Just as strip-mall auteur Kevin Smith ventured into the mystic with his recent and enthusiastically Catholic "Dogma," so has former No Wave auteur Jim Jarmusch, whose Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai derives its main narrative juice from classical Zen. Unlike Smith, though, Jarmusch rejects the idea that his film represents any personal spiritual leanings.
"Gee, not to my knowledge," he says, chuckling. "But I respect these things a lot, although I don't formally practice them."
Ghost Dog, played by Forest Whitaker, is a hit man who follows the samurai codes. A major source of the secular drama comes from the friction between Jarmusch's themes of cross-cultural assimilation (both Ghost Dog and his mobster enemies love hip-hop) and tribal loyalty (the assassin strictly adheres to samurai ways, while his nemesis pledges allegiance to the Mafia). "It is a contradiction," the director says. "And that's one thing I love about Eastern philosophy. I love cultural synthesis, while at the same time I love respecting a culture's identity -- its past and where it comes from. Like they say in hip-hop: 'Respect the architects.'"
Although Jarmusch claims to work in a mainly intuitive fashion, one thing that was never in any doubt was the casting of Whitaker. "I wrote it for him," Jarmusch says. "When I had the first kernel of an idea -- a character who was a contradiction, a violent person we would respect somehow ... I thought, Forest Whitaker! Because he has that damaged -- no, not damaged -- wounded look. Soulful, poignant, yet he's a physically big, potentially threatening type of guy."
Similarly, Wu-Tang Clan mastermind The RZA was the director's first choice to create the music. But finding the rapper was another story. "I went through the manager/lawyer route, which got me nowhere. So I realized, well, if you're trying to find a criminal, you don't go to the cops. I told RZA that later, and he said, 'Word!'" After a search facilitated by underground contacts, Jarmusch met with RZA, only to discover, "He didn't know who I was. He hadn't seen any of my films. I gave him some tapes, and the one he loved the most was 'Dead Man.'"
And so a unique director/composer process began. "In general, he didn't write [the score] as cues," the director says. "He'd give me elements and said, 'Do it hip-hop style." The result is a soundtrack that seems to insinuate itself into the film, as opposed to announcing how the audience should react.
Since Jarmusch first made his name with the 1984 deadpan comedy "Stranger Than Paradise," his detractors have complained about his use of anachronistic characters and a variety of irony that can be described as "smart-ass." The director bristles slightly at that characterization: "There's some irony created by situations. Like three guys in Louisiana in the bayou [in 1986's "Down by Law"], and they've escaped from prison, and there's a little Italian restaurant. It's not about irony coming from smart-ass dialogue; it's situational irony."
Still, there's no guarantee that the aesthetic sea change represented by "Ghost Dog" will be embraced by the film community. The movie received mixed notices at the Cannes Film Festival last year, which Jarmusch views with Zenlike detachment. "It was very well received at the screening we went to. But again, showing your films in Cannes -- this is what a friend of mine said: It's kind of like showing your film to 2,000 French hairdressers -- a pretty weird audience."