Mind Blowing Movies: Ghost World (2001), by Amy Crehore

Mm200This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. — Mark

Ghost World, A Movie That Knocked My Socks Off, by Amy Crehore

[Video Link] It starts out with an absolutely unforgettable and insane music video of an East Indian dance number from a 1965 Bollywood production (Gumnaam). A young teenager named Enid rocks out wickedly in front of a television set, wearing a cap and gown in a bedroom crammed with clothes and familiar-looking junk.

I knew it was going to be good, but I had no idea that the movie Ghost World (2001) would bathe me in such an uncanny sense of deja vu from start to finish. The characters are so real and familiar that they could have been based on my friends and me.

Director Terry Zwigoff had previously spent almost a decade making a documentary about his friend R. Crumb, the legendary comic artist. Crumb (1994) had been a grueling project, but the film made a big splash when it came out and he was rewarded with new opportunities.

In 2001, his first full-length fictional film was released and I was curious to see it. It is based on an earlier Daniel Clowes' comic called Ghost World, which features two teenage girl characters, Enid and Rebecca. The collaboration between Zwigoff and Clowes for the movie proved to be immensely fruitful with each adding his own personal nuances to the adapted screenplay.

Enid is played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson is Becky, her sidekick. The two best friends bounce deadpan observations off each other like a classic comedy team, constantly mocking the people and situations around them. Enid is the flamboyant, anti-establishment, artistic one. Becky is the quieter, more conservative friend with a hoarse voice whom the boys seemed to prefer. They sport the same funky clothes and youthful bravado that I shared with my friends and the same hidden unease about what the future might hold.

Steve Buscemi plays a nerdy, middle-age, obsessive collector of 78 records named Seymour who crosses paths with the girls. They find his number on a lonely hearts personal ad. Just for kicks, when they are bored, they call him up. The girls spy on him after they lure him to a new '50s diner. Seymour has such a perfect, worn-out, real-life quality. Apparently, this character is based on Terry Zwigoff himself.

In the late 1970s, Terry Zwigoff had played cello and mandolin in a band featuring R. Crumb called The Cheap Suit Serenaders. Collecting old music on 78s from the '20s and '30s and playing authentic old instruments is their passion.

I can relate to that. My friends and I subscribed to a magazine called 78 Quarterly, collected vintage National and Gibson guitar-family instruments and banjos, played '20s and '30s ragtime blues music in a hokum band. We bought underground comic books and even published our own comic book. We collected R Crumb's trading cards of country blues and early Jazz performers.

In fact, one of my favorite parts of the documentary Crumb was when R. Crumb pulled out Geeshie Wiley's plaintive "Last Kind Words Blues" (1930) from his shelves of 78s and put it on the record player. Ghost World proved to be just as satisfying to me when I saw Seymour's room full of vintage stuff. Zwigoff brought his own collection of 78s, antiques, blues posters and ephemera to the set. When Enid played Skip James' "Devil Got My Woman" for the first time, a record she got at Seymour's yard sale, it practically made me cry. She declared Seymour's room to be her dream room. It is mine, too. I noticed an art deco mandolin hanging on the wall.

We follow these two girls as they while away the summer after their high school graduation ceremony. Enid has to repeat art class in summer school to get her diploma. The art class is just like my own class in art school, complete with the hippie teacher played to perfection by Illeana Douglas who desperately wants her students' art to have meaning. I hung out in many a diner with friends and drew in sketchbooks just like Enid.

As Enid becomes closer to Seymour to escape her dysfunctional home life and uncertain future, Becky gets a job and looks for an apartment. At one point, Enid spies a giant vintage logo from the '30s in Seymour's room for a chicken restaurant franchise called "The Coon Chicken Inn". I was in Portland when I saw this movie for the first time and I knew that there had been a Coon Chicken Inn in Portland. As depicted on old postcards, the building had a huge head of a black man with a giant open mouth for the entrance to the restaurant. Zwigoff seamlessly weaves the ending to his film around this real-life piece of black ephemera.

Seymour admits to Enid that he has worked at Cook's Chicken Inn for the last 19 years, previously known as the Coon Chicken Inn. He shows Enid examples of the old logo and its transition to the new fictitious one (drawn by Daniel Clowes). Enid grabs the earlier logo for her art class and calls it a found object that challenges us to think about racism. Her teacher loves it, but the image ends up in an art show and creates a scandal.

Zwigoff and Clowes came up with lots of other fun details that ring true: a porno shop where Enid buys a catwoman mask, a nunchucks guy that hangs in the parking lot of the convenience store, an obnoxious honky "blues" band that performs after an authentic ragtime blues player in a bar, a surreal man who sits on a bench waiting for a bus that never seems to come.

This movie is perfectly constructed, beautifully shot and impeccably cast. It is one of the few films that I own a DVD of and can watch over and over again. Hey, who would have ever predicted that young Scarlett Johansson would become the glamorous movie star she is today? Thora Birch, however, is the real star here. Her Enid is unforgettable.