Comic books turned into movies are commonplace; The X-Men, Superman, Batman, and their ilk regularly pack theaters. But the burgeoning category of non-superhero comic books had not made it to the screen until three Saturdays ago, when Ghost World premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival. Fans of this alternative comic book, written by Daniel Clowes (David Boring), have been eagerly awaiting the film’s general release on Aug. 4. I’ll leave the reviewing to the reviewers, but let me kick off the analysis by pointing out the synchronicity between Ghost World’s creators and its heroes.
Ghost World features a pair of teen-age best friends, Enid and Becky (or “Rebecca” as she’s called in the movie), who fritter away the summer after graduating high school trying to figure out what to do next. They sit around in diners reading personal ads in the back of the local free weekly, make crank calls, and talk about boys. Enid and, to a lesser degree, Rebecca are constantly picking out the things that delight and the things that disgust and discussing the whys and wherefores of each category. Enid values the old and weird, or new things that are so deliciously horrible and fake as to be irresistible, such as brand new ‘50s-style diners. Old children’s records, strange toys, and freakish strangers are good. Chipper classmates and the editors of Sassy magazine (aka “trendy stuck-up prep-school bitches who think they’re cutting edge because they know who Sonic Youth is”) are bad.
Thora Birch (American Beauty) is dead-on as Enid, and the movie is in general very faithful to the comic book. (Click here to look at an excerpt—Enid is the one with glasses.) One departure from the original will induce fainting spells among purists: A minor, unnamed character in the book has been expanded into Seymour, played by Steve Buscemi as a low-key, slightly creepy, middle-aged semi-loser. Enid and Rebecca meet Seymour after playing a prank on him, and at first they mock him mercilessly behind his back. Eventually, though, Enid takes him on as a pet project—she’s determined to find him a girlfriend. Rebecca wants nothing to do with him. His character serves to further highlight the growing rift between the girls that’s the center of both the book and the movie.
Seymour, fans will note, is a fairly close approximation of R. Crumb, the cartoonist who was the focus of director Terry Zwigoff’s superb documentary Crumb. Like Crumb, Seymour collects old 78 rpm records of blues, ragtime, and jazz. He is fascinated by old racist Americana. He adheres to a strikingly Crumb-like style of dress, hatred of contemporary culture, and general old fogeyism. Seymour/Crumb, in turn, has a lot in common with director Zwigoff: All share a passionate and all-consuming devotion to a specific, dogmatic aesthetic sense. And that is also the source of Seymour’s connection with Enid: Her aesthetic is equally strict, sacred, and detailed.
This type of thinking is endemic in teen-agers, with Holden Caulfield as the most famous literary example. There is a bright line in their minds of what is acceptable and what is not, though to the average adult the distinctions are invisible or meaningless. But Seymour’s a man who’s maintained his obsessive integrity well into middle age, and Enid is both fascinated and repulsed by it. As Rebecca drifts toward conventionality, shopping at Pottery Barn and working at a Starbucks-like coffee shop, Enid reacts by cultivating Seymour and his unrepentant rejection of consumer culture even further.
Of course, this devotion to a rigid, highly personalized, rebellious aesthetic is also endemic to artists in general, and comic-book artists in particular. In fact, at the Q&A after the screening, Zwigoff said that Clowes did more work on creating the look of Enid’s room (packed with carefully chosen detritus, as so many teen-agers’ rooms are) than the production designer did, while he himself designed Seymour’s room (the walls hung with pulpy old-fashioned Americana and the shelves filled with 78 records). All this emphasized the clever connections Zwigoff has made between the aesthetic sensibilities of uncompromising, opinionated teen-agers and uncompromising, opinionated artists. But it also raised the uneasy sensation that we’d been watching Dan Clowes’ comic book transformed into Terry Zwigoff’s fantasy, with the unrepentant artist as the darling pet of hip, sexy teen-age girls.