In Between Days

Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff Ghostwrite Teen Limbo

Despite its twilight-zone title, the thing most people liked about Ghost World—Daniel Clowes's cult comic book about two teenage girl misfits—was its realness. That's what grabbed Crumb director Terry Zwigoff, persuading him to make his first foray into non-documentary moviemaking. "When I was pitching the idea of Ghost World as a movie, I kept saying, 'It's like a teen movie that is actually real. And people will be so shocked by seeing something with even a remote semblance to reality, it could really catch on.' "

Set during the summer after high school graduation, Ghost World—which opens at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza this Friday—follows Enid and Rebecca as they drift through that weird limbo-lull between childhood and adulthood, and gradually drift apart. The jacket copy to the hardcover Ghost World describes the comic's p.o.v. as that of "a constant and (mostly) undetectable eavesdropper," and so authentic-seeming is the dialogue that some have speculated that Clowes actually field-researched it by snooping on teenage girls in malls. Talking by phone from his Berkeley, California, home, Clowes insists it all comes from within. "On some level I have the thoughts of an adolescent and the speech patterns of a teenage girl," he says, his even-toned and precise voice sounding not the tiniest bit teenage. The main character's full name, Enid Coleslaw, is an anagram of Daniel Clowes, but he says Ghost World isn't a straightforward Flaubert/ Emma Bovary affair of author and alter ego. The girls represent two sides of his personality, with Enid as "my id, the dissatisfied whiny child" and Rebecca as "my superego—she's trying to fit in more, lead a normal life, make the best of the situation. They are both very much an equal part of me. In fact, Rebecca is what I would have been called if I'd been a girl."

Zwigoff's movie wraps the best bitchy teen-girl banter since Heathers in an all-talk, hardly-any-action ambient flow redolent of Slacker. If that sounds a bit Gen X, there is something early-'90s about the consciousness that pervades it. (Ghost World originally started in 1993 as a strip in Clowes's comic Eightball.) Some of the minor characters, like the serial-killer-obsessed fanzine freak John, could have stepped straight out of Richard Linklater's movie, while Enid's existential confusion—yearnings for authenticity battling the hyper-referential irony that comes from being inundated by mass media since an early age—is pure X. Clowes doesn't care for this angle, though, and recalls his annoyance with one Ghost World detractor who described his girls as " 'typical Gen X kids who are bored by everything.' Nothing could be further from the truth—they're the least bored characters I've created. They've figured out a way to make a sterile, horrible world as interesting as possible. I find it heroic the way they get excited about things that are completely negligible—making up stories about the weird people they see, getting incredibly excited when they find out some new scrap of information about them."

Above, from the comic Ghost World; below, director Zwigoff: "I'd hate to have anyone who knows me psychoanalyze the film."
Illustration from Ghost World courtesy of Fantagraphics, Photograph by Charlie Eckeert
Above, from the comic Ghost World; below, director Zwigoff: "I'd hate to have anyone who knows me psychoanalyze the film."

Much of Clowes's early work—notably the Twin Peaks-ish serial Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron—is rife with the uncanny and grotesque: potato-shaped and egg-laying mutant girls, giant carnivorous worms lurking under the kitchen sink. There's nothing overtly supernatural about Ghost World, though, just a vague sense of disquiet. "I was living in a really bad area in Chicago, and every day I walked past this graffiti-covered garage door, on which someone had written 'Ghost World' in perfect cursive handwriting, not graffiti wildstyle," says Clowes of his title's origins. "It had this really evocative quality, like someone trying to communicate from some other plane." For Clowes it chimed with his melancholy sense of the creeping unreality of contemporary culture, where "the impulse is to destroy anything over 20 years old, and build new things like mini malls and fast-food restaurants that look exactly the same in every town. The idea is that it makes people feel comfortable wherever they are, but to me it's alienating—much more so than the typical architecture of alienation from film noir movies, all those old water towers and decaying brick buildings, which I find comforting. Enid is someone who feels an unconscious revulsion toward the modern world."

Terry Zwigoff's revulsion is fully conscious and apt to launch him into protracted if acerbic tirades about Starbucks, Hollywood, global warming, and humankind as "a plague on the planet." When his wife alerted him to Ghost World's potential (close friend Robert Crumb had left a copy behind after one of his visits), Zwigoff discovered in Clowes a kindred curmudgeon. Resurrecting the 1950s "admass" critique of J.B. Priestley, Zwigoff bemoans the erasure of "any trace of eccentricity or local difference" in corporate America, while Clowes contrasts the 1920s' aesthetically pleasing everyday artifacts—"toothbrushes, chairs, whatever"—with the "hideous visual jumble of incongruous elements" that make up a modern pair of name-brand sneakers.

The movie plays up what was just a subliminal thread in the comic book by having Rebecca work in a Starbucks-like latte chain and Enid briefly employed at a multiplex cinema, where she pointedly grimaces as she squirts yellow gloop on the popcorn and subverts the management policy of "upsizing." "On some level she's working in an establishment that offers art to the public," says Clowes, "but really it's the most sterile, moronic environment—just a way to sell you large tubs of overpriced soda you don't really want."

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