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Exhausted author Donald Antrim on the nature of ambivalence, psychopathic samurai, and Jim Jarmusch's 'Ghost Dog'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture. He welcomes comments at talkpix@outrageous.net.

Donald Antrim stares across the coffee counter, taking in the vast assortment of beverage opportunities that now stand before him. Espressos. Mochas. Cappuccinos.

"I've had so much coffee in the last 36 hours," he sighs.

Momentarily considering some sort of tea, he goes on to recognize the existence of decaffeinated coffee drinks as well. Then there's the whole question of hot drinks vs. iced drinks. It's quite a problem, made all the more difficult by the fact that Antrim--the inventive and audacious Brooklyn-based author of such wonderfully weird and idiosyncratic novels as Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, and The Hundred Brothers--is clearly exhausted.

He's been going almost nonstop for weeks, city-hopping across the country to promote his latest book, The Verificationist (Knopf). The novel is a brilliant, comical, tongue-tripping tour de force about a pancake-house meeting of psychoanalysts that becomes a surreal rite of passage for Tom--a likable shrink with ambivalence issues (he suffers an anxiety attack when he can't decide whether to order pancakes or eggs)--who inexplicably floats to the roof of the restaurant and stays there for the rest of the (exhilarating and odd) book.

The words "odd and exhilarating" could also describe the movie Antrim and I have just seen. Ghost Dog--The Way of the Samurai, the striking new film by innovative movie-meister Jim Jarmusch, tells the story of a mysterious hit man (Forest Whitaker) who lives by the ancient code of the Japanese samurai. Whitaker's character has made himself the "retainer" of a low-level mob goon who uses Ghost Dog to even his family's many scores.

It is a tribute to Jarmusch's genius that Antrim--who, by the way, has resolved his own libation ambivalence by ordering an iced-decaf coffee--was able to stay awake through the entire film in spite of his sleep-deprived state.

And now he's ready to talk.

"It's interesting. Ghost Dog, in effect, is a stalker," submits Antrim, sipping his drink on the semi-sunny outside patio. "His attachment to the mobster has a pathological quality to it. He's devoted his life to this samurai code--and to this mob character--in a way that, in the absence of that code, would seem pathological in the extreme. But with the code, I don't know . . . it almost seems moral."

"We're somewhat programmed to appreciate sacrifices made in the name of a code, aren't we?" I say. "Think of all the stories we hear about the American Revolution, 'Give me liberty or give me death,' and all that. We're taught from kindergarten to honor people who follow a strict code--even when others call it madness."

"Well, it's very powerful rhetoric," Antrim agrees. "But there's a way in which rhetoric, taken out of context--or even in the context--of its original utterance, can become quite crazy-sounding. 'Give me liberty or give me death' is not a choice that most sane people, were they faced with that choice, would really want to make. Most people won't say, 'Give me liberty or give me death.' They'll merely stay alive, then somehow struggle to regain their liberty."

"So, then, is Ghost Dog is some kind of psychopath?" I ask.

"He's a cold-blooded killer," Antrim reminds me. "He murders without remorse, like James Bond and Dirty Harry. I'd call him a psychopath."

Among the many rules that Ghost Dog lives by is the sacred admonition to "Make every important decision in the space of 7 breaths."

Consequently, he makes some fairly desperate decisions--like storming single-handedly into a mob boss' fortress--without a lot of internal agonizing or debate.

It's kind of cool. But is that a reasonable way to live a life?

"The question might be, Is it a reasonable way of life to life by a strict code of any kind?" Antrim muses. "I can't say whether it's a good idea to make decisions quickly. In fact, I think that living outside of ambivalence--which is what Ghost Dog does--might be another kind of pathology.

"This is a very high-functioning, efficient character because he's given over his own though-making process to this ancient instruction manual. This is a character who's not operating with ambivalence.

"And really," he continues, "have you ever known anybody in real life who's operating without ambivalence? It can be an very upsetting thing to watch people making rash decisions and change their lives quickly.

"Ambivalence is something that protects us. It's something that gives us time, time to consider and weigh alternatives, to think about how our decisions will affect our lives and the lives of other people."

"I think your pancake psychologist would have appreciated a bit less ambivalence," I suggest.

"Maybe," nods Antrim. "But maybe not. Ambivalence is not an inability to make a choice. Ambivalence is a struggle that results from the consideration of many possibilities. Ambivalence, as a state in a world that wants to be high-functioning, in a culture in which we clearly value getting things done, getting them done quickly and well--in the space of seven breaths, as it were--is something that is quite underrated."

"If I were a samurai I might disagree with you," I tell Antrim.

"Not if you were a thoughtful samurai," Antrim replies. He mentions Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, a film that ends--like a John Ford western, or Ghost Dog, for that matter--with a sense that these violent men, by the self-sacrificing nature of their own moral code, will eventually destroy themselves.

"To actually follow a code to the letter--to free yourself of choice, and your own ambivalence over choice--can have very destructive consequences," he says.

"And besides," he adds, rattling his ice as he absorbs the last gulp of his decaf, "while holding to a fixed idea might offer you some freedom, it's also just a very tiresome way to live."

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From the March 30-April 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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