Holy Dog: Ghost Dog

Ghost Dog: the Way Of The Samurai (1999), the latest film by true independent, Jim Jarmusch, continues the dark exploration into stories of cultural difference and spirituality that he began in his previous film Dead Man (1995) and that marked a significant turn in his career. Like William Blake (Johnny Depp) in Dead Man, the central character of Ghost Dog, Ghost Dog (played by Forest Whitaker), is a solitary figure who at one point is marginalised and attacked by “white men” and who responds by developing an intensely spiritual identity. In both films, the spirituality that each character attains (which is “borrowed” from ancient cultures and religions) strongly empowers them.

For Ghost Dog, this mind-body spiritual identity is “borrowed” from the ancient code of the Samurai. Ghost Dog reads the 18th century warrior text Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo and lives according to its key instructions and tenets, which also appear as text on the screen (forcing the viewer to read them as well!). One of the functions of Ghost Dog’s identity is to be a “retainer” for the man who saved his life while he was being attacked. This is local Italo-American small-time mobster, Louie (played by John Tormey). In order to act as his protector, both Ghost Dog and Louie have set up an arrangement where Ghost Dog is the local mob group’s professional “hitman” and where all communication occurs via pigeons. However, after one contract goes wrong (for an insufficiently explained reason) Ghost Dog is ordered dead by the mob leaders.

As critics have noted, not only are key points in the plot practically incomprehensible, but the plot/story itself is a pretext for a heightened formal sensibility that washes over this film (1). Jarmusch creates this sensibility through powerful statements of character and by linking highly abstract and disparate cultural details, elements and objects. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in his review of Ghost Dog, Jarmusch’s films often take place through “character” rather than story (2). They are very much tied to the oddities and idiosyncracies of his characters and their experience of the world – the relationships that they make or the experiences they encounter – often presented in a surreal and heightened way.

In Ghost Dog, the central character lives a very disciplined way of life. The clarity of his vision and the perfect harmony between body and soul through which he lives create a spiritual and affective centre for the film, which is echoed and reflected in the film’s sparse yet precise formalism. Jarmusch’s “minimalism” and his attention to composition, sound and editing in a way that heightens and eroticises the texture of image and sound recall the work of Bresson. The very first shot of Ghost Dog is a wide shot of a bird flying in the sky. This rather ordinary image becomes charged by the electronic rhythms and beats of the soundtrack, and Jarmusch extends this strong sense of mood and instant palpability of image and sound through the aerial shots that follow until we finally arrive at Ghost Dog in his low-lit rooftop “apartment”, quietly reading. With masterful skill, Jarmusch draws a line of spiritual connection between the bird, the moving aerial shots and the hypnotic music. Quickly and clearly, these images and sounds are revealed to be closely associated with the character of Ghost Dog, almost as if it is he who “sees” or triggers them. At another time when Ghost Dog is resting outside, among his birds, a close-up of his eyes fades to various “visions”: the flying pigeon returning to him a message from Louie, and a flashback to the incident where Louie saved Ghost Dog’s life. It is as though Ghost Dog through his solemn spirituality is a divinely empowered figure able to “see” the most hidden and unspoken things.

The severity and profundity of the character of Ghost Dog, in particular his unshakable spirituality, certainly evokes this feeling that he is somehow divinely empowered and ultimately omnipresent. The intensity of this image allows the film to slip, at times, into an hallucinogenic formal logic: for example, the fade-in device Jarmusch uses while Ghost Dog is driving through the tunnel at night on the road to his contract work. A close up of Ghost Dog’s face fades out, only slightly, before another image of what he sees fades in and then another until there are various layers of images each with patterns of movement that complement and contradict the other, so that overall a heightened sense of realism is created. At various other times and in various other ways, Jarmusch repeats this effect of superimposing and layering shots upon each other, where each is transparent yet still visible. A potent example is toward the end of the film where while Ghost Dog is travelling through the neighbourhood, there is a pan across the street which is superimposed over an extreme close up of Ghost Dog’s heavy and intense stare.

Ghost Dog is a very “formal” film; it paints in broad strokes of camera movement, rhythmical cutting, sound and precise physical performance the intensities and idiosyncrasies of the character of Ghost Dog. The fact that this character reinvented himself according to the Way of the Samurai implies that what we need to learn about him is all in the way he moves, thinks and acts today rather than who he was before. Whitaker’s incredible performance – his control of every physical movement and facial expression – allows Jarmusch to mainly communicate the character of Ghost Dog in this way, i.e. through the way he moves and acts to defend himself against the mob.

The theme of eccentricity of character in Ghost Dog is also extended to the personalities of the local mob group who mirror the cartoon characters that they obsessively watch: caricatures each distinguished according to idiosyncrasies of voice, rhythm of speaking, dress, physical size and weight, facial appearance and so on. Unlike the solemn and profound texts of 18th century Japanese Samurai, the “culture” that these guys absorb and even live out is that of pop cartoons. They’re hardly “tough guys” when they seem to be “quoting” the gesture of the tough guy: for example, in the scene where Sonny (Cliff Gorman), Mr Vargo (Henry Silva) and the old man (Gene Ruffini) are sitting around a table facing Louie, their stone-like seriousness and intimidation quickly gives way to gags about different cultural nicknames. Clumsy, inconsistent in their decision-making, late with their rent, and engrossed by their cartoons, the local mobsters are a far cry from the intense spirituality and purity of Ghost Dog.

But is Ghost Dog more than a superficial representation of characters based on mythic, cultural references? One of the things that Jarmusch highlights in his telescope on the solitude of characters is the often unusual yet heartfelt relationships that they form with others and some form of spiritual exchange that is made.

Jarmusch seems very concerned with spirituality in this film. For example, the entire environment that surrounds Ghost Dog is enveloped by an unspoken and serious spirituality. So that the animals he encounters – a dog, birds, a bear – and even the moon in the night sky all seem to strangely echo and “speak” to each other as though they were profoundly spiritually connected. Here, “spirituality” translates into the ancient code of the Samurai. This theme, at certain times in the film, extends into a theme of justice. On the road back home after eliminating the mobster clan, Ghost Dog comes across a couple of “white” bear hunters and a bear they have just killed. After several lines of “cute” conversation, he kills both men and proclaims that sometimes the ancient world and its codes just have to influence the present. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the two men are white. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, they could also be characters straight from Dead Man. Like that film, representatives of the American dominant culture (white, male) in Ghost Dog are not portrayed in a positive light. They’re either racist bashers or savage bear hunters.

Jarmusch is profoundly concerned with “marginal” cultures and the complex issue of communication both in this film and also in Dead Man. In terms of “communication”, there is great significance accorded to the play of language and the function of words and names in Ghost Dog. In one scene Jarmusch draws comedy from this idea. After ridiculing the name “Ghost Dog” and the way “marginal” groups like Afro-Americans and Indians invent names for each other, Sonny calls out to one of his henchmen to mobilise their other men, all with equally idiosyncratic names. Yet Jarmusch weaves together comic elements with more serious ones, where words are revealed to be the source of conflict between divergent cultures. Violently intruding upon a man’s private space, who is revealed to be Nobody (the same character and actor from Dead Man), and then questioning him his name and where he comes from, the local mob guys’ complete confusion at the Indian terms Nobody mutters further compounds their frustrations and triggers their violent impulses.

Words and texts are extremely important objects in this film and play an important role both in the way the characters define who they are and their interaction with others. Certain characters in the film read and absorb books soulfully, become greatly influenced by them and exchange them among each other as gestures of enlightenment. Among others, the texts that get mentioned in Ghost Dog include Hagakure: the book of the Samurai (by Yamamoto Tsunetomo), Rashomon and Other Stories (by Ryunosuke Akutagawa) and Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley). The relationship between Ghost Dog and Pearline (Camille Winbush), the bright young girl he meets in the park, is based on their exchange and discussions of certain books. The very simplicity, honesty and innocence of their conversations is disarming. They seem to have nothing to do with the plot of the gangsters and their pursuit of Ghost Dog – or only superficially so. Because just as there are links and echoes between cartoons and real life, so there are between books and life. And those who read books in this film – the closed, small circle of characters within which specific books get circulated and discussed – are presented in a light of goodness, innocence and even spirituality. There is also an instant respect between the “book lovers”, which is illustrated dramatically by the fact that Ghost Dog – in his swift and murderous rampage through the mob gathering – does not kill the silent, waify Louise Vargo (Tricia Vessey). Though corrupted, she is still innocent and respected by Ghost Dog and so she survives. However, ironically and tragically, she becomes completely devoid of innocence and spirituality – as it is she who in the final scene is revealed to be the new head of the mob and who orders the vengeful death of Ghost Dog.

The exchange of texts allows for enlightenment and hope in this film. Ghost Dog passes onto Pearline his “bible” through which his spirit continues. The image of Pearline sitting on the kitchen floor – amongst the banal and everyday surroundings of her home – reading Hagakure and being inspired and touched by the words of a book is one of this films truly haunting and profoundly resonant moments. Communication between people – either in the form of literary texts or coded physical signs – is significant in this film. The three interactions Ghost Dog has with black people of his neighbourhood in the streets and the park are almost abstract, heightened moments that occur on the basis of some unspoken “subcultural” and mutual understanding and respect. The last of these interactions – which plays out poetically and hypnotically in slow motion and occurs immediately after text about “making the most of every generation” appears on the screen – powerfully confirms a profound sense of spirituality amongst marginal black culture that the film alludes to in other scenes. As Ghost Dog and an anonymous character cross paths in the street, their connection is signalled through a heightened moment of communication: a brief, highly coded and choreographed interaction.

Almost every interaction between members belonging to black culture in Ghost Dog is heightened and surreal. The ultimate and most perplexing example of this (and which is almost a parody of the idea of coded communication) is in the relationship between Ghost Dog and the Haitian ice cream vendor, Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé), where the very meaning of communication and what we regard as “normal” is profoundly thrown into question. Although they don’t speak the same language, their thoughts are identical. However there is no conscious way they can know this; and so it could explain why they are best friends.

Working within a global mind-frame, Jarmusch brings together elements from disparate cultures and histories (ancient texts, pop cartoons, classic sci-fi novel, Haitian-French identities) so that the world of Ghost Dog becomes a profoundly multi-cultural space. Yet these disparate and abstract elements connect in the film in spiritual terms. So Jarmusch opens the world not only so that disparate elements can co-exist in some surreal, heightened space, but also that spiritual connections can be made and paths of enlightenment and hope can be set. In Ghost Dog, there are only a few characters who are “enlightened”. All of these are either black or are slightly open in heart and mind to a manifestation of cultural difference. This is ambiguous, though, where the character of Louis is concerned since although he saves Ghost Dog and is generally less hostile or racist then the other mobsters, he is tied in allegiance to the mob.

There is a politics of “difference” in Jarmusch’s last two films and an emphasis on genuine spirituality as the source of meaning and truth in life. Although Ghost Dog “samples”, abbreviates and short-cuts on the level of character and story, Jarmusch does so in a formally mesmerising and hypnotising way, and still manages to reveal to us real optimism and hope in everyday moments of interaction and communication with others.


  1. I am specifically referring to two reviews here: Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “International Sampler” in the Chicago Reader – On Film website published 17 March 2000 and Adrian Martin’s “Jarmusch’s Holy Ghost” The Age (Thursday May 25 2000). The thoughts expressed in my article are very much influenced by and a response to the former review.
  2. J. Rosenbaum, ibid.

About The Author

Fiona Villella is an editor of Senses of Cinema.

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