Celluloid Atrocities April 2016: We Need You, Terry Zwigoff!

We don’t get films from him very often, but they’re always very good.


Last year upon the release of Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a film I admired, I kept on wanting to compare it to the work of Robert Crumb. While about as close as I could get to describing something difficult to pin down that I liked about it, it also wasn’t entirely accurate, and further bordered on being a lazy association, given Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s influence on that film’s (fictional) protagonist. After some work, I was able to follow the free association thread to Terry Zwigoff’s film Ghost World, which itself has basically nothing to do with R. Crumb, except that Zwigoff is a friend of Crumb’s and also directed the incredibly good 1994 documentary about him.

Then, about a week ago, I rewatched Ghost World for the first time in a while. I’ve seen that film a lot of times in my life—I’d estimate as many as ten—but not in many years. At the time of my first viewing, when it was in theatres circa September 2001, I found myself closely identifying with its protagonist, Enid Coleslaw (Thora Birch, fresh off of American Beauty), and, to a lesser extent, her BFF Rebecca (a then-17-year-old Scarlett Johansson, a few years before much of anyone really knew who she was). Both characters have a lived-in misanthropic worldview that you don’t see accurately replicated in the movies terribly often, and how and why they hated almost everything was all too familiar to me. But then, upon my recent reviewing, I was somewhat alarmed by how much I now associate with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), the sad sack old record collector that Enid befriends at least partly out of pity. Seymour’s worldview is equally poisonous but in a more defeated way. Further complicating my distress at how much I identified with such an angry, beaten-down character, when I admitted to a friend what I say above about previously identifying with Enid and Becky but now with Seymour, they said, “Yeah, I’ve always seen the Seymour connection.” Apparently I’ve long been a Seymour and didn’t even know it.

But so let’s back up here. Hopefully, you see that I’ve already passingly pointed out a few things that make Terry Zwigoff a great director. One, his voice, which is often almost shockingly negative and curmudgeonly and mean-spirited, is unique in modern filmmaking. Two, he’s made a film I’d put on my short list of the best documentaries ever made (Crumb). Three, he’s made at least one fiction film that has managed to grow up with me, and speak to me in different ways as I’ve gotten older (and more defeated?), and has never lost its relevance to my life, but also has never been relevant in the exact same way. This is quite a feat.

After my emotionally satisfying rescreening of Ghost World, I went on to rewatch all of Zwigoff’s other films; five films in six days, and this during a busy workweek, at that. And the ability to do this points to something both interesting and sad about Zwigoff’s film career—we don’t get films from him very often, but they’re always very good. It’s sort of like the film equivalent of the TV show you love that got cancelled after only one season; it’s fascinating to view the near-perfection of that one season, but you can’t help but wish that there were lots, lots more of it.

As of this writing, Zwigoff hasn’t made a film since 2006’s Art School Confidential, a film he has said almost ended his career, and considering he hasn’t released a film in the ten years since one wonders if it didn’t actually do just that. While easily the least-liked of Zwigoff’s films, it’s still of much more interest than most other movies you’ll see any given year. Confidential is his second collaboration with comic book writer/artist Daniel Clowes, with whom he’d previously worked on Ghost World, and it exemplifies many of the unique attributes of Zwigoff’s films. One that always stands out to me is how strange he is with actors—he can be an incredibly good director of actors (I love all three leads in Ghost World, clearly), but a lot of times the supporting characters in his films are something close to bad. Here in Art School Confidential, I love Jim Broadbent’s portrayal of Jimmy, a creepy local failed artist who serves as something of a mentor to the film’s lead (in a dichotomy which bears some similarities to the Enid/Seymour one in Ghost World), and John Malkovich as another failed artist, this one a teacher, is pleasurable as well. Elsewhere, Ethan Suplee consistently stinks as lead actor Max Minghella’s roommate, but he’s bad in a somewhat endearing way, not unlike how the best of the worst of b-movies are endearing.

Something similar is going on in Zwigoff’s biggest hit, Bad Santa—I’d go so far as to say that that film houses Billy Bob Thornton’s career-best performance (and I don’t say that lightly, as Thornton is one of the most admired of actors who have come to prominence in the last 20 years), and the sadly departed John Ritter and Bernie Mac are excellent here, too (as is Lauren Graham, bringing a strange sweetness to what seems like it would otherwise have to be an incredibly trashy role). But Tony Cox, as Marcus, Santa’s elf sidekick, is sloppy as a matter of routine, apart from one or two scenes where he briefly gets it together (such as when he has to explain to Mac’s character how physics won’t allow him to drag the passed out Thornton to his car).

The so-far-unmentioned fifth Zwigoff film actually predates the four mentioned above—it’s 1985’s Louie Bluie, a 60-minute documentary about Howard Armstrong, a figure of the blues/country string band scene, and a compelling screen presence besides. Louie Bluie was long relegated to VHS-only obscurity (a tape I held onto for exactly that reason) until the Criterion Collection released it on DVD back in 2010. While a strong film on its own, it only raises in interest when viewed in quick succession with Crumb and/or Ghost World, as all three of those films revel in Zwigoff’s well-known love of 20s- and 30s-era music. (Not that Armstrong was making music in the 20s and 30s, but still.)

According to news items and interviews circa 2013 and 2014, Zwigoff was reportedly working on a project with Fred Armisen entitled Justice for Al and an unrelated project with Nicolas Cage called Lost Melody. It’s been nearly two years since I’ve seen mention of either project, and neither is listed on Zwigoff’s Wikipedia page nor IMDB profile. But in the meantime, Scarlett Johansson has appeared in two of the top ten highest-grossing films of all time, Bad Santa has a sequel in production to be released at the end of this year (with most of its still-living original cast in place, plus the always-welcome Christina Hendricks, but minus Zwigoff and the writing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who have of late been working on stuff like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Focus), and comic book movies have taken over the world. Instead of watching another Zack Snyder abomination—he’s quickly usurping Michael Bay as perhaps the biggest schlockmeister in Hollywood—I’ll stay home and rewatch Zwigoff’s underground comix movies, and those which Zwigoff’s films arguably begat—American Splendor, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, We Are the Best!—until someone wises up and gives Zwigoff what he needs to make his next film. | Pete Timmermann


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