Ghost World

A few months ago, I put Ghost World among my favorite movies of the past decade. I would go further to say that it is one of my favorite movies of all time. The following is a “film note” I wrote for the local independent Brattle Theatre, for their screening of Ghost World, with author/screenwriter Daniel Clowes in attendance. I write about Norman, the character that inspired this little short story of mine back then.

“I wonder if he’s just totally insane, or he really thinks the bus is coming?” says Enid, as she watches Norman sitting at the bus stop, waiting for the bus that never comes. This is probably the most enduring image from the 2001 cult classic Ghost World, which has a wide range of powerful iconography to choose from. From the opening sequence set to 1960’s Bollywood pop, to the angle of the shot in the final scene, every scene is full of detail for those paying attention.

But our minds keep returning to Norman. Is he insane, or does he really think the bus is coming. It is more likely that both of these are true. There is a quiet assuredness to Norman, so we are never quite sure. We feel for the old man. We don’t want him to sit there waiting forever, for a bus that was cancelled two years ago. But then, an even more frightening thought hits us. Maybe this is all he has. Where would Norman go, if he did not sit at the bus stop? He seems funny, but we don’t laugh.

And that is how it is with Ghost World. Each character could play the lead in a riotous comedy about their life, but this film is not playing their quirks just for laughs. We see ourselves in some of them– in the rebellious teenager Enid, and the lovable misanthrope Seymour. And in others, like the video store clerk who can’t tell the difference between 9 1/2 Weeks and Fellini’s 8 1/2, we see the world around us. The ghost world.

Enid is on the verge of graduating high-school and is being forced to be a very specific kind of adult very quickly. She is a jigsaw puzzle piece in the wrong box, a box that most of the people around her seem to fit quite well. She loves Seymour, a lovable nerd who hates the world, but is beginning to realize his cynicism is not sustainable. “Maybe I don’t want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests,” he tells Enid. Seymour is what Enid probably imagines she will become in another twenty years, for better or worse.

As the movie progresses, we wonder if Norman is the only one who has a grip on his life, if not on reality. He has a purpose in life and cannot be moved from it. If this is insanity, maybe it is preferable to the chaos of those around him. He is the only constant, until the point at which Enid’s life really needs a constant to lean on. At that point, he is gone.

The significance of Norman and his bus have been discussed for many years by fans of the original Daniel Clowes comic book on which the movie is based. What the bus means to you may tell you more about yourself than about what the writer intended. Some people think it is death, and have found subtle clues pointing to this explanation. A better way to think of it is that the bus is an escape. The bus shows up for the first time at the precise moment when Enid’s life is hitting its lowest point. She needs an escape. What do you think happens to those who get on the bus? Here is a hint– look at the words on the bench after Enid sits down at the end of the movie. Unfortunately, this hint is not the answer, but maybe it will help you come up with your own. Whatever your answer may be, as the final shot of the bus driving out of town fades in to the Bollywood pop credits, Ghost World will leave you with a lot to think about. It is a film that a certain kind of teenager must see before they are thrust head first into adulthood. Before they become part of the ghost world.

And to tell you the truth, Norman at the bus stop is only the second most enduring image of Ghost World. The most enduring– and terrifying– image from Ghost World is “mirror, father, mirror”. That is the stuff of which cheesy nightmares are made.

Daniel Clowes at The Brattle on 4th May, 2010
Daniel Clowes at The Brattle


On Hitchcock, Psycho and the Auteur Theory

The steamy shower, the shadow behind the shower curtain, the raised, knife-wielding hand, that shrieking soundtrack and a screaming Janet Leigh have not only become legend in film, but also legend in parody. It has become so recognizable in modern times that when it is parodied I can sense young people nodding their heads in recognition even when they have no idea about its origins.

Alfred Hitchcock is as old as feature films themselves. Born in 1899 in London, Hitchcock was 26 when he directed his first film. His first “Hitchcockian” film, however, did not come until 1927 when The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was released. With strangled blondes and young men falsely accused of crimes, it was a pre-cursor to many Hitchcock movies to come. By the time he was 30, he was on to his 10th film- Blackmail– which was one of the first sound films out of Britain. At the age of 30, he had moved to the United States and was working for acclaimed uber-producer David O. Selznick. The Hitchcock style had been established and was now being fine-tuned. Continue reading

On Miyazaki: The Films That Make Themselves

Written as a Film Note for Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Howl's Moving Castle“I’m not a storyteller, I’m a man who draws pictures,” says Hayao Miyazaki the super-director of some of the highest grossing Japanese films of all time, such as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and most recently, Howl’s Moving Castle.

In Hollywood, children’s films in general and animated ones in particular follow the classical storytelling mold. The protagonist is oblivious, the protagonist faces difficulty and the protagonist overcomes difficulty. While the world that is built around these stories may be extremely detailed and enchanting- such as the talking furniture of Beauty and the Beast or the fun forest friends of Bambi– the story arc of the protagonist is central to the film and the tapestry is for show. Continue reading

On Shane Black and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Written as a Film Note for Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Shane Black, writer-director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Shane Black, the writer and director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, was the original Hollywood screenwriting fairy tale. At the age of 24, in 1985, he sold his first screenplay for a quarter of a million dollars and in the process invented a certain kind action film that defined Hollywood in the late 80s and early 90s.

That first film was Lethal Weapon. It transformed Mel Gibson from Mad Max to a true k faced a lot of resentment and backlash within the industry over the high price tag of that script combined with its critical and box office failure. At the same time, there was a perceived competition over becoming the “highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood” with writers such as Joe Eszterhas. Also, his talents as a writer were not very highly regarded among some of his peers since Black had stuck to writing action films for the most part of his career. Continue reading

Kelly, Astaire and Effects in Dance

Written as a Film Note for Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly
There is an old Hollywood story that goes something like this. Only three years and six movies into his acting career, Gene Kelly had a novel idea for his next film, 1945’s Anchor’s Aweigh. He wanted to dance with an animated character and his first choice, unsurprisingly, was Mickey Mouse. Kelly and his assistant Stanely Donen brought it before Walt Disney. Walt impressed and encouraging, but Mickey Mouse would never work in an MGM film.

Around the same time, two young men, who arrived at MGM around the same time as Kelly, named William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, had created a comic cartoon cat and mouse duo named Tom and Jerry. In 1944, when Kelly was looking for a dancing partner, the Tom and Jerry series was coming off back to back Academy Award wins in the Animated Short Film category. When Walt turned Kelly down, the other mouse became the obvious choice. Gene Kelly danced with Jerry Mouse in 1945’s Anchor’s Aweigh and made cinematic history as the first dance with an animated character. The animation was a painstaking process, and to his credit, it is said that Disney’s got MGM to take the risk on the sequence. Everything down to Jerry’s dancing reflection was perfected. It proved to be a good career move for all involved. Anchors Aweigh garnered five Oscar nominations. Tom and Jerry went on to win a total of seven. Continue reading