DVD Review: Ghost World

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Terry Zwigoff | CAST: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban
RELEASE DATE: 5/30/17 | PRICE: DVD $19.69, Blu-ray $23.31
BONUSES: audio commentary by director, producer and writer; interview with lead actresses; musical number from Gumnaam; delete scenes; essay by critic Howard Hampton; essay on the film’s score by director; Eightball comic insert
SPECS: R | 111 min. | Comedy | 1.85:1 widescreen | 5.1 surround

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

Comic books currently rule the movies — superhero comics from the two main comic companies, that is. This onslaught of quite similar-seeming comic movies makes one marvel (pun intended) at just how wonderful Ghost World (2001) was, and is.

Based on a graphic novel that appeared in serial form in Daniel Clowes’ much-loved Eightball comic, Ghost World is arguably the best film ever made from an independent comic book (American Splendor runs a very close second). It has a cult following that grows larger by the year, and despite its containing no cellphones and only one mention of the Internet, it remains a very modern coming-of-age story.

The piece is a three-way character study that primarily focuses on Enid (Thora Birch, American Beauty), a teen pondering her options in the summer after graduation from high school. Birch does a terrific job of conveying the mixed emotions felt by a misfit who’s (mostly) happy to be that way.

Her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, Lucy) shares her taste in kitsch and distaste for trendy young men. Rebecca isn’t entirely averse to settling for a more conventional life, and so the film is a surprisingly touching, yet never sentimental, view of the slow breakup of an adolescent friendship.

The odd man out — in every sense of that phrase — is 78-rpm record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi, The Big Lebowski), a misfit in his 40s who become Enid’s guru in all things musical and, very suddenly, her lover. It is reinforced in the new audio commentary by director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb), writer Clowes, and producer Lianne Halfon that Seymour was a stand-in for Zwigoff and Clowes. He shares their hobbies, attitudes and even clothing (Buscemi was dressed to look like Zwigoff). Thus Seymour’s fate at the film’s end clearly seems like a punishment conceived by Clowes and Zwigoff for their nerdier selves.

The film didn’t do well at the box office on its initial release but is now a touchstone for quietly rebellious teen and twenty-something women. This no doubt comes from the relatability of the characters, and the wonderfully grim humor and tacky details that came directly from Clowes’ comic.

The first DVD release of the film, from MGM in 2002, included a making-of featurette that is not included here. The montage of deleted scenes found on the MGM release did make the transition. While the extras made for the Criterion edition lack any contribution from Steve Buscemi — who is much discussed by those who did participate — there are some very interesting bits of trivia and candid opinions.

The Bollywood musical number that opens the film, from the crime film/musical Gumnaam (1965) is here in its entirety. It is contextualized in an audio commentary written by David Cairns and Stephen C. Horne, and narrated by Roshini Dubey.

The newly recorded audio commentary finds Zwigoff, Clowes and Halfon discussing the film’s production. They mention some of the performers who they initially tried to cast in the film — Christina Ricci as Enid, Lawrence Tierney as the owner of an adult toy store — but refer only obliquely to scenes that were cut (at one point they talk about a “masturbation scene” that was shot, edited in, and then edited out, without further explanation of the content or the context).

Among the lighter notes is a discussion of a visit to the set by the makers of Gumnaam, who were flattered their musical number was included in the picture. Quite unsurprising is the complaint by 78-rpm record collector Zwigoff that Buscemi was perfect as Seymour, but never got the hang of how a diehard collector takes a 78 out of its sleeve.

While the filmmakers discuss the brass tacks of the production, the three actresses who consented to on-camera interviews supply both their own memories of the film shoot and their understanding of the film’s themes. Birch recounts how she turned herself into Clowes’ character physically in order to cinch the role.

Johansson —who is very glammed-up for her chat, especially given the movie being discussed — displays genuine fondness for both the film and Birch, with whom she formed a real-life friendship. (“ScarJo” was 15 at the time, Birch was 18.) Both of the stars and supporting actress Illeana Douglas (TV’s Welcome to Sweden) have much praise for costume designer Mary Zophres, who did a superb job of conveying the characters through their wardrobe (and, in the process, created new fashions for young women).

As for friendship, Johansson notes that Enid and Rebecca interact in the same way that Zwigoff and Clowes do in real life, which dovetails with Clowes’ statement in the commentary that he wrote the comic while imagining himself as a teenage girl.

The most valuable aspect of the onscreen interviews is that Douglas discusses the film’s themes and the behavior of the lead characters, something Zwigoff and Clowes seem loathe to do in the commentary. She supplies an excellent “reading” of the film, quite accurately summarizing the conclusion (which frustrated some viewers when the film came out) by saying that “[Enid] doesn’t want to come of age… she doesn’t have a life plan and she doesn’t want one.”

Douglas’ spot-on take on the picture is echoed in the print essay by critic Howard Hampton found in the package’s booklet. Hampton discusses the film thoroughly but one’s attention goes to the illustrations that accompany his piece, nearly all of which are original cartoons by Clowes, many drawn on-set.

The same booklet features an interesting essay by Zwigoff on the film’s musical score. He considers modern music to be “horribly contrived commercial slop”; it is revealed in the onscreen interview with the actresses, though, that his idea of “modern” is everything after the mid-1930s.

To finish things off right where they began, there’s a second booklet in the set, a mini-comic (get out yer magnifying glasses, folks!) that includes an installment of the original “Ghost World” serial and a two-page color piece that Clowes drew in 2008 for a special edition of the graphic novel in which he imagines what happened to Enid and Rebecca.

After his third stab at depicting their possible future as adults, the characters break the fourth wall and talk to the cartoonist (“We would never be like this! What are you doing?… Why can’t you just make it something nice, where we’re happy and stuff?”). The result is… an empty white panel.


Buy or Rent Ghost World

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”