‘Ghost World’ Revisited

It’s been about ten years since the release of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, a film adapted by Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes from Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name. Although the film was well received both at festivals and in its theatrical release, it was only mildly financially successful in its limited run. It has developed a cult following, though, and frequently shows up on lists of the greatest “comic book movies” of all time. When critics assessed the first decade of the twenty-first century in film, Ghost World was mentioned on several “top 10 of the 2000s” lists. I first saw this film as a student at Indiana University, not long after its initial release. I remember casually admiring many of the film’s qualities then, its consistently quirky visual design foremost among them. However, when I recently revisited Ghost World on DVD about a week ago, my love for the film increased exponentially. Zwigoff’s film serves as a reminder of what independent cinema could and should be, yet often isn’t.

Ghost World tells the story of Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), two teenage girls who just graduated high school. Both young women stand askance of mainstream culture. They wince at the futility of their school’s graduation ceremony, especially the hypocrisy and superficiality their classmates display. They sardonically remark, after their valedictorian’s wheelchair-bound address, that they liked her better when she was a drug-addicted alcoholic. The two spend most of their time post-high school walking around their unnamed American city, making snide comments about the pale suburban inhabitants surrounding them. The two friends have no definite plans for the future, other than a vague notion of getting summer jobs and moving in together.

The first time we see Enid, she is dancing blissfully to a VHS copy of a Bollywood musical number from the 1960s. This opening sequence establishes Enid’s particular attraction to obscure, non-mainstream pop-culture artifacts. We also understand intuitively that this film is really about Enid; Rebecca is a supporting character. The relationship between the two girls serves mostly to bring out Enid’s unique character traits, as we see her interacting with her peer. This becomes even more clear when Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a much older collector of blues records, vintage posters, and other vestiges of the pop culture past, comes unexpectedly into Enid’s life.

Seymour has essentially isolated himself from the world, working a mundane corporate job during the day and studying his records at night. The only social interaction he seems to have is with like-minded, equally solitary collectors. Seymour invites Enid and Rebecca to a gathering of his vinyl-geek friends. When the two actually show up, he apologetically remarks that “this isn’t a real party,” as the collectors argue over the merits of different pieces of audio equipment and the authenticity of certain 48-inch records. As Enid and Seymour’s unlikely friendship blossoms, Enid and Rebecca grow further apart. Whereas Rebecca makes fun of Seymour’s geekiness and “outsider” status, Enid is intrigued by him, taking an interest in his collection of pop culture relics and trying to get him a date.

A simple plot summary doesn’t begin to communicate the film’s power. It is driven by character rather than story. The movie’s ending contains an atypical resolution, yet is meaningful because it feels natural to the characters we have grown to know. It strikes me that since Ghost World’s 2001 debut, indie films have often fallen into the trap of relying on “quirkiness” to the point that the characters we see before us seem more clever than real. Zwigoff and Clowes, though, give us characters that resist easy categorization, yet ring true to life. At the start of the film, Enid and Rebecca seem to be best friends whose lives are moving along the same trajectory. They both appear to be cynical outsiders who wear their dissatisfaction on their sleeves. But, Enid and Rebecca are in that time of life when nothing, including one’s own personality and worldview, is set in stone. Rebecca undergoes a transformation that leads to their friendship’s demise. Though there are clues throughout the film that Enid and Rebecca are traveling on divergent paths through life, there is no one central moment that signals this break.

We sense that Enid and Seymour’s friendship leads Rebecca to a realization about herself. She could never be a close friend or romantic partner of a man like Seymour. Whereas Enid is intrigued, and perhaps even turned on, by Seymour’s obscure obsessions and relentless lack of desire to be accepted by mainstream society, Rebecca seems repulsed by these qualities. As is often the case in real life, the two friends find themselves gradually and subtly drifting apart. Watching this film again, I couldn’t help but think about friends from my own past whom I no longer have contact with. For the most part, as is the case with Enid and Rebecca, there was no cathartic moment of parting ways with these people. The natural depiction of the two friends’ relationship highlights the film’s exceptional handling of character.

My initial respect for this film was largely because of its visual invention. Zwigoff and Clowes refuse to give a name to their vividly depicted American town. We get the impression, given the sprawling shopping malls and big-box stores, that we’re in an American suburb. The anonymity with which the setting is delineated makes a point in itself. A minor theme of the film is the commodification and standardization of American culture. The suburbs of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston look eerily identical, peppered with the same chain restaurants and humdrum strip malls. Enid and Rebecca are suburban kids disheartened by their town’s lack of character. While walking through a video store, they roll their eyes at the lack of variety found on its shelves and the clerk’s unfamiliarity with the works of Federico Fellini. They engage in a snarky discussion about the phoniness of a supposed 1950s-style diner. The characters’ colorful, hipster-inflected fashion choices stand in contrast to the ghost-like environment in which they find themselves. By refusing to inject the film’s visual palette with “local color” that might identify it with a particular region or metro area, the filmmakers establish Enid and Rebecca as cultural miners, searching for signs of life amongst a sea of anonymity.

Ghost World is also refreshing in its refusal to make sweeping, “profound” statements about social problems. While the film does engage with issues of racism, censorship, and the futility of the modern art scene, it does so in a way that feels decidedly non-politically correct, unforced, and informed by the filmmakers’ own personal experiences. A subplot involves Enid taking a summer school art class to make up a needed graduation credit. Her art teacher worships the idea that art should “say” something, that a work of art should be praised more for its perceived message than the skillful technique of the artist. She is more impressed by a female student who brings in a tampon in a teacup as a “found” art piece for the “profound” statement it makes about repressed femininity in American culture than Enid’s thoughtful comic book-style drawings.

An incident involving an art show at the end of the summer course highlights issues of racism and censorship in art without beating a simplistic message over the viewer’s head. The film’s engagement with these issues feels so organic because we sense the filmmakers are speaking from their own life experiences. Both Zwigoff and Clowes have been involved in the art scene and bring the truth about what they have seen. Clearly, as comic artists, they have experienced the ire of hoity-toity intellectuals who view graphic novels as an inferior art form. They have dealt with, or known people who have dealt with, reactionary censorship in the art community. The film, then, feels like a truly artistic expression of the filmmakers’ personal experience, not merely a recitation of pious platitudes.

Ultimately, Ghost World has not only “held up” over time, it has gotten better. It adroitly straddles the fine line between irony and pathos. It celebrates contemporary hipsterdom while simultaneously critiquing it. Whereas there are many moments of sarcastic humor, we are meant to feel deeply for the main characters. I have to admit that I had an almost viscerally emotional reaction to this film the second time around. Enid and Seymour feel like real characters, not just ironical comments on characters we have seen before. Watching this film as a college student, I remember feeling a certain amount of antipathy towards Seymour, who seemed dangerously out of touch with mainstream society.

Now, as a suburban twenty something with a large record, book, and DVD collection and a fixation on the obscure and the antiquated of popular culture, I wonder if I am becoming him. Like Enid, I still question where my own place in society might be. The temptation to get on a bus and go somewhere far away is continually in the back of my head. Watching Ghost World again felt familiar to my own life, yet different from the experience of watching any other movie. It’s the kind of film Enid and Rebecca were hoping to find at their local video store.