Smells Like Teen Spirit: Ghost World

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Twangy surf guitars, Farfisa organs and an insanely high-pitched female vocal propel the line of grinning masked men swiveling in unison around the frugging woman in a silver-fringed mini-skirt. She looks very happy for someone who seems to be in the throes of a seizure.

The happy, convulsing woman and her masked back-up boys are actually just images on a video tape being watched by Enid (Thora Birch) the main character in Terry Zwigoff's remarkable Ghost World. Enid lurches about her bedroom, imitating the contortions of the figures on the tape as they twist the night away in some garish dreamland nightclub pitched halfway between a Hindu version of paradise and a tacky 1970s swingers' club. Whether Enid is responding to the sensational cheesiness of it all or to some hint of the sublime tucked away in this unbelievable dance is, like much of the rest of Ghost World, perfectly unclear.

The dance number that opens Zwigoff's film is so bizarre and outlandish we can only assume it was created specifically for Ghost World in order to illustrate the altogether, um, unique perspective of the movie's young protagonist. As it turns out, the sequence is a found object: a clip from an old Hindi musical-cum-mystery called Gumnaam (which I'm both pleased and a little embarrassed to admit to having shown to my film classes for several years). As with almost all Bollywood product, one of the first things that strikes us about the Gumnaam dance clip is the comic book sensibility at play. It's a sensibility that's right up Ghost World's alley.

Ghost World is, in fact, based on a series of comic books by Daniel Clowes, who collaborated with Zwigoff on the movie's script. Clowes' comic is not your standard fare — the series is rooted in the quirks of the everyday and would have been called "underground" in another time — and, likewise, Zwigoff's film is sure to be quite unlike any based-on-a-comic-book movie you've seen before.

Despite that it's such an inexplicably funny and entertaining piece of work, Ghost World belongs to a long tradition of teenage alienation flicks, an angsty but oddly understated tradition that includes such downer-comedies as Welcome to the Dollhouse and Heathers, and maybe even MTV's Daria. Enid and her best pal Rebecca (Scarlet Johansson) are recent high school graduates who cast a cold, cynical eye on everything in their path, passing judgment and dishing dirt on friend and foe alike. ("He better watch he doesn't get AIDS when he date rapes her," deadpans Enid of one acquaintance.) They clomp through life in thrift store polyester and massive combat boots, treading a self-created fine line between geek and hipster.

Much like the movie's title, which is not nearly as enigmatic as it first seems, Enid and Rebecca seem to exist in a hazy realm where things pass through them without really touching or sinking in, where everything registers but nothing resonates. It would be all too easy to label the girls as classic cynics — as in the old quip about knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing — except that their attraction for the cheap, the trivial and the blatantly artificial sits uneasily on top of a genuine hunger for the authentic. It's just that authenticity almost never presents itself to this all too typical, modern pair. And when it does, they're so poorly prepared for it, the experience winds up turning around and biting them on the ass.

Despite the emotionless, cooler-than-thou exteriors, Enid, and to a somewhat lesser extent Rebecca, seem to have a powerful (it's a little too cheerfully perverse to call healthy) appetite for life. With too much time on their hands and nowhere to constructively focus their considerable energy and imaginations, the pair spend their days refining sarcasm to an art form, playing nasty jokes on unsuspecting geeks and losers, and spying on people in coffee shops. After picking out the most interesting of the lot (suspected middle-aged Satanists are a favorite), the girls impulsively follow their subjects home (although their attention spans are so limited and their commitment so casual, they're usually all-too-quickly sidetracked in some other direction). Enid and her pal do almost everything on a whim — call it impulse living — and Zwigoff and Clowes structure the movie in a scattershot, episodic fashion, closely modeled after the way the girls live their lives.

Weirdly enough, Ghost World has an actual heart, too, located in the strange and yet oddly natural friendship that develops between Enid and a cranky, middle-aged record collector named Seymour (Steve Buscemi in yet another memorable performance). A gangly, stoop-shouldered obsessive with a particular affinity for 1920s blues and ragtime, Seymour clearly recalls the central subject of Zwigoff's 1994 breakthrough film, Crumb: the immensely gifted and deeply neurotic American cartoonist Robert Crumb.

Zwigoff seems to still have his old pal very much on his mind, to the degree that the only thing keeping us from thinking of Buscemi's Seymour as Ghost World's Crumb figure (which, I suppose, is something like an inverted Christ figure, only with a lot more whining about all the suffering) is the intriguing possibility that it's actually Seymour and Enid (who herself draws a pretty mean cartoon) together who constitute the movie's Crumb. At the very least, each of them comes to believe, at least momentarily, that they're completed by the other's assortment of personal ticks — which in Ghost World's singularly skewed universe might be something very close to love.

Like Enid, Seymour is a fundamentally conflicted individual who professes to hate everything with which he's also totally obsessed. It's hard to miss Zwigoff and Clowes' point about the powerful allure of essentially worthless pop culture (and modern life in general) but, beyond that, it all simply makes for some very interesting and, weirdly enough, likable characters doing some very odd and amusing things. From the first moment we see Enid swaying to the Muzak of an atrocious lounge combo (wryly intoning it's "so bad it's gone past good and right back to bad again") to the series of events that threaten to bring her entire world crashing down during the movie's last act, to a final sequence that's nothing short of transcendent — Zwigoff's movie is one droll delight after another.

As one of the weakest movie years in memory limps into its final quarter, Ghost World easily stands as one of the year's best.

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