Monday, July 11, 2011

Ghost World

Originally Written and Posted on 8/12/04 w/ Extensive Revisions & Additional Edits.

If life at high school sucked, then it’s really nothing compared to what happens after. Sure, kids go to college after that but what happens when you meet new people and in the process lose the people you cared for back in high school. Comic book writer Daniel Clowes captured the bleakness of post-high school life through the eyes of two teenage girls in his comic series Ghost World. The comic gained a cult popularity that included Crumb filmmaker Terry Zwigoff. Zwigoff and Clowes decided to adapt the comic book series into a film of the same name that captures the bleakness of teenagers and adults in a world, many of them don’t fit in with.

The movie for Ghost World is about two teenage girls, who just graduated from high school, finding themselves starting to drift apart after one of them encounters a lonely, eccentric adult. During their aimless journey, they try to find the strange eccentricities of their dreary suburban home while pondering what to do with their own lives. Leading the cast in Ghost World are Thora Birch as the sullen yet arty Enid and Scarlett Johansson as the prettier yet bored Rebecca. Also starring Brad Renfro, Teri Garr, David Cross, Bob Balaban, Illeana Douglas, Dave Sheridan, Tom McGowan, and Steve Buscemi. Ghost World is a harrowing yet humorous film from Terry Zwigoff and company.

Enid and Rebecca are at their graduation as they watch a handicapped speaker (Rini Bell) talk about life after high school though both Enid Rebecca believe there is no future. Reluctantly attending a graduation party while Enid is forced to return to school to pass art to gain a diploma. After high school, Enid and Rebecca walk through the town’s dreariness where they encounter two old strange people Enid convinced are Satanists and an old man (Charles J. Peterson) sitting at an unused bus stop. Enid then finds an ad for a guy looking for a girl as she and Rebecca call the number and pretend to be some blonde. They bring their friend/gas station patron named Josh (Brad Renfro) to a diner to see the guy revealed to be a man named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) who arrives as he waits for the woman but finds out he’s been duped.

Enid and Rebecca follow Seymour as they learn he’s some strange, eccentric guy who collects old vinyl blues records. Enid meanwhile is having problems at home as her dad (Bob Balaban) is thinking of dating his ex-girlfriend Maxine (Teri Garr) whom she despies. Rebecca however, decides to move ahead with plans for her own apartment with Enid by getting a job. Enid takes a summer class with a quirky art teacher named Roberta (Illeana Douglas) while reluctantly taking a job search as she and Rebecca meet Seymour and his friend Joe (Tom McGowan). After getting a blues record that Enid likes, she starts to befriend Seymour who invites her to a party. Rebecca reluctantly attends where she gets verbally harassed by a partygoer (David Cross).

Enid hangs out with Seymour as they find a shared disdain towards the world as he's more interested in obscure blues and such while her friendship with Rebecca deteriorates over Enid's fascination with Seymour and Rebecca becoming more social. When Seymour finally meets a woman named Dana (Stacey Travis), Enid becomes unhappy over the things around her life as well as her deteriorating friendship with Rebecca and Seymour.

While the film’s offbeat quirky humor mixed in with restrained drama brings an eccentric quality to the film, it’s one of the reasons why the film stands out from many of the indie and teen films of the time. With Daniel Clowes’ story and realist humor, the film’s title is really about the disintegration of Americana through the world of corporate America and the urge to conform. Terry Zwigoff brings in a vast, wonderful direction that is tightly constructed with wonderful cinematography from Affonso Beato. Helping with Zwigoff’s complex direction is a melancholic film score from composer David Kitay whose piano composition really gives the film movement and serves as another character. With production designer Edward T. McAvoy, the film’s look really brings that bleakness of post-20th Century America where the world and some of its individuals ends up conforming. Another great moment is the film’s artwork, notably from Sophie Crumb (daughter of Robert Crumb) who does the drawing for Enid’s book. While Ghost World might seem to be an off-the-wall comedy, it’s also a wonderful character study film, notably between Birch’s Enid and Johansson’s Rebecca.

The film’s supporting players really stand out from its cameo appearances from Ileana Douglas, David Cross, and Teri Garr to the hilarious performance from Dave Sheridan. Brad Renfro is also excellent in the role of Josh, who might seem as a clueless tormented figure who is used as a joke for Enid and Rebecca when really, he plays a secret crush that they don’t want to admit. Bob Balaban is excellent as Enid’s father for his straight performance to Birch’s offbeat performance while bringing a compassionate performance, even in scenes where he just doesn’t understand his daughter. With other smaller roles from Stacey Travis, Charles J. Peterson, Brian George, and Tom McGowan, the film has an overall stellar cast.

Of the film’s supporting performances, the best easily goes to Scarlett Johansson as the cynical, realist Rebecca who serves as a perfect foil to the downbeat Enid. With her quick-sarcasm and intellectual remarks, Johansson stands out among the entire cast with her restrained, mature performance. Especially since she came out of two amazing performances previously with 1996’s Manny & Lo and 1998’s The Horse Whisperer. With those two performances, Johansson comes to fruition with maturity by playing an 18-year old when at the time of making the film she was only 15. In the development of Rebecca throughout the film, we see Johansson not trying to make Rebecca conform to society but bringing a realism and maturity to the point that Enid couldn’t understand since she’s too much of a rebel while Rebecca just gave up on rebelling and moving forward.

Steve Buscemi is also brilliant in his performance as Seymour with his frustrated, oddball look while being a charming, romantic fellow. This was the closest thing to having Buscemi being a romantic lead but he has an off-the-wall humor that is so intriguing that it is remarkable, as he doesn’t mind being the butt of jokes. Plus, we see he’s the kind of guy that couldn’t fit in because of his hobbies or anything. Buscemi brought a depth and frustration that is loveable while he manages to carry great chemistry with Birch throughout the entire film while having a few intense, dramatic scenes with Johansson.

Thora Birch is the film’s most remarkable performance with her sympathetic, anti-establishment performance as Enid. Coming off a post-child stardom role in American Beauty, Birch brings a cynicism and attitude to Enid who is trying to find herself in the world. Birch also brings humor in her scenes where she and Johansson torment people quietly but as the film wears on, she realizes that she’s one of them and brings sadness to a role where she’s just lost. Especially in the film’s ending where things get really bizarre and nothing in the beginning of the film is the same anymore. Enid is a character that everyone could relate to, especially since not everyone wants a shoddy job or to conform to any kinds of stereotype. It’s overall Birch’s best performance to date.

The 2002 Region DVD release from MGM/United Artists presents the film in a 16:9 widescreen format brings a lot of brilliance to the film, especially in its look. With its English, French, and Spanish subtitles and 5.1 Surround Sound, the film’s features doesn't have much. Aside from a theatrical trailer of the film plus for its soundtrack, The Princess Bride, and a special edition of The Terminator. The special features also include four deleted and alternate scenes, which really don’t add much to the film. Two of them features hilarious moments between Brian George and Dave Sheridan while one involves Buscemi talking about a record and Ileana Douglas talking about an art thing she did. The best thing about the special features is the music video for Jaan Pehechaan Ho from the film Gumnaam in the 1960s and a making of feature with interviews from Zwigoff, Clowes, Birch, Johansson, Buscemi, and Brad Renfro where they all talk about the film and the comic book.

***Additional Content Written and Posted from 9/29/17-10/1/17***

The 2017 Region 1/Region A DVD/Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a newly-restored 4K digital transfer that is supervised by its filmmaker Terry Zwigoff in its original 1:85:1 theatrical aspect ratio with 5.1 Surround Sound on DVD (5.1 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio for the Blu-Ray). Among the features retained from 2002 DVD from MGM are the film’s theatrical trailer, the excerpt from Gumnaam, and the film’s deleted scenes with additional scenes that were also cut that include an extended scene of Enid and Rebecca talking to the waiter Weird Al and a scene of Enid meeting Josh as they would have sex which becomes awkward. The Gumnaam excerpt would feature a commentary track from a Bollywood expert Roshini Dubey who talks about the film and its placement in Bollywood as well as why it was featured in Zwigoff’s film as a way to play into Enid’s outsider persona.

The feature-length audio commentary track from director Terry Zwigoff, co-writer Daniel Clowes, and producer Lianne Haflon have the trio talk about aspects of the production as well as some of the visual look of the film courtesy of cinematographer Affonso Beato, production designer Edward T. McAvoy, and costume designer Mary Zophres. Zwigoff reveals the anxiety he had in directing the film as it was his first time doing a narrative film as he turned to Francis Ford Coppola for help in directing actors as he learned from Coppola that it’s something that can’t be taught as Coppola admits to not knowing how to direct actors. Fortunately, Zwigoff was able to get through thanks in part to the ensemble he worked with as he, Clowes, and Haflon had a lot of praise toward the actors including Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi as well as those who did the smaller roles. They also discuss some of the artwork as well as other things in the film as it’s a very enjoyable and engaging commentary track.

The 42-minute featurette entitled Art as Dialogue feature new interviews with actresses Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Illeana Douglas as they all talk about the film, their characters, and working with Zwigoff. Birch discusses her approach to the Enid character after having read the graphic novel and other works of Clowes as she originally was considered for the role of Rebecca when Christina Ricci was considered for the role of Enid. Fortunately, Birch was able to convince Zwigoff and Clowes that she was right for Enid while Johansson talked about her own experiences in the film as she was only 15 years old when she made it yet had experienced a lot in her life. Especially as she and Birch both had their own similar experiences as child actors transitioning into adult roles where they both shared their own experiences in dealing with that transition.

Douglas discusses the approach of her character as well as her friendship with Steve Buscemi as they both came from the world of New York City art during the 1980s which was the inspiration for Douglas’ idea for Roberta. All three women also talk about the film’s impact culturally and socially where they’re all baffled into how young women try to dress up like Enid and want to be like her which they all admit is odd. Johansson does talk about how her fans often bring up the film as it’s a favorite of theirs as she knows a friend’s daughter who just discovered it. All three women also talk about the film’s ending and what they believed happened to Enid and Rebecca in the end as it’s one of the finest pieces on the DVD.

The DVD/Blu-Ray also feature two booklets as one is a reprinted excerpt of Clowes’ original comic as well as material from 2008 special edition reissue of the graphic novel into the fate of the two characters including their own reaction towards the film. The second booklet feature two essays about the film as the first essay entitled Séance in Wowsville is from film critic/author Howard Hampton who talks about the film and how it relates to not just Zwigoff’s other films but also how it managed to make an impression on those who saw it the first time around. Especially in how Enid and Rebecca react to the world around them where the latter reluctantly has to take part in that world in order to do what everyone else is doing forcing Enid to find companionship in Seymour. Hampton also talk about other aspects of the film including the casting as well as many of the things that has attracted the audience due to their disdain of this growing culture of conformity.

The second essay is from director Terry Zwigoff that was written as liner notes for the film’s music soundtrack in its 2001 release. Zwigoff talks about what he wanted to use in terms of the bad music that Enid and Rebecca despised as he couldn’t secure the usage of the pop music of the early 2000s like Britney Spears or ‘Nsync forcing him to find other things. He also talks about some of the other music in the soundtrack as the music that Seymour likes is the music that Zwigoff has while talking about how he discovered the music of Skip James while critiquing the music of Cream and Bjork as inferior. It’s a fun read as it play into Zwigoff’s love for music as well as wanting introduce audiences to these obscure blues gems.

***End of DVD Tidbits***

Ghost World is truly a tremendous coming-of-age film that chronicles the changing times from the viewpoints of two teenage girls and an oddball loner. With a great cast led by Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi, this film is truly mesmerizing for its themes of alienation conformity that is captured with wonderful humor by Terry Zwigoff. In the end, Ghost World is a stunning yet hypnotic film from Terry Zwigoff and company.

© thevoid99 2011

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