22 May 2012

"Ghost World"

Starring: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro with Illeana Douglas and Steve Busemi
Based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes
Written by Daniel Clowes & Terry Zwigoff
Directed by Terry Zwigoff

The first I heard of Ghost World (that I recall, anyway) was some brief coverage of the movie in Wizard. There may or may not have been a synopsis; all I can say for certain is that I was captivated by the image of Thora Birch wearing the latex mask. I always assumed it was a pseudo-Catwoman mask, but I learned recently that it is instead "a rubber bondage mask with devil horns." Regardless, I was aware that it was based on an underground comic and held in high esteem by people who knew about such things. Like so many things that cross my path, though, it remained relegated to a file in the back of my mind for several years.
In March, 2009, Howard the Duck finally came out on DVD and I had to have it so my wife and I went to Best Buy (since Walmart didn't have the decency to stock it). I came across Ghost World for $4.44 and took a chance on it as a blind buy. To show you how bad I am about actually getting around to things, I didn't finally watch the movie until 1 May 2010, when I selected it to begin that month's DVD Talk viewing challenge. I fell completely in love with the meandering coming-of-age tale.

It's been quite a while since I've thrown myself wholly into exploring a movie as thoroughly as I have with Ghost World; the last was probably Eyes Wide Shut. At Half Price Books, I picked up the soundtrack on CD and later the published screenplay. Then, a week ago, I finally bought the graphic novel at The Great Escape.

The Story

Enid (Birch) is somewhere between a precocious slacker and a lazy hipster. She's a misfit in her quiet suburban town, bored and disinterested. Growing up in LaGrange, KY, I felt like that a lot. Still do, if I'm being honest. There's that tug at 18 of having the door of youth closed on you, and while everyone has ideas of what you should or shouldn't do from that point forward, it's extremely rare that anyone actually knows what to do or how to go about it. Most people latch onto some generic outline of how to be an adult and they wing it from there. Either college or work usually offer the kind of structure that helps someone begin to figure out their direction.

I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, and I knew that if I tried to go to college directly out of high school that I would simply screw off and waste time and money. Instead, I went to work for Walmart, taking a job unloading trucks on third shift. (I also snagged a sweet gig as "night security" I'll discuss in another post sometime.) It took just a few months of that for me to get a sense of what I didn't want to do with my life, but that's not the same as knowing what you do want to do. That took a while longer. Still, I vividly recall those first several months after graduating high school and I recognized the universal truth of Enid's plight.

Rebecca, of course, is the friend who ultimately will default to the same tried and true paradigm for life that everyone else has used. This alienates Enid, partly because she sees her friend as "selling out" the scornful values upon which their relationship has been built. Rebecca has a much easier time of it, too, finding a job and adapting to it with plans for an apartment and functioning as a real grown-up. Enid, conversely, simply cannot make herself adapt. Enter: Seymour, who comes to effectively personify for Enid that there is another way besides the soulless path down which Rebecca is choosing to follow.

On the other end of the spectrum, of course, is Seymour. He embodies the self-loathing of Clowes and the niche obsessions of Zwigoff, and both are familiar traits to I suspect most of us who identify as comic book readers, movie aficionados and other such "collector" types. The best microcosm for him is on page 54 of the script:
Yeah, well it's simple for everybody else--give 'em a Big Mac and a sport utility vehicle and they're happy! I just can't relate to 99.9% of humanity.
Yeah, well, I can't relate to humanity either, but I don't think it's totally hopeless...
But it's not totally hopeless for you... I've had it. I don't even have the energy to try anymore. You should make sure you do the exact opposite of everything I do so you don't end up like me...
I'd rather end up like you than those people at that stupid bar... At least you're an interesting person... at least you're not exactly like everybody else...
Hooray for me.
I've found myself identifying as much with Seymour as with Enid, of course, though I have to say my perspective has somewhat changed recently. I've got a new friend I met in October and we relate to one another in a way not terribly dissimilar to the way Enid and Seymour relate to one another (though without the sexual attraction). I know now what it's like to have someone younger want to live in a world where guys like Seymour and me have a fighting chance at happiness, even when guys like he and I have a hard time caring ourselves.

Perhaps nothing in this world is as moving as someone with more potential than you, taking the time to care about whether you're living up to yours. That, I believe, is the true root of Seymour's feelings for Enid. She doesn't have to care at all, yet she does. She sees more in him than he's allowed himself to see in years, and it's a reminder that he has more to give than trivia about old 78s. That's why he's willing to end his budding relationship with Dana; Enid touches a part of him that she doesn't. He could contentedly go through the motions with Dana and tell himself he's happy with a woman who doesn't really "get" him, but is happy to think she does, but he needs more than that. We all do.


Ghost World
DVD Release Date: 2 February 2002
List Price: $14.98

Unfortunately for someone like me, the DVD is very light on bonus content. There's no commentary track. Worse yet, it's non-anamorphic, meaning that all bonus content appears pillar-boxed on my TV screen. (Yes, this is a first world problem.) What is included consists of a handful of deleted and alternate scenes, a brief making-of featurette and a clip from the movie, Gumnaan of the performance of "Jaan Pehechaan Ho" that opens Ghost World. It's like if Eyes Wide Shut had been directed by Quentin Tarantino instead of Stanley Kubrick. The highlight, I suppose, is director/co-writer Terry Zwigoff talking about how his wife informed him that the one guy he should worry about leaving her alone with was Steve Buscemi.

The CD

Ghost World Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Date of Release: 14 August 2001
List Price: $14.14

One of the most important elements of Ghost World is the music. IMDb's soundtrack listing shows 36 songs appear throughout the movie. There are 20 songs on the soundtrack album, but only 14 of those appear in the film. Zwigoff added six songs from his personal library of 78s (tracks 14-19), all from the 1920s, that he felt suited the aesthetic of the film and the album. In his liner notes, Zwigoff notes that "The [Lionel] Belasco tunes chosen for the film...are taken from extremely rare original 78rpm recordings that are among the few known copies to exist." Put simply, the character of Seymour exists in many ways as a manifestation of Zwigoff himself.

As in the film, I find the two standouts to be "Jaan Pehachaan Ho" by Mohammed Rafi and "Devil Got My Woman" by Skip James. The former is punchy and fun (see the video clip above), and the latter is achingly raw. It's the kind of song that you write or sing when you have the kind of pain that can't be expressed or soothed any other way. Every time I hear it, it puts me in the mood for the humidity of Black Snake Moan. This is the kind of album you throw on after dinner, having a beer by yourself or playing Yahtzee with a friend and thinking of when you used to be impatient with the world.

The CD booklet includes a six-panel strip by Daniel Clowes, featuring Seymour giving Enid a mix tape of some of his 78s, and her listening to them with Rebecca.

The Graphic Novel

Ghost World
by Daniel Clowes
Seventeenth Softcover Edition
Designed by Daniel Clowes
Published by Thompson & Groth
Color Separations by Daniel Clowes
Date of Publication: 21 March 2003
Cover Price: $11.95
80 Pages

What I discovered when I finally read the source material was that this is one of those rare adaptations that dramatically overhauls the source material to create two distinct bodies of work. Clowes's original story was serialized in Eightball, and even in collected form it's unclear that it was ever intended to tell the kind of focused, singular narrative found in the film. Instead, each segment reads as its own episode. It calls to mind Beavis and Butt-Head, really, partly because Enid and Rebecca are presented less as sympathetic figures experiencing universal rites of passage and more as snarky, raunchy, instigating brats. Viewers of the film will still find many of the same plot points, but they're scattered and much less interconnected the way they are in the film.

Incidentally, the official movie website is still active. There is a list of F.A.Q. in the Production Notes section. One question is, "How is the movie different from the comic?"
A. For one thing, the comic is made up of bound pieces of parchment on which reproductions of hand-drawn pictographs have been imprinted, while the movie is actually made up of thousands and thousands of tiny transparent photographs.
For those more interested in content differences, I found the biggest difference to be that there's no Seymour, at least not as he appears in the film. The girls still prank the guy whose classified personals ad catches their attention, but that's near the end. Instead, the comic is dominated by an emerging love triangle of Enid, Rebecca and Josh (who is almost peripheral in the film).

As for the comic itself, Clowes's original characters live more removed from the fun stuff. They're more clearly established on the outskirts of town, constantly needing to figure out who can give them a ride somewhere. (Yes, in the film they prevail on Josh to give them a ride, but he points out while driving that they could have just walked.) The use of light cyan colored shading/coloring creates a very distinctive look throughout the otherwise black-and-white comic. The screenplay (discussed next) emphasizes that there's a noticeable blue light cast on the streets by all the TVs being watched, and I wonder if that's what the cyan here signifies.

The Screenplay

Ghost World, a Screenplay by Daniel Clowes & Terry Zwigoff
Designer - Daniel Clowes
First Assistant Designer - Dan Raeburn
Production by Dan Raeburn
Publisher - Fantagraphics Books
Date of Publication:
Cover Price: $16.95

A ten-panel strip by Clowes introduces us to Enid and Rebecca, now poised in the Hollywood scene riding high on the success of the movie. Zwigoff and Clowes each penned an introduction, commenting on the genesis of the film and how difficult it was to convince anyone to make it, etc. The draft presented is the final shooting draft, dated 25 February 2000 (revised: 7 March).

I've often heard actors say they were drawn to a movie because the script was so funny. Reading Ghost World, I got a strong sense of what that's like. Even having heard this dialog spoken in the film (and some of it originally appeared verbatim in the comic), I came across some of the driest, most deadpan quips and caught myself chuckling. There were still some changes between even the final draft and the final film. Just a little thing, but when Enid and Rebecca go to the fake-50s diner, Rebecca asks the waiter, Al, if they can call him, "'Weird' Al." This is in the comic. There, as in the screenplay, he responds, "Heh heh" and proceeds to offer the day's specials. In the film, though, Ezra Buzzington pauses and after thinking it over for a moment, says, "I'd imagine so."

Also excised from the final film is a dream sequence in which Josh gets into the shower with Enid. That, in turn, is an alteration from an entire subplot in the comic book.

What all four works have in common is the creation of a specific atmosphere that feels instantly familiar yet original. That's no small feat to accomplish. If it was, every story would feel that way. Daniel Clowes's characters are recognizable as who we used to be, facing the first real crossroads of life. What Terry Zwigoff contributed perhaps more than anything else was the reminder to make sure we listen to music not as obligatory background noise, but as works of art. In this, Ghost World is as much a paean to the budding artist as it is to the waning days of youth.
Front Row: DVD. Middle row (l to r): graphic novel, screenplay, CD. Back row: Ramona.