jim Jarmusch is a manufacturer of situations. In Ghost Dog, his 1999 film nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Festival, the events are the least important thing. They are just an excuse to show the nuances of the modern world and turn the page, moving to a new white sheet to fill with the real content. And the real contents are the characters, the photography, the settings, the philosophy.

“In the words of the ancients, one should make his decision within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break through to the other side.”

Even music, why not. For a film that meant to put together modern gangsters and ancient oriental wisdom, Jim Jarmusch chose RZA to compose the original soundtrack. And the New York rapper immediately understands the idea: the music should not dazzle like fireworks on a starry night. It must be a slight accompaniment. A soft background that liquify the action. Yet, the music is one of the main protagonists of the film. It’s the editing, Jim Jarmusch intentions, that make make it so, in its usual way: generating the situations that enhance it. A car theft is nothing interesting, but if you pull out a CD and put it in the reader, letting the music fill the night on the man’s lost gaze, suddenly it’s more than just a car theft. The same for a pigeon flying in the clear sky, or for the training of a black samurai on the dirty rooftops of contemporary America.

“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 first marked.”

But there is one other thing that Jim Jarmusch loves, a constant presence in his films: The art of representing the interaction between opposites. A comparison that is never destructive, but aims to enhance the characteristics of each part, while still making sure that everyone gets new elements from the other. In Ghost Dog we have an apparent conflict (the one between the life of a black mercenary hired by the Mafia and the spirit of the Japanese samurai who lives within him), an obvious one (the one between the principles that guide his actions and the irresponsibility of American Mafia) and a spectrum of heterogeneous elements that enrich the action: you can not mix Oriental philosophy, rap culture, literature and underground in a single film without making it an inexplicable mess. Unless you are Jarmusch.

“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.”

He can do it. And the reason is simple: with Jarmusch, you never see a simple film. His one is the art of making abstract concepts evolve through real images. It is pure thought translated into audiovisual elements. If the object of your creativity is thought, you have an endless flexibility in your hands. You can evolve, fade, skip necessary steps, unleash the effects of your eclecticism. You can generate a stream where you switch from the freestyle hip hop of a group of young black Americans in a park to the pictures of a black & white cartoon that describes what is going to happen in the film, passing by the quotes from Hagakure, the Japanese Book of the Samurai, coming from the eighteenth century. And you can do it without interrupting the continuity of action. Because you are not watching a movie. You are experiencing a conceptual exercise. Abstraction transported on the screen. It’s not blood that flows in and out of the bodies on Ghost Dog characters. It’s knowledge.

“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.”

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