Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

I picked this up because Kode9 had said it was a favourite in one of his Red Bull Academy Lectures, before playing something from the soundtrack. I had forgotten until I watched it that the famous intro to Burial’s ‘Gutted’ was taken from the film as well. The exhortation to stick to the old-school ways was universally interpreted as a declaration of loyalty to the hardcore continuum, which through a Ghost Dog lens becomes not just an aesthetic preference but a way of life.

Some of the aspects of Ghost Dog that I suspect appeal to these traditionalist dubstep dudes is stuff that I find a bit enervating. The central character is intense but introverted. He absorbs some esoteric meaning from books and music, but articulates it in the simplest terms. It’s almost as if this secret knowledge is beyond the bounds of speech, cannot be encompassed within our current concrete explanations for things. You just know, you know? Or perhaps the relationship between these aphorisms and the events we observe barely exists at all. It’s the portent, the stance and style, that’s important. And it’s not always easy to take seriously. Terrence Whittaker is so focused on being deep (that middle-distance expression, those droopy eyelids) that for large parts of the film he looks like he is about to fall asleep.

Or maybe the reason we don’t understand the Way of the Samurai is because it IS ancient. The film suggests that some of its values are recoverable: the girl Ghost Dog befriends correctly identifies the most significant story in Rashomon. However, she is still an initiate, and reacts with horror at the fate Ghost Dog must submit to. The film portrays his sacrifice as noble, even though the value system being celebrated is absurdly medieval (unquestioning obedience to the lord who holds your life in bondage). Why this becomes a standard for purity in a corrupt world that has ~moved on~ is deeply confusing.

I prefer to read character as a victim rather than a hero. Ghost Dog is an apt name, a faithful hound defending his owner to the death. As the family he protects turns against him, he looks to free himself from his conditioning, but the test of his principles at the end is too great. He remains a tool – an object used for other people’s ends (possibly set by the mysterious daughter of the gangster clan). There is something frustrating about the failure to escape, to move on. The way of the samurai is something Ghost Dog remains stuck in. Should we really lionize him for it, as Goodman and Bevan do?


Taxi Driver

My favourite scene is Travis watching television with a gun in his hand and eating mayonnaise with a spoon from a jar on his lap. With his foot he pushes the TV slowly over as the soap opera romantic betrayal unfolds. The scene encapsulates both the character's yearning to escape a closed autoerotic cycle through violence and the desire to take sadistic revenge for being rejected by society (and its women). In the making-of documentary, the film's writer Paul Schrader says the script started out as an exploration of loneliness (which is made explicit in the voiceover at the beginning). But as Schrader wrote it, he discovered that it was turning into a study of the way loneliness was self-imposed through contradictory behaviour: puritanism and pornography, exercise and drug abuse. It's THIS stuff – fear of women particularly – that lies behind Travis's evolving eccentricity and extremism. The assassination attempt at the rally is partly inspired by envy, the presidential candidate's "here is..." being far more accomplished that the solitary ravings of a taxi driver in his apartment. Likewise the chaotic raid on the brothel. Both of the blond-haired ladies he wishes to save look to other male figures for protection: politicians, pimps and gangsters providing greater avenues for freedom (Iris's mention of "Women's Lib" is only partly ironic) than messianic fantasists.

The white knight turns out to be a bumbling Quixote. The film puts the archetype of the noir anti-hero under a series of stress tests under which he is revealed to be a pathetic neo-nazi. The ending underlies the danger of celebrating such reactionary impulses. The lonely outsider isn't an conscientious ascetic refusing to participate in the corruption around him, he is infected by it on a far more insidious level. The retreat from society reinforces paranoid and exaggerated ideas about it, which make it less likely for you to be able to change anything. And yet the taxi driver's crusade makes all the papers and he walks free, seeing visions of lost repenting women in the night. How long before he finds another blond beauty to defend, other black enemies to destroy?


The Bulletproof Coffin

Fitting to read this shortly after Flex Mentallo, since it's also a meta-comic about the history of comics. Kane and Hine focus slightly more on the subject of creators rights and how they've been squashed under the mighty Big 2 Publishing (the villains of the piece). The Creators end up cashing in and leaving the more innocent era behind, implicating themselves in the death of their characters (although two are allowed a kind of un-dead existence at the end). That's what the whole comic is: a brief revival of things we have moved on from. In the world of modern comics, it's a zombie. Unlike Morrison, Hine and Kane don't offer anything 'new' here – in their hands Bulletproof Coffin becomes a pastiche of 'old' stories and styles. What saves it from being completely moribund is Kane's colourful artwork and Hine's arch narrative, which is impressively taught and organised for a story this chaotic.