Singular filmmaker Terry Zwigoff showed his talent for giving both real life and fictional outsiders their cinematic due in his as yet small but distinguished oeuvre.
A San Francisco resident, Zwigoff held numerous jobs, including musician, shipping clerk, printer, and welfare office worker, before he made his first foray into film in the 1980s with his documentary short Louie Bluie (1985). A portrait of an obscure blues artist, Louie Bluie revealed Zwigoff to be an able documentarian and presaged his personal passion for blues and jazz music that would give his feature Ghost World (2001) its extraordinary soundtrack. Zwigoff subsequently co-wrote two screenplays with his long time friend, underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, in the late '80s but neither got made.
Instead, Zwigoff made Crumb himself the subject of his first feature-length documentary. A Sundance Film Festival sensation and art house hit, Crumb (1994) proved to be a devastating examination of a family utterly divorced from mainstream "normalcy" as well as a portrait of a uniquely twisted artist. Crumb's emotionally disturbed brother Maxon was a particularly poignant reminder of the suffering dysfunctional families can inflict. Winner of several critics' awards as well as one of the best-reviewed films of the 1990s, Crumb was partly responsible for the Academy's drastic reassessment of its nomination process when it failed to receive an Oscar nod for Best Documentary. Though Zwigoff's unflinching film caused a riff with his subject, he and Crumb were reconciled several years later.
Refusing to go Hollywood and compromise his long-standing aversion to corporate commercialism, Zwigoff turned down numerous projects, including The Virgin Suicides (2000), and struggled for five years to get an adaptation of cartoonist Daniel Clowes's graphic novel Ghost World made. Co-scripted with Clowes and starring the inimitably deadpan Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as two alienated teens stuck in a generic suburban city, Ghost World was far wiser, funnier, and more moving than the usual teen film. Suffering from more than just an average case of adolescent anomie, Birch's Enid's journey toward an alternative life is aided by Illeana Douglas's hilariously earnest art teacher and Steve Buscemi's gently eccentric collector Seymour; all of the players exude veritable humanity rather than Hollywood gloss. Directed with an assured low-key style that suited both its subject and its comic book source, Ghost World showed that Zwigoff could handle a fictional narrative as well as documentaries and became a summer 2001 art house hit. Seymour's onscreen record collection of jazz and blues 78s belongs to Zwigoff himself.