Ghost World (2001, Terry Zwigoff)


In much the same way that Todd Solondz captured the pain and misery of adolescence, Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes here capture its self-righteous myopia and bitterly sarcastic humor — but also its bleeding-heart sense of importance and injustice, the urge to belong, to form oneself, to discover an outlet. As an 18 year-old, I saw Ghost World and found it a blisteringly vindictive comedy that felt eerily familiar, with an ending I then failed to really understand or appreciate. Now I find it equally familiar but far sadder, a rather crushing portrait of how completely one’s entire world changes when they reach adulthood — for the better, as likely as not, but there’s ample agony in the transition as one’s image of oneself and the world disintegrates, piece by little piece. Plucky young Enid’s bursting individuality and need to express it aren’t necessarily destined to be lost — she, after all, is already clearly on her own path — but the world will let her down as much as she lets others down. No one knows who they are at 18. But seeing the film at 31, I suddenly realize how little we ever know who we are.

Without having read the comic I’m at an automatic disadvantage, I suppose, but I don’t really think Zwigoff’s film requires the homework. It can’t be dismissed just how much of a punch the comedy here has; the queasy reenactment of the utter banality of a high school graduation rang true enough for me years ago, and I didn’t even attend mine, but you can’t be prepared for how the awful memories of turgid adults emptily attempting to relate to you in “your” language come flooding back in the wonderful, horrible first fifteen minutes of this. And as someone who took a nap and woke up with a strange woman and her two kids in the house, I feel an absurd kinship with Enid’s fractured home life, even if my late dad was hardly as charming or understanding as Bob Balaban. But here’s the utility of Ghost World: it grows with you, more than you think it would.

The story’s fluid miseries are remarkable — the way it captures high school friendships that were once so important slowly, organically falling apart is soberingly real and unmistakably felt, unlike something like American Graffiti that plays so exclusively on stereotypes. (The background characters here, of course, are stereotypes — but that’s the entire point: we’re seeing this world through Enid’s eyes, and her resentments will be remembered by anyone who was once a kid resistant to conform.) And then, the fears and disappointments and idle resistance to entering the Real World, the ill-advised first real romance, the slow discovery of compassion and self-doubt and then self-loathing — the film, for all its fire and humor, is hardly out to become a feel-good experience. It’s out to confront as much as to confirm and uphold prejudices. Would that Daria had ever managed to be so salient.

The case in point is how much my perspective on Enid (Thora Birch, fresh off and easily overshadowing her turn in American Beauty) herself has changed. It’s not that I identify with her less, I still feel pangs of empathy toward her in nearly every scene, but I now identify with the other characters in the film a bit more — the conflicting emotions of a still-tentative adulthood and perpetual adolescence. Enid’s attachment to her own childhood but also her yearning to escape from it, symbolized both by that unforgettable abortive yard sale and by her push-pull with Scarlett Johansson’s Rebecca, imply a kind of disdain for all forms of expectation — this is the eerie manner in which I feel now as if the film is almost talking to me, as a sort of wide-eyed screwup who knew he’d suck at college so didn’t go, was actually happy at a supermarket, and is now both willing to embrace the young-professional world and sort of permanently intimidated by it, like I don’t really belong here and how much longer can I fool these people.

Yet Rebecca also makes sense to me, and I was starting to travel down her path even when I was 16 and talking people I knew out of doing crazy irrational things they probably should’ve been expected to do when they were 16. Because I know Enid, I see Enid in me, yet I’m as impatient with Enid (and the “freaks” she promotes, many of whom are as boring as the alternative) and her somewhat static definition of individuality as Rebecca is. And then there’s Seymour; my greatest fear ten years ago was turning into him, and now I already pretty much have. I collect records and I obsess over country blues recordings from the ’30s and ’40s, I get angry at morons in traffic and I live in an apartment overflowing with books and weird collections. The revelation, I suppose, is that becoming Seymour wasn’t necessarily a bad thing — and has led me, sure, to be a verbose nerd with too many frivolous hobbies but hardly someone destined to spend my life alone and celibate. Surely it’s Seymour to whom the filmmakers and Clowes himself relate the most, and now I join them. Point scored, I guess?

On first and second pass I thought the third act of this left too many strings dangling. Completely incorrect. Every character is resolved perfectly — I might have dropped that last scene of a stunted, surrendered Seymour — but the issue I have now is that the first half of the film bears too many marks of being cut rather heavily down from something longer and more detailed. We don’t really establish the central friendship before it starts to unravel. And why cast Teri Garr — the only good part of so many terrible movies — and then use her in exactly one scene? (The transformation of the art teacher from Enid’s skeptic to her champion also seems awkwardly shoehorned.) But these are relatively minor annoyances resulting from Seymour being so strong a character that the film fights to become about him; his arc alone, from lovingly maintaned garage sale to circumvented and awkward adult relationship with a certifiable normal, is flush and fascinating enough for a novel or film, and Steve Buscemi’s performance in the part is by one astounding longshot his best ever — like Peter Lorre in a Tom Hanks role, his face devastatingly expressive and unfiltered.

We’re making too much of all the sad stuff. Blueshammer is one of the funniest fake bands in cinema. The art teacher (Illeana Douglas)’s student film and her other behaviors capture so much about academic liberal-arts pretension that’s painfully true. These are among several scenes (the maudlin and phony opening assembly being another) that feel so real as to achieve a kind of beautiful warmth in their cynicism, a tricky thing to pull off. (The Simpsons could do it before robots and fratboys started writing it.) In the impressive triple feature this would make with Dark Horse and Margaret, two other salient reminders that I will never not feel like an adolescent adrift in adult-world, only this film would land so consistently with such burning satire.

Why didn’t Thora Birch become a huge star after this? Evidently she was stunted by her father/manager, which is a pity. Magnificent is too mild a word for what she does in this film. Johansson and Renfro are fine as well, and what little we get of Balaban is delighftul, but the presence and genius of Birch and Buscemi makes you wish the movie were longer. You can feel skeeved out by their one-night stand if you want — Enid clearly is — but I now think only of what a fascinatingly, marvelously perverse movie couple they’d make, and how the film might’ve been even bolder by allowing them to continue. But the immense melancholy and metaphoric juggernaut of that haunting finale, the bus off into the future, as optimistic or hopeless or Midnight Cowboy desperate as you want, was too much of a coup to discard. It’s still terribly troubling and perfect all at once.

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