Monday, 19 June 2017

GHOST WORLD - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2001 Zwigoff & Clowes masterpiece on Criterion

Shirtless Nunchuck Master fortifies with beef jerky.
A sad old man waits for a bus that never comes.
Teenage girls in this GHOST WORLD see it all.

Ghost World (2001)
Dir. Terry Zwigoff
Scr. Daniel Clowes and Zwigoff
Starring: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Illeana Douglas, Pat Healy, Brad Renfro, Bob Balaban, Teri Garr, Dave Sheridan and Charles C. Stevenson Jr.

Review By Greg Klymkiw

"I used to think about one day, just not telling anyone, and going off to some random place. And I'd just, disappear. And they'd never see me again." - Enid (Thora Birch) in Ghost World

The sad old man in a dark suit and gray tie stares at nothing in particular as he sits on a bench at a long-discontinued transit line, waiting for a bus that will never come. His name is Norman (Charles C. Stevenson Jr.). Though a touch distracted, he seems friendly enough when recent high school grads Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) stop to talk with him, but when they assert that the bus route was cancelled two years ago, he expresses mild annoyance, even outright dismissal when he growls, "You don't know what you're talking about."

On the surface, Ghost World, director Terry (Crumb) Zwigoff's film adaptation of the Daniel Clowes graphic novel seems to be about the gradual drift that occurs between these two longtime girlfriends during their first summer of true freedom after twelve-long-years of school, and yes, so it is - on the surface. In reality, though, the picture seems rooted firmly in the character of Norman, someone who appears only briefly in three scenes.

Norman, you see, has a dream and so does young Enid. It is a dream of longing, a dream of escape - leaving behind the ghosts of a town that's become too small to hold anyone there with the desire for flight, the gnawing need to migrate towards a fresh life and new adventures.

One night, Enid visits Norman at the bus stop with the following confession: "You're the only person in this world I can count on, because no matter what, I know you will always be here."

This is Enid's problem. She can't count on anyone or anything to remain in her life. Oh sure, she's surrounded by a handful of constants. Her bestie Rebecca has long been an appendage. The two have remained super-glued together through a life of quips and wry, cynical observations on everyone and everything that seems so ordinarily below their lofty station - "normal" is a dirty word in their vocabularies. They've shared a dream of getting jobs and rooming together in their very own apartment, but when the reality of settling down creeps into their friendship, Enid turns to the geeky middle-aged 78 collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi) for solace and inspiration.

Enid meets Seymour when she's concocted a nasty little ruse after reading his plea in a "personals" column and she responds to it, pretending to be a potential paramour. Instead, she and Rebecca show up to the prescribed meeting place, a faux-50s-style diner in a strip mall and cruelly sit back and watch him arrive and wait in vain for the date that never shows up. They follow the dejected schlub to his nondescript low-rise apartment dwelling and even patronize his garage sale one Saturday morning.

The first signs of a shift in the girls' friendship is apparent. Rebecca thinks Seymour is a creepy nerd (especially after the girls attend a party in his apartment populated by middle-aged 78/vinyl geeks). Enid however, becomes a woman obsessed. She finally admits that Seymour represents "the exact opposite of everything I hate".

But even Seymour won't remain long in Enid's life - it's partially her own doing. She plays teenage matchmaker and when he finally lands a girlfriend, she jealously attempts to break it up by coming on to the poor schlub and eventually dumps him once she realizes that life with him isn't what she's cut out for.

When Enid talks to old Norman at the bus stop, he declares: "I'm leaving town." When a bus mysteriously appears, he boards it and disappears from her life, probably forever. Every anchor in Enid's life continues to dissipate. Even her single dad (Bob Balaban) is planning to get married. They're all dropping like flies. This is a coming-of-age via abandonment, but maybe, just maybe, a bit of self-abandonment is necessary.

New Criterion cover-art by Daniel Clowes.

Zwigoff and Clowes have created one of the most compelling female characters in all of cinema. Enid comes to life in ways that so many characters (no matter what their sex) have ever done. From the opening scene in which the camera tracks along the open windows of an apartment complex, we hear the sounds of a rousing Bollywood tune whilst each window gives us a glimpse into a series of seemingly empty lives: a lone Asian woman staring forlornly into the night, a shirtless dude with a mullet sitting alone in his kitchen, a dinner table bereft of anyone in sight to enjoy the booze, uneaten food and exercise bicycle next to it, a dopey bovine couple watching their stupid kid whack his toys with a plastic baseball bat, and then...

Enid! A raven-haired young beauty in a red kimono-like bathrobe, dancing madly and identically to a woman in a Bollywood video that plays on her television, is revealed to us as someone who is clearly cut of her own unique cloth. (When Enid dyes her hair green and begins sporting period punk-wear, she's even more ravishing and definitely, cooler-than-cool.) Thora Birch attacks the role with a vengeance - as if it were the role of a lifetime, which, it probably will end up being.

The film captures the ennui, the downright melancholy of adolescence with deadpan fervour. The muted colour-pallette created by cinematographer Affonso Beato, the perfection of the movie's cast and an astonishing score comprised of the heartbreaking strains of David Kitay's music and a terrific whack of songs (including the legendary "Devil Got My Woman" by Skip James), all combine to deliver a work that's as riotously funny as it is deeply and profoundly moving.

The film has not dated in the sixteen years since its first release. Though the period details of its late 20th Century never-never-land are omnipresent, the picture's perspective feels downright universal. I was delighted that during my most recent helping of the film, my own 16-year-old daughter was completely blown away by the movie and can't stop watching it - over and over again. We've talked at length about it, but she actually observed something I couldn't have put better myself.

Referring to the haunting final moments of the film, my daughter remarked, "You know, Dad, sometimes we all just need to get on that bus and disappear."

I won't argue with that.


Ghost World is available in a sumptuous Criterion Collection DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION on Blu-Ray/DVD and includes a new, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by Zwigoff, a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a great commentary featuring Zwigoff, Clowes and producer Lianne Halfon, new interviews with actors Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Illeana Douglas, an extended excerpt from Gumnaam (1965) featuring the Bollywood number that appears in the movie’s opening title sequence (and with a wonderful commentary about the film itself), some terrific deleted scenes (including alternate takes of the nunchuck wielding madman played by Dave Sheridan), the trailer, an essay by critic Howard Hampton, a 2001 piece by Zwigoff on the film’s soundtrack and reprinted excerpts from Clowes’s comic "Ghost World". The Blu-Ray/DVD includes gorgeous new cover art by Daniel Clowes himself.