Dan Clowes first saw it as graffiti more than a dozen years ago: "Ghost World." The Chicago-born comic book artist was jack-legging through an alley off a side street in a not-then gentrified neighborhood called Wicker Park, and the enigmatic pairing of words stuck in his mind. This long-in-process adaptation of his graphic 1998 novel, directed and co-written by Crumb director Terry Zwigoff, should also stick in the minds of viewers who are lucky enough to discover it.
From its first shots, Ghost World has a brilliant singularity that travels from hilarious, sardonic observation to acute melancholy. It's the summer after high school. Two precocious, sarcastic, foul-mouthed friends, Enid (disdainful, baby-faced Thora Birch) and Rebecca (impossibly throaty-voiced Scarlet Johansson) whose ways will soon part, plan how to waste the coming months before adulthood beckons. Zwigoff and Clowes manage an unlikely feat of literary ventriloquism, pouring their own concerns about the corruption of our modern culture into a story of the frustrations of two still-unfinished young girls. Ghost World portrays a culture of many subcultures, suggesting that anyone who doesn't go with the flow of "adulthood" as defined by advertising and marketing is inevitably a subculture of one. It's my favorite American movie of the year so far.
Intense, poignant and droll, Birch's fearless performance, filled with priceless glowers, is nothing shy of exquisite. Slowly, the story becomes more about this sassy lass's baby steps toward maturity, neglecting Rebecca and developing her improbable friendship with middle-aged record collector Seymour (a restrained and touching Steve Buscemi), who to Enid's young eyes seems almost so uncool he's cool. (She likes Don Knotts, too.) She even insists she can get him a date, introducing him to things outside of his music collecting circles, becoming his gleeful pimpette.
But he has lessons to teach as well: "There are no other songs like that," Seymour answers when Enid asks for something to follow up Skip James' "The Devil's Got My Woman." Sad to say, Ghost World inhabits a world of its own as well. How does a free and vivid and unfinished soul survive and persist in a Starbucks-Kinko's-7-Eleven world? Ghost World answers: by following your own path.
Which Zwigoff has done in making this film. Zwigoff's every shot is layered, with a pictorial simplicity and directness that is still stuffed with cool artifacts or odd goings-on in the corner of the frame. Plus, there's almost enough music for a musical. And there's a tenderness beneath the exhilarating deadpan of the performances.
"As much as I liked Ghost World as a comic strip," Zwigoff says, "It was never my interest or intention to transform it in any direct way into a film. I liked how genuine it was, how Enid and Rebecca talked and acted like real people. You don't know how rare that is to find in reading scripts. Usually by page three of a script when you come across the rugged hero's name being 'Cody' or 'Rafe' or 'Cole,' you know you don't have to read any farther, you know it's just some contrived slop based on other bad films, not real life."
Zwigoff wanted to make the material more personal in order to stay interested through the film's lengthy gestation. "Partly to accomplish that, I picked material in the comic I felt the most connection with, and shied away from the rest. But Ghost World the comic is largely about two different sides of Dan as personified by Enid and Rebecca. The comic, at least on some level, is very much about this deep psychological exploration," he says.
In portraying Seymour, whose interests parallel his own, Zwigoff manages to evade most of the kind of male wish-fulfillment fantasy that stories about friendships between older men and younger women usually become. "I wound up adding elements of myself like the Seymour character and the cultural criticism and the record collecting which gave Ghost World the film a very different dynamic than Ghost World the comic. I think what motivated me to take on the project was not the comic, but Dan's entire body of work."
Perversely, Zwigoff says he's glad it took ages for the film to be made. "I learned a lot about acting and getting the performance I wanted out of the actors."