Friday, July 8, 2016

Living As a Ghost Of Yourself

1001Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part Nine
Terry Zwigoff (director) and Daniel Clowes (writer), Ghost World

Enid and Rebecca, classic high school malcontents, have finally graduated. They're ready for  adult life to start—but, like teenagers throughout time, they don't know what that means for them. They go halves on an apartment, and Rebecca gets a job, throwing herself into middle-class normality. But Enid isn't done being free-spirited and young. She attaches herself onto a nebbishy older fella who encourages her dangerous side. This hastens the rebellious teen's worst nightmare: change.

Director Terry Zwigoff collaborated with writer Daniel Clowes in adapting Clowes' Nineties-era "comix" novel into film form. Fans of the graphic novel took exception to the intrusion of a linear plot into Clowes' semi-autobiographical meandering: Enid's full name, never given onscreen, is "Enid Coleslaw," an anagram of "Daniel Clowes." But non-purists will enjoy the rich characters, dark humor, and saturated, hyperreal screen images. I've seldom seen a more realistic depiction of how teenagers really talk.

Enid (Thora Birch, American Beauty) and Rebecca (former child star Scarlett Johansson, in an early grown-up role) roam around town, glibly mocking popular culture and appreciating each other's shared superiority. Their playful cynicism carried them through high school mostly unscarred, and they see no reason it shouldn't continue forever. They use humor to keep reality at arm's length. But money, as it does, changes things. Hunger and past-due bills prove to motivate the girls differently.

On a whim, the girls answer a "missed connection" personal that leads them to a lonely man, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), who shares the girls' outlook. He collects old 78-RPM  records, pre-WWII toys, and other artifacts. Seymour idolizes the world he believes existed before his birth, and Enid considers him a fellow traveler. Rebecca, however, recognizes Seymour's quirks as attempts to flee the present, and contrives to separate them. Cracks begin surfacing in the girls' relationship.

Thora Birch (left) and Scarlett Johansson
in Ghost World
While Enid tries to find Seymour a date, she receives notice that she's one credit short of her diploma. To completely graduate, she must take a summer art course. Enid is a talented artist (with original drawings by Clowes), but her teacher demands art have contemporary political messages. Enid would rather flunk than compromise her vision. But a discovery among Seymour's menagerie might bridge the gap between her art and her teacher's weird, faddish demands.

Clowes and Zwigoff create, on one level, a nostalgic paean to adolescence, the kind familiar to generations of film buffs, from American Graffiti to Empire Records. Enid and Rebecca represent the dueling impulses common to many young people newly approved to adulthood, staying true to youthful dreams versus embracing adult responsibility. Adulthood requires compromise, but how much? Anyone watching their struggle will remember the day they got hungry enough to accept employment beneath their ambitions.

At another level, though, this film addresses the crushing disappointment of modernity. Work proves a trap that, rather than empowering Rebecca's dreams, squashes them. Enid is horrified to see her friend's ambitions start turning around savings and boys, but finds Rebecca doesn't want rescue. Seymour appears to escape modernity with his antiques, but at the price of awful loneliness. When intimacy does appear, it proves just as disappointing, and laden with conformity, as Rebecca's job.

Art looms large in this story. Enid creates art which her teacher belittles, despite its technical prowess. Seymour immerses himself in art, mainly music, and stands fast even when selecting the slicker, more commercial options would net him friends and women. In the end, compromise proves more costly than fighting through. This clash between artistic integrity and mass appeal gets investigated further in Clowes and Zwigoff's second collaboration, Art School Confidential, an altogether inferior film.

Zwigoff's camera work recreates the experience of a Clinton-era graphic novel, without being slavish to the picture. He saturates some environments with color, like the bright primary colors of Enid's bedroom, or Seymour's metallic-toned antiques. Other images look washed out. The job Enid briefly attempts looks overexposed, like it's as damaging to the camera as to the beleaguered souls working there. And the apartment Rebecca selects for them is painfully bland, Fifty Shades of Beige.

Altogether, this movie delivers a twisted comic nightmare. It backs Enid, and to lesser degrees Rebecca and Seymour, into corners where they must decide which form of disappointment they consider acceptable. As that looming monster, adulthood, takes characters one by one, we realize, for all its realism and humor, we're watching a horror movie, where only the unfortunate survive. When Enid escapes, we applaud, and wonder: is it too late for me to try again?

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