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Ghost World (Blu-ray Review)

26 May, 2017 By: John Latchem

Street 5/30/17
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for strong language and some sexual content
Stars Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Bob Balaban, Illeana Douglas, Pat Healy, David Cross, Brian George, Stacey Travis.

Director Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World exists on the cusp of a transition in cinematic history, before the trappings of the 21st Century would become nearly impossible to ignore for anything but a period film or a deliberately retro throwback.

When the film came out in 2001, cell phones weren’t yet prevalent enough to impact contemporary storytelling (just imagine how an iPhone would play into the plot of 2000’s Memento). And that’s just one of several aspects of Ghost World that make it seem like such a holdover from a 1990s buffer zone that gave us Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, who specialized in filling the screen with characters whose main purpose was simply to reflect the impact of popular culture on society.

That relationship to the final act of the 20th century is an apt one, given that’s when the source comic book was written and drawn by Daniel Clowes. Originally serialized in Clowes’ anthology comic Eightball, Ghost World followed the mundane day-to-day lives of best friends Enid and Rebecca, two cynical teenagers drifting through life following high school graduation.

Zwigoff, for his part, was coming off the offbeat 1994 documentary Crumb, about underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, creator of Fritz the Cat. According to Zwigoff on the Blu-ray’s newly recorded commentary track, he used a potential screening of Crumb as an excuse to meet Clowes, and the two ended up collaborating on the Ghost World screenplay, scratching out a story true to the spirit of Clowes’ comics.

In trying to figure out what to do after high school, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) spend their time poking fun at waiters in diners and begging their pal Josh (the late Brad Renfro) for a ride. One day, while making fun of the personals in a weekly throwaway newspaper, they happen upon a particularly pathetic “missed connections” ad and decide to call its lovelorn placer posing as his potential love.

Lo and behold, it turns out to be Steve Buscemi as Seymour, and Enid and Rebecca can hardly contain their discomfort watching him sadly waiting at a diner counter for a girl who they know will never show up.

Then, out of even more morbid curiosity, they decide to follow him to his apartment, where they discover he spends a considerable amount of time trying to sell off his collection of vinyl records.

Enid sees a kindred spirit in Seymour and strikes up an unusual friendship over a love of Blues music, while Rebecca just wants them to get on with their lives, fulfilling a childhood dream of getting jobs and moving into an apartment together.

That plan is complicated by the fact that Enid still has to pass a summer school art class to earn her diploma. Between that, her obsession with finding Seymour a girlfriend and her general lack of interest in an adult life, the girls start to drift apart.

As is pointed out in the commentary, this isn’t so much a coming-of-age story as it is a refusing-to-age one. Enid’s attempts to push back against the world are often interrupted by observational humor or random gags, such as when a clerk at a video store (remember those?) doesn’t know the difference between Fellini’s and the erotic drama 9½ Weeks. (I had a similar experience once when a friend asked a Blockbuster employee where Annie Hall was, and he replied, “Who?”)

Zwigoff was quite adept at picking sparse locations around the Los Angeles area to represent an unnamed, nondescript city. He purposely keeps the backgrounds relatively free of extras in order to heighten a sense of isolation. But there are exceptions, and Zwigoff makes them count, such as a pregnant lady who passes by while smoking and holding what looks like a bottle of beer (which is meant more as a statement about the neighborhood of Rebecca’s apartment, not an endorsement of a life choice).

A sharp motif about finding the balance between life’s serious and funny sides comes into play in Enid’s art class, where the teacher (Illeana Douglas) specializes in attributing profound meaning to worthless crap. To this end, Enid has some fun showing off some racially insensitive advertising from the 1920s she borrows from Seymour’s collection of kitsch, laying on a thick line of BS about understanding racial prejudices in order to provoke the class.

Ghost World opens with Enid jamming along to a video of a wild dance number from the 1965 Indian film Gumnaam, and, indeed, Enid would love to embrace the carefree “dance like nobody’s watching” attitude that clip embodies, if only the realities of life wouldn’t get in the way.

One of the interesting aspects of the film, looking back more than 15 years now, involves its two female stars. At the time, the film was billed as a vehicle for 19-year-old Thora Birch, the former child actress who graduated to more-mature roles with 1999’s American Beauty. Looking back, however, the name that stands out is Scarlett Johansson, who was 15 when she was cast and almost 17 when the movie came out. In retrospect, it’s hard not to see the film as emblematic of their criss-crossing career paths.

A few months before Ghost World, Birch had parlayed her American Beauty heat into a seven-figure salary for The Hole, a horror film best known as Keira Knightley’s first big role (after her anonymous turn as Natalie Portman’s double in Star Wars: Episode I). And before that, in late 2000, Birch appeared as the benign Empress in the insipid Dungeons & Dragons, which can hardly be seen as a boon to her career. While Ghost World was a considerable step up, it wasn’t a barn-burner at the box office. After roles in several minor films in the 2000s, Birch stepped away from acting for a few years before returning with mostly TV work.

For Johansson, on the other hand, Ghost World was the movie that put her on the radar before 2003’s Lost in Translation put her on the map. After collaborations with the likes of Woody Allen and Christopher Nolan, she’d land the plum gig of Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starting with Iron Man 2 in 2010. Zwigoff in the commentary notes, amusingly, that the Ghost World studio United Artists didn’t even want to hire ScarJo to begin with, and now her involvement can get any picture greenlighted.

Buscemi, of course, is a timeless presence in any film. And he’s pitch perfect as the luckless loser here. I wonder how many people who may have identified more with Rebecca and Enid when the film first came out, and now given a chance to look back after experiencing a few decades of life, would now find they have more in common with Seymour than they’d like to admit.

As for Ghost World itself, the film is now mostly a cult hit and fondly remembered as one of the better examples of a movie based on a comic book. Criterion has certainly done the film justice with a beautiful new 4K transfer and some great bonus materials.

Zwigoff is joined in the entertaining commentary by Clowes and producer Lianne Halfan. The Blu-ray also includes new retrospective interviews with Birch, Johansson and Douglas which total about 45 minutes as they reflect on working with Zwigoff, and the film’s place in their career and in pop culture.

Also included are a reproduction of an Eightball comic with a “Ghost World” story, and an essay booklet containing some great artwork from the film.

Carrying over from the original 2002 DVD are the film’s trailer and an isolated clip of the “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” segment from Gumnaam.

That DVD also included about four minutes of deleted scenes that are also included on the Criterion upgrade, which also includes several additional, and eye-opening, deleted scenes, one of which especially places a key subplot in a new light.

Not ported over from the old MGM DVD is five-minute making-of featurette, which while a fairly typical EPK-style promotional video did include an interview with Buscemi, who is not represented in any of the new extras.

About the Author: John Latchem

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