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[whitespace] 'Ghost World'
Teen Terrors: Best friends Scarlett Johansson (left) and Thora Birch take a jaundiced view of modern life in 'Ghost World.'

Clowes Minded

Director Terry Zwigoff draws out a comedy of depression from Dan Clowes' 'Ghost World'

By Richard von Busack

ONE WAY of summing up Ghost World is to say that it's a movie for people who liked the gawky and bushy-haired premakeover Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries, just as years ago they preferred the premakeover Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club.

In Ghost World, Thora Birch plays the sniping Enid Coleslaw, thudding with bad vibes during the course of a California summer. She's drifting away from her dearest pal, Becky (Scarlett Johansson). The original plan was that the girls would move out and get an apartment together. However, fight-or-flight impulses that Enid won't analyze are keeping her from putting down roots.

The girls dawdle, killing time and teasing a local boy (Brad Renfro). Gradually, Enid forms a friendship with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), an irritable record collector and old-music fan. Enid also suffers through an art class with a teacher (Illeana Douglas) who, as Dan Clowes once wrote of his own professors, "couldn't teach a dog to bark."

Clowes, who wrote the comics that Ghost World is based on, is one of the very few artists to still genuinely dread selling out. He's overlaid this worry on Enid, whose terror of compromise consumes her. There's so little around her that doesn't look horrible and dead, it's as if she's old, even in her youth.

Nothing Enid does is felt or heeded, which is probably the principal meaning of the film's title (it's taken from graffiti Clowes saw on a Chicago wall in a bad neighborhood). Where Enid lives--in a suburb full of apartment buildings in a vague, anywhere part of Los Angeles--all avenues of rebellion are co-opted. Maybe the biggest surprise in this bright and acridly funny film directed by Terry Zwigoff is that it doesn't conclude in what would have seemed to be the natural ending: Enid turning criminal.

FOR CLOWES fans dreading a Hollywoodization, the film's a relief. Still, Zwigoff has hardly made a cut-and-paste version of the tale. It's Zwigoff's first fictional film, a break from his two previous documentaries, Crumb and Louie Bluie.

He crossed into fictional filmmaking by taking acting classes. He also solicited technical advice from Sausalito director Michael Lehmann (Heathers).

"I asked him all the questions I could thing of," Zwigoff says by phone from his home in San Francisco. "What does the assistant director do; what about the script supervisors; do I have to worry about the eye line, continuity, lenses? He told me that the one thing to worry about was all in the first 10 minutes. One needed to devise some really ostentatious, showy crane shot or Steadicam shot that looks very impressive.

"He said that's all most people care about in Hollywood. Most of the producers looking for a director fast-forward through films on video. They're not interested in story or dialogue or character, only in showy camera moves. This makes no sense to me. Look at most John Huston films or Woody Allen movies or Fargo, one of my favorite films. They don't have all this superficial gimmickry, and they tend to hold up very well over the years."

Zwigoff, co-writer on the script with Clowes, found there was more to adaptation than transcribing the dialogue, even if Ghost World the comic seems so easily imagined. As a cartoonist, Clowes isn't primarily an exaggerator, and Ghost World uses a clinical style when looking at the harshness of functional architecture and the plain faces seen in crowds.

"We were more faithful to the comic when we started writing the screenplay," Zwigoff says. "Some of the stuff I thought would work the best, the one-liners and jokes in the comic, didn't work too well in the film. The characters we kept were really strong. That was my main interest, since Ghost World was so well written and authentic. But I warned Dan from the start that the film was going to be different from the comic."

Though the Enid of the film is a little more like a frisky poltergeist than the haunted numbed girl of the book, the film preserves Enid's aimlessness--it doesn't make her "proactive" in the traditional movie sense.

"I tried to avoid all that--the usual conflict at the end of the first act, the arc of the story," Zwigoff says. "In my life, I've had no arcs since I was born! I know teenagers, because I still feel like one myself. I'm still alienated, still angry, still trying to find some place where I fit in." Zwigoff didn't aim for the film to be a denizen of the art-movie ghetto but something with the popular appeal yet comic irascibility of Seinfeld.

"The budget on Ghost World was $7 million dollars," he explains. "To get that money, you need actors that people have heard of. That's how the financing works. The studios give you a list of the stars they'd like you to have, and usually, they're the 10 biggest stars in Hollywood, like Harrison Ford or Russell Crowe. You know, they want a big movie star to sell the film.

"But I needed a character actor for the role of Seymour, and I held out for Steve Buscemi. That's why it dragged out five years to make. We brought in Thora Birch out of American Beauty. Of course, she wasn't who we'd planned to use from the beginning of the project; she was 12 when the script was written. But she'd been in American Beauty, a dark comedy about America, and that made her a star."

THE FILM had the highest per-screen attendance of any movie during its opening week, a success that has got Zwigoff on the move. "I'm going to the Deauville Film Festival, but first I'm going down to L.A. to take some meetings. I have a lot of scripts to read.

"I'm not going to make the same mistake I made last time. After I made Crumb, I took a year off to go to all the film festivals, and when I got back, my career was dead in the water. I'd take meetings, and people would say, 'Didn't you make a documentary or something?' "

Zwigoff's prickliness is justified. When films are targeted toward 18-year-olds, it's odd that there aren't more movies like Ghost World. With Enid being a thorough summing-up of life at that ruthless age, Clowes and Zwigoff have aptly reflected the wounding language and the Olympian disgust of intelligent teens, as well as Enid's clumsy handling of a budding emotional life, too troublesome to be dismissed by her usual sarcasm.

Ghost World is a comedy about the depressed and the oppressed, yet it's a rather charming and hopeful work. If Ghost World seems strange, it's because the film falls more in the tradition of The 400 Blows than that of John Hughes' conformist teen operas.

Zwigoff remains cautiously pessimistic. "In Crumb," he says, "I set out to make a film about three brothers and the artistic experience. Most of the public and media embraced it on the lowest lowbrow level as a freak show. It's so depressing these days, culture's so dumbed down. If you keep extrapolating from the trend, in the future there'll soon be no cultural differences all over the globe. Everyone will want a Big Mac, a Budweiser and the latest Ben Affleck movie. Maybe that's good. It'll be a bland, peaceful world."

Ghost World (R; 111 min.), directed by Terry Zwigoff, written by Daniel Clowes and Zwigoff, photographed by Affonso Beato and starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi, plays at selected theaters in the Bay Area and opens Aug. 17 at the Cameras in San Jose.

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From the August 9-15, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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