Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ghost World (2001)

Title: Ghost World (2001)

Director: Terry Zwigoff

Cast: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi


Director Terry Zwigoff made a career for himself out of making movies and documentaries based on the peculiarities and the lifestyle of the art world. His first documentary was Crumb (1994) which depicts the story and life of legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb. Now, if there’s anyone out there remotely interested in cartooning and sketches and graphic art, this is a documentary that you simply have to see. Not only does this documentary give us an insightful look into Robert Crumbs art across the years, but it also gives us a glimpse at his 100% bizarre lifestyle. You get to meet Robert Crumb’s brother, who will turn out to be one of the strangest and most bizarre individuals you will have ever seen in your whole life. My main interest in the film was to learn more about Crumbs cartoons and art through the years, I greatly admire the guy for his contributions to the art world. After watching this documentary, Crumb became an even bigger inspiration for me artistically. But damn does the guy have a strange life!

But hell, most artists have that ‘bizarreness’ to them. Artists tend to see things just a little differently then everybody else. And that’s what Zwigoff’s second feature Ghost World (2001) focuses on. The story revolves around two best friends, Enid and Becky. Two girls who hate society and the status quo of things. Two very cynical, very witty teenagers. They hate graduation; they don’t want to go to college, they make fun of everybody. All they want to do is get a job, find their own apartment and live their lives the way they want to. Or do they? At one point, Enid’s and Becky’s objectives suddenly become opposing objectives. Enid wants to live the artsy fartsy aimless life for a while, while Becky wants to join society, get a job, pay the rent and live a same-o same-o kind of life. But Enid wants none of that. Pretty soon, best friends turn to strangers, and Enid goes on a journey to know her self and what she wants to do with her life. Will she ever find her way?

The film is based on the Ghost World story arc found in Eight Ball issues #11 through #18

This film is based on Daniel Clowes comic book Eight ball issues #11 through 18. The Ghost World story arc was such a huge hit that it was later reprinted in graphic novel form. Its interesting that when the time came to make the movie, it was comic book creator/artist Daniel Clowes himself who wrote the screenplay and consequently won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay in 2001 for it! So at least we know that the film is going to be pretty faithful to the comic book its based on because its own creator wrote the screenplay! And this faithfulness to the source material translates in many ways, amongst them in the casting. It’s almost uncanny how much Thora Birch looks like the comic book version of Enid! She was perfectly cast as the rebellious teenager! I’m actually kind of sad she hasn’t been used in more films recently; she does such a great job on this one.

I’ve never read the graphic novel (I’m looking forward to it that’s for sure!) but I have to admit I love this character Enid. She’s this girl who is at war with the world, with boredom and fakeness; she just doesn’t know how to focus all that anger towards the world. She’s trying to find herself, what she wants to do, where she wants to be, who she wants to become. She wants to belong to something, be somebody, do something with her life. Problem is she still hasn’t figured out what that is. In the mean time, in the midst of all her confusion, she makes everyone else’s life a confused mess as well. Including Seymour, Steve Buscemi’s character.

In her continuous search for evading boredom, she decides to become friends with an obsessive record collector named Seymour who is about 30 years older then she is. She finds him interesting because he isn’t like everybody else. Because much like her, he “can’t relate to 99% of humanity”. So they are kindred spirits in that sense. He is also into old art, old Jazz/blues records, basically, he likes collecting cool stuff from the past. He isn’t into “guitars and sports” and isn’t a pseudo hippy. The relationship that forms between the two takes up a large part of the film because Enid becomes hell bent on finding Seymour a date because as she puts it, she doesn’t want to live in a world where a guy like Seymour can’t even get a date. This part of the film presents us with an interesting situation. Should Enid and Seymour have a relationship? He being so much older then she is? Can a relationship like that work?

Enid also has to take a summer art class because she flunked it. Not because she isn’t any good, but because she cant take the bullshit and the judgments that go on inside of an art class. In an art class room, everything revolves around the point of view of the art teacher, and if you don’t necessarily fit within that point of view then surviving (or passing) an art class can become something of a chore. This is a theme that is also explored in director Terry Zwigoff’s third feature Art School Confidential (2006), which by the way was also based on a comic book of the same name. I should mention that the comic book on which Art School Confidential was based on was also written and illustrated by Daniel Clowes, the same guy who did the Ghost World graphic novel and wrote the screenplay for the film. Though if you haven’t seen Art School Confidential let me warn you that it’s a very dark and bitter film, don’t go expecting something as light as what we see in Ghost World.

In contrast, Ghost World is a joy to watch. Most of the main character are cynical, bitter, but never stop being funny. I find it interesting how much they reflect the American way of life. One particularly funny character is this crazy white thrash dude who hangs out at the parking lot of the seven eleven. When the owner of the store tells him that he can’t be in the store without a shirt the guy replies “It’s called America dude, learn the rules!” and then he proceeds to practice his abilities with his nun chucks on the parking lot. Another way in which the film mirrors society is by showing us how big corporations are slowly taking over small towns in the United States. The town depicted in Ghost World has no name, it could be Anywhere U.S.A. But for example Becky the character played by Scarlett Johansson ends up working in a Starbucks-like shop called “The Coffee Experience”, Enid ends up working in a multiplex theater. She gets fired on the first day because she doesn't like how sleazily they try to push bigger sizes on their customers. In a way, the Ghost World in this movie is really the town that is getting crushed by big companies. And the world that Enid leaves behind when she finally makes her choice.

Daniel Clowes, the writer of Ghost World went to art school, he knows how frustrating these schools can be and how many wannabes and eccentrics inhabit the hallways of these schools. He knows how infuriating it can be to try and please an art teacher, who either doesn’t know jack of what he or she is talking about or is trying to cope with the fact that he or she never made it in the art world. Through his scripts and on both of his comics he captures the competitive vibe felt on these art schools where usually the less artistic and more commercially viable art is the one that garners the attention. In Ghost World, Enid goes to art class in high school, and the art teacher is one of the funniest characters in the film as well. Zwigoff and Clowes cannot help but show these teachers as losers, as has beens who never quite made it in the art world and are now taking out their frustrations on you. I have to say that I fully agree. There are good art teachers out there, I’ve seen them myself, but most of the time, they feel like the art teachers on both of these films. So Id say Ghost World accurately portrays what it is to deal with these individuals and the atmosphere breathed inside of an art class. Art School Confidential explores these themes a bit more deeply, and from a far darker angle. So much so that the film turns completely bitter by its third half.

Ghost World is entertaining, well written and directed. It is inhabited by funny witty characters, who love to criticize everything. Its one of those movies that illustrates that moment in life when we don’t know exactly what we want to do with ourselves, but we are sure its not what we currently have. It’s about that pivotal moment in life when you have to decide which way you are going to go.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

Great review! Never seen it, but your review very much makes me want to check it out.

Neil Fulwood said...

'Ghost World' is a beautifully crafted character piece. I'm amazed that it was Scarlett Johannson's career that went stratospheric and not Thora Birch's. Birch is absolutely terrific in this and steals the show for me.

The Film Connoisseur said...

O'blivion: this movie is very sarcastic and critical of society, that alone makes it hilarious, they dialog will have you in stitches, cause its funny, but also intelligent.

Neil: I never got that either. It was Birch who shined on this movie! Johansson was just being her self. I get the feeling with her that she plays the same character in every film, and that character is Scarlett Johansson. She is incredibly beautiful though, and that has taken her a long way. In my opinion she needs to stretch her acting, do something entirely different.

But Birch was special here, I saw her in a direct to video horror flick the other day at Blockbuster (before my local BB closed down!!) and there she was on the cover. I hope she gets called back to the big leagues again and keeps making memorable characters like Enid in Ghost World.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Speaking of Birch, gotta mention her performance in American Beauty..the movie that really put her in the map. Cant really explain why after Ghost World she didnt do anything else that was mind blowing, though I havent seen anything she's done after that. Not that Dark Corners movie, or anything really...

Problem is she followed American Beauty with amongst other films, the god awful abomination called Dungeons and Dragons.

J.D. said...

Yeah, what the hell happened to Birch's career? Either she or her agent have lousy judgment as she hasn't done anything nearly as good as AMERICAN BEAUTY and GHOST WORLD. Man, what a one-two punch!

I have fond memories of seeing this film when it came out in theaters. I certainly related to a lot of the sarcasm and feeling of how corporations are taking over everything.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Agree J.D. Birch's agent has got to wake up and smell the coffee, Birch needs a come back!

The sarcasm on the film is one of the best things about it, I love it when a lady wants to buy a pop corn a the movie theater and she asks for extra butter, and then Birch's character says "Heres your pop corn, smothered in delicious yellow chemical sludge!" Hee-la-rious!

J.D. said...

Yeah! There or Birch's comments about liking reggae? hah. This film has so many little moments are priceless, like the customer at the video store who asks about 8 1/2 and is told that it's under the erotic drama section! That one makes me laugh every time. And let's not forget Weird Al over the diner. Great stuff.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Oh yeah the scene where the guy goes, "do you have Fellini's 8 1/2" and the guy doesnt even know about the film so he looks it up in his computer and goes "oh yeah, here it is 9 1/2 weeks with Mickey Rourke!" and the guys like "No! 8 1/2! The Fillni film?" and the blockbuster employees mind draws a blank.

Ha, so funny.

My favorite funny element on this film is really the crazy guy with the nun chucks at the parking lot of the 7 eleven, that guy is funny stuff!

Reina said...


The Film Connoisseur said...

Thanks Reina, yeah! Weird thing I didnt mention in my review is that the movie has one thing that is very different from its comic book counterpart: the vibrant colors!

The comic book is drenched in pastel colors while the movie is ultra colorful! I guess it was for the best because the movie is beautiful to look at, I wish I had remembered to mention that on my review, thanks for pointing it out.


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