Snark, Sarcasm, and Sobriety Keeps 'Ghost World' Relevant

by Evan Sawdey

4 August 2017

Tales of summer classes, spineless parents, and an eternal curiosity about the wild, weird, and woebegotten in Criterion's edition of Ghost World.
Rebecca (Johansson) andEnid (Birch) in Ghost World (IMDB) 
cover art

Ghost World

Director: Terry Zwigoff
Cast: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi

US DVD: 30 May 2017

We all have that one friend in our lives. You know: that one who could always be called “snarky”, who always has the wittiest comebacks and cleverest putdowns. They’re that friend who appears to be simultaneously in control of their life and aimlessly drifting through it. We all have that friend. We all have an Enid.

Who is Enid? A character that, in some circles, served as a generational spokesperson in the late-‘90s alternative comics scene. She spoke to a group of kids that were (in broad strokes) bored and disinterested in what the mainstream was putting out, developing their own casual counterculture in the process. While aging boomers may have referred to such grunge-era kids as “angsty”, they still had a great love for the arts and had money to spare. Thus, capturing the interest of a dissatisfied generation was surprisingly difficult for most companies.

The same branding that appealed to the artful emptiness of Generation X only somewhat applied, as young people with disposable income suddenly aren’t susceptible to the marketing campaigns of yore, ensuring that the only way to connect with them was to appeal directly to their convictions (or notable lack thereof). MTV, of course, restlessly courted this demographic, and for every failure of capturing that essence (like 1996’s ill-conceived film Joe’s Apartment), there was critical success like Daria (Glenn Eichler, Susie Lewis), an animated series that did a better job of holding up an accurate mirror to the moment than most other contenders.

Enter Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff’s first foray into narrative films following his acclaimed 1994 documentary Crumb. Based on the accessibly miserable comic of the same name by Daniel Clowes (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Ghost World follows the pessimistic and dismissive Enid (Thora Birch with attitude to spare) as she navigates life after high school. It’s filled with summer classes, spineless parents, and her eternal curiosity about the wild, weird, and woebegotten. It’s through a cruel prank she orchestrates with the help of her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) that she crosses paths with the lonely, isolated Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a man who loves vintage records and ... well, that’s about it.

While an unusual, visibly off-center friendship forms between Enid and Seymour, Enid continues to go through life with a near reckless abandon, enjoying the odd costumes found in sex shops while taking great delight in trying to set Seymour up on a date, all while trying to find a job and committing to moving in with Rebecca. Every time Rebecca pressures her about finances or coming to a final decision on the apartment, Enid shuts down, happy with changing her hair color but avoiding any serious, large-scale commitments. Sarcasm is the only language she’s fluent in, but the more that the real, notably un-sarcastic world creeps up on her, the less she’s able to cope with its responsibilities.


What makes Enid’s worldview unique is that while she collects everything from VHS tapes of forgotten Bollywood musicals to unwitting hearts of counter store boys like Josh (Brad Renfro), she herself knows and embraces her outsider status. Seymour is aware he’s an old coot with odd hobbies but he doesn’t often display them publicly, which in turn causes Enid to push him out in public more and more. She becomes so fascinated with Seymour that she accidentally pushes Rebecca away in the process, eventually forcing her to make some big, complicated decisions.

Zwigoff has a natural talent for highlighting the incongruousness of Clowes’ characters, placing them in a world where they can snidely mock a new ‘50s-themed diner or make fun of the restaurant patrons whom Enid and Rebecca are convinced are Satanists. Bright colors dominate the color palette but Enid and Rebecca’s routine is dotted with the lightest hints of the surreal, from a recurring pair of pants that lay flat on a sidewalk to Enid’s forced conversations with Norman, perpetually waiting at a bus stop for a bus that he knows is coming, even after Enid informs him that the bus line was shuttered a long time ago.

While Zwigoff’s sometimes lays his parodic moments a bit thick (for example, when Enid takes Seymour to a blues night at a bar and clean-cut group of white guys start playing amped-up versions of Delta Blues numbers), Birch and Johansson’s coolly detached performances and natural chemistry help ground every moment, ensuring that when Ghost World‘s dramatic moments strike, they do so with unexpected force, because while you certainly enjoy watching the girls’ take down every overenthusiastic target with snide remarks, it comes as a surprise that you also care about what happens to them so much.

Yet removed nearly two decades from its initial release, Ghost World, then seen by some as a document of discontented American youth, now feels more like a time capsule, its bright colors and dry wit no longer as relatable to an increasingly vocal, social media-connected generation that uses their platforms to their fullest extent. It feels dated in a specific way: while Enid’s snark can sometimes be called acidic, there are hints of kindness to her cruelty, and you rarely see such openly pessimistic characters of her ilk dote the cinema landscape today. Enid may no longer speak for a generation, but for those whom she did speak for, her status as a pop culture icon is solid (in the commentary, Zwigoff and Clowes note how Enid’s blue “Raptor” shirt worn in an early scene has generated numerous bootlegs and knockoffs).

Finally out with a long-overdue Criterion release, the special features are, as expected, notably plentiful While there is only one deleted scene of real note (a rather shocking vignette where Enid ends up sleeping with Josh), the on- and off-camera talent are gathered up for two very different special features. There is a new hour-long on-camera interview with Birch, Johansson, and the comic legend Illeana Douglas (who played the summer school art teacher) where they describe how they got their parts and what drew them to the material. There’s also a new 2017 commentary track with Zwigoff, Clowes, and producer Lianne Halfon where they discuss everything from casting to side-characters (the terrible standup comedian that Rebecca loves is actually a college friend of Zwigoff) to securing the original film prints to that meme-worthy opening clip “Jaan Pehechan Ho”. It’s even more fun hearing the actors and the creative team tell two sides of the same story, specifically when Zwigoff saw Johansson as Rebecca for the first time and noted that she looked exactly like the character in the comics.

Although it received an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay, Ghost World remains more of a cinematic curiosity than it does a genre-shaping moment, as Enid’s oft-dour worldview, initially served up in jest, soon spreads to virtually everyone she encounters, making for a somewhat grim, depressing viewing. (Even to this day, its enigmatic ending confounds and frustrates as much as it satisfies.) Despite the visceral reaction some may feel to it, Ghost World‘s legacy continues to extend, still touching new people, speaking to a whole new batch of Enids who finally feel like they have someone speaking their own language.

Ghost World

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