Ghost World is the movie of a generation

Released: 
2000
Director: 
Terry Zwigoff
Starring: 
Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban

The song "Turn My Way" on New Order's Get Ready album goes "I don't want to be like other people are, down want to own a key, don't want to wash my car, don't want to have to work, like other people do. I want it to be free. I want it to be true." This lyric sums up a lot of what I see in the attitudes toward life of people of my generation [I'm 37] and those born after me; this feeling of: "Hello? I am so very special and unique that I shouldn't have to hold a normal JOB. I, who alone see through all the bullshit to comprehend the true essence of life, must follow my own personal muse and everyone else should a) pay for it, and b) feel glad to act as recipients of my inherent brilliance."

Look around. Since the late 60s all the movies, music, books, and everything else is all filled with messages about what a special little snowflake you are and how you have to follow your heart and blaze your own path. The majority of movies are full of adulation for those who "break the rules." Now more than ever messages are everywhere about a) how being a celebrity is the highest state of human achievement possible, and b) you too will be a star, it's just a matter of time before someone sees the TRUE GENIUS within your soul. I remember seeing a piece in the New York Times magazine where they interviewed high school dropouts about what they were going to do with their lives. One of them said that it's no problem that she didn't finish high school, because she's going to be a model, and if not, she'll be a veterinarian.

The thing the New Order song gets exactly right is in marrying this feeling of being too special and unique to hold down a "normal" job with the feeling that one needs to stay "true" to oneself and experience things as they "really" are. To not be suckered in by all the bullshit of contemporary life, particularly in American society. It also works in the reverse-one can feel that one is too true and pure to handle having a normal job, because we see through all the bullshit and that makes it harder to fit in with the normal people who, we assume, just want to go to the mall, eat fast food, have superficial conversations, and see Deuce Bigalow. You see how self-serving this is-in either case it's all about how very special the person is and how they alone see through all of the bullshit.

To me, Ghost World sums up this phenomenon, about a girl who sees through the utter bullshit of everything going on around her, and how she does or does not cope with it.

Thora Birch plays Enid, a snarky girl from divorced parents who lives with her weak, ineffectual father. Scarlett Johansson plays her best friend Rebecca. The movie joins then during their graduation from high school, announcing its wicked sense of humor in having a girl in a wheelchair and head brace give a speech about how she doesn't need drugs to enjoy life [implying that drugs were how she ended up in her condition], immediately followed by a trio of students rapping about graduation. It is just the everyday tastelessness of life in suburban America, and Enid's expression of appalled disgust registers her feelings about it.

Enid and Rebecca follow a couple they suspect are "Satanists" to a 50s-themed diner with 80s metal-pop on the soundtrack. They make fun of the personal ads, focusing on a "missed connection" ad placed by a lonely man. They call the number, pretending to be the woman sought, and arrange a meeting at the 50s diner. When the man [Steve Buscemi] shows up, they observe and make fun of him to themselves, wrapped up in their own fun, oblivious to the hurt they are causing him.

Enid and Rebecca hang out, as it is clear they have done for a long while. Neither plans to go to college, they plan to get jobs and live together. Soon Rebecca starts looking for a job. Enid keeps making excuses.

They decide to seek out Seymour, the man they tricked with the fake ad response, in order to gain further amusement from him. They find him selling old records out of his garage. He is a serious record collector, interested in early jazz and blues. Enid buys a blues collection as a novelty.

Informed that she needs one more credit before she can get her diploma, Enid is enrolled in a summer art class. The teacher is played by Illeana Douglas, introduced through a snippet of her hilariously "artsy" B&W video art piece that shows a man's shadow climbing the stairs as a voice on the soundtrack drones "Mirror. Father. Mirror.." She wants the students to use art to express their feelings and how they see social issues. and she obviously has a very preconceived notion of how that can be done. She hopes to display their work in an upcoming local show amusingly entitled "Brotherhood and community: Art as dialogue."

One night, Enid listens to the record she bought from Seymour, and really responds to one song; "Devil Got My Woman." She goes back to find Seymour, and a friendship develops. Enid takes it upon herself to find Seymour a girlfriend, and they go out looking for suitable women. During one sequence they go out to a blues club where an old Delta blues musician is opening for a group called Blues Hammer [a not very well disguised Blues Traveler or Jon Spencer Blues Explosion?]. The authentic blues musician is drowned out by the people waiting for the headlining band. Then a potential date for Seymour tells him that "if he really loves authentic blues he'll love Blues Hammer." Blues Hammer then comes on; they are suburban white guys playing blues-tinged heavy metal about "picking cotton for the man."

Rebecca gets a job at a Starbucks-like café. She wonders when Enid will get a job so they can start looking for apartments together. Enid continues to say she will.

At one point they see an older man in a suit sitting on a bench, waiting for a bus. "He's always there," Rebecca says. They inform him that the bus line was cancelled years ago, and a bus will never come, No, he insists, a bus will come.

Enid isn't doing very well in her art class. Her teacher responds to the other kids' banal projects [a tampon in a teacup reflects one student's feelings about a woman's right to choose], but doesn't approve of Enid's drawings, which she deems simple. It is the one unrealistic note in the film that the teacher cannot recognize the obvious artistic ability demonstrated by Enid's drawings [created for the film by Robert Crumb's daughter].

Enid's father has begun to see a woman he had previously been involved with, whom Enid hates.

Seymour begins a relationship with a woman, the one he was trying to reach with his personal ad from the beginning of the film. Some of the most painfully funny moments come from Seymour's trying to lower his expectations for human companionship enough to accept this woman and begin a relationship. My favorite moment is the utterly appalled look on his face when Ashford & Simpson's "Solid" comes on, and the woman jumps up and says "Oh! I love this song!"

At one point, Enid says to Seymour that sometimes she fantasizes about going off to "some random place, and I'd just disappear and no one would ever see me again."

Enid attempts to get a job at a movie theater, but her sarcastic comments get her fired after one day. Rebecca enlists her to look for apartments, even though Enid doesn't have a job. She asks Enid to dress relatively conservative, as they will need to impress their potential landlord. Enid responds by dyeing her hair bright green. This is just the latest passive-aggressive thing that Enid has done to Rebecca, like inviting her to a party that turns out to be gathering for geeky serious archival record collectors. Enid wants to keep everything at an ironic distance, to be able to annoy her friend, but receive in return affection for how lightly they both take things and how much Rebecca will take from her. But Rebecca has begun to move on, to understand the importance of taking certain things seriously, and they grow apart. Rebecca makes excuses to avoid hanging out with Enid, and begins to look for an apartment on her own.

Enid finally turns in a project that her art teacher approves of [this is a large part of the story, but it is also best left to be seen in the movie], and her teacher offers to submit her for a full scholarship to a nearby college.

The situation with the art project blows up into a controversy that involves Seymour. He ends up returning to live with his mother, and in therapy. The implication is that Enid will not be seeing him much anymore. Enid fails to show up to move into an apartment with Rebecca, and her friend has finally had enough. Enid's father informs her that the former flame that Enid hates will be moving back in with them. And finally, Enid is informed by her art teacher that, because of the controversy her art project caused, she is being forced to withdraw her nomination for the scholarship.

SPOILERS > > >
Abandoned by everyone, Enid walks the streets. She looks across the street and sees the man waiting for the discontinued bus. Only, the bus arrives, and he gets on. Next we see Enid with her suitcase in hand. She waits, the bus arrives, and she gets on. The final shot is a wonderfully-photographed dusk scene as the bus crosses a bridge. We cannot see what is on the other side.
< < < SPOILERS END

In attempting to write this rough synopsis, it occurs to me how very small the numerous details that make up this movie are. The plots meander and are told with tiny touches that accumulate over its running time. It occurred to me during my last viewing of this film that the deadpan sense of humor and focus on minute details of Napoleon Dynamite could not exist if this film had not come first.

The reason this movie works so well is that a great majority of the audience will believe that Enid is RIGHT. The world around her is rife with false and forced sincerity, banality, desperate grasping at elusive visions of happiness, and empty products-and the movie does a fantastic job of sprinkling evocative details throughout. A great many of the laughs generated by the first half of the film arise from recognizing all the luminous details from our own lives, and the thrill that can come from finding a movie that has the same viewpoint toward them that we do.

Enid sees how entirely stupid, false, and pointless virtually every aspect of the suburban reality around her is. And, like any intelligent person, she doesn't want to participate. She wants to be different, to both stand outside the culture and make fun, and also to be sincere in her own actions and feelings. The many passive-aggressive stunts and caustic remarks she makes to her friends can be seen as an attempt to connect to them sincerely [if annoyingly], in contrast to the smiley-faced falseness all around. She is never more offended than when someone takes an outfit she's wearing as a lame attempt at aping an old fashion, when it's "obviously a genuine 1977 punk look!"

The problem is that, wrong, stupid, and false as everything is, if you don't participate in it in some way. you end up on the bus to nowhere. This aspect is what really elevates this movie above being a cute but ultimately empty trifle about lovable nerds, like Napoleon Dynamite, and to a serious statement about a social phenomenon in this country. Ghost World's fully-realized social environment, deep and realistic characters, and delicately-rendered moral conundrum make it about more than just the few characters it follows.

When I first watched this movie in the theater, I recall speculating as to how it would end; maybe Enid would meet someone, or she'd get the art scholarship, or something good would happen. During the last half hour, when all possible avenues of escape were closing to her, I remember the concerned feeling of "WHAT is going to happen to this girl?" There is no doubt that the movie wouldn't have had nearly the impact that it does if it didn't have the courage to follow its story to its natural conclusion, and to conclude it in such a brilliantly artistic and evocative way.

I also remember thinking back to what I had heard from several people who had seen the film before me: that it was hilariously funny! I could only shake my head; sure, there are funny touches, but overall, to me this film is distressingly painful. Probably because I recognize myself and several of my friends in Enid's struggle to remain free of the bullshit that surrounds us everywhere in American society. And also the resistance to being forced to participate in the society, yet the reality that one must participate or simply disappear.

In perfectly capturing a wide swath of an entire culture, and so evocatively and precisely creating such an accurate picture of a certain generation of Americans and the moral and spiritual dilemmas they face, or refuse to face, this movie really becomes a definitive statement on the life situation and future faced by those born in the 70s and 80s.

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Comments

This is still the best analysis of this movie I've ever read. It's one of your finest pieces, I feel; it made me appreciate the movie way more than I did on my initial viewing. Thanks.

Wow, Rob, thank you so much! It means a lot to me... Scott