From strip malls to eternity

Two youth films at the Pageant paint compelling portraits of modern life through the eyes of middle-class America

CASTLES OF INDOLENCE Thora Birch (left) and Steve Buscemi play a pair of friends bonded by their disenchantment with the trappings of soulless, consumer society around them in <i>Ghost World</i>.

CASTLES OF INDOLENCE Thora Birch (left) and Steve Buscemi play a pair of friends bonded by their disenchantment with the trappings of soulless, consumer society around them in Ghost World.

Rated 4.0

Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff’s film adaptation of the Daniel Clowes graphic novel, is strangely compelling. As a dark comedy about affectless teenagers, it risks an emotional flatness of its own. But Zwigoff’s film, which Clowes helped write, is also a richly haunting meditation on the clutter and disconnectedness of contemporary American culture.

Two of the three chief characters in Ghost World are teenagers who’ve just graduated from high school and figure to get jobs and an apartment of their own. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are a pseudo-worldly pair who look askance at nearly everything in their immediate vicinity, including a forlorn, aging record collector (Steve Buscemi) to whose personals ad they contrive a bogus response.

The young friends’ callow sense of superiority takes a hit when Enid begins to involve herself in a tentative and increasingly complicated friendship with the hangdog Seymour (Buscemi), who, despite his weary unattractiveness, proves unexpectedly sympathetic. From that point on, nearly everything in Enid’s very familiar little world begins to come unglued, and Ghost World begins shaping itself as a morose but tender picture of an America in which everyone is knowing about everybody else, but true recognition is very hard to come by.

The touchingly twisted story of Enid and Seymour is the central narrative thread in the film, but the real subject of Zwigoff’s movie is one that we intuit via its recurring settings—a fast-food joint, a high-school art class, a garage sale, a single-parent household, rooms full of collectibles and Americana, an out-of-service bus stop. It’s theater of the absurd in a scathingly suburban mode.

Birch and Johansson provide nicely varied renditions of post-adolescent sulkiness. But a crucial part of the film’s interest and resonance comes from its mixture of confused kids in their late teens with assorted unfulfilled adults drifting into middle age—Buscemi’s Seymour, Enid’s father (Bob Balaban), his sometimes girlfriend Maxine (Terri Garr) and, perhaps best of all, a floridly neurotic art teacher played by Illeana Douglas.

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Haiku Tunnel

Josh Kornbluth’s Haiku Tunnel first appeared as a spoken-word monologue, but now Kornbluth and his brother Jacob have made the thing into a zesty little comic film. Josh plays “Josh” in a mock-confessional docu-comedy about life as a “temp” in the New Economy, and the result is much engaging silliness with a modest satirical edge.

It’s still a monologue, except that now “Josh” is narrating events that we get to see played out by Josh Kornbluth himself and a small company of comedic actors. Josh’s misadventures as both a “temp” and a “perm” at the Schuyler and Mitchell law firm ("S&M,” for short) are the central thread in a deliberately rambling account of workplace travails that range from Kafkaesque puzzles to Woody Allen-style pratfalls.

The Kornbluth brothers succeed in making the low-budget nature of their production into a comic virtue, and Haiku Tunnel is especially good when it’s conjuring seemingly light-hearted comedy out of devastating situations. The week "Josh" spends trying to get 17 letters mailed has an entertaining blend of Kafka and the Marx brothers to it.