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Catchers in the Wry | The Nation

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Catchers in the Wry

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Ah, the films of summer. When they get it right,
they win our hearts. A sublime treat with which to beat the heat,
Ghost World deserves every bit of the praise that has been
rolling its way. Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, LouieBluie) has
conquered the jinx that so often afflicts filmmakers trying to make
the transition from documentary to fiction. That he gets it
right is due in no small part to his co-scenarist Daniel Clowes,
whose cult comic Ghost World provides the raw material that
here mutates so aptly into a loopy coming-of-age story packed with
genius one-liners, the detritus of popular culture and a never-ending
lineup of oddball characters. What is truly remarkable, though, is
that these two 40-something guys have captured the world of teenage
girls with sublime accuracy.

Best friends Enid (Thora
Birch, who was so good in American Beauty) and Rebecca
(Scarlett Johansson, first discovered in Manny & Lo) have
it all: Thrift-shop outfits--assembled with a jaundiced eye for
fashion--accompany rooms packed with carefully edited stuff and
attitude to match. Claiming their inalienable rights as teenagers,
the two exercise an unmitigated scorn for all adults in the immediate
vicinity and a consummate ability to reconfigure anyone via sassy
vitriol. Ghost World opens on Enid and Rebecca's high school
graduation and chronicles their summer of discontent, by the end of
which their friendship will be in tatters and their future prospects
will be, well, reduced.

The summer after high school is
quintessentially the time when the bravura hits the fan. Think
Dazed and Confused for girls, and then imagine a completely
different film: an anti-Clueless wrought by a sensibility
seemingly shaped by reading The Catcher in the Rye at an
impressionable age and carrying it forward to twenty-first-century
suburbia. (That the suburb is Los Angeles as envisioned by a pair of
San Francisco/Berkeley artistes guarantees that it's meant to be a
nightmare.) Almost without exception, Ghost World hits its
target with a bull's-eye. It renders, nearly pitch-perfect, the tone
of teenage girls' friendship--the overidentification and competition,
the combined desire for and horror of boys/men, the simultaneous
reinvention and rejection of femininity and the torment of succumbing
to minimum-wage conformity while desperately trying to figure a way
out.

Enid is part Goth, part Holden Caulfield. She's first
seen rocking out to a classic Indian Bollywood film and disdaining
the dude music of her contemporaries and its pretentious
practitioners. She narrativizes everyone in her path. Haunting cheap
retro-1950s diners, Enid sketches the down-on-their-luck customers
and constructs story lines for them with Rebecca, her inseparable but
prettier pal, who may be less verbal but is equally disaffected (and
woefully underwritten). They turn one pathetic couple into Satanists
and make a lowlife crackpot into their private antihero. When a
personals ad in the weekly paper (a plea from a "bookish fellow" to
the woman he was too shy to speak to on an airplane) offers them an
opportunity for a prank, it sets the film's plot in motion. Enid and
Rebecca impersonate the target, then trail their victim to the
Wowsville diner for his no-show date.

They're still kids,
of course, for all their daring. That they're being cruel doesn't
occur to them until mid-assignation. For Rebecca, the game is then
over and it's time to move on to the next best thing: getting jobs so
they can afford their dream apartment. She finds employment at a
Starbucks-esque cafe with its own retinue of oddballs, while Enid's
sole attempt at gainful employment is a hilarious disaster sure to
thrill anyone who's ever darkened a multiplex. She works--for one
day--at a movie theater refreshment stand, where she's ordered to
push larger sizes than requested and warned to stop dissing the
movies to the customers. Enid's insolent enactment of these rules is
hilarious and naturally leads to her departure from the, uh,
profession. And leads her instead to Seymour.

Who's
Seymour? As embodied by Steve Buscemi in a career-elevating
performance, Seymour is the sad-sack guy framed with the fake blind
date. Post-prank, though, Enid gets curious and starts tailing him.
Seymour may have his own adult dead-end job (professional life
doesn't fare well in this film, where people have jobs, not careers),
but he has an avocation, a passionate hobby unsullied by filthy
lucre: his 78 rpm record collection of pure blues music. All it takes
is listening to his 1931 Skip James recording of "Devil Got My Woman"
to hook Enid. Seymour fills her ideal of an uncompromised life, as
she transforms his commitment to blues from pathetic geek
characteristic to banner of permanent rebellion.

"Only
stupid people have healthy relationships," confides Enid. "That's the
spirit," agrees Seymour. No good will come of this, to be sure, but
like a satisfying journey, the road toward the messy tragedies at
story's end is strewn with pleasures. Not least among them is the
character of Roberta (Illeana Douglas, in her best role since To
Die For
), the truly horrifying teacher of the "summer art class
for retards" that Enid has to take to complete her high school
requirements. Roberta introduces herself to the students by showing a
fiercely feminist avant-garde video, then praises anything--however
awful--backed by a feminist screed and disapproves of Enid's
cartoons, which were actually supplied by R. Crumb's daughter Sophie
from her own sketchbooks. Enid lampoons Roberta until, when
encouraged even a little, she tries to court her favor in some of the
film's most poignant moments. (Dare I disclose her portrait of...Don
Knotts?)

By the time Enid finally "gets on the bus,"
Ghost World has plumbed its characters' depths with a deep-sea
diver's precision and exploded the hypocritical balloon of social
mobility and material success that is fast replacing ideals and
principles in the age of Bush. Never underestimate a teenage girl's
ability to destroy everything in her path, even if that means
screwing up her own life in the process. If teenagers are a society's
truest barometer, then Ghost World offers a rather worrisome
forecast.

Along the way, though, Ghost World tips
its hand more than a bit, despite Affonso Beato's seductive
camerawork, which has a way of making it all go down like a
storybook. If middle-aged men hadn't made this film, for example,
would Enid really be so sympathetic to a loser like Seymour? Who, by
the way, has the same 78 rpm obsession as director Zwigoff. Which,
excuse me, we're supposed to believe this hip outsider girl-child is
so easily hooked on? And would feminism be a bad joke? Would LA
suburbs be the seat of all evil, at a time when San Francisco was
dot-comming and dot-bombing its way into the history books? And
what's up with the wheelchair jokes?

Still, Ghost
World
gets points for avoiding the calculated, prefab cynicism
characteristic of overpraised films like American Beauty, on
the one hand, and Happiness, on the other. We care about these
characters and, despite themselves, they care for one another, too.
Irony meets empathy here and both are better for it. Conservative
compassion be damned.

Note: For another version of
girl power in unexpected quarters, check out Legally Blonde.
Sure, it's improbable, what with being a Hollywood product showcasing
Reese Witherspoon's star power and all, but it's got wit and even
bite. The scenes of female bonding across class in the beauty parlor
would be enough to make it worthwhile even if it weren't the best
empowerment movie for teenage girls to come along in
ages.

Also worth catching are two fantastic films currently
on screens around the country. Scott McGehee and David Siegal's
The Deep End is a sun-drenched noir that lets Tilda Swinton
prove herself as an action hero--and a likely heroine for PFLAG in
her efforts to clear her gay teenage son's name and get him that
scholarship to Wesleyan. And Lumumba is a historically astute
and politically pointed history of what really happened in the Congo
in its most tumultuous moment--as dramatized by erstwhile documentarian
Raoul Peck, who experienced the African transition to independence
firsthand and recently served as Haiti's minister of
culture.

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