Wednesday, August 31, 2016

We Are The Dead: Nicolas Winding Refn's THE NEON DEMON

"Beauty isn't everything. It's the only thing," says a character named Sarno in Nicolas Winding Refn's latest, THE NEON DEMON. It may take years for me to finally decide whether I love this film or hate it, but it seems to demand an extreme reaction. It's too precise an assault of seductive antagonism to simply be written off. At no point in its nearly two-hour running time is there any question that we're in the hands of a capable cinéaste who loves his job and his medium. The film is ripely, even opulently cinematic, but - as with Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN (2014) - there is a bland, even soporific thinness about the material, like a logline read through a heroin haze, so void of emotion it feels like an alien transmission draped in scenic alacrity. It's like a story sent from such a great distance that its teller died inside before he could finish.

Sumptuously photographed by Natasha Braier (THE MILK OF SORROW, THE ROVER), the film comes as close as anything I've seen to embodying this century's answer to SUSPIRIA. It shares the same muffled sense of dangerous portent when our heroine Jesse (Elle Fanning - a Jess Franco reference?), while cleaning up after modelling as the proverbial "centerfold in a PLAYBOY layout from Hell", happens to meet Ruby (Jena Malone, excellent), a makeup artist straddling work on Hollywood sound stages and in Hollywood funeral homes. The point couldn't be clearer: the perfection to which these characters aspire is Death - painted, available, unyielding, cold as Fassbinder. Jesse's barely sixteen; she's only been in town for a week and she's spending what's left of her runaway funds on a motel on the Sunset Strip. Almost overnight, she becomes LA's flavor of the week. Let's call that foreshadowing.

We never get to know Jesse. I'd like to praise Elle Fanning's performance, but as Gertude Stein once said of Los Angeles, "There is no there there" - which was almost certainly everyone's goal. No one may want it (or even remember it) a month from now, but Jessie's carnate form has momentarily cornered the market on "pretty." She has "that thing," as someone says. (Something else called "that thing" later turns up in her motel room.) She knows how to walk in ways the other girls can't. She finds an agent (Christina Hendricks, capable in a throwaway guest part) who advises her to lie about her age ("People believe what they are told") and a famous self-absorbed photographer (Desmond Harrington) who sees something in her that he wants to experience on a closed set. It literally happens overnight. The young hopefuls whom she replaces in the city's selective consciousness come to hate her. Those who cannot be her want to drink her blood. She's Bowie before you know it.

Getting there requires her to dump Dean (Karl Glusman), the sensitive young photographer who got her to town (actually, he's sensible enough to back out once he finds out how old she is) and to walk across the condescending faces of some other models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) who seem to hail from Stepford ("Sweetie, plastic's just good grooming.") But as much as she might fear them, or her handsome brute of a motel manager (Keanu Reeves), or their intentions, it's really her only friend in town that she really needs to fear. In a fascinating, if obvious, bit of cross-cutting, we see Ruby - a lesbian sexually rejected by the young starlet she's offered shelter - getting herself off with a voluptuous corpse she has just prepared for public viewing, as Jesse luxuriates on a divan as though masturbating to this perverse fantasy.

Where the film goes from there I should leave to your own discovery, but believe me when I tell you this is a far darker vision of Hollywood than Nathanael West envisioned in DAY OF THE LOCUST or David Lynch proposed in MULLHOLLAND DRIVE. The emphatic male gaze of the piece may seem sexist, but alien as it seems, the film (one hopes) is profoundly humanist and about sexism and objectification, as the two women sharing its byline with Refn (including PREACHER story editor Mary Laws) would probably agree. In an ambivalently direct yet metaphorical way, THE NEON DEMON depicts Hollywood as a murderous mediocrity that tirelessly preys upon and eradicates anything found on its turf that is possessed of genuine quality. And, by extension, it shows us how - in this day and age - cinema of genuine substance is being savaged to the brink of extinction by "creatives" who hate it because they cannot possibly compete with it.

In a bizarre coda that I found simultaneously off-putting yet pregnant with meaning, Refn presents us with a metaphor for the most basic of Hollywood laws: If you don't have the stomach for fame, someone else will.

THE NEON DEMON comes to Blu-ray next month, but is already available for streaming via Amazon Video.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The above illustration is a clipping from an article in the film industry trade magazine BOXOFFICE,   circa 1963, picturing the marquee of the Twin Drive-In Theater when it hosted the local premiere of KING KONG VS GODZILLA. It opened with its co-feature THE TROJAN HORSE (starring Steve Reeves) on Wednesday, July 17 1963. And this was the marquee I passed under when I saw this Toho classic for the first time - I was there.

Cincinnati Enquirer, July 14 1963.
It was only a few years before this that producer Joseph E. Levine had innovated what became known as a television saturation campaign, where programming geared to kids became dumping grounds for TV spot trailers, exciting the small fry about what would be opening at hard tops and drive-in theaters that coming weekend. It actually began with a Steve Reeves picture: HERCULES UNCHAINED in 1958. I was witness to many such campaigns in my early years, and I remember having a good sense of what KING KONG VS GODZILLA would be well before it opened, though I had never seen a King Kong movie before and had never before heard of Godzilla. (Hard to imagine, but if I had seen a Godzilla movie before, it was called GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER back then.) But I enjoyed the film enormously and it certainly fueled my young imagination. I remember drawing both King Kong and Godzilla a lot over the course of the following week.

I certainly knew of KING KONG at the time, thanks to articles and photos in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, so I'm not sure why I wasn't able to catch up with it till October 1970. Looking back through the CINCINNATI ENQUIRER archives, I see it played often enough on local commercial television stations - and I was particularly fascinated to discover that the 1933 KING KONG even played at some local indoor theaters in 1960 and was revived once again in October 1962 for some drive-in triple bills pairing it with GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1954) and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1948)! That's right, King Kong and Godzilla first "met" in this country in their original versions, long before anyone in America saw the Toho wrestling match. Of course, the Toho film had already been produced by this time and it's possible that the pairing of "the screen's mightiest monsters" was being road-tested to gauge audience interest before Universal Pictures acquired the new film for US distribution.

Original opening weekend ad.
A decade later - still playing.
Needless to say, KING KONG VS GODZILLA proved to be an enormous hit in North America, spurring the immediate distribution of its sequel, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA - retitled GODZILLA VS. THE THING by American International Pictures, perhaps to avoid a copyright conflict with MOTHRA's domestic distributor Columbia Pictures. One of the most uncanny facts about KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is that it was literally never out of theatrical circulation for the next ten years. There are indoor matinee playdates on record in 1967 and 1969, and then - on August 8, 1973, more than a full decade after its premiere at the Twin Drive-In - it burst back upon the same outdoor screen as part of "Battle of the Monsters," an AIP package of their past Toho acquisitions.

It's now 2016 and, back in its homeland, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA - known in Japan as Kingo Kongu tai Gojira - has recently been completely restored (complete with original stereophonic soundtrack, never heard in the US) and treated to a 4K restoration with new theatrical screenings and deluxe home video releases planned. There is a new Japanese Godzilla film, Shin Gojira (GODZILLA RESURGENCE), that has opened so well that there is already talk of a sequel: GODZILLA VS. KONG, set for release in 2020.

Some battles never get tired, and it would appear that Kong and Godzilla - Monsterdom's great avatars of hot- and cold-blooded strength - will continue to argue their superiority in the popular consciousness for a long time to come.

PS In case you're wondering about that "Facts of Life" banner in the topmost photo, it was a herald promoting the next feature at the Twin Drive-In, THE WRONG RUT (pictured at left). I didn't get to see that one... but the good news is, it's available on DVD from Something Weird Video!


Friday, August 26, 2016

Revisiting LAST SUMMER

Richard Thomas as Peter in LAST SUMMER.

I revisited the Frank and Eleanor Perry film LAST SUMMER (1969) tonight for the first time in probably 20 years. Unfortunately it hasn't had an official home video release in this country since the VHS days, though it did play in its "cut" R-rated version once on Turner Classic Movies. Watching it again, I was struck by hitherto unnoticed and completely unexpected similarities between Richard Thomas' performance and the performance given by Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson's IF... the same year.

Malcolm McDowell as Mick in IF...
It would be hard to imagine two actors more dissimilar in terms of their public images, which naturally was formed by the work they've respectively done over the course of their careers (ie., THE WALTONS, CALIGULA), yet in these early films, they could nearly be mistaken for one another in some shots, so alike are they in their abilities to contrast wide-eyed innocence and feral, amoral intensity. It could probably be said that typecasting has affected them both adversely, albeit in quite different ways.

I've never read the Evan Hunter novel that was the basis for LAST SUMMER (he also wrote a sequel, COME WINTER) but I wonder if the story's resemblance to William Golding's LORD OF THE FLIES is more or less pronounced in print than on film. It's something I've always noticed about the film, brought to the fore by the beachside setting and the teens' almost tribally induced reversion to savagery, with Cathy Burns' preternaturally wise, victimized Rhoda being the analogy to Piggy.

On another subject concerning the same film: LAST SUMMER was originally advertised as carrying an X rating, but Wikipedia tells us that it never played in theaters in that cut, which was altered by opening day to win the film a more commercial R rating. Everything I've ever read about the film claims that cuts were made to the climactic rape scene, but knowing how tame X films could be in 1969 (even in 1971 when a matter of seconds were cut from a rape film shown as part of the Ludovico Treatment in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE), I'm skeptical that it was ever more graphic than what we see now. However, the dialogue in the film has a lot of relooped dialogue along the lines of "frickin'" and "frackin'" and I suspect that the real bartering in the film was done with language. In those days, the F word could get you an X.

Another oddity concerning the soundtrack is that the dialogue includes not one, but two spoken lead-ins to music cues that never happen - once when a record gets changed and Barbara Hershey suggests "How about something by the Airplane?" (which is followed by music featuring brass) and again at the bar when she notices "a new song by The Band" on the jukebox and they pop in a quarter to play it. That said, one or two members of The Band apparently did contribute to tracks recorded for the movie as part of the congregation identified as Aunt Mary's Transcendental Slip & Lurch Band.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Three Thursday Passings

RIP to the wonderful comic actor and voice artist Marvin Kaplan, who has reportedly passed at the age of 89. Fans of my generation remember him as the voice of "Choo-Choo" on the Hanna-Barbera animated series TOP CAT, but he also made early impressions in a several TV appearances from that era - as a regular on MEET MILLIE and as a guest on THE RED SKELTON SHOW, MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, and even serious dramas like M SQUAD and THE DETECTIVES. His feature film work included FRANCIS, ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, THE GREAT RACE, THE SEVERED ARM (!), FREAKY FRIDAY (Jodie Foster version), David Lynch's WILD AT HEART and Larry Blamire's DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. Later television work included steady roles on ALICE, BECKER and David Lynch's ON THE AIR. He and I had friends in common, and my condolences go out to all who are saddened by his loss.

Today we also lost Rudy Van Gelder, a career optometrist who retired from his day job in the late 1950s to become the most creative and celebrated recording engineer in the history of jazz. His work for Alfred Lion's Blue Note label touched the careers of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and dozens of others. He was such a uniquely talented technician that the label eventually honored with an album - featuring all these artists and more - entitled THE BEST OF RUDY VAN GELDER. He was 91.

I was also very sorry to hear of the passing of French writer Michel Butor. Butor was unusual in that he was generally revered as a novelist but actually wrote very few novels (even fewer translated into English) and, so far as I'm aware, the only writer associated with the exciting nouvelle roman (or "new novel") literary movement of the late 1950's and early '60s - along with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Claude Simon, etc - who rejected that classification of his work. The bulk of his work, I understand, was poetry and essays and academic writings. I've long known his name but I've never read his novels in translation and should. He was best known for his novel SECOND THOUGHTS, written in the uncommonly used "second person" - as was Jay McInerney's later breakthrough novel BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

In Search of Lost Chords

This picture shows the kind of transistor radio I owned between 1963 and 1965, when popular music (IMO) was at its zenith. It was a gift from my mother and it became my Siamese twin; I carried it with me everywhere in a cheap black leatherette carrying case, and I often fell asleep listening to it - in the dark of my room, where music seemed to gather extra dimensions it never had in broad daylight.

Sometimes I was able to put it down for awhile, to go to the movies or whatever, but when I first heard (for example) The Zombies' "She's Not There" or "Tell Her No," or "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks, I was so thunderstruck by a new musical world suddenly defined but as yet unmemorized, that I would stay tuned not only to listen but to stand guard till the next time those songs cycled around. One day, when I was walking around my West Norwood neighborhood with my radio at my side, I was momentarily careless and dropped it - and that was all she sang.

I can't remember what I did for music from 1966 through maybe 1968, other than overhear it on other people's radios or to play something on the occasional juke box. I've sometimes thought of trying to find one of these, to fill a certain nostalgic void, but I couldn't bear to hear today's music coming out of it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Every Car Needs A Jack

Here's a thing or two you may not know about Richard Harbinger's hot rod quickie T-BIRD GANG, starring Ed Nelson, Pat George and a young Vic Tayback, which was released by The Filmgroup back in 1959. You can probably guess the first bit of trivia from its means of distribution, or perhaps from the presence of Nelson and Beach Dickerson in the cast: the film was secretly produced by an uncredited Roger Corman. But even more interesting than the film itself, in retrospect, are its promotional materials.

Evidently the film was so quickly and cheaply made (or poorly photographed) that very few promotional shots were taken during the filming. What Corman did to jazz-up the film's public appearance was to have some friends he'd met at Jeff Corey's acting class to participate in an afternoon of modelling shots that would show what the public generally demanded from such a picture - some cars, some babes, and some guys with haircuts. None of them was in the actual movie. A close look at these materials shows none other than a young Jack Nicholson among the participants, posing around a brand new white Thunderbird on a Hollywood Ford car lot! (That's him in all these shots, second from the left.) At this time, Jack had already starred in another Corman-produced JD picture, 1958's THE CRY BABY KILLER (written by Leo Gordon, no less), but his acting career was still a decade away from its ultimate take-off with 1969's EASY RIDER. 

One of the few ways you can actually see T-BIRD GANG these days is in a box set of public domain hot rod titles called BORN TO BE WILD - 4 HIGH-OCTANE MOVIES, which happens to also include THE WILD RIDE (1960), another early Nicholson starring role, and prominently pictures him on the packaging!

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Sale You've Been Waiting For

Mark Maddox's original "Carmilla" cover art for VIDEO WATCHDOG 183 - available now!
We're already a week into the month, so it's high time that I mentioned here - as has already been done on our website - that another of our delightful "'DoG Days of August" sales in presently in effect! We haven't had one of these since our 100th issue was published, but it's a great way to help you acquire more of our coveted back issues, to better familiarize yourself with our digital issues, and support your favorite film magazine.

Here's the deal: For the remainder of this month, each back issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG can be yours for only $5 USA — hey, that's $7 off the usual going price — and we'll up the ante by adding the digital counterpart of that issue ABSOLUTELY FREE! When you compare the print edition to all the bells and whistles added to the digital experience, we're betting that you'll want to experience our entire back catalogue that way! (It is a glorious thing, if we do say so ourselves.)

Just head over here, select the issues you want, check out (no coupon code needed!) and we'll deliver links to your free digital editions via email the minute we process your order (usually within minutes, but no later than 24 hours), and of course, we'll mail your print issues out the very next day.

While you're at it, be sure to snag the free digital version of VW 183 before it disappears!

Friday, August 05, 2016

Welcome To The Architecture of Ruins

Imagine a derelict movie theater - not just one, but dozens of them, all eroding from a virus no more virulent than a village of eyes pointed some other way, arranged in a deluxe catalogue of cultural and architectural decadence. Some of these places are still active but struggling; others groan under a weight of accumulating neglect; most seem to belong to a bizarre ghost town of the imagination. What were once, not so long ago, dream palaces have become bare-boned barns, the harsh juxtapositions of reality and its escape harmonizing in a lament that no one, that no thing, lasts forever.

Seats where audiences once gathered to thrill to colorful adventures now huddle in orgiastic collapse, their bare wooden backs scarred with the fan-traceries of furtive spiders. Rusting projectors stand sentry above over a fading fantasy of better days. In a more fortunate example, an auditorium of still erect seats are cloaked in individual white coverings, summoning what appears to be an audience of ghosts. Elsewhere, a marquee extends the full length of a city block but only five or six letters remain to identify the last film ever to play there, in Cinerama no less, and the lettering is Thai. 

"Welcome to the Architecture of Ruins," reads the back cover of ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET: WHERE CINEMA RULES HEARTS AND HOUSES OF FILMS IN THAILAND (FilmVirus, 1500 THB), a 516-page volume by Sonthaya Subyen and Morimart Raden-Ahmad, to heroic historians who decided to photograph the modern-day remnants of Thailand's dying movie palace culture while its peeling but still-evocative façades were yet standing. In addition to the impressive photo-documentation, the book includes a number of guest essays by such international luminaries as Apichatpong Weerasethakul (UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES), Fred Kelemen (THE MAN FROM LONDON, THE TURIN HORSE) and Prabda Yoon (MOTEL MIST), and the award-winning writers Daenaran-Saengthong (SEA Write Award, Officiers de l’ordre des arts et des lettres in 2008), Suchart Sawasdsria (Thai National Artist of Literature, 2011), and Uthis Haemamool (SEA Write Writer Award 2009), all reminiscing about their formative experiences as young movie-goers. ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET also includes sidebars documenting Thailand's approaches to advertising film, via billboards, advertisements on wheels and bus ads.

While nostalgia obviously had a great deal to do with what motivated Subyen, Raden-Ahmad and their guest authors, it plays a more abstract role in how the book is absorbed by someone outside Thai culture. The accompanying texts are rich with descriptions of what it was like to inhabit these derelict structures when they were still vital, including reminiscences of the films that played there. However, one's first impulse upon opening this book is to page through it, cover to cover, an experience which for me conveyed an eerily Ballardian charge with its peeling parade of long-vacated sensoriums. The text, which carefully and affectionately places the images in context, is all that prevents ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET from seeming like an advanced, poetical work of post-apocalyptic science fiction. And its images carry a bitter punchline, appropriate to such science fiction, in that many of the abandoned structures profiled herein were built in the 1980s.

I was grateful to receive a gift copy of this remarkable book some months ago from Sonthaya Subyen, and I would have reviewed it promptly had there been any point to doing so. He informed me in separate correspondence that it had been published in a limited edition of fewer than 1,000 copies, of which only a few copies then remained. But I'm happy to report that this bilingual book - ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET - a bilingual book, in Thai and English - is now available in a new slipcased "Black Box" edition. (I should mention that the images accompanying this report were photographed from the book on my iPad and imported to the blog; the originals are much brighter, sharper and more colorful in the book.)

This is a unique book and one you will be proud to own. The retail price of the Black Box edition is at 95 $US, and some copies yet remain of the standard white cover edition (without any box) at 85 $US (included shipping and handling anywhere in the world). For further information, send email inquiries to, or message them on their Facebook page ONCE UPON A CELLULOID PLANET.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Hitchcock's SABOTAGE: Beloved Faces in the Crowd've been enjoying myself the last couple of days, exploring the extensive supplementary contents of Criterion's recent CLASSIC HITCHCOCK box set, and I believe I've just spotted something that may qualify as an important historical eureka. The disc for 1935's THE 39 STEPS includes a half-hour documentary entitled HITCHCOCK: THE EARLY YEARS, which is of particular value for including on-screen reminiscences of several gentleman who worked as Hitch's editors and assistants during his formative British period. Still more important, however, was the surprise I got during former 3rd assistant Teddy Joseph's reminisce about a practical joke played on him during the filming of SABOTAGE (1936). This story was illustrated by a clip from the picture, detailing a scene which the documentary describes as the film's most famous: it shows a boy named Stevie (Desmond Tester) running an errand, unknowingly transporting film cans that contain a high explosive. To ramp up the suspense, Hitchcock has the young messenger caught up in a crowd assembled to see the Lord Mayor's Show procession. I've seen the film several times before, but not until now did I happen to notice a couple of familiar faces in the crowd.

Yes, indeed! The child whose view of the parade is blocked by Stevie is unmistakable as the young Patricia Hitchcock, daughter of the esteemed director, who went on to become one of the outstanding character actresses of her time. According to the IMDb, Ms. Hitchcock's first appearance in a theatrical feature was her father's STAGE FRIGHT (1950), preceded only by a TV movie in 1949. I can't recall this cameo ever being mentioned in any of the many books about Alfred Hitchcock that I've read.

But what makes this clip still more valuable is that Alma Reville - who contributed to the screenplay and was also the esteemed Mrs. Hitchcock - is also on view to play the child's mother, fussing over her little girl and finally hoisting her up to see the Mayor as he passes on horseback. Mrs. Hitchcock's only other known appearance in a Hitchcock film was in THE LODGER (1927), in which she briefly appears as a woman listening to a wireless.

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.