directed by Terry Zwigoff
with Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi
opens July 20 at Neptune
COMIC BOOKS that inspire good movies are generally in the mold of Batman or X-Men, full of action, sex, and color. The challenge for Crumb director Terry Zwigoff is to make his first nondocumentary feature out of a comic book that's essentially about the inner lives of two cynical, discontented teenage girls. It's a goal imperfectly realized, one that respects its caustic but fragile characters (Scarlett Johansson and American Beauty's Thora Birch) but comes off wan and episodic.
Absent a strong narrative, a graphic novel allows readers to dwell on the drawings; here, we chuckle with the teens about the freaks they encounter on an ugly, generic streetscape without ever feeling engaged with their wanderings. Tacky convenience stores, porn shops, and flea markets—what's the point to ragging on such squalor? No matter how their soulless environment reflects their anomie, the girls don't make us care. Not even Birch's crush on sweetly pathetic Steve Buscemi fully animates this sketchy World.
VISITING SEATTLE for the film's SIFF world premiere, the 1993-97 comic book's creator and movie's co-writer Daniel Clowes explained how his teen protagonists sprang from a sketchbook. "I felt like I knew them very well," he says. "It wasn't any effort for me to impersonate these teenage girls for some reason. It's to some degree based on my experiences when I was 18 to 25.
"Enid is sort of the id, and Rebecca is sort of the superego. Enid has these impulses. She has an impulse to not be the same as everyone else. She has this inkling that there's some better choice for her out there. [Rebecca's] sort of accepting the way things are. Those are two sides of my own personality that I'm always fighting, so I think that's partly why it's so easy to write."
Inhabiting what he calls "this decaying world of encroaching strip malls," Enid becomes a sort of cultural critic. "It's a generalized feeling towards the culture at large. It's that general adolescent feeling that you get right when you're graduating high school, where you're knowing that you should be moving in some direction with what you want to do with your life. She sees these very limited opportunities that are an emblem of our consumer choices. She lives in this world where there's Burger King and Wendy's and Arby's and Taco Bell, and nothing beyond that."
Yet Enid critiques her squalid surroundings through her attire and consumer choices, Clowes adds. "It's a look that comes out of response to the culture. She's trying to stand apart, so she finds things that nobody else likes. She has sort of a nostalgia for the nostalgia of another era, even though she's so many degrees removed from the actual event."
More in touch with past events is Steve Buscemi's character, the vintage record collector Seymour. "Seymour's the real thing to [Enid]. As she gets to know him, she realizes he's very true to himself."
FOR HIS PART, Terry Zwigoff is frank about attaching Seymour to Clowes' original material. "That comic is more about [Clowes]. He's psychoanalyzing himself to some degree in that comic. This film brings together this whole other dynamic, because it's adding me to him. This film is about—in some weird and indirect way—my relationship with Daniel Clowes. That's what that film with Robert Crumb was about; that's what my first film was about. It's the only way I can direct. You shy away from stuff you can't connect with.
"I told him that I had to make it more personal for myself to make it more interesting, so I added the Seymour character—poking fun at myself [and] the whole record-collecting thing."
So why introduce this director-surrogate character into the movie? Zwigoff's candor only extends so far. "I tried to feel my way through it and not intellectualize it too much. I tried to base him on myself," he concludes, "It's the only way I could work."