Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Director Report Card: Terry Zwigoff (2001)

3. Ghost World

Seven years passed between Terry Zwigoff’s critical break-through “Crumb” and his next feature film. That seems like a long time but, given that “Crumb” was hardly a commercial film, not too shocking. Zwigoff’s proud return to cinema was also his first entry into fictional storytelling. “Ghost World” is an adaptation of a short comic by Daniel Clowes, another prominent figure in the world of underground comics. Like “Crumb,” the movie would be beloved but critics but struggle to find a wide audiences. In other words, it’s another Terry Zwigoff film that was destined to be a cult classic even before it reached theaters.

Enid and Rebecca are two high school misfits who have just graduated. The two are extremely snarky, often making fun of anyone they deem less cool then them. Enid and Rebecca kill time by hanging out in restaurants, harassing their friends, and pulling pranks. One such gag involves calling a pathetic romantic want ad and standing the guy up. Enid, however, becomes fascinated with Seymour, the man who posted the ad. Soon, the two have formed a genuine friendship with undefined boundaries. Meanwhile, Rebecca gets a normal job, Seymour finds a girlfriend, and Enid’s dad decides to re-marry an old flame. The young girl feels lost amid her own life.

Daniel Clowes’ work shares a few things in common with R. Crumb’s, the subject of Zwigoff’s previous film. Both share a somewhat bitter outlook on the world. Both heavily criticize modern pop culture. “Ghost World” even features a handful of references to Crumb’s work, with a cameo appearance from a Cheap Suit Surrenders album. Both films, most importantly, balance morbidly funny laughs with an keen look at the weight of isolation and alienation. “Ghost World” is a perfectly Zwigoff-ian look at post-high school life, a neurotic but lovable film, equal parts misanthropic and humanistic.

“Ghost World” stars Thora Birch, who was just coming off a juicy part in a Best Picture winner. The character’s short black hair, thick rim glasses, and kitschy fashion sense essentially crystallized the post-millennial hipster look before it was even really a thing. In Enid, Birch finds a perfect host for her unique charms. The character is introduced rolling her eyes at as a disabled student bemoans the mistakes in her life during a graduation speech. Enid is too cool for everything, which might have made her deeply unlikable. Instead, Birch brings an incredible humor to the part, frequently making Enid’s sarcastic observations hilarious. Moreover, Birch is absolutely gorgeous in the movie. It’s a good thing I didn’t see “Ghost World” in high school, as another celebrity crush was the last thing I needed back then.

As funny and wry as Enid can be, “Ghost World” never lets her off the hook. The character freely tosses around “retarded” as a pejorative, which would be received as deeply un-PC these days. After graduating high school, she stomps her mortar board and flips off the school. She treats Seymour cruelly at first. She mocks people around her, like a waiter in a restaurant or normal people dining, who are just going about her day. Enid is employed at a movie theater for all of a day but is quickly fired for mocking the customers. She routinely treats Rebecca badly. Enid is vulnerable and hurting, struggling with the changes in her life. She can also be insufferable. In other words, it’s an honest portrayal of being a teenager. 

“Ghost World” would also emerge as an unexpectedly ideal vehicle for Steve Buscemi. Most well known for playing crooks and creeps at the time, Seymour is a distinctly different sort of role for Buscemi. Seymour is not entirely dissimilar from R. Crumb too. He wears drab, green clothes. He’s defined primarily by his love for early jazz and blues, hording a huge record collection and often spewing out obscure facts about the genre. He might also be inspired by Zwigoff’s own life, seeing as how the character has a boring office job and a bad back. Buscemi’s perfectly plays the discontent and unabashed nerdiness, a guy barely comfortable in his own skin. When Seymour occasionally looses his temper, yelling at people on the street, it’s refreshingly cathartic. Buscemi is funny, sweet, and down to Earth, creating a fully formed character that is more then just the collection of quirks he might’ve been with a lesser actor.

“Ghost World” eventually develops into a charmingly off-center love story. Enid has a way of getting under Seymour’s skin. She drags him into a porno shop, making him buy her a leather mask. While at a painfully dry party Seymour throws for his jazz nerd friends, Enid talks her way into seeing his private music collection. Soon, she’s trying to get him a date. The attempts, which feature a painful encounter in a bar with a “blues” band, mostly succeed in bringing Enid and Seymour closer. As Enid finds everyone around her having more success in adulthood, Enid and Seymour end up falling into bed together. “Ghost World” amazingly doesn’t stumble when handling the somewhat standard end of the second act story turns. Yes, Seymour discovers that Enid was initially making fun of him. The movie gracefully skips over the potentially tedious moment by having Enid outwardly admit her affection for Seymour. It’s such a sweet moment, when she shows him the art book full of drawings. Enid is being sincere – a mood she’s not in often – when she tells Seymour how he’s the opposite of everything she hates.

“Ghost World” somewhat infamously features an early role for Scarlett Johannson. Long before she became an international sex symbol and a comic book superhero, she was Enid’s best friend, Rebecca. Johannson is exceptionally dry in the part, being even more sarcastic and cruel then Birch’s Enid. The two actresses have great chemistry together, sharing in-jokes and references that the script happily does not expand on. The script doesn’t give Rebecca very much to do but Johannson maintains a moody humanity, underneath the intentional stiffness of the performance.

Perhaps showing its roots as an episodic comic book, “Ghost World” also features a number of amusing subplots and side characters. Bruce Glover has a small role as an antagonistic customer in Rebecca’s coffee shop. A mutual friend of Enid and Rebecca is Josh – a naturalistic performance from Brad Renfro – who works at a crappy 7-11 style store. An eccentric customer named Doug frequently enters the store. Sporting a mullet, tan lines in the shape of a tank top, and a pencil mustache, the character is extraordinary weird. He gets into shouting matches with the store’s Greek owner. He swings his nun-chucks around whenever the oppretunity presents itself. Played by an enthusiastic Dave Sheridan, the character was so unforgettably odd that Sheridan reprised the role in two Red Hot Chili Peppers music videos.

Another amusing subplot in “Ghost World” has Enid enrolling in a remedial art class following graduation. Through these sequences, “Ghost World” presents a criticism of the modern art scene that Robert Crumb would probably approve of. Enid’s sketch book drawings are dismissed as lower entertainment. Her classmates, who make sculptures out of clothes hangers, are praised by the teacher. Enid remains an outsider in the class until she takes a page from her pretentious classmates by presenting a racist fast food advertisement as a piece of found art. While this wins her kudos from her teacher, the piece is ultimately met with angry criticism when displayed in a gallery. In other words, the art scene is extremely fickle, ultimately only praising the few artist who meet their narrow definition of “art.” Illena Douglas is hilarious as the teacher, who rattles off nonsense with a straight face and often inadvertently praises the work of the more clueless classmates.

As “Ghost World’s” roomy two hour run time starts to wind down, it seems to be heading towards a typical conclusion. Enid screws up, alienates both of her closest friends, and looses her chance at an art scholarship. However, she matures a bit, finds a job, and makes measures to win back the good graces of those she loves. “Ghost World,” in its unwavering commitment to nonconformity, takes a hard turn in its final minutes. Enid abandons her friends and responsibilities, leaving town on a phantom bus. The ending seems designed to confound audience expectations. “Ghost World” isn’t the kind of movie where people grow up and learn things. Enid is such an outsider that there’s no place for her, even in her own movie. As the title implies, she becomes a ghost, the spectre of something that used to be alive.

Finally, with “Ghost World,” Terry Zwigoff moves away the documentary format of his first two features. He shows a clear visual sense. The unnamed small town setting is strangely empty, with few people around, adding to the off-center feeling. The color scheme is slightly exaggerated, in order to recall the story’s comic book origins. Colors – like the green Enid dyes her hair or the pink bowling uniforms the dinner patrons wear – pop a little more. There’s rarely any shot in the film that doesn’t feature a corporate logo of some sort, a subtle jab at the kind of creeping commercialism Enid and Seymour are rebelling against. Without being showy, “Ghost World” is an excellent looking film, as well composed as the comic panels that inspired it.

“Ghost World” is frequently hilarious, getting the most out of its deadpan leading ladies – such as Enid’s reaction to her dad’s date – and its extremely strong supporting cast, such as a very funny bit part from David Cross. Yet the movie mines other complex emotions, by perfectly capturing the sense of teenage alienation its protagonist – and anybody who has ever been weird or immature – is feeling. The movie was barely released in 2001 but would immediately find an audience on video and DVD. Considering the female-led indie quirk-fest that would follow, it’s even been influential. However, few of the imitators captured its perfect mixture of sadness and snark. [Grade: A]

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