Ghost World
review by KJ Doughton, 2 November 2001

Enid, the heroine of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, models a Batman-style bondage cap, a polka-dotted blouse, zebra-pattern shirts, and shocking-green hair dye during the movie’s fascinating chronicle of her young, post-high school life.  Played by American Beauty’s Thora Birch, this nonconformist might dress loud, but she’s an island of bitter alienation beneath the makeup, shades, and fishnet stockings.  Using sarcasm and irony as defense weapons, Enid walks the outside parameters of life, observing those around her with barbed disdain. At her high school graduation ceremony, she snickers as a wheelchair-bound student gives an inspirational speech about surviving an auto accident and giving up drugs.  “I liked her a lot better when she was an alcoholic and a crackhead,” smirks Enid.

Indeed, this retro-girl might seem cold, but perhaps Enid has a point. Soon after the graduation ceremony, she eyes the same injured classmate chugging booze at a party.  The world is full of phonies, and Enid wears her honesty like a badge of honor, even if it means closing the door on a social life. “I think only stupid people have good relationships,” she reasons in smug justification.

Ghost World is the most accurate account of contemporary teen life ever filmed. It joins American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, The Graduate, and Diner as a valentine to that time in one’s life when the security net of school is pulled away, and The Great Beyond looms ahead.  But unlike such previous coming-of-age films, Ghost World feels like something from the new millenium, a time when honesty seems truly extinct, and strip malls are the defining image. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Enid takes on a job at a multiplex cinema concessions counter, but it’s a doomed combination.  “After about five minutes of this movie,” she tells a thirsty customer, “you’re gonna wish you’d had ten beers.” Such comments raise the ire of a theatre manager, who complains, “Never criticize the feature! And why aren’t you pushing the larger sizes?”

Joining Enid in her war against all things conventional is Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, the “piano girl” from The Man Who Wasn’t There).  Both are bored and jaded, spending the summer amusing themselves by heckling Josh (Brad Renfro), a boy attempting to jump-start his existence as a mini-mart attendant. They analyze fellow bizarros while sipping coffee at a diner (“He’s gotta be a Satanist,” insists Enid as she eyes a bald man with a goatee sitting across the restaurant). They answer personal ads placed by lonely men, then observe as the love-starved gents come to a designated meeting place, only to wait, and wait… and wait.   Soon, however, Rebecca is showing signs of growing out of The Cult of Enid: she takes a job at a Starbucks-style coffee chain, and starts hanging out with more conventional co-workers. When Rebecca complains about all the “creeps” that she brews java for, Enid treats the comment like sacrilege. “But those are our people,” she responds in disbelief.  

Eventually, however, Enid’s armored bubble is burst by Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a nebbish who manages restaurants.  Seymour’s true passion isn’t his job, however – it’s his rare collection of 78 rpm records and a burning love of blues music.  When Enid first speaks to the geeky recluse, it’s at a garage sale that he’s running to thin out the “less essential” vinyl, and she’s impressed by his knowledge of such beloved discs.  Played by Steve Buscemi, the “funny looking guy” from Fargo, Seymour comes across as a skeletal sad-sack whose dark eyes and jagged teeth resemble something from Night of the Living Dead, especially while he’s munching on a vat of gooey chicken wings.  But this visual unpretentiousness appeals to Enid. There’s a purity about him – a realness -that she finds attractive. Could it be that Seymour is Enid’s ticket back into the human race?

The two hang out together.  At a blues bar, Seymour complains when the roar of televised sports coverage interrupts a guitar-strumming blues musician. “Turn off their stupid sports until he’s done playing,” the purist protests.  Later, when a blaring, commercial party band called Blues Hammer takes the stage, Seymour makes a hasty run for the exit.  “I can’t relate to 99.9% of humanity,” Seymour complains to Enid after their escape. “Give most of these people a pair of Nikes and a Big Mac, and they’re happy.”

It’s here that the true heart of Ghost World is revealed.  The film’s characters are caught in a battle between honesty and survival, between holding true to their beliefs and selling out, and it’s the same battle that haunted Robert Crumb, the object of Zwigoff’s brilliant 1995 documentary, Crumb. Like Seymour and Enid, artist Crumb was portrayed as a fringe-dweller who resented the neon artificiality of Corporate America.  The little happiness he derived from life seemed to come from old blues music and his own cathartic cartoons, often unflinchingly honest glimpses into the festering underbelly of alienation, racism, and exploitation that thrived around him. Crumb was the anti-Norman Rockwell of art. His comics would make good reading fodder at a screening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, another film that ripped the lid off of small-town U.S.A. and found cockroaches burrowing beneath.

With Ghost World, Zwigoff again asks the question: must people give in to the blandness of commercial culture to survive in America? Or does nonconformity result from an inability to change? When Seymour wears a pair of stylish jeans provided by a new girlfriend, Enid criticizes him for selling out.  Later, when she attempts to expose racism with a well intended, remedial art class exhibit, she’s flunked by a wimpy teacher (Illeana Douglas) who gives in to public pressure and does the wrong thing.  Ultimately, it seems that the only person Enid can depend on is a demented old man who sits at an out-of-service transit stop waiting for a bus that never comes. “You’re the only person I can count on,” she tells him. “No matter what, I know you’ll be here.” 

The haunting, final scenes from Ghost World are surprisingly powerful without being cut-and-dried.  Zwigoff offers up no easy solution for his cast of isolated characters -- not for the fate of Enid and Seymour, or for the future of Enid’s friendship with the more adaptable Rebecca.  However, by the end of Ghost World, one gets the impression that Enid has at least escaped the sidelines of life, and braved onto the playing field.

Directed by:
Terry Zwigoff

Thora Birch
Scarlett Johansson
Steve Buscemi
Brad Renfro
Illeana Douglas

Written by:
Daniel Clowes
Terry Zwigoff

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
accompanying parent
or adult guardian.





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