Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World Is as Charmingâeuro;”and Limitedâeuro;”as Zine Art

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Terry Zwigoff’s
first fiction film, Ghost World, has the charm and limitations of zine
art. That’s clearly what he’s after, adapting a graphic novel by Daniel
Clowes (his co-screenwriter). Zwigoff, also an aficionado of obscure blues records
(his actual first film was the blues documentary Louie Bluie), seeks
out the esoteric and idiosyncratic. Ghost World looks at two hobbyists,
high school graduate Enid (Thora Birch) and a sad-sack bachelor Seymour (Steve
Buscemi). They need the outlets of art or love. She illustrates a personal diary
while he collects dusty 78-rpm blues oldies. An unlikely couple, teenage Enid
and adult Seymour experience the hazards and felicities of platonic friendship.
She first sabotages and then tries repairing his love life as if she were Alicia
Silverstone’s Cher in a working-class version of Clueless.

Enid and Seymour’s
oddball match-up is refreshing after the pandering, pseudo-diversity of the
softcore Crazy/Beautiful. A genuinely crazy/beautiful conceit provides
Ghost World’s set of precarious, eccentric relationships among Enid’s
neighbors, family and classmates. Before Seymour, Enid was part of another idiosyncratic
couple–with her longtime best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Both
smart girls, resentful of the conformity they see around them, riff on the locals
in their Southern California town (even Seymour). Enid sets herself apart with
black-framed glasses and vintage clothes (including a red snood), while the
more conventional Rebecca has a low, almost sultry voice and hard manner–they’re
like the gal pals on Daria. The girls’ boho style clashes with nerdy
shirt-tucked Seymour, but only superficially. All three turn out to be likeminded:
frustrated in the margins of suburbia, destined to be loners.

Observing all
this in roughly comic book style, Zwigoff seems uniquely attuned to his nonworldly
characters. Yet the film has no graphic daring; it’s strangely inert. At
best, the shambling look of zine art–proud nonprofessionalism–inhibits
the film’s expressiveness. You can get away with deliberate amateurishness
in print–crude compositions and blunt color values sometimes suggest visionary
originality–but in Ghost World it just looks like unskilled inarticulateness.
Opening with a Bollywood film clip (from the 1965 Indian musical Gumnaam),
intercut with scenes of contemporary American strip-mall banality, Ghost
announces its characters’ yearning for a different life but never
really animates it. When Enid first gets to know Seymour, his resemblance
to a loser stand-up comedian she earlier saw on tv ("The Humor Grotto")
only registers subliminally. Zwigoff cannot direct atmosphere or emotional tone.
Reviewers who overrate Ghost World are not judging it esthetically, but
primarily responding to its nonthreatening view of social misfits–the underground’s
brand of sentimentality.

Buscemi is
almost moving playing Seymour, the indie incarnation of Don Knotts. It may be
the ultimate characterization of his career. Bugging his weary eyes, hanging
his head and looking forlornly romantic, Buscemi’s Buster Keaton sadness
is well balanced by Thora Birch, whose child-woman beauty seems genuinely sardonic,
not cutesy like Christina Ricci’s. Yet their deadpan exchanges contribute
to the impression of unrelieved blahs–a sense of boredom that felt truer,
even funny, when John Waters satirized Baltimore banality in Pecker.
Lacking the vitality and craft Waters discovered when finally telling his own
story in that film, Zwigoff never finds a personally expressive style. His Ghost
gallery of freaks suggests John Waters people in a King of the
world–everyday eccentricity shown in a milieu so glum it seems
additionally abstracted. A live-action, frequently pallid cartoon.

Ghost World’s
weird stasis only makes sense in light of Enid’s diary illustrations. Her
sketches (like Zwigoff’s images) are flat; the emphasis on facial expressions
and curious situations recall R. Crumb’s quivery, goofing style. One of
the old records Seymour shows Enid is a blues pastiche by R. Crumb and the Cheap
Suits. The first woman Enid sets up for Seymour is a perfect R. Crumb avid redhead.
And Enid’s drawings were actually done by Crumb’s daughter Sophie.
Making a virtue of sincerity over professionalism is a favorite Zwigoff theme.
Apparently–and it’s no surprise–Zwigoff is still working
out the traumatic revelations of his previous movie, the documentary Crumb.
Ghost World
can be viewed as an innocence-seeking, teen-movie apologia for
the nightmare of Crumb.

In that nonfiction
film Zwigoff never reconciled R. Crumb’s horrific family background with
his own intellectual appreciation of Crumb’s art–the deliberately
scabrous, underground comic-book style that vented sexual and racial neuroses
for a rebellious generation. Exploring Crumb’s artistic controversies–but
only to a superficial degree–Zwigoff made the mistake of leaving biographical
frankness to explain the art. That highly praised documentary eventually imploded
from the shock of dementia and sociopathy that Zwigoff uncovered. For me, Crumb
failed by merely presenting a deeply disturbing reality without inquiry or follow-through.
Its view of madness was unforgettable but also dismaying. It seemed, somehow,
an inappropriate inclusion. Zwigoff appeared helpless before the Crumb family’s
unending examples of human failure (mania, molestation, suicide). As a result,
Crumb’s art itself–not quite therapeutic, in fact verging on the psychotic–offered
inadequate compensation for so much suffering.

The lower-depths
vision (and humor) that Crumb unleashed has influenced generations of artists
and come above ground–not only in a rash of zine and chapbook illustrators
but in our impudent contemporary sensibility. (Zwigoff filmed art critic Robert
Hughes comparing Crumb to Brueghel but artists from John Waters and the Coen
brothers to Mike Judge and Todd Solondz owe Crumb a debt.) Since Crumb’s
popularity, comic-book mordancy and the established language of irreverent graphics
have become ways for individual artists to confront the world from a distance–just
like Crumb’s passive observation of his decrepit family and Zwigoff’s
tacit approval. What’s futile and weak about this hermit’s approach
also comes through in Ghost World’s kindly weirdnesses (such as
Norman, the man perpetually at the bus stop). Distinct from crass coming-of-age
comedies like Road Trip and American Pie, Ghost World rues
maturing experiences similar to Jim McKay’s very earnest and touching Our
but then leaves them undeveloped. Enid, Seymour and Rebecca are not
as wretched as R. Crumb, his siblings and his mother, nor as insistently real
as the girls in Our Song; but Zwigoff isolates them within their eccentricity
in order to convey conventional zine disaffection. Think of American Graffiti’s
melancholy minus the rock ’n’ roll epiphanies.

Art barely
saves the characters in Ghost World. This conception derives from zine
pessimism and relates to Zwigoff’s Crumb-based skepticism about
the benefits of any art institution. His sharpest satire cuts Enid’s art
class instructor, a pompous feminist (Illeana Douglas) who praises a grade-grubbing
student’s obvious political pretenses, such as a coat hanger sculpture
depicting "a woman’s right to choose" and a tampon-in-a-tea-cup
"found object." (Has Zwigoff acquired a hint of Crumb’s misogyny?)
Enid wins approval by displaying an item from Seymour’s antique collection
that pushes the instructor’s p.c. buttons. Again evoking Crumb’s outrageous
drawings, it’s an old blackface Sambo poster for Coon’s Chicken Inn.
"People still hate each other, they just know how to hide it better,"
Seymour says to a beamish Enid, explaining the poster’s racist significance.
It’s unclear whether she uses the poster to pretend radicalism or simply
to embarrass her teacher’s art-world pretenses, but this episode hints
at Zwigoff’s deep if vague sense of a marginal artist’s vexation.
The poster’s hidden history of caricature, the way it reveals impolite
psychological truths, is central to Ghost World’s view of humanity
and is consistent with both Zwigoff’s blues patronage and Crumb’s

In its anomic
view of working-class habit Ghost World is so committed to underground
resentment that its contempt for artistic professionalism unfortunately extends
to Zwigoff’s crude, near amateur technique. Ghost World achieves
artistry only in a brief sequence at the end when Zwigoff cuts from Enid’s
comic drawing of Seymour, captioned "NOBODY LOVES ME," to her romantic
sketch of convenience clerk Josh (Brad Renfro), then to a closeup of Buscemi
as pitiful Seymour taking it all in. Those shots carry us from Enid’s sentimental
representations to the startling photographic realism of a man in pain. Excitingly
effective–and atypical.

So many of
the great moviemakers have demonstrated humane sensitivity that Ghost World’s
"new" zine angle on eccentricity and disconsolateness doesn’t
excuse the film’s visual dreariness. Although Zwigoff professes a different,
inelegant esthetic, perhaps as spare and deliberately vulgar as a Crumb hand-drawing,
he still doesn’t rate in an art form of supreme visual artists like Spielberg,
Altman, De Palma, Boorman, Davies or Scorsese. Not the flamboyant Scorsese so
many film school hacks imitate but the visually imaginative artist who climaxed
Bringing Out the Dead by showing a man, conflicted in his high dreams
and low behavior, pinned on the gates of his penthouse terrace. That modern
crucifix (referencing Boorman’s Deliverance) had the visual intensity
graphic novelists claim but that only well-practiced cinema can make astonishing,
immediate, real. Ghost World is far superior to a Kevin Smith zine-movie
travesty, but what Zwigoff’s likable film lacks cannot be dismissed.