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2014/09/28

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

by John Bloner, Jr.


I've seen most of writer/director Jim Jarmusch's feature films to know this: his characters take their time. They are nimble and sly, moving behind the beat, just like Miles Davis and Lady Day did, but know when to strike.

Think of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars or Kyuzo, the master swordsman, in Seven Samurai.
They're killers, yes, yet they're elegant assassins. These men don't have a lot to say and are deadly when the occasion calls them to action.

Ghost Dog is such a man. He's the title character, played by Forest Whitaker, in Jarmusch's film of the same name. He haunts an urban jungle known as the "Industrial State" and lives in a rooftop shack with his pigeons, while he hones his craft as a modern-day Samurai. He knows how to wield a sword and adheres to the Samurai code, Bushido.

Forest Whitaker plays the title role in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai
This code teaches him to respect the roles of servant and master. Eight years before the film begins, Ghost Dog was saved from a savage beating by Louie, an Italian mobster. From that moment on, Ghost Dog has pledged his service to this man. If his master told him to walk into a fire, he would willingly wrap himself in its blaze.

Instead, Louie orders him to make gangland hits, which Ghost Dog carries out without emotion or hesitation. He is serene and intense in his work, stealing cars and putting bullets into Louie's enemies.

Ghost Dog is alone in the world. His best friend is a French-speaking Haitian, even though Whitaker's character doesn't speak French and the Haitian doesn't know English.

Small-Time Crooks, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman) and Louie (John Tormey)
While watching this film, I was reminded of two stories from the Book of Genesis. One was the story of the Tower of Babel, in which people build a giant tower that can reach to the heavens. The Lord looks upon this tower as a symbol of man's hubris and decides to punish them. He puts different languages on the tongues of the people, so they will not understand each other, and scatters his creations across the world.

This film demonstrates the difficulty of connecting with another human being, whether the challenge is through language, culture, customs or age. Still, the picture's characters make attempts to connect.

Ghost Dog and his friend, the French-speaking Haitian, have bonded even though they can't communicate through words. In one scene, the Haitian leads Ghost Dog to a rooftop to show something he discovered: a man building a boat, high above the streets. The Haitian attempts to speak with the boat-builder, but the man only speaks Spanish. The reason for his work remains unanswered, at least directly, in the film.

Ghost Dog's best friend, Raymond (Isaach de Bankole), looks over a modern-day Noah and his wooden ship
A second story from the Book of Genesis, as you may have already guessed, is the story of Noah and the Ark.  The boat is a powerful symbol of being able to rise above the corruption of the world. Ghost Dog lives on a rooftop, and his friend has found an element of mystery there. Their conscious minds don't understand why the boat is there, other than it's a cool sight to see, but their subconscious selves seem to recognize its importance.

While watching this scene, a song that Yoko Ono released six months after the death of her husband, John Lennon, played in my head.  In my reading of the lyrics to this song, "Toyboat," Ono seeks passage from pain. Her son, Sean, was a young boy at this time, so I think of the boat as his boat, floating in a bathtub of water, his mother watching over her boy and his toy, bobbing on the ripples.

I'm waiting for a boat to help me out of here
Waiting for a boat to help me out
The boat that reached my shore was a toyboat
Waiting for a boat to help me out.

Ghost Dog, Louie, Raymond and others in this film are all waiting for a boat to take them away.

"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned." --William Butler Yeats
In the film's opening scene, a pigeon flies alone above the industrial skyline, free from the mean streets below. Like a boat, this pigeon is able to rise above a damaged world.  It also serves as a symbol that the world shown in this film is coming to an end. Read a stanza from William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming," after watching Ghost Dog and see if you agree.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

In the Industrial State, things are falling apart. The old ways are dying. Louie and his fellow mobsters wouldn't last five minutes in the Godfather films. They're dead inside. Their homes are for sale. They have a hangout in the back of a Chinese restaurant, but are behind in their rent. They have a look like they're trapped in cage.

The mob ponders the fate of Ghost Dog after a hit goes wrong.
Life isn't much better for Ghost Dog. He lives in a rooftop shack with only his birds for company. He kills people at his master's instruction, yet he hasn't lost his soul. His days are spent in reading from the book, Hagakure: Book of the Samurai, a code of ethics for a warrior class.

The Samurai code calls for a warrior to be "deadly in combat, yet gentle and compassionate with children and the weak." Ghost Dog lives by this precept.

Louie, however, has lost his way. He once saved a boy from a beating, but he cannot save himself.

He cannot save Ghost Dog when the mob decides he must die. From that moment in the film, the hit-man becomes the hunted. In the violence on screen, worlds die away. As Yeats wrote, "the centre cannot hold."


Out of the chaos, however, a light still flickers. A small flower opens. Her name is Pearline. She's a young girl, whom Ghost Dog meets her one day at the park, where they talk about books. She shows a copy of Frankenstein to him. He gives her a book, Rashomon and Other Stories

The reference to Frankenstein isn't casual. Like the mad doctor's creation, Ghost Dog is a monster, both in size and in his profession, yet he is also sensitive and seeks to share his life with another. He makes attempts at friendship with the Haitian ice cream salesman, but there remains a gulf between the two men. They can sense what the other one is trying to say, but they go no deeper.  

Similarly, Ghost Dog and Pearline share a love of books, but he is a grown man and a killer. She is only a little girl, adrift in a big city, seeking anchor. She is seeking a place in a society, described by Joseph Campbell, that no longer honors ritual or teaches youth how to behave in a civilized society. 

15 years after Ghost Dog was released, I still wonder what has become of Pearline. I hope she is all right.

Ghost Dog and Pearline (Camille Winbush) form an impromptu book club
The monster (Boris Karloff) and Little Maria (Marilyn Harris) in the film, Frankenstein (1931)
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a complex motion picture. Depending on the viewer, it may play as a dark comedy, social commentary, a warning, a send-up of gangster pictures, or a a film buff's reference manual. It features a marvelous marriage of image to sound, courtesy of a score by RZA, chief producer to the Wu-Tang Clan, that may be described as ambient hip-hop. It oozes out of some deep, dark place.  "It is mournful and elegiac in a way you'd never expect," says Erin Aubry Kaplan, writing for LA Weekly.

Forest Whitaker and Ghost Dog's director, Jim Jarmusch
Ghost Dog was the seventh feature directed by Jarmusch. I have only tapped into some of the wealth of images, story elements, film history references and sounds found in this picture. Explore it for yourself to see what you can find in its tale of darkness and light. 

TRIVIA: Jim Jarmusch's original title for his 1995 film, Dead Man, was Ghost Dog. To read 2FL contributing author Dave Gourdoux' article on Dead Man, click here

2014/09/21

Neil Young "Old Man"

by Jav Rivera

My music collection ranges from just about every musical style, but anyone who knows me well enough knows that the core of a song is what I care most about. It doesn't matter the style of music or the artist's reputation; I gravitate towards songs with heart. Neil Young's "Old Man" is one of those.

"Old Man" was released on Neil Young's 1972 album "Harvest," a collection of country rock tunes. "Old Man" has more of a folksy sound to it but still has that country twang instilled within it. For me, this is Neil Young at his best. There's just something about this song that gets me every time I hear it. I could be listening to my iTunes collection on shuffle mode, but if "Old Man" comes on I have to replay it more than a dozen times in a row. I wanted to write about this particular song because I've never, in all my years, researched the meaning behind the song. But in writing this article I learned a few things and perhaps found a reason why I love it so much.

"Old Man" (Album version)

"Old Man" was written for Louis Avila, one of the caretakers of some property in North California that Neil Young bought in 1970. The story goes that Young and Avila took a ride around the land shortly after the purchase. During their excursion, Avila asked Young how it came to be that he could afford this kind of property at such a young age. Young replied by stating that he was just lucky. 

Young wrote the song to express similarities between a young and elderly man. Even though the two were very different as far as age and finances go, he suggests the needs of humans are the same. In the lyrics Young writes, "Old man take a look at my life, I'm a lot like you. I need someone to hold me the whole day through." It's one of my favorite lines to sing. One, because there's great harmony going on, but I also like its meaning. Despite the amount of money, land, or success a man has, love is something that will always mean more.

Strangely, the song's meaning has changed slightly as I've aged. Looking at my life 10 or 15 years ago, I can see that not much has really changed. Love will always remain as important to me despite what age I may be. But it's the reality of those lines that mean more now at nearly 40 years of age. It makes me question why I was so focused on my career, success, finances, etc. Why did it take me so long to realize the true gift of life: love.

"Old Man" (Live version) 

Stylistically, "Old Man" contains some of my favorite elements: harmonized vocals, an acoustic guitar, a banjo (played by James Taylor), and a pedal steel guitar. The combination of these satisfy something I've always appreciated about country music: the sound of utter heartache. The pedal steel guitar, especially, does something inside me that pulls at my heartstrings while at the same time makes me smile. Most of my favorite songs contain some kind of pedal steel guitar. It adds so much more depth to an already great song.

Album cover
Different people have different reasons for loving a particular song, or even this song specifically. Maybe it's the lyrics, maybe it's the style of music, maybe it's the history of the song. I could easily choose any one of those reasons, but for me, "Old Man" is simply a great tune about lost love.

For more information on Neil Young, visit his official website: www.neilyoung.com

2014/09/14

Dilate

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

The "Little Folksinger", Ani DiFranco
There are some subjects that I’d love to write a 2nd First Look article about but I’ve avoided so far. It’s not that I don’t consider these things extraordinary (in my eyes), but what makes me hold back is that I have so much to say about some topics that I‘m afraid I‘ll go on for way too long. This has definitely been the case with one of my all-time favorite musicians, Ani DiFranco--until now.

During my college days, a campus group that I volunteered for sponsored a camping trip. I tagged along, and while we were at the campsite, setting things up and chit-chatting, a radio that somebody had plunked in the middle of everything was playing a CD that I’d never heard. The singer’s voice had a quality that I still don’t think I can do justice to by trying to describe it, and some of the lyrics caught my attention, really making me stop to listen. While I can’t remember the exact lines now, I do know that I was caught off guard by how bold, apologetically candid, and beautifully crafted they were. I was instantly hooked. After asking someone who the singer was, those first sparks fueled my Ani DiFranco fandom that’s spanned--well, let’s just say that it’s been a long time. It seemed silly to avoid writing about her on 2nd First Look for fear of my article growing to War and Peace proportions, so my solution was to pick a favorite Ani album (not an easy task), and focus just on that.

Ani’s music catalog is so vast that, after a feverish attempt early on, I gave up trying to collect them all. Since I did manage to squirrel away about a dozen of her CDs before iPods and digital music libraries became the norm, it’s hard to remember exactly which album was the first one I got. So for this piece I’m highlighting tracks from one that’s almost worn out from so much play: 1996’s “Dilate”. Ani is a skillful master of weaving together clever, often beautiful, sometimes painfully harsh imagery in her lyrics, and “Dilate” is a stellar example of that. Recorded at The Congress House studio in Austin, Texas over a three week period, Ani is quoted as calling it “a serpentine journey” that looks at a relationship from many angles. Here are some of my personal highlights from that album.

"Dilate" album cover 
“Untouchable Face”

A story of longing for a love who‘s unavailable, Ani’s voice is soft and wistful for most of this song, quietly gaining an edge each time it reaches the refrain, “So f*** you, and your untouchable face… And who am I, that I should be vying for your touch? Said who am I? I bet you can’t even tell me that much”. We realize that the “f-you” isn’t really animosity towards the “you” in the song; it’s the sheer frustration of the situation coming through with those lyrics. Even though she knows that person is in a relationship, logic isn’t winning, and there’s an overwhelming compulsion to see them: “You’ll look like a photograph of yourself taken from far, far away, and I won’t know what to do, and I won’t know what to say…I see you and I’m so perplexed; what was I thinking? What will I think of next? Where can I hide?” I’d be hard pressed to choose only one song of Ani’s that I love best, but if I was forced to, this very well may be it.

“Superhero”

“Superhero” starts out with us firmly in the place and mind of the person telling the story: “Sleep-walking through the all-nite drug store, baptized in fluorescent light…and every pop song on the radio is suddenly speaking to me, art may imitate life, but life imitates t.v.” Missing a lover who’s been gone “exactly two weeks; two weeks and three days”, the song talks about the act of reluctantly opening up to another person, only to have them walk away in the end. Again, there are fantastic lyrics like: “If I was dressed in my best defenses, would you agree to meet me for coffee? If I did my tricks with smoke and mirrors, would you still know which one was me?” Showcasing the mix of vulnerability and fierceness that first drew me to Ani’s music, there‘s a universal theme to “Superhero”, one of letting down your guard and letting another person in, even if things don’t work out the way you’d hoped they would.

“Shameless”

Where the first two songs I talked about are a little quieter, musically, “Shameless” comes in with hard-hitting guitar and an unapologetic story of a potential relationship that some of society might not approve of. It’s another great example of Ani’s ability to write uncompromising lyrics too: “This is my skeleton, this is the skin it’s in, that is, according to light and gravity, I’ll take off my disguise, the mask you met me in, ‘cuz I got something for you to see.” Going back to the music itself, this song also gives Ani a chance to show off what a talented guitarist she is. Her expression isn’t limited to just lyrics or her voice; she can “speak” through the instrument just as much as she does with her words.



“Joyful Girl”

If “Untouchable Face” is in the running for my #1 best-loved Ani song, “Joyful Girl” would be elbowing its way up there with it. I didn’t realize until just recently, seeing a clip of Ani performing this live in 2013, that she wrote this song for her mom. That adds even more depth to what was already a deeply lovely track to me. A gorgeous tale of self-acceptance and solid faith in who you are deep down, even in the face of criticism from the outside world, “Joyful Girl” talks about staying strong even when things are getting rough: “”Cuz the bathroom mirror has not budged, and the woman who lives there can tell, and she looks me in the eye and says ‘Would you prefer the easy way? No, Well o.k. then, don’t cry’” Dave Matthews does a cover of this song (joining other artists who have done covers of other Ani tracks), but for me the original with all of Ani's heartfelt nuances will always reign supreme.


After years and years of listening to “Dilate” and my collection of other Ani DiFranco CDs, I was over the moon to finally be able to see “the Little Folksinger” live in concert two years ago with my friend, Jenny, who was visiting from England. Switching between probably half a dozen guitars for different songs during her set, Ani was funny, and charming, and of course, candid. It was an exhilarating experience to not just hear her through speakers or earbuds, but to be in the same room with her, watching her strum and move and see her expressions as the music came through. Ani has some of the most rabid fans out there (which I say in a completely complimentary way), and it’s easy to see why. Not settling with signing to a major record label early on in her career, DiFranco founded her own, Righteous Babe Records, which is still going strong--much like Ani herself.  She’s back on tour again as this article is posted, so go to www.righteousbaberecords.com and click on “Tour” (or any of the other tabs) to find out more about Ani, her work, and where you can catch a show this fall.