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.”
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.”
Ghost World strives to be as different as possible from the kind of Hollywood teen fodder you’d find in such a multiplex. Placidly paced, devoid of peppy kids-having-fun scenes, and with a pop-free soundtrack, it’s the “anti-teen movie.” “I find all those films insanely annoying,” says Clowes. “Ghost World is very slow, no quick cuts, no gimmicky stuff.” Like the comic book, “it’s all about the minutiae of the world,” says Zwigoff. “I spent a ton of time on the extras, always telling them not to look animated. Just stare at your food and look really repressed and glum. Because that’s what most real people are like.”
Needless to say, this was a hard movie to sell—partly, confesses Clowes, because of the pair’s ineptness at pitching their screenplay. “We just didn’t know the code words. We’d go into meetings and say our favorite films are Scarlet Street and The King of Comedy. And of course they’d never heard of the first, and the second was a commercial flop. In Hollywood meetings, you only refer to successful films. We’re not salesmen at all, we’d act really downbeat, and by the end they’d almost want to kill themselves!” Meanwhile, the studio executives “would send us lists of who’d be great to play Enid, and it’d always be the most popular young actress of the moment. When we first started pitching this thing, it was so long ago that it was still Alicia Silverstone! Then a bit later it was Jennifer Love Hewitt. Never anyone appropriate.” Christina Ricci, a plausible fit for the charismatic and acidly witty Enid, was mooted early on, but the film took so long to get a deal (eventually it was financed by the U.K. company Granada, with MGM signing on for a “negative pick-up”) that she was too old. Finally, Thora Birch—freshly bankable after American Beauty, and just the right age—took on the role.
To make the project sellable, Zwigoff and Clowes also had to give the virtually plotless Ghost World more narrative thrust and some extra characters. One subplot involves Enid’s summer school stint in art class and Illeana Douglas’s deftly etched caricature of a trendy teacher. Like the Eightball strip Art School Confidential, the subplot was inspired by Clowes’s own student days at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn during the 1970s. A budding cartoonist, Clowes arrived keen to study the craft of illustration, but was confronted with the reigning conceptualist discourse, “that whole dead-end syndrome where people are playing to the art critic and you have to be aware of the current history of conceptual art to understand what they’re doing. I’d bring in my comics and the teachers would say, ‘Nice, but we’re going to steer you away from this undignified activity.’ Meanwhile a guy who made a sculpture out of styrofoam peanuts is getting accolades. In the art scenes in the movie there are many veiled references that only my former freshman classmates will understand—almost all of those art assignments that the goody-two-shoes girl brings in are real things!” This subplot worked so well that Zwigoff and Clowes are now thinking of turning Art School Confidential into a movie. It’ll be updated to the contemporary art scene, though, says Clowes, “so I’m going to pretend to be a visiting professor and snoop on some classes that friends of mine teach at schools here in Berkeley.”
The most drastic aspect of Zwigoff and Clowes’s adaptation will likely trouble hardcore fans of the comic book. The new principal character Seymour—a desiccated, middle-aged record collector, played by Steve Buscemi—gradually takes over the movie until his peculiar relationship with Enid eclipses the primary dyad of the girls’ intense friendship. “That was one of the decisions we had to make,” says Clowes. “On film, the girls’ relationship is something you grasp immediately from their body language, whereas in the comic it had to be drawn very carefully.” Zwigoff says the movie took its final shape in the cutting room, dictated partly by the chemistry of the Birch-Buscemi scenes, and partly because they had three hours of footage to condense. Scenes developing the relationship between Enid and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) got cut, as did ones unfolding a romance between Enid and passive love interest Josh (Brad Renfro).
Seymour’s tumescing presence in Ghost World is slightly disconcerting. For starters, the character—who loathes modernity and is obsessed with 1920s ragtime and blues 78s—appears to be based on Robert Crumb, suggesting a sort of idée fixe aspect to the way Zwigoff works. When Enid leafs through Seymour’s vinyl pile at a stoop sale, the camera even pauses on what looks like an R. Crumb album (actually, it’s by the Cheap Suit Serenaders, a 1920s-style band that Zwigoff and Crumb play in). Zwigoff says the Seymour character is actually a composite of himself and Crumb’s brother Charles, who featured in the documentary as “the guy who sat on the bed all day . . . Charles had that self-deprecating, shut-in, sardonic air, which I liked.” Then Zwigoff added “elements of myself, all the things I knew about, like the record-collecting world.” One of the funniest scenes in Ghost World involves Enid tricking Rebecca into attending one of Seymour’s collector scum parties, where guests trade 78s and squabble about “incipient cracks” in the dusty shellac. This turns out to be another area where Zwigoff and Clowes clicked: Both are of the opinion that music went into sharp decline after 1933 owing to the influence of radio and phonograph recordings. “By the early ’30s most of the stuff was getting pretty slick and homogenized,” says Zwigoff, in his wry pained manner. “Before that there were these little pockets of uniqueness and eccentricity, unaffected by the mass media.”
In the original comic, Clowes has a brief cameo role: Enid turns up at his book signing having built up a romantic idea of the author as her ideal man, only to be bitterly disappointed by the fleshly reality. In the movie, though, Seymour (Zwigoff’s stand-in) becomes Enid’s hero. Zwigoff argues that the alienated Enid is looking for something authentic in the ghost world of disposable tat, and finds it on a blues compilation she buys off Seymour. Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman” harrows her soul. “She’s trying to find her identity in the world, and then she plays this weird eerie thing, and she thinks maybe there is something this guy has to offer.”
Zwigoff, to his credit, is aware of the pungent whiff of male menopausal fantasy here. “I’d hate to have anyone who knows me psychoanalyze the film. ‘Hmmmm . . . arrested case, here. Very infantile, here. And hmmm, here’s a fantasy: An older record collector with a teenage girl falling in love with him, and she likes his favorite record.’ It’s ridiculously personal, but I don’t know how else to work.”
Click here to read J. Hoberman’s review of Ghost World.