Ghost World (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt

Produced by Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, and Russell Smith; directed by Terry Zwigoff; written by Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff; cinematography by Affonso Beato; production design by Edward T. McAvoy; art direction by Alan E. Muraoka; edited by Carole Kravetz Aykanian and Michael R. Miller; starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban, Stacey Travis, Charles C. Stevenson Jr., Dave Sheridan, Tom McGowan, Debra Azar, Brian George, Pat Healy, Rini Bell, T.J. Thyne, Ezra Buzzington, Charles Schneider, David Cross, and Bruce Glover. Blu-ray and DVD, color, 111 min., 2001. A Criterion Collection release.

Movies with Marvel and DC logos tilt so strongly toward spectacle and superheroes that it’s easy to forget the smaller, quieter films adapted from comics and graphic novels. The better ones include David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis (2007), Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor (2003), and Craig Johnson’s underrated Wilson (2017), adapted by Daniel Clowes from his graphic novel of that title. The list definitely includes Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 Ghost World, also based on a Clowes graphic novel. It’s now available in a Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD edition that makes up in excellent visual quality what it lacks in compelling extras.                 

Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, left) and Enid (Thora Birch) celebrate their graduation from high school.

Clowes serialized Ghost World in his comic book Eightball and published it as a graphic novel (a term he dislikes) in 1997. Told in his spare, elliptical style, the story centers on Enid and Rebecca, just out of high school and brimming with cynicism and ambivalence. They hang out at a retro diner, trade snide remarks about friends and strangers, make occasional excursions to fun places that aren’t much fun, and drift toward adulthood with little idea of where their lives are going. The title comes from a piece of graffiti seen occasionally in the novel but omitted from the film. Its closest correlative in the narrative is a fleeting subplot about Norman, a man who waits endlessly for a bus on a discontinued line; when late in the film the bus inexplicably arrives, he steps aboard and rides away. Fed up with her aimless existence, Enid eventually boards it, too, heading to who-knows-where in hopes of becoming “a totally different person.” Good luck with that.                 

Zwigoff and Clowes adapted the book together, keeping the main characters and adding a third: Seymour, a nerdy record collector who appears briefly in the novel but is central to the movie, serving the teenagers as a butt for jokes, a slightly pathetic friend, an improbable romantic interest, and a middle-aged mirror of the hipster life gone sour. Casting the roles to perfection, Zwigoff recruited young Thora Birch and younger Scarlett Johansson for Enid and Rebecca, respectively, with Steve Buscemi as their forty-something companion. Brad Renfro is a tad bland as Josh, the closest thing Enid or Rebecca has to a boyfriend, but Bob Balaban is just right as Enid’s sweet, ineffectual father and Illeana Douglas is excellent as Roberta Allsworth, an art teacher who takes a shine to Enid and precipitates a crisis in the story.

Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) and Enid (Thora Birch) look to amuse themselves.

In transferring the material from page to screen, Zwigoff and Clowes have drastically toned it down. There’s a visit to a porn shop, a fair amount of four-letter language, and puns about a phonograph record with an enlarged hole and a small crack, but the novel’s edgiest moments—a conversation with a child molester is the edgiest—are gone. Where the movie does push an envelope or two is in a visit to Seymour’s inner sanctum, where he keeps his 78s and memorabilia, and a subsequent scene in Ms. Allworth’s art class, which Enid has to take in the summer because she flunked it earlier.

Seymour works for a food company called Cook’s Chicken, and his curio collection includes pictures and artifacts from its earlier incarnation as Coon Chicken Inn, a Southern outfit with an unabashedly racist public image. Having learned about “found object” art, Enid borrows a poster displaying a racist caricature and submits it for her teacher’s approval, justifying it with a half-remembered version of Seymour’s remark that hate and bigotry used to be easier to spot than in our own hypocritical times. The teacher not only approves, she also puts the poster into an art show, raising a predictable ruckus and killing Enid’s momentary chance at an art-school scholarship.

Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) visit a porn store.

Clowes has a degree from an art school, and it’s no coincidence that his other collaboration with Zwigoff, the 2006 comedy Art School Confidential, paints a less-than-flattering portrait of that milieu. Ghost World is reasonably balanced in this area, though. On the negative side, the art made by Ms. Allworth’s students is kind of silly, ranging from a boy’s shock-the-grownups drawing (“The Mutilator”) to a girl’s feminist statement consisting of a tampon in a teacup. But on the positive side, Ms. Allworth encourages anything-goes experimentation in her class, and her intellectual interest in the poster is refreshingly different from the knee-jerk umbrage of the patrons who clamor for its removal from the art show. Art is supposed to push emotional and political buttons, Ghost World suggests, and it puts that philosophy into practice by weaving part of the story around a patently offensive image.

Enid initially makes fun of Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a nerdy collector of 78 rpm records.

Zwigoff has his own connections with arts other than cinema. A filmmaker known more for quality than speed, he launched his directorial career with the 1985 string-band documentary Louie Bluie and then spent almost a decade laboring on his second picture, the 1994 documentary Crumb, a portrait of underground Zap Comix legend R. Crumb that earned a heap of prizes and made Zwigoff a recognized auteur. In an audio commentary for the Criterion release, he says the travails of directing Crumb made him dream of turning to fiction, where instead of relying on patience and serendipity he could make the story go where he wanted and tell the actors what to do.

Seven years later, he completed Ghost World, which did modestly at the box office but acquired a loyal following and earned Zwigoff and Clowes an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay. Zwigoff then made the deliciously scurrilous Bad Santa (2003) in a relatively quick two years and Art School Confidential in three, but the latter performed poorly enough to put his career on pause until 2017, when he finally resurfaced with a half-hour TV pilot. I moderated an event with Terry and Dan in New York shortly before Art School Confidential opened, and my first thought on hearing about the new Ghost World release was relief that Terry is still on the scene. It’s good to hear him sounding chipper on the commentary track, where he converses with Clowes and coproducer Lianne Halfon.

That said, the commentary is more amiable than informative, as are most of the other supplements. A video called Art Is Dialogue presents Birch, Johansson, and Douglas doing forty minutes of “she/he was so great to work with,” and a compilation of deleted scenes shows how right the filmmakers were to delete them. When one of the extras does come excitingly alive, Bollywood deserves the credit. In a marvelously eccentric maneuver, Zwigoff punctuates the opening titles of Ghost World with an off-the-wall dance number borrowed from Raja Nawathe’s Gumnaam, a 1965 extravaganza blending a murder-mystery plot with Indian cinema’s customary song and dance. Zwigoff was exceedingly fond of the number he excerpts, “Jaan Pehechaan Ho,” and the longer excerpt included on the Criterion disc brings out all the inspired insanity of the dance, which raises the rhythmic head-shake (a Bollywood fad in 1965) to a level just short of mania. This extra has its own audio commentary, both amiable and informative, written by David Cairns and Stephen C. Horne.

Enid (Thora Birch) finds herself becoming obsessed with and even romantically attracted to Seymour (Steve Buscemi).

Ghost World is a personal film for Clowes, who dreamed up most of the characters and motifs, and it’s the same for Zwigoff, who got to indulge his love of comics, his even greater love of vintage 78s, and his greatest-of-all love for Skip James, whom he calls “the greatest blues musician ever to record” in a Criterion booklet essay on the movie’s music. He says that James’s 1931 recording “Devil Got My Woman” stopped him dead in his tracks when he first heard it, and in the film it gives Enid a sense of awe that’s similar in kind, if milder in degree. “I have about 1,500 78s—I try to keep my collection down to the essentials,” Zwigoff writes in his essay, appropriating one of Seymour’s lines as his own. Whether or not that’s literally true, Ghost World has surely sent at least a few viewers in search of the James compendium (a Yazoo LP of his complete 1931 recordings) that Zwigoff enthusiastically recommends.

Seymour also says, when Enid prompts him to look for a likeminded girlfriend, “I don’t want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests.” Zwigoff clearly loves his interests, and I hope this welcome edition of Ghost World catalyzes a reboot of his career. He’s been missed.

David Sterritt served two terms as chair of the New York Film Critics Circle and chaired the National Society of Film Critics from 2005 to 2015. He is the author of numerous books, including Simply Hitchcock and Rock ’n’ Roll Movies, both to be published later this year.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4