Millennial Malaise 33: Ghost World

In Which You Should Check Out Blues Hammer

If I were a smarter writer I would have saved this entry for much further down the road. Perhaps on the sunset of this series of articles. Not only does Terry Zwigoff’s biting comedy Ghost World come out near the very end of my prescribed time frame (which I have fudged in the past and will fudge again in the future) in the summer of 2001, but it also serves as a sort thematic book closing on many of the previous films. A movie that actively interrogates the whinging need of authenticity of the past decade to mine out both cringing comedy and deep felt pathos. It also looks into the possibility of moving on from such thematic hangups, that the fixations on the mundanely “real” and “authentic” experience has clogged up the airwaves to an extent that it might be worth taking the next bus out of town.

The inquisitors into the authentic are recent high school grads Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) who spend most of their time sneering at fellow classmates and hurling barbs at all that they see. The compatriots in pungent cynicism don’t see much of a life ahead of them, too afraid to be considered phony and uncool to solidify plans outside of snarking the local populace. But life must continue: Enid has to take a remedial art class to finish high school, the two go apartment hunting in the hopes of moving in together,  and Enid starts a toxic relationship with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a simpering if well meaning record collector who can’t get out of his own way to connect with other people.

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The titular world of ghosts that our two friends find themselves navigating through is the mundanely absurd of nowhere America. Their city is any city, a place both nondescript and incredibly particular. Zwigoff smartly balances both the quirky  with all encompassing dullness. The city of Ghost World is a place populated by eccentrics who breed the contempt of Enid and Rebecca, while not offering an alternative to mockery to fill their time. It’s the perfect representative of the aimless existence of a young adult, where most of your current responsibilities dissipate and you fill your time with whatever stops in front of you.

But Ghost World, for as much pleasure as it extracts from the mundane and the bizarre of its world and characters, is a story about coming to terms with the fact that the cool posturing and verbal contempt for the world around you is a not a sustainable way to live your life. That if your sole pleasure comes from seemingly alienating others than at some point you’ll be left alone.

It’s a character study of someone who is unwilling to give up their posturing and admit what they really care about, whether it be friendship, artistic expression, or romantic interest. Enid is a perfect capsule of a person, uncertain of who she wants to be, but emotionally wrecked by the fact that she wants to be someone else. Her cramped room stuffed with various nick-knacks from a swath of cultural ephemera. She festoons herself with outfits and changes the color of her hair at all times to define herself against whatever is conceived as normal.

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When she starts to bond with the nebbish Seymour, she sees in him something that is lacking in her own form of expression. Honesty about his character and how his life is shaped. Seymour is a disaster of a man, drowning his social isolation in collecting ancient blues records from garage sales. At one point Seymour says, after Enid admires his walls of discs and posters, “you think it’s healthy to collect things? You can’t connect with other people and you fill your life with stuff.” It’s a sentiment that deep down Enid realizes she shares. Outside of Rebecca she doesn’t have many social relations, and even her longest friendship is fraying upon her insistence of trollish stunts and adolescent rage.

But that’s not to say Enid is the cause of all her problems, she might be the central spout from which her issues arise, but the acrid environment of “this is nowhere”  America does nothing to help. Enid has talent, her drawings would fit in perfectly to the world of underground comics, her fastidious obsession with cultural backwash would seem like catnip to our modern “remember this” age, but she is denied the opportunity to expand on these interests and ideas in any meaningful manner. Her drawings are derided by her art teacher as, “light entertainments,” and every person at the comic shop and video store are noxious to be around, willfully pushing her away from what keeps her truly engaged.

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And so these internal and external pressures finally break Enid. As she is unable to balance what she believes to be cool and authentic with what the world prescribes to her as important. So she just leaves, pushing blindly forward that whatever might beyond the borders her current life must be something more than what she knows. That the scabrous relationships with friends and family are a greater strain the infinity of the last bus leaving out of town. The opening credits and closing moments of Ghost World are a masterful pieces of counterpoint storytelling. In the first moments we see Enid freely dancing to an old Bollywood film, her emotions fully on display and earnest but cramped and confined by the windows through which we view her escapade. The end shows her contained, in formal dress with a small bag. Alone, isolated in the back of the bus, but with nothing but the sky in front of her. There’s possibility, but it’s always somewhere else.

Odds and Ends

  • Obligatory note on how sucky things turned out for Thora Birch, who’s unbelievably great here. In a just world she world she would have a career just as luminous as Johansson’s.
  • Ghost World features the most glaringly obvious tech fake in movies (it’s so obvious that it might even be a joke) where a man with a laptop looks up the answer to a coffee shop’s trivia question by typing words directly into a text document. I don’t know if I’m supposed to, but I laugh every time I see it.

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  • I have not read the original graphic novel, and for a lot of people this adaptation is intolerable because of the changes Zwigoff made. As an isolated movie though, it’s pretty fantastic.
  • Zwigoff smartly creates frames within frames throughout the whole film, replicating the feel of a comic book while never overtly drawing attention to it. He’s another unique filmmaker that I wish would start on a new project.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Another week where I’m open to suggestions for the next article. But who knows what flick I’ll choose next.