Buddhism & Film: Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999) (4/4) (seen previously)

The practice of Buddhism is one of the most sacred religions in the entire world, and the thought of a Buddhist-following killing machine is not one that is met with much clarity. However, director Jim Jarmusch with his 1999 film “GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI” combined both the elements of a synchronized assassin and a devout Buddhist follower. 

These elements are combined within a character referred to as “Ghost Dog” (played by Forrest Whittaker), a large, quiet African American male who follows the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Ghost Dog works as a hitman under a local lowlife mobster named Louie, who assigns him to a job where he was supposed to kill a made man. Complications arise when the daughter of the Mafia boss is present at the assassination and left as a witness – because of this, Ghost Dog must single handedly take on the mobsters who he usually works for.

All throughout the film, there are breaks in the continuity of the shots for written, white-on-black textual quotes from the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. These quotes foreshadow all of the doings of Ghost Dog and explain the Buddhist-based mentality by which he goes about his days on Earth, especially providing an in depth explanation behind the importance of him protecting his retainer by all costs. 

If Ghost Dog is not forced by following the Hagakure to protect Louie, he essentially has no reason to take on the Mafia and would be able to hide from them effectively in his rooftop pigeon coop. However, considering that he must protect his retainer by all costs and since Louie will be killed if Ghost Dog, the killer of the Mafia boss’ daughter, is not eliminated from the picture, he has no choice but to make enemies with those who once paid him to do deeds. 

Jarmusch’s artsy, clearly religiously influenced film work combined with rap superstar RZA’s amazing hip-hop influenced soundtrack would seem to undoubtedly create contradiction in the flow of the film, but this is not the case. “GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI” is a culture-clashed character, a modern day African American who listens to rap music and commits violent acts while abiding by the peaceful Code of the Samurai. Jarmusch, in creating the Ghost Dog character, makes an individual who is just plain old stuck in the wrong generation. 

One of The Sons of Lee Marvin, Jim Jarmusch is not a believer in any particular religion as much as he is a person who places emphasis on the need of religion in order to provide a moral crutch for people to rely on. Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog character is the epitome of someone who needs a religion to live their life because without Buddhism, he would probably be a thug roaming the streets.

Christianity & Film: James Gunn’s “Super” (2011) (4/4) (seen previously)

Often compared to superhero movies or old 70’s revenge films like Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” “SUPER” is (more than anything else) a movie where the main character’s doings are directly influenced by a message from God. The message doesn’t come in the form of any kind of supernatural happening or from any Biblical text – it comes from a TV show called “The Holy Avenger.”

That is one detail of the movie taken directly from the aforementioned film, John Landis’ “THE BLUES BROTHERS,” as Jake and Elwood Blues were on a supposed mission from God to bring the band back together. Our main character Frank physically transforms himself into The Crimson Bolt in order to fight crime and, in the long run, save his wife from drug dealer Jacque after receiving a message from God from the TV show.

The theme of the movie revolves around Frank’s wanting to get revenge on Jacque for stealing his wife. His excuse to seek revenge, essentially, is morality after he sees an utterly simplistic trash TV show that exposes the negativity of drug use. With that being said, Jacque is also a drug dealer, and has hooked Frank’s wife on drugs again (she is a very sensitive former user). Frank sees Jacque as an immoral human being who if society won’t teach him to act the right way, Frank will.

There are other Christian-related moments in the movie, all of them much more comedic than dramatic. There is one scene where The Crimson Bolt’s super-sidekick Boltie forces him to have sex with her (in costume) while he is crying because he realizes he is committing a sin. Towards the end of the movie, while Jacque is in a submissive position to the Crimson Bolt and asks him “So what are you going to do, huh, are you going to execute me for my sins?” – a direct reference to the Christian inspiration Frank took from “The Holy Avenger” TV show. It is the culmination of the delusion of Frank thinking he is on a mission from God as Frank proceeds to do what he does to Jacque. 

Even though a morally correct Christian theme is at the centerpiece of the film, director James Gunn is clearly not religious by any means. He exposes Christianity as what he sees as a joke, making it look like a firm excuse to be able to commit acts that are commonly considered morally wrong – like killing people because you don’t disagree with what they do. There are no scenes in the movie that suggest that Gunn put any thought into the afterlife of the characters, suggesting that he perceives their time living on earth to be much more important than afterlife.

All in all, “SUPER” is a lot more fun than it is religiously influenced even tough there is an overbearing religious message in the form of a TV show. To describe it in one sentence, it is a modern satirical religious superhero comedy. 

Alex Proyas’ “The Crow” (1994) (4/4)

Brandon Lee, Emerson College graduate and son of former martial arts phenomenon Bruce Lee, was unluckily the only person in the entire history of big-budget American filmmaking that died on set because an actual bullet was used instead of a blank. Coincidence or not, it is an utter shame that we lost such an authentic actor – especially one interested in following his father’s footsteps studying martial arts. 

“THE CROW” is one of the finest movies of the 90’s, period. There does not exist as great of an example of truly amazing gothic filmmaking as this, and it starts with Lee’s character. In an anachronistic future based off of the graphic novel where cops no longer have any power and drugs have taken over the city, Eric Draven (Lee) is murdered with his fiancée by the wheelin’ & dealin’ thugs that rule the city, only to come back to life with the help and guidance of a crow.

Yes, a crow that goes “caw.” If you can get over the unexplainable concept and the rather surreal overtone that the movie is made up of, it’s an outstanding adaptation of the novel by James O’Barr. The visual style is stunning, as every martial arts sequence is well shot, and the darkness portrayed in the city holds a strong similarity to the Batman “The Dark Knight” series. The editing is fast-paced, which oftentimes is a characteristic of a lazy filmmaker, but it works within the unbalanced plot of “THE CROW” regardless. 

Is it a superhero movie? Yes, in a lot of ways, but more than anything else it’s just a badass motherfuckin’ REVENGE THRILLER! The violence escalates at an alarming rate until the final act, where the ending is certainly first-rate. If you like your film served bloody and raw, I recommend “THE CROW!” 

Christianity and Film: John Landis’ “The Blues Brothers” (1980) (4/4) (seen previously)

Director John Landis is one of the few people in the entire world that could construct a successful car-chase/bringing the band back together/mission from God movie, but that he did with his 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.” 

Although by most usual standards it is considered one of the funniest comedies of all time, it is at specific points and certainly at heart a serious film – kind of. Upon Jake Blues’ release from prison for armed robbery, him and his brother Elwood head home to their childhood orphanage and learn that it will soon close unless $5,000 is raised. They realize that they are on a “mission from God” to bring their old band back together and go on tour to raise the money after visiting an evangelical church and hearing members of the chorus proclaim God’s glory enthusiastically through their song. 

The immediate question that arises when describing the thematic elements of “THE BLUES BROTHERS” is how and why would Landis combine a car-chase flick with a bringing the band back together film and a mission from God movie. The not-so-obvious answer is because Landis probably sees religious inspiration as a joke, something of a clutch for people to hinge onto in order to get themselves to do the right thing.   

There are two reasons why this is so obvious. The first is in the way Landis shot the entire scene at the evangelical church with an extremely fast pace and a massive amount of emphasis on the acrobatics done by members of the chorus. It is not a typical relaxed religious atmosphere where people can interact with God - it looks more like a concert. The second reason comes in the general sense of sarcasm in which Elwood (played by Dan Aykroyd) exclaims “We’re on a mission from God” while they are fleeing from the police in him and his brother’s battered old police car. 

That being said, Landis clearly did his research before choosing an evangelical church as the place where the Blues brothers realize that they are on a mission from God. With the amount of passion that the over-abundance of high-pitched-voiced chorus members sing their hymns in evangelical churches, it is the perfect place where two dummies could mistake musical inspiration for religious inspiration. Jake and Elwood think they want to bring the band back together because they are on a mission from God, when in reality they want to because they saw how fun it was for the chorus to produce music, reminding them of their glory days as musicians. 

Landis says that he is an atheist, and that couldn’t be more obvious after dissecting the plot of perhaps his most well-known film in “THE BLUES BROTHERS.” He clearly used Christian religion as a plot element in making his film wackier and ridiculous – and he surely succeeded. 

Jean Luc-Godard’s “Vivre Sa Vie” (1962) (4/4)

French director Jean-Luc Godard is one of the originators of cinematic style in more ways than one. In this film starring Anna Karina separated into twelve unconnected episodes that bring forth the storyline, he depicts the life of a wannabe actress who must delve into the world of prostitution and the presence of pimps because she can’t meet her goals. Stealing this quote from Gus Van Sant – this flick is so deep that you can’t cut it with a chainsaw. Not a chance.

Godard brings to the screen an uneasiness that has been absent in all contemporary cinema, save some of Tarantino’s earlier works. The camera just travels at a seemingly natural pace, picking and choosing who or what is going to be in frame or out of frame based on their importance to the scene in that particular second. To simply state it, Godard’s filmmaking is meticulous – perfect, for that matter. His choices of shots are flawless, bringing out a sense of uneasiness to the viewer in an incomparable way. 

I will say after seeing this film that, if you’ve seen one Godard movie before and didn’t like it that much, I urge you to give it a second shot. It takes time to acquire a taste for something so quintessential in the history of cinema. Oh, and I have a pretty big crush on Anna Karina now, too.