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Ghost World (2001)

by on 2011/02/19

“Wow, look at me.  I’m not even listening to a word you’re saying.”

* * * *

I discovered Ghost World in the extensive collection of a friend who spends far more time downloading videos than watching them.  If I’d known its director, Terry Zwigoff, had also been responsible for the documentary Crumb, I might not have given it a chance to get its tendrils under my skin.

The poster, promotion, and credits would have you believe the film concerns two misfit alternachicks, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson).  It’s not, exactly, though it does begin that way.  The friends are nearly indistinguishable in their misanthropic cruelty.  I felt as if neither had been hurt before, and would need to suffer some crisis in order to evolve.

As much as they play with their images, they’re surprisingly self-unaware.  Ostensibly distinguishing themselves from their peers, they secretly crave acknowledgment, acceptance, and belonging.  For years, they’ve had sanctuary together.  Now set loose in a life after high school, they seem more like a weary couple, drifting inexorably apart.

Rebecca more readily accepts a fate of conventional values, employment, and independence.  She assumes a minor role for most of the movie, a barometer against which to measure her friend.  For her own part, Enid rails against mainstream expectations and, unable to find equilibrium, threatens everything she loves (or doesn’t hate as much, at any rate).

Her newest diversion is an obsessive music collector, Seymour (Steve Buscemi).  He’s an awkward, solitary man, one who hates sports and rarely goes out:  “an amusingly cranky eccentric curiosity” who “can’t relate to ninety-nine percent of humanity.”  He fills his world with Stuff and Things.  His interests — traditional jazz, blues, and ragtime — consume most of his attention, time, and money.

For me, Seymour is the actual star of the show, Enid’s muse, her truest friend, and the richest source of Ghost World’s substance.  It’s hard to find the same pathos in her that we do in him.  If we recognize her predicament, she still doesn’t win our sympathies as he does.

In fact, it’s difficult to get much bearing on Enid at all.  A chameleon from beginning to end, she never learns, only reacts, never evolves, only escapes.  She has little real idea of what she wants.  Lost, frustrated, and angry, she is aware only that banality causes her pain, and she avoids or attacks it in all its forms, vociferously.

Though she initially treats Seymour as a plaything to tease and torture, he slowly arouses her sense of curiosity.  He soon becomes an idol of sorts, the unrepentant outsider who has found a resting state, managing life’s inevitable discomforts with reasonable success.

When her fascination with Seymour is challenged by Rebecca, Enid rationalizes, “I just hate all these extroverted obnoxious pseudo-bohemian losers”.  Her intent is to prove his value but, instead, I felt she had just described herself.  In pursuit of her own identity, she becomes all she despises, and her friends all call her out when they realize it too.

Perhaps the earliest predictor of Enid’s eventual fate comes in a scene where an old man, Norman (Charles C. Stevenson Jr.), waits at an out of service bus stop.  She stops to tease him briefly and, in a moment of apparent clarity, he tells her, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Indeed.

Far be it for me to dispute the authors of its poster copy, but this story isn’t much of a comedy.  Enid’s come-uppance suggests anyone who enjoyed her humour of ridicule must be, at least, confused.  Her inability to reconcile giving and taking allows her no option for a life in society’s spectrum.  She is the outsider’s outsider, a candidate suitable only for exile.

Having never read Daniel Clowes’ original comic, I’m in no position to evaluate Terry Zwigoff’s effort as an adaptation.  On its own merits, however, Ghost World is modest, unique, and interesting, a rewarding piece which compels me to return time and time again.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (U.S.) for adult content and language

111 minutes

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