The script for Ghost World is a collaboration between director Terry Zwigoff and comic book artist Daniel Clowes, whose graphic novel of the same title forms the basis of the story. The carefulness of their adaptation is evident in the fact that the comic book source isn’t readily apparent. Only after the movie is over does the comic-like structure emerge: The film is a series of self- contained dramatic moment-panes that succeed one another in a mechanical fashion, and there is poignancy in the movie’s flat and repetitive visual style that’s apparent only in retrospect. Perhaps this explains why Ghost World is so elusive on a first viewing, to the point of annoyance at times. Unlike most movies, it casts its spell forward–you don’t feel enchanted until long after leaving the theater.
But Ghost World‘s enchantment also disturbs, in ways that are difficult to pinpoint–which might sound familiar to those who saw Zwigoff’s last film, Crumb, a movie with a similar uncanny effect. But the two films are different in important ways, not the least of which is their relation to comic books. Crumb is a documentary about Robert Crumb, the underground comic book artist whose work combines dark sexual imagery and social commentary, yet the movie’s overall approach is a fairly conventional one, despite its dense construction. Ghost World, on the other hand, is a straightforward fiction film that delicately incorporates comic book techniques into its own aesthetic; and while sickness and satire are also working in Ghost World, they function as integral elements in a larger scheme.
The story begins with the high-school graduation of best friends Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). The two girls share an ironic sensibility that sets them apart from the rest of the world–a semi-urban wasteland littered with convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, real-estate offices and insurance companies (modern America, in other words). The town is populated by an an assortment of freaks and geeks–mainly blank youths who are either manic or depressive, and a variety of pathetic, deranged adults. The girls’ acute knowingness, sometimes funny, at other times cruel, has the double effect of staving off boredom while isolating them from others.
Enid is forced to take a remedial art class with an empty-headed teacher (Illeana Douglas) who lectures about “interiority” and is trapped in a ’70s post-structuralist time warp. Rebecca, meanwhile, gets a job at a local coffee franchise and begins saving for the apartment she and Enid have long planned on sharing. But as the summer grows long, the girls’ bond wears thin, especially after Enid becomes involved with an alienated, middle-aged malcontent, aptly named Seymour (Steve Buscemi).
Without the benefit of having read Clowes’ book, it’s striking how much the script seems to refer to Zwigoff. The director is known to be a blues enthusiast who collects original 78-rpm recordings (his first film was a documentary about legendary bluesman Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong). Is it a coincidence then that Seymour is an avid blues fan who collects 1930s recordings? Zwigoff is also a collector of pop artifacts, as are Seymour and Enid, and many of the kitsch items on display in the film are from the director’s own collection. There are other self-reflexive gestures as well: Enid is fascinated with comics; a subplot about “Coon’s Chicken Inn” reflects Zwigoff’s interest in American racist imagery; and there’s even a sly allusion to Crumb. Considering the film’s autobiographical aspect, and the distinctiveness of the movie’s tone, there’s no doubt that Ghost World is a highly personal project, which is unusual considering the kind of audience it might attract. Certainly, many people will go to the movie because they’re admirers of Crumb. But the more intriguing possibility is that teenagers will see it.
The film is about contemporary youth culture after all, and it treats this subject in such sensitive ways that movies like American Pie II seem like little more than commercials for pizza and condoms by comparison. But if teenagers spent the summer watching Scary Movie 2 and crazy/beautiful, you have to wonder if they’ll be prepared for Zwigoff’s bleak landscape and cast of unlikables.
There is a sad beauty in Ghost World that is seldom seen in movies. Indeed, the film observes a ghostlike state of things, at the tail end of history, when human relations seem scarcely possible. The detritus of consumer culture informs every frame; but interestingly, the packages of processed foods, the telephone wire that crisscrosses the horizon, the vulgar decors of the characters’ homes, are imbued with a kind of elegance. There’s an autumnal character to the mise-en-scène, which is rendered in inklike colors that are often diffused, like masses of tiny dots in a pointillist landscape. Enid and Rebecca, for their part, seem unconsciously aware of this “lateness.” We see it in the way they ridicule others, for instance, because their derision always implicates themselves; and we see it in their rarefied taste for the artificial, synthetic and ersatz, which somehow redeems the ugliness that surrounds them.
One of the surprising things about Ghost World is how deftly it connects this abstract idea of lateness with a specific plot point–namely, the unraveling of Enid and Rebecca’s friendship. From the beginning the girls have a strange relationship, which has more to do with dependency than love. Yet their relationship emerges as a model one, because it survives the moment when the girls see each other as freaks. The fact that they remain friends, in fact, is the only hopeful chord the movie strikes. There’s also a strange sexual frisson in the film. You wonder, for example, if Enid and Rebecca ever consider a romance with each other, since they’re a couple in every other respect. And the characters’ repeated references to sexual frustration and masturbation are reminiscent of Crumb: Both movies suggest that sex is always governed by neurosis and is, therefore, always autoerotic.
But all of this isn’t to say that Ghost World is free of trouble spots. A couple scenes take place in a convenience store owned by an Indian man portrayed as a stereotype, and no effort is made to complicate the lampoon (as with porn store customers in another scene, or video store clerks in yet another). To make matters worse, the storeowner tussles with a numchuck-wielding redneck, and you have to wonder what the point is. Perhaps the scriptwriters mean to show how so-called independent films, by the likes of Kevin Smith, must depend on stereotypes for their cult effect in the absence of real ideas. But if that’s the case, why does the film cast iconic independent film actors like Buscemi and Douglas, without the slightest trace of Enid and Rebecca’s irony? In any event, these are minor defects that are more than compensated for by the movie’s astonishing feats, like the final shot, doubly moving for the way it resembles the last pane of a comic strip, potent with truncated meaning.