Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ghost World - Terry Zwigoff (2001)

Ghost World! Yes, Terry Zwigoff's lovely, character-driven dark comedy. One of the most compelling coming-of-age films I have ever seen. I was recently asked to defend this film and so this is my response.

This could have been a simple teen comedy with Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson walking around and making fun of people, then some guy getting in the way of it. Well, some guy DOES get in the way, but it's not at all what you might expect in a teen movie. Steve Buscemi, in his best role to date, brings to the screen Seymour, an inward-looking middle-aged bachelor with a comb-over and a room full of old records and collectibles. This is not a character from a teen movie, because Buscemi brings real substance to Seymour. We care about Seymour and we care about Thora Birch's Enid, who can't seem to find something that makes her truly happy.

Their relationship is based on a shared interest in the things/music that other people have since thrown aside. It is also these things/music that make this film come alive. The music (Seymour's old-timey music in this case) is given the same significance to the film as the characters give it within the film. For instance, Enid listens to Skip James "Devil Got My Woman," a blind buy from Seymour's garage sale, and Zwigoff dwells on the moment with her. In turn, we also listen to the song, and personally, I found myself as entraced as Enid seems to be. The song then compels Enid to go back to Seymour to look for more music like it, and their odd relationship begins. The David Kitay score works in a very different way from the old-timey music in that it is more in the background (it is much more subtle), but it is no less effective in evoking the deeper underlying mood of the characters. I am thinking especially of the main theme that punctuates the end of the film when Enid walks to the bus stop.

Also, the things/the stuff that occupy the corners of the screen within this film. Enid's punk tapes strewn across the floor, all of the stuff at Seymour's garage sale and Enid's lawn sale, the stuff that they really can't part with when the push comes to the shove, Seymour's display room. It is fitting that this film comes from a comic book (by Daniel Clowes), comic books being a familiar collectible. But for these characters, the stuff is not just for display, it contains a piece of who the characters are, and in a world of awkwardness and social barriers (perpetuated as much by the judgment of the outsiders as the insiders according to Ghost World), sometimes the stuff and the interest in the stuff make for a more reliable friend.

The things/music also point to the sadness underlying these characters' lives. The film starts off with Enid's dark wit, but as the film moves on, we see more and more of the insecurity behind the comedy. Enid is extremely frightened of the next step that she must take past high school, and for the time being within the film, she revels in her throw-back, retro interests, which connect her to something bigger than herself. Seymour tries even less to disguise his unhappiness, and it is so compelling to watch him botch up his relationships, because it seems inevitable that he's going to end up alone, surrounded by his stuff, when the film is over.

Although the underlying tone is kind of depressing, Zwigoff successfully balances this tone with a biting, sarcastic comedy surrounding the characters that Enid both loves and makes fun of. These characters keep the film light at the right moments. One of my favorites is the nunchucks-carrying, beater-tan, gas-station dude, who refuses to submit to authority. In addition to the comedy, these characters help to develop Enid's character. She loves these people, hates them, judges them, and ultimately, uses them as inspiration for her art. Enid draws the characters as she runs across them, framing their personalities on paper in light of her imagination. It is clear that although Enid hides behind her eccentricities and her humor, she has a real knack for constructing something positive out of it in her art.

Zwigoff could have made a teen comedy and he could have made a suburban melodrama. Instead, he gave us a unique coming-of-age film that is as eccentric as the characters it contains therein. It also rings extremely true for me in giving complexity to its assessment of the fringes of American pop culture. For the characters in Ghost World, their interests function both as a vibrant outward vehicle for social networking, and also an inward, materialistic, and lonely venture.

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