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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999) - post-viewing prompts

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  • Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999) - post-viewing prompts

    1. The character Ghost Dog is pretty closely based upon Jef Costello, the protagonist of the earlier French neo-noir film Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967). Costello too was very solitary, hardly spoke to anyone, had few friends, and was a professional assassin employed by gangsters that lived by the code of the samurai. What are we to make of these characters? Why would a European in the 1960s, or an American near the beginning of the current millennium, choose to live according to a code that organized and gave form to the lives of those of a medieval Japanese warrior class? What are these films thinking about in presenting us with such characters? Is Ghost Dog (and presumably Jef Costello as well) simply “crazy”, as the famous film critic Roger Ebert suggested (, or is there something else going on in these films?

    2. Arguably none of the major characters in the film (Ghost Dog or any of the gangsters he finds himself pitted against) live according to conventional morality, the standards of good and evil that we as a society at least pay lip-service to. Yet, we as viewers are nevertheless able to sympathize and identify with, or even to root for, them. What is the film’s view of conventional morality--prohibitions against killing and stealing, and the like? Does it succeed in making that morality appear somewhat arbitrary, just one more “code” among many others one might adopt and live by? If so, does the film suggest any meta-morality, any more inclusive morality of moralities, that is? Are their hints of such a meta-morality in the respect that both Ghost Dog and Ray Vargo (the head of the crime family) seem to have for each other?

    3. Although the respective courses of action taken by both Ghost Dog and Ray Vargo, the head of the organized crime family he finds himself at war with, very predictably lead to their mutual destruction, they follow them out anyway. Why? Why doesn’t Vargo just leave Ghost Dog alone? Why doesn’t Ghost Dog just go so far as to eliminate the threat that Vargo and his "soldiers" pose to him and then return to his ghost-like ways, rather than allow himself to be shot without even trying to defend himself? What might they lose if they pursued such courses? Do the choices they do make in any way indict our more utilitarian dispositions (seeking after the better likely consequences)? If so, how?

    4. Ghost Dog and his two friends, Pearline (the little girl) and Raymond (the French-speaking ice-cream salesman), appear to be the only characters in the film that do not positively identify with or belong to any larger group. Ghost Dog does claim to be a member of an “ancient tribe,” but even his identification with ancient Samurai seems to be a rather idiosyncratic and near solitary choice that renders him effectively invisible to most others. Why does the film encourage us to identify most centrally with such characters? Should it? What is its view toward the relationship of individual and group identities? Is it a view that we should take seriously?

    5. The film, in an apparent reference to Rashômon, the book which is exchanged by characters in the film and/or the great Japanese film based upon that book (Akira Kurosawa, 1950), presents two different flashbacks to a single event, independently recalled by both Ghost Dog and Louie, to explain the origin of their relationship as master and retainer. There is a crucial discrepancy between the two accounts, however: who Ghost Dog’s attacker pointed a gun at. In each version the gun is pointed at the person doing the recounting. Ghost Dog recalls that the gun was pointed at himself, whereas Louie remembers the gun being pointed at him instead. What are we to make of this discrepancy? Is there an independent truth of the situation? Does it matter?

    6. The film, like the rap music that was part of its inspiration (a fusion of modern gangster, or “gangsta,” rap and Asian martial arts lore and culture was affected by the rap collective The Wu Tang Clan in the early ‘90s, and one of its main figures, The RZA, both composed the soundtrack for the film and appears in it as the character “Samurai in Camouflage”), makes use of a technique of sampling and mixing, composed as it is by a mash-up of elements taken from the work of other artists—musicians and filmmakers. Does such an approach to making art, or perhaps to the construction of one’s own identity, constitute theft and reveal a lack of originality, or does it perhaps signify only a more honest and open acknowledgment of the true nature of creativity and autonomy—that we are all, even the most singular geniuses among us, borrowing from each other and, at best, remixing the common resources of a shared culture?

    7. What is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai suggesting in having the old-guard of both ancient “tribes”—the Italian mafia and the Samurai—at the dawn of a new millennium, pass the torch, so to speak, to women (Louise and Pearline respectively)? At the end of the film, it is clearly Louise Vargo (not Louie) that is in charge of the crime family, and Pearline is shown in her family’s kitchen reading the copy of Hagakure that Ghost Dog gave her after having rehearsed killing Louie with Ghost Dog’s unloaded gun. Does this transition, according to the film, perhaps originate in what Ghost Dog and Louie identify as the end of an age, signified by nothing any longer making sense, as well as by their own obvious obsolescence? If so, what is the “spirit” of that age that must, according to one passage quoted by the film from Hagakure, also end?
    It helps to understand that the hero of "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" is crazy. Well, of course he is. He lives in a shack on a rooftop with his pigeons. He dresses like a homeless man. "He has no friends and never talks to anybody," according to the mother of the little girl in the movie. Actually, he does talk: to the little girl and to a Haitian ice cream man. The Haitian speaks no English and Ghost Dog speaks no French, so they simply speak in their own languages and are satisfied with that. What's your diagnosis? Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a killer for the mob. He got into this business because one day a mobster saved his life--and so, since he follows The Way of the Samurai, he must dedicate his life to his master. The mobster is named Louie (John Tormey). He orders hits by sending Ghost Dog messages by carrier pigeon. Ghost Dog insists on being paid once a year, on the first day of autumn. When the mob bosses want Ghost Dog rubbed out, they're startled to discover that Louie doesn't know his name or where he lives; their only contact is the pigeons.
    Last edited by Steven Brence; 08-14-2017, 02:40 PM.