Sunday, June 9, 2013


Film by Terry Zwigoff
Review by Don L. Stradley

Thora Birch in Ghost World
Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World was an unexpected arthouse hit during the summer of 2001. Stars Steve Buscemi, Thora Birch, and Scarlett Johansson, along with Zwigoff and his collaborator Daniel Clowes, scored many awards and nominations; more than one critic,  hailed Ghost World as the best film of the year. At the very least, it seemed to break a spell cast by two decades of shrill teen comedies.

The good cheer  wasn't unanimous, though.  Ghost World barely broke even at the box office, and for every viewer who loved this story about Enid, a foul-mouthed teenager attempting to postpone adulthood, there was someone who didn't get it.  Andrew Sarris at The New York Observer hated Ghost World. He admitted the film had "panache," but disliked Enid's rudeness. He went so far as to say he hated - hated - Zwigoff and Clowes, particularly for a scene that takes place in a porno shop.  Sarris, the man who introduced filmdom to the "auteur theory," wondered for the first time "whether a film can be too personal an expression for its own good." But it was the film's unique tone and refusal to play by the usual Hollywood formula that won the film many loyal followers, and made Roger Ebert say, "I wanted to hug this movie."

Ghost World still plays remarkably well a dozen years later.  In between the mean dialogue and the misanthropic characters are two timeless questions:  how does one make the adjustment between youth and maturity, and how does one remain an individual without being isolated. It's also a marvel of cinema shorthand. Example: Enid (Birch) is presiding over a table of her old junk at a yard sale. Her friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) picks up an antique hat. "I remember this," Rebecca says. "It's from your little old lady phase." What sort of kid goes through such a phase? Well, the kid in this movie does.

Clowes, who had created the Ghost World characters in his excellent comic book Eightball, has enjoyed a career as an underground comics icon, complete with a cameo in The Simpsons.  Like the characters in Ghost World, he's rarely impressed with anything new or trendy. "I don't read much of anything online," he said once. "It's not an enjoyable experience for me to read something with light projected through it."

Zwigoff's dislike of most things modern is well-known,  rivaled only by his distaste for Hollywood. Zwigoff struggled for five years to get Ghost World made. He'd already directed two excellent documentaries (Louie Bluie, 1985, and Crumb, 1994), but that didn't impress the Hollywood power brokers. The success of Ghost World should have vindicated Zwigoff, but he's so anti-Hollywood that he'll never work regularly in that brain-dead town. His lament that Hollywood is not interested in small, smart films seems more true now than a dozen years ago. If we get nothing more from Zwigoff, we should be pleased to have had Ghost World. In its own way, it does for me what Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were supposed to do.

From the opening credits we know we're in for something unusual. While "Jaan Pehechan Ho," a raucous Bollywood rock song from 1965, blares at us, Zwigoff's camera sneaks up a dark street, peeking in the windows of apartments. The tenants are blank-faced, inert.  Are they the ghosts of Ghost World? Then we see Enid, dancing with abandon in her red graduation gown. She's mimicking the dancers in the Bollywood video, not to mock, but to see how it feels to dance this way. Enid tries on different looks throughout the film, hoping something eventually sticks.

The nameless, cluttered city Enid lives in has been identified by some as Los Angeles, but while some location shots took place in LA, there are no such references in the film. It's a generic, dull city that seems made up of malls, retro diners, and drab apartment complexes. Enid fights the boredom by wearing vintage dresses and regarding the world with cheerful disdain. Her classmates are dim, but filled with self-importance. When Enid learns of a new couple in school, her reaction is blunt: "He'd better be careful," she says, "or he'll get AIDS when he date rapes her." 


Enid finds a distraction in Seymour (Buscemi), a middle-aged loner who lives in the neighborhood. He's a reclusive record collector whose only friends are other reclusive record collectors.  Enid meets Seymour after she and Rebecca play a cruel prank on him through the newspaper personals.  It sounds ugly, and it is, but Enid later befriends Seymour and decides to help him find a girlfriend.  "I don't want to live in a world where a guy like you can't get a date," she says.

As far as girls in movies go, Enid's a rare coin. She's aware of males, but finds them vapid. She has a small crush on a friend named Josh (Brad Renfro) but doesn't act on it because Rebecca likes him, too. In a lesser movie, that would've been the plot. Ghost World, though, has more on its mind. 

The title of the film intrigues me. In Clowes' comic book, the characters are often alone in their homes at night, bathed in a  blue light from the television. This creates a ghostly effect. There are other possible meanings: the ghosts in the old advertising art shown throughout the movie; the ghosts of our childhood; the ghosts in the things we don't want to give up. There's also a kind of ghost world between childhood and adulthood, a time that can be very empty and boring. The meaning of "Ghost World" lurks in all those things.

The film is as beautiful to look at as any created in the past 20 years. Cinematographer Affonso  Beato (The Big Easy, Great Balls of Fire, The Queen, and several films by Pedro Almodovar) wasn't nominated for any awards but he should've been. He makes Enid's daylight world as candy bright as a gumball machine, and the nights  as lonesome as a painting by Edward Hopper.  Along with some LA locations, Ghost World was filmed in Santa Clarita CA. It's as if Zwigoff chose the hardest looking locations possible, with nothing but harsh sunlight beating down on pavement. Zwigoff and Beatto finds ways to make even  graffiti covered benches and convenience stores look as dreamy as a Technicolor musical from the 1950s.

Zwigoff's framing gives the indoor scenes a kind of cozy claustrophobia. Enid and Seymour have similarly crowded rooms: hers with toys, and closets spilling over with vintage clothing; his with Mexican movie art, racks of old 78s, and photos of his favorite blues men. "One gets a sense of actually being in the room," wrote Mark Olsen in Film Comment, "feeling the emotional weight and sentimental heft of objects, pictures, and furniture."

Buscemi, who should be considered a national treasure by now, plays Seymour as a man who has slowly painted himself into a corner, compulsively collecting records at the expense of all outside connections.  He's quietly miserable, but his occasional bursts of road rage suggest something boiling in his core. Enid puts aside her own crankiness when she's with him. Around Seymour, Enid becomes sweet; she even brings him a cupcake on his birthday. 

There's a subplot about Enid going to summer school where she encounters a well-meaning art teacher (Illeana Douglas), and another about her failed efforts to find work, but the movie belongs to Enid and Seymour.  I like watching their friendship blossom, and I like their ease with each other. I like how she's shocked by his road rage, and he's shocked by her language. Few screen couples of the decade were this well-suited to each other.

When Seymour eventually meets a woman (Stacey Travis), Enid finds herself alone again. In a moment of loneliness, Enid gets drunk and spends the night with Seymour. Zwigoff, who isn't averse to foul language and porno shops, fades out  on their coupling, drawing the camera down to an antique rocking horse. The moment belongs to Enid and Seymour, not us. Unfortunately, Enid immediately regrets it.

Things don't end well. Enid skips town, and the last time we see Seymour is in the office of a female therapist whose walls are covered in Georgia O'Keeffe flower-vaginas. He also seems to have moved in with his nagging mother.  The price for sharing your bed with a 17-year-old is to be damned to a kind of all-female hell.

Zwigoff has made only two films since 2001: Bad Santa (2003) and Art School Confidential (2007). They are both challenging, complicated films laced with dark humor, rough language, and characters at odds with their surroundings. "He has a gift for connecting us to people who aren't obviously likable," wrote Manohla Dargis in the LA Weekly,  "then making us see the urgency of that connection." Zwigoff is 64 now; Clowes is 51. They've both been through serious health problems. It's tasty to imagine the sort of film they could make now, a cranky meditation on aging and mortality, a different sort of ghost world.  

Ghost World was a transition for Birch and Johansson. Both were veteran child actors with several roles on their resume, and here they seemed poised to enter the next phase in their careers. Johansson went on to star in, among other films, Lost in Translation (2003), and a trio of excellent Woody Allen films. Lately she does a lot of big budget action fare, and  her love life is fodder for the tabloids. 

Johansson is overshadowed by Birch in Ghost World, but her character is important.  She's exasperated by Enid's refusal to grow up, she seems jealous of Seymour, and unlike Enid, she's willing to take those first shuffling steps into adulthood, even if its detrimental. In one of the film's finest scenes, Enid visits the coffee shop where Rebecca works and sees that Rebecca has lost her ability to laugh at life.  The scene feels incidental, but its a sign that Enid and Rebecca's friendship will end just as surely as Enid and Seymour's;  the film's melancholy tone is as much from the end of friendships as it is the end of childhood.

 An Edward Hopper? No, a scene from Ghost World.

Birch had earned some acclaim in American Beauty (1999), but as Enid in Ghost World she showed herself to be a sophisticated actress, willing to take risks. Along with coloring her hair black, she gained weight, and played a character so rude and abrasive that she divided audiences. Your appreciation of her work in Ghost World is in relation to your ability to see beyond Enid's callousness. If you can, you'll see that Birch gave a touching, multi-layered performance.

The scenes where Enid grows increasingly lost and frustrated work because we feel her sadness. When Seymour suggests they not see each other anymore because of his new girlfriend, we can see Enid's heart breaking.  Birch has acted infrequently since Ghost World.  That's our loss.  

I still find myself thinking about Enid. At the film's conclusion she boards a mysterious bus and disappears, leaving everyone behind. How did she end up? Clowes wrote a comic book story years after Ghost World where he showed Enid and Rebecca as grown women. Rebecca became a writer; Enid didn't do much of anything. Enid went to one of Rebecca's book signings and they chatted a while. Enid made a crack about  Juno, a movie that owed a lot to Ghost World, but had a happy ending and made 20 times the money. Go figure. 

We've all known girls like Enid.  I knew one back in high school. I think she became a nurse. Such girls usually go into things like nursing, or social work, or they work with animals, for underneath their bluster they like to be helpful. I've thought about tracking my friend down through Facebook, but I know she'd despise Facebook, as would Enid.

If Enid were real, she'd be 30 now. She'd probably hate  social media. I'm almost positive she'd hate bloggers.


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