Thursday, July 14, 2011

Favorite Films #2: Ghost World (10th Anniversary Essay)

The World Has Dragged You Down in a Humdrum Town

Throughout the late 1990s and so on in the current world of tween-films that are targeted towards young girls. Yet, not everyone appreciated these films that didn‘t give voice for girls who didn‘t fit in a certain group. Films that doesn’t have the girl having to go to prom or trying to be popular. Stories about girls who are troubled and relatable instead of a story about a girl finally being with the high school quarterback. While Ghost World isn’t exactly a high school film since it takes place outside of school and after graduation. It does however say something to young women who doesn’t just feel out of place with the world but also have a sense of disdain towards it.

The film came out in the summer of 2001, in a limited release, at a time when comic book film adaptations were starting to become big in Hollywood while the teen film market was continuingly putting out films for teens and pre-teens. Yet, Ghost World wasn’t a film that was made by Hollywood but rather two outsiders who didn’t care for the world of commercialism. The first was Daniel Clowes, the man who wrote the comics for Ghost World that ultimately became a graphic novel in 1997. Clowes wrote in the late 80s and early 90s to reflect his own thoughts as a teenager while seeing the world that was happening as he released eight issues of the Ghost World comic from 1993 to 1997. The comics and eventual graphic novel did attract cult attention among readers as did the other person who would help turn it into a film in director Terry Zwigoff.

Zwigoff was a documentary filmmaker who had just scored massive acclaim with his 1994 film Crumb about underground comic artist Robert Crumb whose daughter did many of the drawings for Ghost World. The characters of Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer attracted Zwigoff since it fit in with his fascination with oddball outsiders that became prevalent through a lot of his work including Billy Bob Thornton’s title character in Bad Santa, Max Minghella’s Jerome in Art School Confidential, Robert Crumb, and jazz musician Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong in Crumb’s 1986 documentary Louie Bluie. Zwigoff teamed up with Clowes for a film version of Ghost World as they developed the script and project for Zwigoff to direct as his first foray into feature films.

Yet, developing the project proved to be challenging as Zwigoff’s clout over Crumb allowed him to meet with studios about Ghost World. Instead, the studios made suggestions and ideas that didn’t fit in with what Zwigoff nor Clowes wanted as they finally got the attention of producer Liane Halfon and actor John Malkovich, who came in as a producer, as they helped raise money for the film. Since Zwigoff knew it was going to be a very different project from his documentaries and wanted to stray from convention in terms of casting. With help from casting director Cassandra Kulukundis, Zwigoff finally found the people he needed for the film.

For the roles Enid and Rebecca, Zwigoff and Clowes went for actresses who looked old enough to look like teenagers while avoiding the look that is often seen in high school movies of the late 1990s. For the lead role of Enid, Thora Birch was cast who was just coming off the massive success of Sam Mendes’ 1999 Oscar-award winning family drama American Beauty as Birch chose to gain weight to play the troubled character. For Enid’s best friend/foil of sorts in Rebecca, Scarlett Johansson was cast as the actress was only 15 by the time production started as she was coming off the acclaim she received in Robert Redford’s 1998 film The Horse Whisperer. Various character actors and veterans such as Bob Balaban, David Cross, Brad Renfro, Tom McGowan, Illeana Douglas, and un-credited Teri Garr as Enid’s dad’s ex-girlfriend were also cast.

For the role of Seymour, a composite of various characters from the graphic novel, the part was given to acclaimed indie actor Steve Buscemi who was known largely for his work with Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and Robert Rodriguez. The character of Seymour would become the person who initially started out as a victim of a prank concocted by Enid and Rebecca only to become the person that drives a wedge between the two girls.

Yet, the film doesn’t start out that way as it begins with this quirky opening credits sequences of people being bored by the TV with footage inter-cut from the 1965 Bollywood film Gumnaam by Raja Nawathe where a group of people dance to the song Jaan Pehechan Ho by Mohammed Rafi. It is there that Zwigoff introduces the audience to Enid who is dancing to this music as a way to realize how much of an outsider she is to the world around her. The next scene is a graduation scene where Enid is bemused by a handicap girl’s graduation speech with Rebecca also looking on with amusement. The majority of the first act of the film is about Enid and Rebecca looking around their surroundings and seeing strange people.

From the character of the unhappy convenience store clerk Josh (Brad Renfro) to the former classmate Melorra, Enid and Rebecca either torment or mock them though there is a bit of a crush towards Josh from the girls. Still, they use Josh as an observer over a prank where Seymour becomes a victim who they realize is someone who seems to be used to these pranks. Eventually, it would lead to the first meeting between the girls and Seymour where Enid buys a 78 RPM vinyl record that features Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman that wins Enid over. While Enid becomes fascinated by Seymour, who is a collector of old 78 RPM blues, jazz, and ragtime records of the early 20th Century. This fascination would frustrate Rebecca, who thinks that Seymour is nothing but a dork.

By the time the film progresses, Enid’s fascination with Seymour as she helps him find a girlfriend only furthers her own sense of alienation with the world. Enid and Seymour not only share a disdain towards the world around them along with people, they also share an alienation as neither of them really fit in to the world around them. Seymour admits that he hates his interests, which is old 20th Century blues and jazz music, while he doesn’t really like to go out as he and Enid sees a local blues musician play in the middle of a rowdy sports bar as people are watching the game. The night eventually gets worse when Seymour watches a band that a woman claims is authentic blues. Instead, they’re just this loud band that blares through as Enid’s first attempt to get Seymour a date is a disaster.

That mix of melancholic humor and character study makes that scene along with many other scenes in the film one of the reasons why the film is so engrossing to watch. While audiences get to see Enid trying to help Seymour as he eventually gets a date with a woman named Dana (Stacey Travis). It is clear that Enid has feelings for him yet it would only cause more trouble for a girl who is a very talented artist that feels out of place with everything and everyone. Thora Birch’s performance is really the most startling highlight of the film as she captures not just angst but also confusion and despair over her character. She also brings a lot of humor to the character that includes a hilarious scene where her dad (Bob Balaban) is talking as she replies that she’s not listening to a word that he’s saying.

That sense of deadpan humor in Birch’s performance complements not just Steve Buscemi’s crazed but touching performance. It also adds a wonderful chemistry with the two as he is the straight man to her quirky personality as she often wears a strange array of clothes. There is also a bit of humor to Buscemi’s performance whether it’s in his reactions to things around him or a scene where Enid sees wearing blue jeans that Dana bought for him. It’s part of what makes Buscemi a revered actor who had been in a lot of projects as his performance nabbed him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Then there’s Rebecca, Enid’s foil for half of the film as she is a young woman who shares her disdain towards the world and people in general. Yet, as she is someone who is much prettier and more mature. Her desire to get an apartment for her and Enid so they can live on their own would eventually have Rebecca make some changes that alienates Enid. What happens is that Rebecca grows up, gets a job, and starts to get into things she feels would advance her socially. When Rebecca takes a job as a cashier for a coffee shop, she starts to reveal her disdain towards weirdoes in whom Enid likes but Rebecca isn’t as amused anymore.

While Rebecca may not be as interesting as Enid and Seymour, she does manage to hold her own through a very memorable yet witty performance by Scarlett Johansson. It’s in that sly sarcasm and subtle reaction to things that are happening that makes Johansson’s performance remarkable. What is more surprising that at the time she made the film at age 15, she was able to pass off in being 18 and act beyond her age. Through her understated approach to the role of Rebecca, it’s one of the reasons why Johansson was able to be propelled into stardom by starring in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 masterpiece Lost in Translation.

The film in its three central performances of Birch, Johansson, and Buscemi, is wonderfully complemented by the look and tone that Zwigoff wanted. Some of the smaller moments such as Enid and Rebecca at a video store where a man asks for Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ where the video clerk instead finds Adrian Lyne’s 9 ½ Weeks. It’s that along with many other scenes that revel into Zwigoff and Clowes’ study of alienation where by the third act of the film. The divergence between Enid and Rebecca becomes more evident as Enid calls Rebecca about going out. Instead, Rebecca who is sitting at home watching TV with her pajamas claims that she’s going out with some people at work.

Through Zwigoff’s direction, there is an array of images as everything he reveals in the city that Enid and Rebecca live in is filled with restaurant chains and all sorts of ideas that exemplify a world of crass commercialism. The 50s diner that Enid and Rebecca to into looks more modern than a 1950s diner with music that is also modern. The place that Seymour works where he reveals a history of racism at the place he worked by showing a poster to Enid. This would prompt Enid to borrow that poster for her art class that she needed to take to graduate that would eventually cause much trouble for her and Seymour in the third act. It’s all part of a world where characters such as Enid and Seymour feel that the times were better then than they are at the present.

Part of Zwigoff’s direction in his approach to the story is the way characters disconnect themselves from reality. Particularly Enid and Seymour as Enid surrounds herself with vintage clothing, a S&M mask that Seymour buys her, and records. Seymour surrounds himself with not just blues and jazz records but vintage antiques and old film posters to complement his longing for the past. It’s all due to the way they react to the world of crass commercialism. While Rebecca might have a disdain towards that culture, she is not the kind of person who is willing to shut herself entirely as she is willing to tough it out against that world. Whether she fully embraces it or becomes an individual remains mysterious once the film starts to end.

Then there’s the film’s ending which is probably one of the most talked about endings in film. After all of the trouble Enid has caused where she had humiliated Seymour and alienated Rebecca. It’s an ending that reflects her sense of loss as throughout the film, she encounters an old man named Norman (Charles C. Stevenson Jr.) who is waiting for a bus at a bus stop that is no longer in service. When she later meets him following a bad night, she feels like he’s the only person he can count on. Instead, he tells her that he’s leaving as she later watches him leave on a bus where’s the only passenger.

Where does this bus lead to? Does the “out of service” sign on the bench mean a path towards the afterlife? There could be a lot of reasons as throughout the film, Enid has always talked about wanting to leave town. Even during a drunken conversation with Seymour that would lead to a one night stand over their disdain towards the world. For Enid, seeing Norman get on the bus is her ticket out of this town that she couldn’t relate to. In leaving, she wouldn’t have to see her dad marry Maxine. Deal with the idiots and idea of conformity around her. She wouldn’t have to see Seymour be humiliated and isolated. She wouldn’t also have to deal with Rebecca growing up.

If there was a way to just simplify what happens in the end, the ending is Enid just leaving town and never coming back. After all, the last sequence inter-cuts with Seymour discussing his events of the past few months to a shrink. Whereas Seymour is seemingly set to return to his old life while Rebecca is on her way to normalcy, Enid goes somewhere that no one knows where to go. While recent reissues of the graphic novel suggested various endings about what happens to both Enid and Rebecca, Daniel Clowes nor Terry Zwigoff really offer any clear answer about Enid’s fate in the film.

Ghost World is truly a film that is definitely one of its kind. Without it, there probably wouldn’t be a film like Juno that also had a quirky protagonist who is a young girl. There probably wouldn’t be a movie like American Splendor to be made since that was a film that was also based on graphic novels with relations towards Robert Crumb. It’s a film that actually gives voice to the those who don’t fit in with the world or don’t want to conform. It’s a film that young girls who are in high school and don’t fit in with this type of crowd or some other clique should see in the world of tween movies. Ghost World is a film that isn’t afraid to be crass and give someone the finger. It’s the kind of film that allows the individual to just be themselves and not give a fuck what anyone else thinks.

© thevoid99 2011


blakecgriffin said...

I haven't seen this since it was in theatres and I remember just hating it. But my filmic tastes have changed considerably since then. I should give it another try. I like how you mentioned it paved the way for films like Juno. I didn't really put that together, but you're totally right.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read, I just recently watched this for the first time and found my way here via Vern's review. It's a fascinating film for sure and one that I really want to watch again soon to dig deeper. For me, the ending feels way too blantantly about death. Especially due to the way she words her comments before the one night stand. She says she wants to not tell anyone where she is going and disappear. Only after saying that does she suggest that Seymour and her should leave town.

thevoid99 said...

@blackcgriffin-It's not the type of film that will win people over but it did make an impact as I heard Diablo Cody used the screenplay as her template for Juno. think the ending is more about her accepting that the world she lives in isn't going to change and she couldn't cope with it as there was no choice to either die or to just leave town for good.

TheVern said...

UMMM WOW!!!! That was an amazing essay on a movie that I really love. I had no idea that Johannson was only 15 when she made that. She is way beyond her years and shows a lot of maturity. I like what you said about the fate of Enid at the end. I took the whole bus ride she takes at the end literally. I thought Seymour seeing a shrink was just about Enid dumping him. Now I'm thinking something else happened to her. Damn this movie got a lot more insightful. AN amazing Essay

thevoid99 said...

@The Vern-Thanks. I really think it's a film that needs to be in the Criterion Collection. I hope to write more essays this year as I have a few ideas but there's a bunch of things I'm doing right now.

Andrew Sidhom said...

Interesting read. Why do you think Enid and Seymour didn't get together at the end? After all the film did bring them together in this one-night stand, after which Seymour leaves Dana for Enid. Then it doesn't happen for no particular reason stated.

thevoid99 said...

@Andrew Sidhom-The reason they didn't end up together was because of the prank Enid and Rebecca did on Seymour definitely created a sense of guilt for Enid as she had burned too many bridges with people she was close with. She had no choice but to leave.

Andrew Sidhom said...

I appreciate your response, but I think in Enid and Seymour's last scene in the hospital, it was clear that they got past that prank. He was willing to admit he's "just a dork" but she told him no and showed him all the other pictures and said "You're like my hero". But then she just leaves?

Hollywood happy endings are often criticized for being forced but what about a forced bleak ending? I thought Ghost World was an instance of that, where I felt it would have been more natural for the characters to reconnect but instead maybe the filmmakers wanted a bleak ending for the sake of a bleak ending.

Also, even before the whole truth of the prank comes up (before Rebecca shows the drawing to Seymour), Enid's behaviour became inexplicable. She clearly wanted to further her relationship with Seymour (yes she was drunk that night but the feelings were there). The whole movie shows you how these 2 characters are able to connect because they exist on the fringes of society. But when Seymour breaks up with his girlfriend for Enid to move in with him (at her suggestion), she just starts ignoring him for no apparent reason?

I mean, I would have been fine if something was mentioned or alluded to like the issue of age difference or whatever but there was nothing in the storytelling to inform Enid's actions in the closing scenes. At least none that I picked up on.

thevoid99 said...

@Andrew Sidhom-Well, it was sort of like the ending of the original graphic novel which was quite bleak.

Enid is a complicated character as she was jealous of Seymour being with someone else as she tried to fit in to society. The reason she stayed away from him is because she feels like she would ruin whatever chance of happiness he might have as she's already a mess herself.

After all, there's nothing for her to latch on as she and Rebecca are pretty much on the outs while Enid couldn't cope with her father marrying a woman she never liked. Her leaving could be a step towards adulthood. It's left ambiguous which is why I think the film's ending is great.