Published Aug 01, 2001The eight installments of the Dan Clowes comic, "Ghost World" (serialized in "Eightball" from 1993-97), were little masterpieces of mood and attitude. Sublimely funny and achingly poignant at times, it was the meandering story of the friendship between Enid and Becky, two cynical, but far from jaded, teenage girls trying to live their lives in a state of constant rejection of American mass culture. In Terry Zwigoff's almost note-perfect film adaptation of the comic, we're introduced to Enid as she's in her bedroom dancing (a self-absorbed combination of moshing and the jitterbug) to a blaring, gaudy Bollywood musical number on her TV. To her, the over-the-top hokiness of this oddball piece of Indian pop culture goes right past sucking and proceeds to the transcendent. It's so lame, it's cool.
This is how Enid and Becky see the world. We catch up with them just as they're graduating from high school, an event that barely registers with them, except that it means that their sly cynicism no longer has a place to roost or a captive audience for their condescension. At the graduation dance, Becky (Scarlett Johansson) points to a shy, square peg of a loser named Todd who sits eating cake in a lonely corner. "We'll never see Todd again," she says, and Enid (Thora Birch) responds, "Actually, that's really depressing " meaning that she'll miss goofing on Todd as much as she'll miss the comfort of being around a fellow reject from mainstream teen culture. Enid and Becky reserve their real contempt for the glassy-eyed masses that blindly embrace a culture of strip malls, sports, and bubble gum pop.
Initially, Enid and Becky just carry on with their lives as usual: walking the earth, reveling in bits of oddness along the way (the waiter with the really bad perm, the old guy patiently waiting for a bus on a cancelled route, the abandoned pair of pants lying in the middle of the sidewalk they were there yesterday, too). But the signposts of change loom on the horizon. They want to move into an apartment together, but Enid can't hold onto a McJob to save her life (of the two, Becky is the one who has it in her to conform). Then one day, they cross paths with a sad sack record collector named Seymour (Steve Buscemi), and this highly unlikely object of affection causes an irreversible ripple of tension between the two.
Enid and Becky first approach Seymour (who had unknowingly been the butt of one of their cruelest practical jokes) at a garage sale where he's selling albums. Enid starts out with every intention of having some fun at his expense, but Seymour is so dour and guileless that he ends up inadvertently charming her. On a lark, she buys a Delta Blues compilation album from him for $1.75, and he handles it as if it were a Ming vase, courteously slipping it into a bright yellow bag for carrying. Enid's eyes soften as she witnesses his sincerity. As she gets to know Seymour, she realizes she has something like a crush on him. She confesses the depth of her feelings to Becky in her own inimitable fashion: "He's the opposite of everything I hate!"
Far from being trivial, "Ghost World" may be the most rigorous and substantial examination of the American character since Alexander Payne's "Election." Zwigoff (whose last film was "Crumb") and Clowes (who co-wrote the script and was on set for every shot) are making some fairly sweeping statements about the insinuating fascism of mass culture and the slippery perils of non-conformity. When Enid and Becky visit a "zine" store, one of the staff mocks Enid's "out-of-date" punk look. The real "punk", he claims, is now all about infiltrating corporations and "fucking things up" from the inside. Is he actually a deluded sell-out? Is Enid just an ineffectual poser? Ironically, Enid ends up fucking up a corporate power structure through a "found object" that she submits to her art instructor (it's a racist poster for a restaurant chain that used to be called "Coon's Chicken"), but she barely understands the issues that her submission raises, and she never actually becomes aware of its effect.
"Ghost World" deftly raises a lot of questions without being too elusive or heavy-handed. Although it may not be as subtle or ethereal as the comic (it indulges in flat-out caricature once too often with some of the fringe characters), it still maintains a remarkable level of reverence and integrity to its source material. This is the first comic book adaptation I've seen that actually manages to recreate numerous scenes, note for note, word for word, right from the comics page. It's a tribute to Dan Clowes' genius that there wasn't really anything to fix. He got it right the first time.