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This week:

Ghost World

Filthy says:
"Fuck yes."

When you're young--not like a little baby but young in that the whole world is still wide open in front of you and you have yet to be fired from your first job for cutting someone's toe off with a hedge clipper even though the guy was egging you on--when you're young there is a moment when the teachers stop telling your parents you have potential but you're hanging around "bad influences," and they start telling that to your friends' parents. It's the moment that the world decides you're irredeemable.

Oh, you're still smart, and you still act the same, but everyone finally got sick of waiting for you to use all that promising talent to do what society wants. The time comes when the other kids start acting like adults, stop making so much fucking trouble, start being a little dishonest about what they will and will not do, and pretend to like jobs they hate until they don't even remember they once hated them. But you stick to your beliefs that most people's music sucks ass, that sitcoms aren't funny and that money is a really shitty measure of individual achievement. Because of that, you end up on the outside, trying to feel superior, but knowing full well you'll end up a bitter old man, alone in an apartment among six-foot-tall stacks of yellowing newspaper, still listening to old vinyl Wall of Voodoo records, the strong odor of stale urine lingering near the fireplace, and cans of cat food but no cat. It scares the piss out of me, but it's too fucking late.

There are all these wrong turns that led us to here. Maybe if I bought "Thriller" instead of "Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!", or married Melissa and had lots of babies and a minivan, or went to college for business administration, then I could enjoy Friends and ER and feel a sense of accomplishment for buying a house and car that look exactly like the neighbors'. If I had chosen more wisely when I was younger, I would be too busy calling people on my cell phone and laughing at the Budweiser frogs to ever get sad or angry.

Ghost World beautifully captures the adolescent moment when Enid (Thora Birch) realizes that she is forever doomed because she stayed her course while everyone else compromised. She's fucked up, just like me and most of you, and while we all hope for happy endings, we chicken out, sabotage our chances and have to settle for something like a desk job that makes us contemplate swerving into a tree on the way home every night.

After high-school graduation, Birch and Becky (Scarlett Johansson) mock the losers they graduated with and correctly surmise that graduating high school is about as worthy of celebration as getting syphilis in Tijuana. Out of boredom and meanness, Birch answers the most pathetic personal ad she can find, simply to see what kind of loser (Steve Buscemi) will show up. She slowly entwines herself in this sad sack's lonely existence. As she becomes involved in Buscemi's life as an obsessive collector of jazz and blues 78s, she learns that he is actually better, more interesting and complex than the mainstream. But his beauty is hidden because everyone is too focused on the homogeneous, prepackaged images that get shoveled down our throats. She admires him, adores him for his ideals, but is repulsed by his loneliness and the sorry resignation he faces the world with. In him, she sees what lies ahead for her.

Meanwhile, her friend Johansson is slowly migrating into society. She gives up the alienation shtick for a job, an apartment and normalcy. To her, the bitter disappointment with the world was really just a hobby. Birch feels her only friend slipping into the mainstream, leaving her alone in the "ghost world" of individuals who coexist with society but are marginalized, unfelt and unseen. She's betrayed. Even worse, though, she is alone.

Ghost World is funny, sometimes really fucking funny, and it contains one of the single most tragic scenes I've ever seen. All I can say is it has to do with an old man and a bus, but it's the closest I've come to crying in a movie since Flealick bought the farm in Babe: Pig in the City.

Director Terry Zwigoff and co-writer Daniel Clowes have put their asses on the line. There is so much of themselves on the screen, and it must have hurt like hell to tell a story that is clearly about their own failure to fit in. But, it works because it's intimate and it's real, not some goateed screenwriter's interpretation of how the rest of us live. There are no bullshit resolutions dreamed up by lazy hacks, and no phony conflicts just for the sake of breaking glass.

The script is almost a total success. It captures the flat, catty commentary of those of us who use that as a defense against our own patheticness. It lets the characters express their longings without having to spell them out. What a fucking relief it is to watch characters that are so well-defined we understand what they want through their actions, not from awkward chunks of exposition projectile vomited by overly handsome actors. The dialog is never whipsmart or show-offy. It's simple, honest and sly in the sense that characters say brilliant things without knowing it.

The story only fails when it veers off course to make an obvious statement about how video stores don't carry classic movies. It makes Buscemi's love life a little too easy. It moves too slowly at the end, and lets Birch off too easily. Director Terry Zwigoff also tries too hard to say that consumer culture is what's fucked us up. I disagree. I think we fucked us up and it's the fact we're so fucking lazy that breeds shitty products--like Sylvester Stallone movies--in the first place. If it were the stone age and there were no consumer goods to buy, we'd find some other lazy way to avoid becoming interesting individuals who may be mocked or discarded.

Ghost World's secondary characters have lives of their own, and the glimpses we catch are perfect snapshots of people we know. There's Doug, the tank-top-sunburned, mullet-headed meth-freak who practically lives in the mini-mart and practices his nun-chucks in the parking lot. David Cross plays the geek who is so impressed with himself that he has no idea what a fucking loser he is. Ileana Douglas is dead-on as the art teacher who thinks every fucking piece of art should have some important, obvious political message.

Steve Buscemi should spend the rest of his career playing sad sacks. He's so God damn perfect it makes my teeth ache. He's pathetic, but with no interest in sympathy. In fact, he hates himself before anyone else has a chance to. He plays the character perfectly smart and self-aware. It's proof that you can be a genius and a fuck-up and the dichotomy is that one may never win out over the other.

Birch and Johansson are outstanding, and I'm not just saying that because they both have big tits. They do, but this story is about them as people, not models to be thrown about by the script. They play the characters as real teenagers, not the glossy, mindless Hollywood interpretation of teen. Their roles would be mutilated by any actress more interested in her career than making a great movie.

The movie captures the flat, gray world of power lines, homes illuminated by television and fast food restaurants. The rooms people live in look lived-in and full of genuine artifacts. It's an unbelievable accomplishment for a movie to make a teenager's room look like a teenager lives there.

Four Fingers for Ghost World. I would say everyone should see it, but you shouldn't. Most people won't understand it because they didn't even know this world existed. Worse, they wish it didn't. Fuck them.

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