Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World Is as Charming?ro;”and Limited?ro;”as Zine Art

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Terry Zwigoff's first fiction film, Ghost World, has the charm and limitations of zine art. That's clearly what he's after, adapting a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (his co-screenwriter). Zwigoff, also an aficionado of obscure blues records (his actual first film was the blues documentary Louie Bluie), seeks out the esoteric and idiosyncratic. Ghost World looks at two hobbyists, high school graduate Enid (Thora Birch) and a sad-sack bachelor Seymour (Steve Buscemi). They need the outlets of art or love. She illustrates a personal diary while he collects dusty 78-rpm blues oldies. An unlikely couple, teenage Enid and adult Seymour experience the hazards and felicities of platonic friendship. She first sabotages and then tries repairing his love life as if she were Alicia Silverstone's Cher in a working-class version of Clueless.

Enid and Seymour's oddball match-up is refreshing after the pandering, pseudo-diversity of the softcore Crazy/Beautiful. A genuinely crazy/beautiful conceit provides Ghost World's set of precarious, eccentric relationships among Enid's neighbors, family and classmates. Before Seymour, Enid was part of another idiosyncratic couple?with her longtime best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Both smart girls, resentful of the conformity they see around them, riff on the locals in their Southern California town (even Seymour). Enid sets herself apart with black-framed glasses and vintage clothes (including a red snood), while the more conventional Rebecca has a low, almost sultry voice and hard manner?they're like the gal pals on Daria. The girls' boho style clashes with nerdy shirt-tucked Seymour, but only superficially. All three turn out to be likeminded: frustrated in the margins of suburbia, destined to be loners.

Observing all this in roughly comic book style, Zwigoff seems uniquely attuned to his nonworldly characters. Yet the film has no graphic daring; it's strangely inert. At best, the shambling look of zine art?proud nonprofessionalism?inhibits the film's expressiveness. You can get away with deliberate amateurishness in print?crude compositions and blunt color values sometimes suggest visionary originality?but in Ghost World it just looks like unskilled inarticulateness. Opening with a Bollywood film clip (from the 1965 Indian musical Gumnaam), intercut with scenes of contemporary American strip-mall banality, Ghost World announces its characters' yearning for a different life but never really animates it. When Enid first gets to know Seymour, his resemblance to a loser stand-up comedian she earlier saw on tv ("The Humor Grotto") only registers subliminally. Zwigoff cannot direct atmosphere or emotional tone. Reviewers who overrate Ghost World are not judging it esthetically, but primarily responding to its nonthreatening view of social misfits?the underground's brand of sentimentality.

Buscemi is almost moving playing Seymour, the indie incarnation of Don Knotts. It may be the ultimate characterization of his career. Bugging his weary eyes, hanging his head and looking forlornly romantic, Buscemi's Buster Keaton sadness is well balanced by Thora Birch, whose child-woman beauty seems genuinely sardonic, not cutesy like Christina Ricci's. Yet their deadpan exchanges contribute to the impression of unrelieved blahs?a sense of boredom that felt truer, even funny, when John Waters satirized Baltimore banality in Pecker. Lacking the vitality and craft Waters discovered when finally telling his own story in that film, Zwigoff never finds a personally expressive style. His Ghost World gallery of freaks suggests John Waters people in a King of the Hill world?everyday eccentricity shown in a milieu so glum it seems additionally abstracted. A live-action, frequently pallid cartoon.

Ghost World's weird stasis only makes sense in light of Enid's diary illustrations. Her sketches (like Zwigoff's images) are flat; the emphasis on facial expressions and curious situations recall R. Crumb's quivery, goofing style. One of the old records Seymour shows Enid is a blues pastiche by R. Crumb and the Cheap Suits. The first woman Enid sets up for Seymour is a perfect R. Crumb avid redhead. And Enid's drawings were actually done by Crumb's daughter Sophie. Making a virtue of sincerity over professionalism is a favorite Zwigoff theme. Apparently?and it's no surprise?Zwigoff is still working out the traumatic revelations of his previous movie, the documentary Crumb. Ghost World can be viewed as an innocence-seeking, teen-movie apologia for the nightmare of Crumb.

In that nonfiction film Zwigoff never reconciled R. Crumb's horrific family background with his own intellectual appreciation of Crumb's art?the deliberately scabrous, underground comic-book style that vented sexual and racial neuroses for a rebellious generation. Exploring Crumb's artistic controversies?but only to a superficial degree?Zwigoff made the mistake of leaving biographical frankness to explain the art. That highly praised documentary eventually imploded from the shock of dementia and sociopathy that Zwigoff uncovered. For me, Crumb failed by merely presenting a deeply disturbing reality without inquiry or follow-through. Its view of madness was unforgettable but also dismaying. It seemed, somehow, an inappropriate inclusion. Zwigoff appeared helpless before the Crumb family's unending examples of human failure (mania, molestation, suicide). As a result, Crumb's art itself?not quite therapeutic, in fact verging on the psychotic?offered inadequate compensation for so much suffering.

The lower-depths vision (and humor) that Crumb unleashed has influenced generations of artists and come above ground?not only in a rash of zine and chapbook illustrators but in our impudent contemporary sensibility. (Zwigoff filmed art critic Robert Hughes comparing Crumb to Brueghel but artists from John Waters and the Coen brothers to Mike Judge and Todd Solondz owe Crumb a debt.) Since Crumb's popularity, comic-book mordancy and the established language of irreverent graphics have become ways for individual artists to confront the world from a distance?just like Crumb's passive observation of his decrepit family and Zwigoff's tacit approval. What's futile and weak about this hermit's approach also comes through in Ghost World's kindly weirdnesses (such as Norman, the man perpetually at the bus stop). Distinct from crass coming-of-age comedies like Road Trip and American Pie, Ghost World rues maturing experiences similar to Jim McKay's very earnest and touching Our Song but then leaves them undeveloped. Enid, Seymour and Rebecca are not as wretched as R. Crumb, his siblings and his mother, nor as insistently real as the girls in Our Song; but Zwigoff isolates them within their eccentricity in order to convey conventional zine disaffection. Think of American Graffiti's melancholy minus the rock 'n' roll epiphanies.

Art barely saves the characters in Ghost World. This conception derives from zine pessimism and relates to Zwigoff's Crumb-based skepticism about the benefits of any art institution. His sharpest satire cuts Enid's art class instructor, a pompous feminist (Illeana Douglas) who praises a grade-grubbing student's obvious political pretenses, such as a coat hanger sculpture depicting "a woman's right to choose" and a tampon-in-a-tea-cup "found object." (Has Zwigoff acquired a hint of Crumb's misogyny?) Enid wins approval by displaying an item from Seymour's antique collection that pushes the instructor's p.c. buttons. Again evoking Crumb's outrageous drawings, it's an old blackface Sambo poster for Coon's Chicken Inn. "People still hate each other, they just know how to hide it better," Seymour says to a beamish Enid, explaining the poster's racist significance. It's unclear whether she uses the poster to pretend radicalism or simply to embarrass her teacher's art-world pretenses, but this episode hints at Zwigoff's deep if vague sense of a marginal artist's vexation. The poster's hidden history of caricature, the way it reveals impolite psychological truths, is central to Ghost World's view of humanity and is consistent with both Zwigoff's blues patronage and Crumb's art.

In its anomic view of working-class habit Ghost World is so committed to underground resentment that its contempt for artistic professionalism unfortunately extends to Zwigoff's crude, near amateur technique. Ghost World achieves artistry only in a brief sequence at the end when Zwigoff cuts from Enid's comic drawing of Seymour, captioned "NOBODY LOVES ME," to her romantic sketch of convenience clerk Josh (Brad Renfro), then to a closeup of Buscemi as pitiful Seymour taking it all in. Those shots carry us from Enid's sentimental representations to the startling photographic realism of a man in pain. Excitingly effective?and atypical.

So many of the great moviemakers have demonstrated humane sensitivity that Ghost World's "new" zine angle on eccentricity and disconsolateness doesn't excuse the film's visual dreariness. Although Zwigoff professes a different, inelegant esthetic, perhaps as spare and deliberately vulgar as a Crumb hand-drawing, he still doesn't rate in an art form of supreme visual artists like Spielberg, Altman, De Palma, Boorman, Davies or Scorsese. Not the flamboyant Scorsese so many film school hacks imitate but the visually imaginative artist who climaxed Bringing Out the Dead by showing a man, conflicted in his high dreams and low behavior, pinned on the gates of his penthouse terrace. That modern crucifix (referencing Boorman's Deliverance) had the visual intensity graphic novelists claim but that only well-practiced cinema can make astonishing, immediate, real. Ghost World is far superior to a Kevin Smith zine-movie travesty, but what Zwigoff's likable film lacks cannot be dismissed.

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