Canon formation is typically a matter of official look-backs and critical group-think. Raging Bull, to take one example, was not born a masterpiece. It became one nearly 10 years after its release when, in 1990, it unexpectedly topped a number of critics’ polls. Indeed, the drive for consensus was such that the editor of a film monthly where I then wrote a column hastily revamped her own ’80s 10-best list to include the Scorsese opus.
Similarly, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (a movie first held back, then dumped, and finally yanked by its own distributor) has emerged as one of the most critically revered American features of the ’90s—placing ahead of such relative blockbusters as Schindler’s List, JFK, and Pulp Fiction in various recent surveys. It hardly seems coincidental that Jarmusch’s visionary western would be chosen to open the series “Top of the World: Film Comment Selects the Most Important Films of the ’90s” this Friday at the Walter Reade. But will Dead Man lend additional luster to Jarmusch’s latest, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai? I think not. Variety panned Dead Man, then used it as a stick to beat Ghost Dog—a film whose omission from the last New York Film Festival ended Jarmusch’s record of six consecutive inclusions.
A more crowd-pleasing exercise in fathomless cool than its predecessor, Ghost Dog is an impeccably shot and sensationally scored deadpan parody of two current popular modes—the hit-man glorification saga and the Cosa Nostra family drama—and is predicated on the clash of at least as many behavioral codes. The hired gun known as Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is introduced reading the 18th-century samurai manual Hagakure. His lips don’t exactly move, but the text thereafter serves as the major indicator of his consciousness: “The samurai is as if dead.” (It does not take long for these quotes to seem precious and then irksome.)
Ghost Dog has pledged his fealty to a somewhat baffled small-time mobster with whom he communicates by carrier pigeon. Like the Parisian hit man who is the antihero of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 Le Samurai (which, no less stylized, opens with a quote from the invented Book of Bushido), Ghost Dog is an ascetic loner who must ultimately wreak vengeance on the employer who betrays him. Cowled like a monk in his hooded sweatshirt, the urban samurai leaves his rooftop shack, complete with pigeon coop and Shinto altar, to glide unseen through the nighttime streets of his derelict neighborhood (a seeming mixture of Brooklyn and Jersey City).
To a large degree, Whitaker’s state of grace is the movie’s subject. From The Color of Money through The Crying Game, the actor has created some of the most vivid character performances of the past 15 years. Ghost Dog is Whitaker’s first chance since Bird to carry an entire movie—although Jarmusch, as is his wont, uses him more as an icon than a performer, trading heavily on Whitaker’s mournful yet impassive bearing. Programmatically devoid of emotion throughout, Whitaker is supported by a yapping crew of secondarios who play mobsters so deadbeat they’re being dunned for their clubhouse rent—Cliff Gorman, John Tormey, Gene Riffini, and Scorsese favorite Victor Argo. Henry Silva, a onetime Rat Pack crony and eponymous star of the seminal hit-man flick Johnny Cool, is the exception as the don whose brain-dead dignity mirrors Whitaker’s uncanny stillness.
Ghost Dog’s master commissions him to eliminate the wiseguy who has been unwise enough to romance the don’s daughter Louise (Tricia Vessey). Unfortunately, when the hit man fulfills his contract, Louise herself is on the scene, wearing a red slip, reading Rashomon, and watching Betty Boop. This fondness for televised cartoons runs in the family—the don is subsequently shown staring with fierce incomprehension at Felix the Cat turning diamonds into jelly beans. But then, as propelled by RZA’s ominous, pulsating score, Ghost Dog is itself something of a cartoon—well stocked with Jarmusch’s absurdist running gags and populated by birds, bears, and other funny animals.
Although Jarmusch will never be mistaken for John Woo (who has similarly paid homage to Le Samurai), Ghost Dog is easily the most violent movie the New York independent has made to date. Perhaps that is why the action is tempered by the extended whimsy of Ghost Dog’s largely telepathic friendship with two innocents—a voluble Haitian ice cream vendor (Isaach de Bankolé) who speaks and understands only French yet intuits all of Ghost Dog’s lines, and the wise little girl (Camille Winbush) with whom the hit man strikes up an acquaintance based on their mutual love of reading.
A movie as laconic as its hero, Ghost Dog is nonetheless diminished by its most un-Zen-like attachment to this underlying sentimentality. Ghost Dog‘s journey into the void lacks the cosmic, primal mystery of Dead Man‘s wilderness trip. Most of the movie’s pleasures are derived from Jarmusch’s comic timing and minimalist mise-en-scène. But, although a lesser film in the Jarmusch oeuvre, Ghost Dog demonstrates enough incidental grit and throwaway brilliance to suggest the filmmaker’s capacity to rise from the Dead.
As much a stylist in his way as Jim Jarmusch, the Swedish documentary-essayist Peter Cohen uses his latest film, Homo Sapiens 1900, to examine the ideologies of the last century through the prism of eugenics—which is to say, in light of the notion that humanity must seize control of its own evolutionary destiny by instituting a program of selective breeding. As the current debate over biotechnology and genetic engineering suggests, the issues are far from resolved.
Cohen’s two previous documentaries, Chaim Rumkowski and the Jews of Lodz and The Architecture of Doom, both dealt in various ways with the impact of Nazi ideology. But, as Homo Sapiens makes clear, it was not only the Nazis who believed that society was something to be cultivated like a garden. (Cohen locates the German notion of “race hygiene” in a context that also includes turn-of-the-century enthusiasms such as Jugendstil design and open-air nudism.) Actually, the two national cultures initially most impressed by eugenics were the United States, where by 1907 over 20 states had enacted compulsory sterilization laws (Cohen includes some amazing footage from the 1916 movie The Black Stork, made by and starring the American apostle of euthanasia, Dr. Harry Haiselden), and Sweden, which established the first government institute of race biology, effectively integrating eugenics into the social policies of the welfare state.
The Nazis were, however, the first political party to make “racial hygiene” a crucial part of their agenda. The contradiction between protecting family values and the need to breed the master race was resolved by focusing on negative eugenics—that is, by eliminating the deformed and “subhuman.” Positive eugenics were restricted to the aesthetic realm. It’s almost a too perfect dichotomy that where the Soviets were fascinated by brains (collecting and preserving “genius” specimens for scientific study), the Nazis were obsessed with bodies. Race-based eugenics were naturally problematic in the multicultural Soviet Union. Cohen excerpts a 1926 Soviet film that argues, against Mendelism, for the inheritance of acquired characteristics. A cameo by Minister of Enlightenment Anatoli Lunacharsky adds to the authority; the Soviets ultimately identified all genetic research with fascism.
Deliberately paced and shot in solemn black and white, Homo Sapiens 1900 has an undeniable pathos. Cohen quotes Zola to the effect that the late 19th century’s new biological sciences “belong just as much to the poet as the scientist.” Self-conscious as it is, our species imagines ideals that cannot possibly be achieved.