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Saturday, Oct. 30, 1999

The Zen and art of indie filmmaking


Jim Jarmusch is obviously a man who knows which side his bread is buttered on. His most recent visit to Japan was his fifth, here this time to promote his new film, "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai."

Despite his identification with New York's downtown scene, Jarmusch has always been well respected overseas, a fact reflected in "Ghost Dog's" financing, which came from Japan and France. Indeed, Jarmusch was quick to thank his sponsors JVC, for "allowing me to make films in my own way."

Jarmusch is much-loved in Japan, and it would seem the feeling is mutual. Nowhere is this clearer than in "Ghost Dog," which is the nom de guerre of a rooftop-dwelling hit man played by Forrest Whitaker who lives his life according to an ancient Japanese samurai text, the Hagakure.

Living almost entirely in solitude, Ghost Dog's only friend is a French ice-cream vendor (Isaach de Bankole) he can't understand. Alternately touching and humorous, the film follows Ghost Dog as he gets locked into a vendetta with his bosses, with a lot of comic relief coming from the bumbling mooks of the Mob (particularly a scene in which they compare rappers' nicknames with those of the wiseguys).

Dressed in post-punk black, his silver mane and stone-faced expression looking ever more youthful as he ages, Jarmusch only needed to light up a cigarette to complete the image. For the next 60 minutes he didn't smile once, least of all for the cameras, but his comments were surprisingly frank for someone presenting such an enigmatic front.

Since "Ghost Dog" is coming after the more contemplative "Dead Man" and the Neil Young rockumentary "Year of the Horse," some were wondering how it fits into the Jarmusch oeuvre.

"I don't analyze my own work or progression," replied the director. "I just try to go forward with whatever ideas I have. I'm very intuitive so I don't plan ahead very well. Once I finish a film and I've seen a film with an audience that paid to see it, I don't look at my films again. I don't like looking back."

Getting a bit Zen-like, the director mused, "I don't see this film as something new; rather, you learn from each film you make. I think if you ever get to the point where you think you know how to make films, you should probably stop, because it's always a process of learning."

Jarmusch has often cited the DIY aesthetic of '70s punk music as a crucial influence, however, he described hip hop as "the most innovative music of the last 15 years." Noted for his hip soundtracks (which have included Lounge Lizard John Lurie, Neil Young and Screaming Jay Hawkins), Jarmush tapped Wu Tang Clan member RZA to create a phat, beat-heavy aural collage for "Ghost Dog."

Another one of Jarmusch's strengths has been in casting. It was in Jarmusch films that actors like Masatoshi Nagase, Steve Buscemi, and Roberto Benigni first received international attention. When asked about his casting for "Ghost Dog," Jarmusch said, "I sort of do everything backward. I almost always start with actors who I want to write characters for." In the case of Forrest Whitaker, what caught the director's eye was "a kind of contradiction . . . that kind of gentleness that he has, but he's physically big and imposing."

When asked the inevitable, what attracted him to the Hagakure, Jarmusch replied, "I'm not a professor of Hagakure, but I read it, and was moved by a lot of things in it. What I liked about Hagakure, beyond the detail of warrior life, is that it has very deep spiritual and philosophical content. But it came into the film about halfway through the writing -- I was interested in a character who adopted it out of context."

Such cultural mixups are common in Jarmusch films, and Jarmusch points out that "an important part of 'Ghost Dog' to me is that he uses things from the past and modern things as well, he uses electronic gadgets, but he sends messages by pigeon."

Again betraying his punk roots, Jarmusch expressed a strongly egalitarian view of culture: "I used to argue when I was younger, with academics, about the hierarchy of art and expression. And I used to argue that the music of Bach is very beautiful, but that the music of the Ramones or Wu Tang Clan is equally valuable.

"I don't like a hierarchy of pop culture vs. classical culture. If it's good, it's good. You have to take the things that move you and let them into your soul."

For such an unflappable and reserved guy, it's hard to picture Jarmusch throwing the typical director's tantrum on set, but apparently sometimes the stone face does crack.

"There are occasions where I've lost my temper," notes Jarmusch, mentioning a physical confrontation with a burly teamster who ruined a shot by driving a truck through the background. "But it's a bad example, and since I try to be the navigator of the ship we're all on, I try to keep it as calm as possible.

"I try to follow the Hagakure. . . . One very valuable lesson was matters of great concern should be treated lightly, and matters of small concern should be treated seriously. So the idea that we're making a film is not of earthshaking importance."

"Ghost Dog" opens in late November at Chanter Cine 2.


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