Critically praised graphic novel by master underground cartoonist Dan Clowes originally serialized in his magazine Eightball.

Described by the author as a portrait of "the lives of two recent high school graduates from the advantaged perch of a constant and (mostly) undetectable eavesdropper, with the shaky detachment of a scientist who has grown fond of the prize microbes in his petri dish."

It's one of Clowes' most realistic and honest works, in a similar vein to Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve comics.

It was made into a movie in 2001, starring by Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi, with the screenplay written by Dan Clowes himself.

The film adaptation of Ghost World was written by original comic artist Daniel Clowes (of Eightball fame) and director Terry Zwigoff (of Crumb fame). The movie stars Thora Birch in the lead role of Enid, Scarlett Johansson Enid's best friend Rebecca, and Steve Buscemi as the awkward record collector Seymour. There are smaller parts by a number of well known and upcoming actors: Illeana Douglas, Brad Renfro, Teri Garr.

The movie is the first nondocumentary feature by Zwigoff, and he clearly approaches it with the same tenderness that made the original comic work. The film has a little more direction and plot than the comic, which was pretty aimless, but both incarnations are less about events than they are about people.

Zwigoff and Clowes populate the world of these characters with bits and pieces of themselves. Props and characters are drawn from their homes and families rather than a Hollywood prop department. The influence of R. Crumb, and his friendship with the two men is unmistakable -- Seymour's collection of blues and ragtime 78s, Enid's sketch book (which contains drawings by Crumb's daugther Sophie), and the brief appearance of an album of Crumb's ragtime recordings ("Is this any good?" "No.") -- are a testament to that.

While I would probably call this movie a comedy, it has its black moments. Enid and Becca exist in an uncomfortable limbo between high school and the rest of their lives. They haven't grown up yet and they aren't quite sure they want to. They make us uncomfortable. Sometimes they remind us of ourselves in ways we don't want to be reminded. They know they are supposed to be best friends but they aren't sure what to do when they don't feel like being friends. They don't know what they want and they're not sure how to ask for it. And that honesty with the audience is ultimately what makes this movie better than typical Hollywood accounts of the cool outsider underdog.

Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson do a good job in the lead roles, though I feel that this is probably due more to an excellent script and direction than their acting. Steve Buscemi is better than I have seen him for a long time -- he has played similar roles to this one many times before, but he manages, despite initial appearances, to go past the parody of that character -- which he can sometimes fall into -- and create a figure who is far more human than his usual effort.

I recommend both the comic and the film.

Ghost World, over any other film I have seen, represents both the positive and negative aspects of feeling no affinity with those around you. Both the elation Enid and Rebecca share at the beginning of the film at being apart from all the "obnoxious, extroverted pseudo-bohemian art-school losers" around them, and later the depression when Enid realises the harsh realities of being an outsider, are so beautifully realised that it's clear Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff understand what it is to be an individual.

Enid wants to be different, but longs for someone who feels the same as her. Even her hero Seymour, who chooses a life of solitude, still wants to be with someone. They both feel alienated by their societies and feel the need to escape; on seeing Seymour's private room Enid exclaims "I would kill to have this stuff!!", to which Seymour simply replies "So why don't you kill me?"

And yet they cannot detach themselves from the world they inhabit and despise, despite that they cannot understand it - and it cannot begin to understand them. Maybe this is the message of the film, that to truly survive as an outsider in our pre-packaged, consumer led and so frequently vacant world is not possible without either compromising or leaving it behind. Like the old man waiting patiently for the bus that never comes, Enid and Seymour wait in vain for a means of escape. In limbo. Ghost World.

Having said all this, I can't help feeling that to dissect the film like this is to do it a disservice. The message of this film is subtle, and is woven gently into every frame. I loved it. I haven't stopped thinking about it since I left the cinema. Please go and see it, I promise it will make your life better.


Update 26/03/2002
Ghost World is now out on DVD in the States, in widescreen with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. There is, though, hope for us oft-forgotten islanders: the UK DVD is slated for release (Amazon.co.uk) on 20th May 2002. Better late than never! Ghost World was also nominated for an Oscar in the category for Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published). It criminally lost out to A Beautiful Mind.

Film Ghost World
Year 2001
Rating ★★☆☆☆
Summary Realistic to the point of having no point.

As far as comic based movies go, Ghost World is in the style of the later American Splendor rather than, say, X-Men. It's very much a character driven story. While this is fine in itself, I can't help thinking there wasn't enough character development for that type of story.

I know I generally complain about the geek girl, goth girl, insinuated lesbian or any other form of social misfit becoming a happy, trendy, straight consumer by the end of a character driven movie (such as in the later Mean Girls), so at least that fate doesn't befall the protagonist of this one. However, as far as I know it's generally accepted that one of two things should happen to a story's main character by the end: either she should be a much better person (again, as in Mean Girls), or a much worse person (as in Requiem for a Dream). I don't mind which, but she has to grow as a character until she's reached some sort of logical conclusion.

With this film, however, we watch her pretty much destroy a random old man's life, plus annoy her best friend, but then she neither sorts herself out nor plunges further into depression. You can see a mile off that a very minor character, who seems more like a metaphor than a real person, will inspire her actions at the end of the film, and that's exactly what happens, but the end note isn't a fulfilling one. It's inconsequential.

Ironically, the reason this story is so lifeless and uninteresting is probably because it's too real. This story seems to be based on the author's own life, and I think it shows that nowhere near enough effort was spent dramatising it, bringing it to life by making it larger than life and taking the actual real life out of it.

There are some good moments, and it's a neat cast, but at the end of the day, if I want a story about a bunch of people without a specific goal, and thus a story that has no satisfying ending, I have my life. If you're a writer, you should only steal events from your own life if they're interesting. If your life's been uneventful, there are plenty of other people out there who have been through worse. Try writing about them instead.

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