Monday, August 01, 2016

Enid At the Crossroads: Surviving GHOST WORLD

Enid leaves town in GHOST WORLD.

Last week I revisited - as I occasionally do - Terry Zwigoff's GHOST WORLD (2001). I consider this adaptation of Daniel Clowes' 1997 graphic novel one of the finest films of our fledgling century and, not insignificantly, also one of its most comforting - an odd assertion to make, considering that its general complexity leans to the bizarre, the negative, and the unhappy. This was a pivotal viewing for me, as it compelled me - for the first time - to extend my viewing experience by seeking out the original graphic novel, an impressive achievement in its own right - however, also disappointing to me, in that few of the themes I've always valued most about the film were in original evidence.

Of course, what I take as the film's message may differ from anyone else's experience of the film, because each of us brings our own experience and moral requirements to any movie we see; every film is, in effect, co-authored by its audience. I was reminded of this fact when I posted some thoughts about this recent viewing on Facebook, which prompted one of my friends there (Darren Bullerwell) to ask a surprising question:

"Did Enid die at the end of the movie? I ask this because they pass by the man waiting for the bus. He has sat there for weeks. When the bus finally arrives, the man is gone - presumably died. This happens to Enid at the end. The bus that no longer runs comes for her. I have asked other friends if this interpretation is correct. They think I am wrong."

Rebecca and Enid talk with Norman.

I told Darren that this was not my own interpretation of the ending, though I couldn't dispute its fairness given the information that the film presents. It should be noted that Daniel's memory of events was slightly inaccurate. What actually happens in the film is that Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) notice an older man named Norman (Charles C. Stevenson, Jr.) seated hopefully on a bus bench that has been stencilled "Not In Service." In striking up a conversation with him as one of her hometown's curiosities, Enid learns that Norman's late wife used to catch the bus here, and he is now waiting for it to happen along and take him. Given Norman's relation to the bus stop, there is reason to interpret it as some kind of death wish, if not a literal spectral ghost carriage. Daniel was incorrect, however, in remembering that Norman is gone when the bus finally arrives; instead, Enid witnesses the bus' arrival and sees Norman climb dutifully aboard. The bus does run. At least it reappears, in apparent response to Norman's hopes.

Speaking for myself, I've always cherished a somewhat different interpretation of the ending of the picture. The original Daniel Clowes graphic novel chronicles the slow disintegration of the bond between two girls who were best friends in high school, who move in different directions in response to life after graduating. In both, Rebecca ends up succumbing to the status quo of their home town, while Enid ends up leaving. The Terry Zwigoff film tells the same general story in an appreciably different, less negative way - by introducing the character of Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a thirtysomething misanthrope who has found and cultivated for himself a meaningful niche in life by collecting old 78s of blues and ragtime recordings. The two girls first encounter Seymour in the midst of a practical joke, but Enid later meets him again at a garage sale, where he's selling old records. Having previously found something of unexpected value in the Bollywood film GUMNAAM (whose now-famous production number "Jaan Peechaan Ho" by Mohammed Rafi opens the film), she inquires if he has any old Indian rock-and-roll records, which leads him to recommend a collection of old blues recordings, which she buys for a pittance and later puts on in a dire moment when all her more familiar records trigger feelings of despair. In a moment that may have no equivalent elsewhere in cinema, Enid is playing the record as background while washing the punk green out of her hair when she happens to overhear Skip James' 1931 recording of "Devil Got My Woman" and becomes caught up in it. Instead of being something to blast out in hostility at the rest of the world, Enid discovers that music can also be let in.

Enid at the crossroads, discovering the Blues.

To me, the primary difference between the two GHOST WORLD projects is that, through her serendipitous discovery of music, of something meaningful in an otherwise obscenely empty life, Zwigoff arms Enid with something she can love, which is what she needs to escape and survive the dead end life proposed by her home town - and this is why I personally find the notion of the bus as "suicide solution" impossible to accept.

What the bus represents to me, to use an old-fashioned word, is faith. The word faith doesn't have a religious significance for me, but rather a mystical one. Norman's belief that the bus will come, despite all other contrary outward signs, is a statement of faith, which is something that Enid can initially regard only with mockery. Norman is, along with Seymour, the only mockeries of the early part of the picture that Enid respects enough to examine more deeply, taking the trouble to interact with both men personally. In Norman, I would argue, she finds her faith, while in Seymour (whose name identifies him as a mentor) she finds a model for her own future survival. As Seymour describes himself, he's something of a caretaker for "the lost culture of the 20th century," so the "ghost world" of the title is actually his - though the phrase also invites our co-opting it as a criticism of the culturally empty real world we presently inhabit.

I love the film enough, and have seen it enough times now, to have discerned a thing or two that could have been pruned to make it even stronger. I feel that Norman's allusion to his late wife may force some viewers toward a more negative reading of the film, so I wish that Zwigoff and Clowes had left his backstory more ambiguous. I also feel that the film continues a few scenes past its actual stop, which I feel occurs when Enid unexpectedly witnesses the bus' arrival and sees Norman board it and ride away. This moment is followed by one of those rare shots in cinema that feel equal to the closing shot of Charlie Chaplin in CITY LIGHTS: we see Enid, suddenly beautiful, suddenly mature, suddenly invested (I believe) with a faith she has seen rewarded. Just before the fade-out, her expression turns sly and we know that she knows there is more happening here than what she has seen.

Enid's moment of epiphany.

I've long suspected that the film might play better if it had the courage to end here, on an ambiguous note. But the film plods on a bit longer, showing Enid walking around her town, her heavy footfalls so locked in time with David Kitay's BARRY LYNDON-like theme music that it seems a musical expression of her entrapment there - an entrapment so old as to encompass many earlier generations. And then, finally, one night, she ventures out to the disused bus stop with a single piece of luggage, where the bus arrives for her. Miracles can happen only once, so its arrival no longer surprises us; there may well be a mundane explanation now.

And now what?

GHOST WORLD imparts its most important message with Enid's moment of epiphany. The flickering of each expression across her face seems to correspond to her reaction shots at the graduation ceremony, the scene where we first see her engaging with the real world; in maybe 10 seconds, she gives us something to measure her growth since the time when everything she saw in life, even the tragic things, seemed there for her haughty amusement or recoil. If stories end when their game changes, this is the end of Enid as we have known her; what will become of Enid after this Edward Hopper moment belongs to another story.

To date, GHOST WORLD has only been released domestically on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment. However, a region-free Blu-ray of the film has been released in Germany, in English with optional subtitles.  

You can find some interesting "now and then" images of the GHOST WORLD bus stop at this Filmap page.

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