dir.: Terry Zwigoff
R, 111 min.
Opening Friday at Green Hills
Cartoonist Dan Clowes first made an impression on pop-culture cognoscenti in the late ’80s with a magazine-format quarterly dedicated to a hipster detective named Lloyd Llewellyn. In 1989, Clowes shifted to comic-book size and began producing Eightball, which for its first three years alternated humorous rants, stylistic experiments, and a serialized creep-out called “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron.” The surreal mystery story dealt with conspiracy theories, the porn underground, and nightmarish visions in a flat, deadpan style, and by the time Clowes wrapped up “Like a Velvet Glove,” he had one of the most popular alternative comic books on the market (rivaling Peter Bagge’s grunge-era fave Hate) and a legion of fans wondering what would come next.
What came next began in unassuming fashion. The rants and experiments in Eightball remained, joined by a blue-tinted, narrative-free series of vignettes about two teenage girls who were so jaded by junk culture that they couldn’t sincerely enjoy anything or experience an honest moment. The short strips were called “Ghost World,” and it took two or three installments for it to become apparent that they were intended as Clowes’ next major work; the pieces were so elliptical and so freestanding that when the final chapter appeared, it stunned those readers who still weren’t aware that they had been reading a serialized graphic novel.
Equally stunning was the news that “Ghost World” was to be adapted to the movies by Clowes and documentarian Terry Zwigoff, whose 1994 film Crumb depicted the life of alternative cartoonist and reluctant cultural icon Robert Crumb. Ghost World is the first fiction feature for Zwigoff and the first produced screenplay by Clowes, and given the insularity of the source materialand Zwigoff’s stated indifference to the original workit’s hard to imagine the film working very well.
And to be honest, it doesn’t always work, no matter what the surprising wave of critical raves might say. For one thing, the performances are a little stilted. Thora Birch plays the hyper-cynical Enid and Scarlett Johansson plays her copycat pal Rebecca, and though both actresses are fine individually, together they lack the chemistry of simpatico best friends, and their intentionally muted line deliveries drain the acid from some of Clowes’ more stinging incidental dialogue. Steve Buscemi’s turn as middle-aged record collector and acutely self-aware outcast Seymour contains the actor’s usual charisma, but he overplays the character’s stiffnessa choice that smacks of overdirection. Ditto Illeana Douglas’ exaggerated take on the easily duped, touchy-feely high-school art teacher Roberta. Only the underused Brad Renfro as laconic nice guy Josh has the right touch of naturalism, although he may be so appealing because he’s the only one who seems to see through Enid and Rebecca’s phony self-possession.
Zwigoff attempts to maintain the straight-ahead style of Clowes’ comic art, which leads to awkwardness in scenes where the film’s editors, Carol Kravetz-Aykanian and Michael R. Miller, have to cut between characters who have been framed as though they were cartoons in a panel, in a fashion that doesn’t quite conform to traditional eye lines. Zwigoff has also replaced the monochrome look of the original comic with a palette of bright colors, which gives Ghost World a vividness that’s in line with other “aching with irony” films that the director clearly studiedfilms like Heathers and Blue Velvet. Into this colorful-but-static universe, Clowes and Zwigoff periodically introduce wacky characters for Enid and Rebecca to hold in disdain, like a nunchaku-wielding redneck and an ignorant video store clerk. The alternating of the zany and the aloof shows a lack of confidence; Ghost World bears the stain of the novice feature filmmaker, sacrificing consistency for the chance that somethinganythingwill connect with the audience.
On the other hand, most of Ghost World’s tonal “lapses” are pretty funny, and even the acting limitations become less distracting and more endearing as the film rolls on and the distinctive worldviews of Clowes and Zwigoff begin to augment each other. The secret plot arc of the graphic novelonly clear once the serial was completewas the story of two high school chums drifting apart as they found that hanging out and making fun of everything was no basis for an adult friendship. The movie carries that same concept, but with the addition of the Zwigoff-like (and Crumb-like) Seymour, Ghost World gains the mature sensibility of a man who dislikes modern culture but also understands that his superior taste doesn’t make him a superior person.
So Ghost World becomes about the nihilistic snarkiness of Enid and Rebecca, who pretend to care about people and institutions that they find pathetic, and the sadness of Seymour, who wishes he could subdue his critical edge and be “normal.” The film’s tension comes from trying to ascertain the line between getting along in the world and maintaining skepticism, and from wondering whether the young have more energy to devote to being exhausted with everything. The core of Clowes’ original work is therethe depiction of trendily-trying-not-to-be-trendy kids whose acute awareness of insincerity has itself become insincerebut Ghost World also asks what becomes of people who yearn for an authenticity that may be gone for good. The film is haunting, hilarious, and sad.
Ghost World is flawedoverlong, repetitive, often clunkybut there’s value in those flaws. Clowes used pen and ink to rough out an intricately nuanced feeling, and Zwigoff uses film to translate the rough idea and add his own crudely articulated thoughts. What the two end up with is something entertaining, but also heartfelt and so unslick that it would appeal even to youths as world-weary as Enid and Rebecca. Even they would have to appreciate that Ghost World has been made by trembling, often uncertain, but always sincere human hands.
Caught in flux
Actor John Cameron Mitchell and songwriter Stephen Trask initially conceived the off-Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a rock opera, to be performed in nightclubs. Mitchell adopted the persona of a transgendered German emigrant pop singer named Hedwig, and both Trask’s songs and Mitchell’s between-song patter related the saga of Hedwig’s journey from East Berlin to Junction City, Kan. In their tale, the wide-eyed Teutonic glam-rock fan immigrates at the pleasure of a lusty American G.I. who pays for Hedwig’s sex-change operationa botched procedure, as it turns out, that leaves her with a stubborn hunk of flesh between her legs.
The concert version of Hedwig quickly moved into theaters, and though the staging grew more elaborate, the play remained anchored by songs and monologues. So what may be most amazing about Mitchell’s achievement in transmuting his stage work into a motion picture is how visually attuned the filmmaking is. Mitchell has directed the film with an emphasis on montage, stringing together meaningful images while reducing the torrent of words through which he previously told the story. Those of us whose only access to the New York theater is what we read about in the Sunday Times will likely be unable to imagine the piece as anything but a film. But then, fans of the play probably believe that it’ll never be better anywhere other than onstage. And it’s a testament to Trask that the soundtrack to Hedwigboth the original cast recording and the weirdly out-of-order but better-recorded-and-performed film accessorycaptures the tale’s spirit in playful lyrics and vigorously catchy rock music. Perhaps Mitchell and Trask have created an idea, not a narrative, and the idea can’t be contained by any one format.
The character of Hedwig has clearly been inspired byand is the embodiment ofthe alienation that haunts many of us in this megaplex era, especially homosexuals. Born in a divided city (which she escapes just before the wall comes down), transplanted to a city named after the very concept of a nexus (where she is abandoned when her sugar daddy splits), and stuck in a body that is neither wholly male nor wholly female (which her lover will only approach from behind), Hedwig has an affinity with many worlds but is at home in none. Mitchell’s lead performance encapsulates that tentative balance, as he assumes the defiant posture of an underdog and the stung expression of a victim.
The movie opens with a blast of fury, kick-started by the Guns N’ Roses-ish anthem “Tear Me Down,” performed by Hedwig and his band The Angry Inch at a chain restaurant in Kansas City. The group is on a tour of malls, shadowing the arena tour of a rock star named Tommy Gnosis (played by the Billy Corgan-like Michael Pitt), whose multiplatinum album is made up of songs stolen from Hedwig. The Angry Inch’s appearances in middle-class suburban eateries are confrontational, parading in front of the “straight” world the stylized decadence and kinky sexuality that the mainstream has winkingly appropriated from gay subculture.
Trask and Mitchell reference the glam trinity of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie in a procession of show tunes that fill in the characters’ backstories while simultaneously expressing more abstract emotions. The movie itself makes a shift toward the abstract, becoming less about what will become of Hedwig and more about the feelings associated with being used, betrayed, and generally unlucky.
That brings Hedwig in line with the recent “new musical” mini-movement in cinema exemplified by Lars Von Trier’s simplistic but wrenching Dancer in the Dark and Baz Luhrmann’s breathlessly romantic Moulin Rouge, and also the new trends in sophisticated musical theater best represented by the idea-saturated and melody-rich work of Adam Guetell. Singing has always been the best way to convey an inner state without the nakedness of under-articulate speech. The musicals of today are moving beyond direct expressions of love and despair, in the case of Hedwig roping in social politics, gender confusion, even the philosophy of Plato. Even if it moves too far beyond conventional narrative to be completely explicit, the music video imagery and memorable songs of Hedwig and the Angry Inch evoke an implicit understanding. You see it, you hear it, you feel it
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