World of Wonder
Ghost Honors Its Audience's Teen Spirit
About a month ago, I heard Crumb director Terry Zwigoff on National Public Radio's Whad'Ya Know?, talking about his new film Ghost World, based on Daniel Clowes' cult comic book about alienation, America's cultural emptiness, and the precarious nature of female friendship. Zwigoff got some laughs from explaining that studio suits had pressured him to hire for the film's lead Jennifer Love Hewitt, a bankable but otherwise uninspired casting choice. ("She just doesn't seem like an outsider to me," he opined.) Then he regaled the obviously receptive audience with a few more tidbits about the banalities of Hollywood and its unwavering fixation on the bottom line.
But then, Zwigoff crossed a line of a different sort: When weighing in on the kinds of movies he hates, the iconoclastic auteur bad-mouthed the oeuvre of hipster fave Pedro Almodóvar--the most irony-savvy of directors--whose work Zwigoff deemed "pretentious." The audience reacted with an abrupt, stunned silence that spoke volumes: Clearly, this Zwigoff character isn't just outside of the mainstream, they realized, he's way beyond the margins. In a flash, Zwigoff had gone from seeming like a witty provocateur to coming off as a total freak.
Or, as Enid, the bespectacled, vintage-tog-clad half of the cynical teenage duo at the heart of Ghost World would say, "He's such a clueless dork, he's almost cool."
That's how she describes Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a character based on Zwigoff who appears in the film but is only a bit part in Clowes' comic. Seymour is an obsessive, embittered middle-aged collector of old jazz 78s (a hobby of the director's as well) befriended by Enid (Thora Birch, who has gone full-tilt with this rebellious-teen thing since her turn in American Beauty). Her deadpan, low-key, more conventionally attractive (i.e. blond) pal Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) characterizes a garage band she wants to check out with the same "so bad it's good" rationalization. In a way, it's the highest compliment these two human bullshit detectors can mete out; they think most of what surrounds them pretty much sucks.
Ghost World doesn't really have a conventional plot, though Zwigoff and co-writer Clowes have sharpened the story's focus, expanded on the narrative and certain ideas contained within, and made other adjustments to ease the funny book's transition to the big screen. What's left is a string of statically paced, performance-driven episodes--not unlike the rhythms of everyday life--in which two teens navigate the netherworld between high school graduation and the inevitable, tiresome realm of adult accountability. They wander around their Los Angeles neighborhood (consisting of apartment complexes that look like they were built in the 1950s) and take delight in anything even remotely out of sorts in the bland landscape of convenience stores, strip malls, and theme restaurants. They poke fun at normals, dis pseudo-bohemians and poseurs (my favorite is a suit-sporting radical who defends his appearance by explaining he's going corporate so he can "fuck things up from the inside"), and prank squares. They spy on complete strangers and make up outrageous back stories about them--like the couple they spot at a local diner and decide are"satanists."
Rebecca is the more goal-oriented of the two, and when she starts to exhibit signs of actually maturing (by talking a job at a chain coffee shop and saving up for her own apartment), she and Enid begin to drift apart. Adding to the tension, Enid insists on pursuing a friendship with sad-sack Seymour, who she meets after he is the target of one of her elaborate pranks. ("He's the exact opposite of everything I hate!" Enid gushes.) Ultimately Seymour is harmless, but with his oyster pallor, off-putting demeanor, and the fact that he welcomes the company of teenage girls, he understandably gives Rebecca the creeps.
In order to graduate, Enid takes a remedial art class in summer school, taught by a flaky free spirit (expertly channeled by Illeana Douglas) who values contrived political art (like a wire-hanger sculpture that its teen creator says is a testament to "a woman's right to choose," which sends Enid's eyeballs rolling) over actual skill and technique (like that displayed in Enid's sketchbook, featuring work drawn by R. Crumb's daughter, Sophie Crumb). Enid's experiences in her art class--and a recurring theme throughout Ghost World--points to the protagonists' frustration with a society that isn't able to distinguish between what's genuine and organic, and what's phony and derivative. Enid's "found object" art project, her comment on the insidious nature of racism in the age of political correctness, is misinterpreted as being racist in itself. Not surprising, given that everywhere around her, faux-'50s diners flourish, a popular "blues" band takes the stage at a local bar and launches into standard-issue rock 'n' roll, and nobody seems to care the way Seymour does about the distinction between ragtime and blues arrangements.
Despite all this, Ghost World is hardly as nihilistic as it sounds. The film's first half is infused with a quirky joyousness--Zwigoff trades the book's muted dish-wash blues for a more vibrant palette of primary colors. The girls seem to get a kick out of everything around them and launch acidic barbs as if they'd just invented sarcasm (much of the film's humor inspires the laughter of recognition). Sure, the film slows down considerably in the last act--when Enid's refusal to get on with her life results in near-disaster--and the film's denouement is an ambiguous downer. Still, Zwigoff handles the film's stickier situations and the relationships among the central characters with compassion and wit.
Although Ghost World is compulsory viewing at any age, it's the most intelligent movie about teens to come along in a while, probably because it avoids pandering to its audience. Fitting, given the film's disgust with a culture designed solely to sell you stuff, best illustrated in a scene where two characters argue across a kitchen table with a television positioned between them. They go back and forth for what seems like an eternity, and the entire time an endless procession of ads plays on the small screen. We're paying attention to the heated exchange, but we're also wondering when the commercial break is going to end. The makers of Ghost World have touched on one positive aspect of mass media and our homogenized, commerce-obsessed culture: Because we all have it in common, we can all empathize with being annoyed by it.