You’ll have to forgive the cinephile world for sleeping a bit on Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, released in the U.S. in the eye of the hurricane, in a sense, between Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Time has determined those two films as the ultimate pillars of the century in cinema so far, but in retrospect, Zwigoff’s adaptation of the 1997 comic by Daniel Clowes feels like a perfect, bittersweet segue between the irony- and cynicism-drenched 1990s and the oncoming wave of earnest post-irony. And, janky though the faux search engine is that the film’s wheelchair-bound coffee shop trivia fiend uses to look up answers and claim his free java, it’s also a torch-passing signpost for the world of obsessives pre- and post-Internet, as much a distillation of “how we live now” as yet another 2001 masterpiece, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse.
Not to get too far out in front of things, because Ghost World is also, and perhaps most crucially, a note-perfect depiction of two young friends staring down the end of, if not their friendship, then at the very least the moment they both realize they’re becoming two very different people. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are just graduating high school as the film opens, under a banner that bears the logos for Tropicana and Dunkin’ Donuts, suffering an ersatz inspirational speech by a classmate paralyzed in an accident caused by her own drunkenness, rolling their eyes at a sub-sub-TLC graduation rap anthem. Zwigoff and Clowes clearly aren’t afraid to target low-hanging fruit, but unlike Alexander Payne or Todd Solondz, they’re always perceptive to the notion that they’re only observing the material through their characters’ eyes, with an overall lack of ruthless omniscience.
Enid and Rebecca may be coming of age in a venal expanse of mini-malls, but you feel Zwigoff himself wrestling between the two girls’ diverging allegiances within the corporatized monotony of it all. Enid, a voracious cultural appropriatress, is rigid in her adolescent absolutist belief that America’s winners are all losers and its losers are “my people.” Rebecca, who clearly spent childhood following Enid’s lead and now is the only one of the two with a diploma (Enid has to take summer school after flunking art), is starting to recognize the necessity of meeting the world in the middle somewhere.
Enid is simultaneously a force of nature and yet painfully dependent on the reactions she gets from everyone around her. Though she keeps up an impenetrable façade most of the time, the cracks reveal themselves as in a rare 78 RPM record whenever anyone indicates just how onto her game they are. (In a film abundant in perfect little details, one moment shows Enid sporting her newly jade-dyed hair and cropped leather jacket, getting called out by her loathsome bootleg-VHS dealer, and immediately retreating into her bedroom to re-dye her hair black.) It’s clear Zwigoff understands that Enid’s fight is noble, and he also knows that it will also ultimately be lost in time.
Enid finds herself becoming first amused by and then increasingly infatuated with a kindred soul—fellow object collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi, in probably his finest performance)—while Rebecca is off making eyes at carbon-copy jocks. Enid explains her quest to find Seymour a girlfriend by noting, “I can’t stand the idea of a world where a guy like you can’t get a date.” But she then realizes, with horror and jealousy, that indeed he can, and that there’s no life without capitulation. Enid’s crisis emerges from her recognizing the limits of relying on irony as your only lens, just as Ghost World’s strength arises from its ability to assess a multitude of lenses.
Ghost World boasts a deliberately oversaturated look to approximate but not quite mimic the story's comic-book origins. It looks pretty spectacular, with a world of warmth in the scenes set inside Seymour's tchotchke-laden den and, paradoxically, radiating from unforgivingly bright consumer-hell signs. Even the butter that Enid contemptuously squirts onto her movie theater patron's popcorn looks, well, delicious. Contrast isn't a problem at all, with flawless dark levels and fin-de-siècle film grain. The surround mix is subtle but quite active. If you like authentic blues, you'll really love checking out Blueshammer in 5.1 surround. It's so great.
At one point in the commentary track, Terry Zwigoff says he wanted "a younger Bea Arthur" for the part of Maxine, which ultimately ended up going to Teri Garr. Which means this track is in the running for the year’s best. Well, it would’ve been had he not also taken a completely uncalled-for potshot at Laurie Anderson’s underground comic. (Illeana Douglas based her obsequious art teacher on the godlike performance artist.) The observations from fellow contributors Daniel Clowes and producer Lianne Halfon are up to Zwigoff’s bar. They’re perceptive and clearly proud of the film, but at the same time are quick to point out technical flaws, such as the wigs that both Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi are wearing in their final scene together. (At the very least we now know that Zwigoff wanted the film’s lone fart joke to be 10 fart jokes in a row.) More reverential is the trifecta of new interviews with Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Douglas, all of whom examine the film’s enduring legacy, especially among young girls. Aside from those two newly produced features, there are also 10 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes (none of which are as amusing as what made it into the film, fart included), the full film clip for "Jaan Pehechaah Ho" that opens the film, from the 1965 Bollywood film Gumnaam, and a theatrical trailer. Also, in what’s become a rarity for Criterion, there’s a sizeable booklet with notes by critic Howard Hampton, along with a reprint of some of the Ghost World segments from the Clowes comic Eightball.
"Maybe I don’t want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests." Steve Buscemi speaks for us all.