Ghost World: Special Edition or Why the Ghost World Movie's Awful

It somehow seems degrading to Clowes' original comic, despite the fact that he wrote the screenplay, to whip up a big "10th anniversary" package for Ghost World that includes both the original comic and the script. The package implies that the two things are not separate but somehow complements or companions to one another and suggests that Clowes sort of has no understanding of his own work.

See, while a ton of fans of the comic like the movie and movie fans retroactively discovered the comic, the two really have very little in common. On the surface they do, but a closer look reveals a movie that's hopelessly cynical and condescending and a comic that constantly undercuts and complicates the characters' cynicism, all the while exposing their vulnerability too. Take the end of the first issue where Enid rushes home after the yard sale to see that her beloved toy still sits on the table. It brings you back to earth after a whirl of cancer jokes and lunchables-buying Satanists.

The key to understanding the core difference between the comic and the movie is to look at the sort of meta scene in which Enid goes to her local hip zine/alt. comics store to finally meet Daniel Clowes, the creator of her favorite comic. Of course, she's developed an image of him as suave and cool and with-it. When she arrives, she doesn't even approach him, seeing the slovenly, bug-eyed, balding creator from afar and being grossed-out. It's a brilliant scene for a number of reasons, all of which are worth unpacking.

First, it's Clowes' way of distancing himself from his creation. The same way the on-the-outside cynical Enid grasping her childhood toy, happy it wasn't sold, undercuts and complicates her personality, Clowes putting himself in the comic as a dopey creep, undercuts the implicit "with-it"-ness it would be easy to think he thinks he has with his female characters. Yes, he's created these characters and yes he empathizes with them, but he's still aware and feels it necessary to point out to readers that he knows he's not anything like them. And despite some emotional understanding he'd probably have for them, they just wouldn't get along.

In terms of characterization, the scene exposes Enid's adolescent idealism and ignorance. She's still young and dumb enough to think that the creator of this comic would just have to be some cool, awesome hip dude that she'll marry. It underscores the characters' lack of empathy and her like, internalization of everything around her. Ghost World's great for the way it's both highly accurate and in-tune with its characters while also not totally siding with them or holding them up as paragons of cool.

There's no scene in the Ghost World movie that references or says the same thing as the Enid Coleslaw meets Daniel Clowes scene from the comic. It would've done the movie a great deal of good to have a scene where Enid goes to meet her favorite director Terry Zwigoff only to see him as a mumbling, messy-haired old dude.

But there's something even stranger going on in the Ghost World movie and that is that the sort of Clowes/Zwigoff double of the movie ends up sleeping with Enid! Yes, the sex is weird and sad, but it ends up being used to show more the way Enid's sort of callous and fleeting--the old record nerd man is wounded by it--than any sort of overarching comment on age and implied artistic (dis)connection or whatever.

That Enid even goes so far as to have sex with anybody in the movie also shows how far the movie strays from the original comic. Nothing that big or exciting happens in the comic--until Enid bolts at the end, giving her final action of any kind added weight and meaning--and that's sort of the point. And the argument that this was movie and something has to happen would have more legitimacy if the original incarnation of the story wasn't in an art-form best known for superhumans saving the world and shit.

Before this "10th anniversary" edition of Ghost World, I held onto some strange belief that maybe Clowes wrote the movie--and Art-School Confidential--to just sort of cash-in on the hip, irony-filled "indie" culture that's increasingly pervasive (There's a long history of serious, non-film artists using Hollywood for dough). But now, the two are placed side-by-side in a book, like the companions that they simply aren't. I'd suggest going to eBay for an older edition, it'll leave a less bitter taste in your mouth post-reading.


will said...

I don't believe that the movie is awful at all. Although not the genius that is the comic, the movie was highly entertaining in of itself. The movie went in a different direction than the comic, but I felt that Enid was basically the same cynical but naive character she was in the book.

Inkwell Bookstore said...

While I like the Ghost World movie, you're right in saying that it's not even close to the small piece of perfection that the comic is.

But about the lack of any 'disses' directed at the film's director? You're wrong. Zwigoff targets a small, subtle jibe at him and his blues band in the first garage sale scene. Enid picks up a record by Zwigoff and Crumb's blues band, and the Seymour character tells her something to the effect of, "Don't bother. You won't like that." I'll admit that a certain amount of excessive nerdity is required to catch this, but it is there.

Anonymous said...

I think the scene of Enid going to see Clowes is a good example of the self hatred that all Clowes work suffers from. Maybe that's not a problem for everyone but for me, it makes it hard to read.

He's kind of on the opposite end of the fence from Pope on that.
no one in his universe is cool and if there's a hint of it then the chraracter has to be an asshole or a teenage girl.

I could rant about this forever, but I feel like his generation of underground dudes picked up the worst stuff from Crumb's era and ignored the draw whatever you want aspect of it.

brandon said...

That's a good point and I forgot about it. And yeah, arguably, in a way that's more self-deprecating than Clowes overt self-loathing. Of course, I think the self-loathing scene has more stuff going on but yeah-

No dude, you're totally onto something. Clowes is sort of this long-time favorite since middle school, the first guy outside of Crumb that I got into that wasn't like George Perez or something so I'm quick to dismiss his flaws, but yeah, the worst side of Crumb. The secret being Crumb's not that good in the first place?

samuel rules said...

I think BG just blew my mind

Rob McMonigal said...

I feel like maybe I missed something, but I just didn't connect with either the Ghost World movie *or* the graphic novel. It just seemed like a book where a writer decided to show he could do hip indie stuff without soul. Others I know loved it. I do think there was more to be found in the book version, however.

Anonymous said...

I didn't read the book, because he was not traduct in french (not that I know), but I saw the movie a lot....and the principal problem was, it can't be a movie in the sens, it is a way too short. It is a high budget movie with a lot of characteres which would be exploited. All the god forsaken deserve a sequence and there is a lot... How many time I have observ them in the "quality coffee", the party of Seymour etc...
The film is very good becaus it creat a fantasy world, a mix aof the 40' and now. But 90 minutes for this is a way too short.... But that was so good the first time. And it was not so cxondescendente (sorry), it is pessimist but realist in this created world...
I hope you understand my english lol

Anonymous said...

Harsh review, dude.

Unknown said...

I like the movie better than the comic. I think the scene where Enid sleeps with Seymour does the same thing as the scene with Clowes in the book, but more subtly, and in a way that affected me a lot more emotionally. I don't think the scene was just supposed to show that Enid is flighty and mean. It's supposed to show that she's created an idealized version of Seymour in her head that doesn't match the incredibly lonely Seymour of reality, and that being intimate with him shatters those illusions.

I think it's easier to ignore subtext in a movie, and so a lot of people assume the movie has less going on thematically than the book. I don't think that's actually the case, though. The notion that Clowes did the movie as a cash-in is ridiculous. He and Zwigoff labored over the screenplay together for years, and in fact, much of the screenplay was written concurrently with the comic (he started working on it before the comic had finished). This is one of few cases where I really do feel that the book and movie are complementary works, and you need to experience both to really get the most out of Ghost World.