Tuesday, July 29, 2014

From My Collection: Ghost World Movie Review

It’s sort of a rite of passage of being a teenager that you think you’ve got the world figured out, have everyone’s number, and believe your own views to be absolutely right. I suppose it takes most people until sometime in early adulthood to realize that you didn’t know half of what you thought you did when you were seventeen. Some teenagers (I might have been one of them) take it a step further and believe there is an authentic way of living and that just about everyone walking this earth is a big phony. Think Holden Caulfield. It should suggest something important that he was my hero at fifteen and then a sad tragedy at thirty.

Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film Ghost World, adapted from a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, is about a mature young girl named Enid who goes through life whispering ironically sarcastic insults at everyone and everything. The people who have embraced conformity or the mainstream are like pointless wastes of space to Enid. Her best friend Rebecca shares her enthusiasm for the bizarre and distaste for the normal. They’ve just finished high school and, ready to demonstrate to the world how awesome they are and how much cooler they can make it, are preparing to get an apartment together. Rebecca, ever the more realistic of the two, is ready to do what it takes to make that happen. Unfortunately for Enid, surviving the world usually means conformity, compromise, and adhering to the rules you think are garbage. So Rebecca is looking for a job, shopping for kitchen cups and utensils, and starting to grow up. Enid doesn’t have the patience to put up with lesser mortals and so she can’t even hold down a movie theater job where she is in thrall to corporate rules of up-selling to larger size popcorns and not dissing the films. By contrast, Rebecca seems content at her Starbuck’s knock-off coffee shop job.

When Thora Birch appeared as Enid, her star was on the rise. She was successfully transitioning from child actress to serious adult roles and had received excellent praise for her work in American Beauty. Enid is almost an extension of her role in that film, but a little darker and more sarcastic. As Rebecca, Scarlett Johansson brings something altogether different. Her classic good looks are one reason it seems she was cast. She gets more attention from the boys than Enid does. But then there’s her aloof performance, which at first might seem to be a misstep. Rebecca is along fro the ride in Enid’s world. It’s like they were childhood friends who didn’t realize they were growing apart. I imagine Enid as the louder and more dominant personality. We see this in early scenes as she interrupts conversations Rebecca has with other people. Becca wants to remain loyal to her friend, but also longs for normalcy through maturity. Enid isn’t ready for that. It’s always Enid who points out how stupid something is with Becca quietly and perhaps reluctantly agreeing. You see this in Johansson’s performance. It registers in her face that she doesn’t buy into Enid’s approach to life. Becca’s suggestion to Enid in their apartment search that they pose as yuppies reflects a well-studied understanding of the reality that landlords are looking for a certain type and that the only way to get Enid to go along is to present it as an ironic game.

Enid’s true kindred spirit turns out to be Seymour, a sad sack middle-aged loser they stumble upon. He’s a vintage 78 rpm record collector who also dabbles in antique curiosities. You could hardly ask for a better casting than Steve Buscemi, whose odd looks, nasally voice, and hunched stature make it entirely believable that he would have long ago given up on romance. Seymour is perhaps what Enid could become in twenty years if she doesn’t change. He has zero patience for what he perceives as poor taste or stupidity and he has so much reserved anger at the world that it burst forth sometimes in the car. When Enid witnesses this firsthand, I had this feeling she would see herself in him and use that as the impetus for change in her own attitudes. Alas, Seymour discovers later that she admires his caustic behavior and then I realized Enid is one of the saddest of all movie heroines because she’s not destined for change.

A handful of other recognizable actors put in effective performances in smaller roles. Bob Balaban is Enid’s sort of mumbly and befuddled father. Teri Garr comes in as an old rekindled flame setting the stage to swoop back into Endi’s life. Enid can’t stand her precisely because she is just normal. And Brad Renfro looks kind of helpless as Enid’s and Becca’s classmate Josh, whom they use to drive them around town. But none is better or more aptly cast than Ileana Douglas as Enid’s summer school art teacher. She plays the part to perfection, espousing somewhat meaningless declarations of meaningful art and artists’ intentions as if that were the be all, end all of producing a piece. Enid sees through this crap early on, but then learns to play the game – even Enid conforms eventually – by beating the goody-two-shoes in the class at her own game by coming into class with a piece art work accompanied by a bogus explanation of her intentions behind it.

I think there is more than a touch of Zwigoff in Seymour, and possibly Clowes too, who co-wrote the screenplay. I used to see this movie as Zwigoff thumbing his nose at normalcy and conformity. It was like a treatise on how people should behave and Enid was the model. Now I see Zwigoff views her a little wistfully and with some disappointment. He definitely has affection for all the characters and points of view. I think he’s a man who feels very outside the mainstream and unable to connect with people (like Seymour), but recognizes how much more pleasant life can be when you learn the social skills to relate to other human beings. “I can’t relate to 99 percent of humanity,” bemoans Seymour. I know how he feels, but sometimes you have to suck it up, practice, and get it done. When Enid goes off at the end, riding a bus out of town on her own, there’s probably just as much chance she never gets off that bus as there is that she learns something and grows up. Enid’s future is an open book and only she has the power to decide what the next pages hold for her.

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