Ghost World (****, 2001)

At first, Ghost World seems to be an “edgy” comedy about two immaturely misanthropic teenagers and their middle-finger-to-the-world snarkiness. A very young Scarlett Johansson and American Beauty’s Thora Birch play besties Rebecca and Enid, girls just finishing high school and always ready with a withering remark for everyone. Classmates, teachers, parents, business owners, passerby–no one is spared their biting disdain. It gradually becomes clear, however, that the film will not be about indulging the girls’ hip bitch camaraderie but instead exploring their needs for identity and intimacy–especially Enid’s (Birch)–that percolate beneath their prickly surfaces.

Their aggressive detachment takes on humanizing consequences when they play a prank on a lonely man (Steve Buscemi) by responding to his personal ad in the paper and standing him up on the blind date they arrange. Enid offends her own conscience, and her sympathy for the sad sack Seymour is the beginning of an unusual friendship which gradually takes on a Harold and Maude quality. It is clear they are kindred spirits from early on, and their shared off-kilter tastes in music and pop art irony quickly forms a natural bond bridging their generational and gender gaps… almost. Buscemi’s Seymour is clearly torn between his need for connection and his awareness of the inappropriateness of their relationship, while young Enid is blissfully ignorant of their friendship’s strangeness. Together they are tragic and sweet, pulled together and pushed apart by their mutual brokenness.

Ghost World captures something important about the way kitschy weirdos get lost in obsessions because of feeling alienated and in turn how their alienation pushes them deeper into cultural obsessions and away from meaningful relationships. It strikes the perfect tone by neither romanticizing nor ridiculing such obsessions, but instead sympathetically mining the characters’ alienations and longing for relational intimacy.

The “ghost world” in question is the arch-world of pulp magazine covers and antiquated mid-century pop art that evokes a certain time and place in our cultural imagination–very much like the Jack Rabbit Slim’s restaurant in Pulp Fiction–but that never really existed as anything more than a confluence of graphic art sensibilities. Director Zwigoff finely evokes the way in which writer (of both screenplay and the original graphic novel) Daniel Clowes’ characters live at a kind of threshold between the “real” and the “ghost” worlds, forever at the mercy of their tortured souls and on the edge of retreat from psychological and emotional health.

It’s ultimately a sad film, because it’s characters cannot hope to be cured of their pain and social dislocation. Zwigoff does reserve a special dignity for them, a sure affection for their offbeat sensibilities, and the conviction that embracing your identity is better than trudging along with the blind seismic waves of culture en masse. It’s not much, but it’s something. Better people probing for meaning in life than comfortably numb. Still, it left me wishing for a sequel where Enid and Seymour both come to know a saving power bigger than their wounded hearts.

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One thought on “Ghost World (****, 2001)

  1. Luke Warm says:

    Ghost World was such a resonating film for me, possibly because of its theatrical release coinciding with my years at art school. So naturally during my years studying art, I would often fondly compare the (uncanny) similarities between Zwigoff / Clowes’ overtones of art school apathy, married with GW’s production designer Edward McAvoy’s very accurate portrayal of ‘first-year art’ prop subject matter. The cringe-worthy, self-indulgent art-video shown by the teacher and the tampon teacup, are both stereotypical albeit shallow attempts at artistic interpretations of over-privileged modern identity. This is emphasised even further by Enid’s misunderstood attempts at unveiling America’s dark social history with her ‘Coon Chicken’ piece. Do you think, that in amongst this apathetic attitude and an overtly Aryan milieu, Enid’s post-political correctness is demonstrating the absurdity of American culture by laughing at all of it?

    I think the bleakness in Clowes’ characters describe a fairly reliable description of that transient period between high-school and adulthood. Although, rather than disempower his characters as ‘obsessive kitschy weirdos’, I would perhaps credit them with being quick and savvy enough to analyse and negate the propaganda of co-opted, post-industrial America. Enid’s interest in Seymour, and his vintage record collection shows her yearning to break out of the banality of McAvoy’s suburbia. As she experiments with non-conformist attitudes to her sexuality, personal relationships and identity, she is demonstrating a vanilla anarchy in her attempts to define herself.

    Thanks for such an insightful article! I would be interested to know your thoughts.

    Cheers,

    Luke Warm.

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