Jarmusch likes to upend film conventions

Director: In the new `Ghost Dog,' the independent filmmaker continues to twist the genres he respects.

March 13, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

In the annals of independent film, the year 1984 has been called a watershed year, when artistic and commercial forces came together to create what some have called the "first Golden Age" of indie cinema.

That was the year that John Sayles released "The Brother From Another Planet," Jonathan Demme released the Talking Heads concert film "Stop Making Sense," the Coen brothers arrived on the scene with "Blood Simple" and Wim Wenders released "Paris, Texas."

But of that impressive crop, one movie made the most seismic impact on critics, audiences and, eventually, the film business. "Stranger Than Paradise," a black-and-white feature about three misfits on a journey to nowhere by first-time feature director Jim Jarmusch, turned the classical Hollywood aesthetic on its ear. Its spare composition, unmoving camera, long takes that ended in a dark screen and quirkily deadpan dialogue charmed even the most jaded critics and gave filmgoers a look and emotional tone they had never encountered before.

Sixteen years later, Jarmusch has made seven feature films, most on color film stock and some even using camera movements and classical editing techniques. His new movie, "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," even reads like a conventional popcorn movie for the masses: A hit-man who follows the Japanese code of the samurai warriors finds himself in the middle of a mob war when one of his assassinations doesn't go as planned.

But because it's Jarmusch, "Ghost Dog," which opens Friday, is anything but conventional. Although he's a big fan of the film noir, cartoons and even Westerns that are quoted in "Ghost Dog," Jarmusch was more interested in turning those genres on their collective head than in following their formal rules.

"I was interested in certain conventions but I wanted to kind of derail them," Jarmusch explained in a recent telephone conversation. "I was attracted to them, [but] I don't know why. I've said somewhat facetiously that `Ghost Dog' is a gangster-gangsta, Eastern-Western, hip-hop-whatever. It's like a mixture of those [genres that] rely on conventions. Although I'm more attracted to the ones that turn them upside down."

It's an approach Jarmusch has tried before. His last film, "Dead Man," starred Johnny Depp as an accountant who travels to the Western frontier in the late 19th century and, through a series of bizarre encounters, reaches a transcendent point between life and death. The film was Jarmusch's ode to the subversive Westerns, such as Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," that he has admired for several years. Like Depp, Forest Whitaker, who plays the title character in "Ghost Dog," embodies a stillness that acts as a centripetal force on those around him.

"They're actors who use less as more," Jarmusch says of Depp and Whitaker. "Some fleeting little thing can cross their face and they don't have to dramatize it or make it a big dramatic acting thing."

Jarmusch says he had Whitaker in mind from the start.

"I wanted to make a story about a character that was contradictory, that was violent, and yet there was something deep in him that one would respect or like. I always try to write with the central character or characters already cast in my head, so that I can envision them, so I thought of Forest because that kind of contradiction is already in him in a way. There's something sort of wounded and gentle about him, and yet he's big and strong, and actually has studied martial arts since he was 8 years old."

"Ghost Dog" is populated with a cast of colorful supporting characters that by now are typical of a Jarmusch production (this is, after all, the director responsible for introducing American audiences to the antic humor of Roberto Benigni, in the 1986 film "Down By Law"). Ghost Dog is surrounded by a vivid klatch of bumbling Mafiosi (one of whom adores rapper Flavor Flav), a cartoon-addicted moll and an African ice cream salesman who speaks only French but with whom Ghost Dog carries on perfectly understood conversations. "I don't know where they all came from," Jarmusch says, "I just sit down and at a certain point try to weave them into something and come out with a script."

For the past decade, the New York-based Jarmusch's films have been financed with the help of companies in France, Germany and Japan; the arrangement has given him a rare freedom among directors. He has final cut on all his movies, and even owns the negative once they're finished.

"Their attitude is, `We put up the money, you make the film. You don't tell us how to run our company, we don't tell you how to make a film,' " he explains.

The financing arrangement is perfectly consistent with the content of Jarmusch's films, which nearly always feature a polyglot cast and a story that weaves together themes and myths from a variety of cultures and traditions. By the same token, since "Down By Law" was released, his films have consistently done better in Europe and Japan than in the United States.

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