Ectoplasmic Ecstasy: Ghost World on Page and Screen
By Wil Forbis
October 16, 2001
Rebecca and Enid from the film Ghost World.
If you're familiar with the work of the comic book writer/artist Dan Clowes, you know he's a cynical satirist who tends to use the more negative elements of modern life to present his dim view of humanity. My favorite example of this is a panel from one of his early comic shorts, entitled "I Hate You Deeply" in which the lead character, Lloyd Llewellyn, lists off the many things he despises about humanity. At one point Llewellyn lets forth his hatred of idealistic optimists who use religion or new-age beliefs to ignore the grim world that Lloyd (and his real-life counterpart, Clowes) can't avoid. The panel that displays this is a drawing of a glassy eyed woman spouting off a religious affirmation while her back is turned to an urban ghetto including, in no particular order: a person hanging from their apartment rafters, a heroin addict shooting up, an elderly man being mugged and a prostitute with a black eye - all within about twenty feet of each other.
The above scene, has what I believe to be its celluloid cousin, in the new film Ghost World, a movie based on the Dan Clowes comic serial of the same name, which appeared over the course of the 90's in his self-produced periodical, EightBall. Ghost World's two main characters, Enid and Rebecca (capably played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, respectively) are fresh out of high school and wandering around suburbia looking for an apartment. Rebecca engages Enid in an argument over whether or not they should present themselves and acceptable members of society to would be landlords. (A debate that on one level or another is the crux of the film.) While they volley their points, in the background can be seen a pregnant woman who is not only smoking a cigarette but drinking a beer as well. The joke really has a two pieces to it. On one hand, pregnant mothers who are drinking and smoking are always funny, if only for the fact that they are a direct slap in the face of society's rules. (Another example of "gallows humor" folks.) But it also showcases the absurdity of Enid and Rebecca's debate. There's no point dressing up for a place that has the most unconcerned people possible walking around.
And the thing that struck me while watching Ghost World is that there are quite a few moments like these - scenes that directly or indirectly reference work Clowes has done in his Eightball comic book. The film isn't simply a remake of his Ghost World serial; it borrows heavily from other stories he's done. The result of this being that those who have been reading his comics for some time now are rewarded for their efforts by being in on the "inside joke." In fact, let me call your attention to a few of the comic book references my eagle eye and owl-like mind noticed.
* In one scene, Steve Bucemi's Seymore character lays in the hospital bed browsing through Enid's sketchbook, and comes across a portrait of himself, with the frame drawn onto the page. This is directly reminiscent of the cover of Eightball #19, which featured the very forgettable story, "David Boring." It's also interesting to note that all of the pieces of artwork done by Enid in the movie are actually creations of Sophie Crumb, daughter of the notorious underground artist, Robert Crumb.
* The Feldman character who asks for the coffee shop trivia question and then immediately finds the answer on his computer is a recurring side character in Clowes comics, though he's never directly interacted with the characters in Ghost World.
* The entire subplot of Enid's presentation to her art class of a racist restaurant logo (A real restaurant, by the way.) as a piece "found art", invokes several of the subtexts found in Clowes' "Gynecology" (Eightball #17). In that story, the narrator, an impassionate artist, admits to a fondness for the often derogatory images of Black people that existed in the first half of this century. These sentiments are echoed in Seymore's defense of the same company logo - though, the implications of such a defense are toned down for the film.
This all leads up to the question: How does the film compare to the comic book? The film version of Ghost World is good, no doubt about it, but certain elements were disappointing. Of course, some people will dislike any discrepancy a film has with the source materials from which it was drawn. In that area of Ghost World's case, I didn't really have any complaints. Where I thought Ghost World failed, was more in the scenes where the film tried to stay true to the comic. The dialogue, much of which was lifted directly from the Clowes', seem stilted compared to the voices I'd heard in my head while reading the comic. I pictured both Enid and Rebecca as cynical, but also prone to teenage bouts of exuberance. However, both Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson seem to play their characters as if they're fresh from the morphine drip. I'm not going to label that bad acting, as it could well be their artistic choice, but as someone who's read and reread the comic book it was disconcerting.
Almost all the actors who we're playing characters created for the movie, and thus free from comparison, met with my full approval. I thought the inclusion of Steve Bucemi's character (a persona who had the tiniest role in the comic book) was a great idea. Bucemi finally pulls off the "embittered middle aged" guy role we all knew he had in him. The new sub plot revolving around Illeana Douglas as Enid's summer art schoolteacher was also a welcome addition and Douglas establishes that she's got what it takes to play character roles for decades to come. David Cross does a great job with his small cameo role (playing a friend of Seymore's who acts a whole lot like... David Cross.) The initially unsympathetic character of Seymore's girlfriend (essentially a stand-in for everything Enid and Rebecca hate about the world) is cluelessly brought to life by Stacey Travis.
And one more advantage to the film is the color. The Ghost World comic was nice rendered in shades of blue, but director Terry Zwigoff clearly realized that mimicking that look would be a lost cause. So he established a very nice palette of saturated colors, from Enid's green hair and plaid outfits, to the blocks of pink in the 50's diner Enid and Rebecca visit. It's another deviation from the serial that works out nicely.
I can't really recommend a single course of action here. If you've read the comic, but haven't seen the film, see it. If you've seen the film, but haven't read the comic, buy it. (You can probably find the compiled version at your local bookstore, and, no, I'm not going to link to Amazon.com) If you haven't seen either, then flog yourself for being so behind the times and cancel your appointments for the next 24 hours. You've got your work cut out for you.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.