Teen movies tend to use the emotional turbulence of adolescence to indulge in melodrama, scatology or sentimentality with varying degrees of justification. Ghost World (2001)’s freshness comes from its refusal to go any of these three ways. What director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes propose instead is a radically de-romanticised ambience of world-weariness against which the usually evoked forces of hormonal excess and delinquency pale and fade impotently into a list of dull, conformist attitudes which Enid (Thora Birch), much like the film itself, rejects as empty clichés. Like Clowes’ acclaimed comic, from which it was adapted, Ghost World follows Enid through the dispiriting months following the end of life at school. Visually defined by the thick-rimmed glasses that dominate her face, she presents a mildly forbidding, slightly oddball mask of contemptuous exasperation with the absurdity of a lonely world textured by countless individual obsessions, idiosyncrasies and sufferings. But the glasses, like her caustic worldview, are a tissue-thin defense against the alienation that gradually begins to overwhelm the sensitive girl behind them.
Out of place and desperately seeking not so much acceptance as something or someone acceptable to her, Enid initially adopts purposelessness as a rebellious stance but it soon becomes an involuntary stasis in which she finds herself trapped. The close and long-standing friendship she has enjoyed with Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) comes under strain, due to Rebecca’s ability to adapt to the world from which Enid feels so isolated. The biggest alteration to and elaboration on the comic is the introduction of another major character, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a reclusive collector of old blues records twice Enid’s age. Enid latches on to Seymour and the two form a friendship that briefly, painfully turns sexual after numerous attempts on Enid’s part to get Seymour a date. Lonely, neurotic and volatile in his self-pity, his presence extends the thematic bleakness of the story to suggest that for misfits like Enid and Seymour alienation is not simply a teenage phase but can last indefinitely. When Seymour asks her why she is so concerned about his love life, Enid replies with one of the film’s most moving and revealing lines in which she says she can’t bear the thought of living in a world where a man like him can’t get a date.
But Ghost World is also a comedy and a very funny one. The dry, sharp wit of Enid’s constant observations are matched by the deadpan outlandishness of the parade of off-centre characters she comes into contact with, which inspire them. Zwigoff strikes and skillfully maintains a balance between the laughter and the melancholy. The acidic humour ensures that there isn’t a single frame of the indulgent sentimentality one could envisage a lesser talent bringing to this project, while the sadness is sufficiently acute to prevent the satire from becoming crass or dehumanising. This balance is established as soon as the opening credits end with a scene of such depressing absurdity that one can only empathise with Enid’s reaction of pitying, exasperated disbelief. She is attending her school graduation ceremony, which is being addressed by a pupil recently paralysed in a car accident caused by drug abuse. The speech she makes is an oozy, pandering exercise in political correctness in which she expresses gratitude for the insight her accident gave her into the error of her way of life. The deadpan awfulness of this vision is compounded by the subsequent appearance of three more pupils in an embarrassingly inept rap performance.
The rigour of Zwigoff’s approach is such that the predictable structuring of a comedy that manipulates by alternating funny and touching scenes is avoided in favour of a consistent perception of the world in which both pain and the detachment of humour are omnipresent, the one gaining advantage over the other in any given scene simply due to how bearable or otherwise things feel at that particular moment.
Visually, Ghost World stylises the look of the characters to conform with their comic counterparts, although amazingly Enid emerges looking more like a comic strip character in the film. Thora Birch is much better looking than Clowes’ Enid, but her face has a distinctively masklike quality when wearing her glasses which is quite different from the original. The look of the film is carefully controlled, with a detached, minimilistically simple camera style that frames its subjects in such a way as to emphasise flat planes of vision, as if the world were actually a two-dimensional drawing. The rhythm of the film is also boldly stylised, the two-dimensionality of the image causing a slight awkwardness in editing and movement which creates the subliminally haunting effect of a perpetual, subtly oppressive stillness and detachment in the unusually aloof but insistently expressive environment.
So what is this perception of the world that Ghost World offers us? It is essentially Enid’s perception, a frontline view of her struggle against the tyranny of clichéd, superficial patterns of fashions and behaviour. It is present in most of her old schoolmates, the various boys that drift into her orbit to be perfunctorily dismissed, the art classes she attends. In opposition to this, she is drawn to the quirky and genuinely individualistic. She and Rebecca are fascinated by and constantly torment Josh (Brad Renfro), an apparently sexless boy who stubbornly refuses to develop an interest in either of them. Enid’s curiosity is aroused by a strange couple she takes to be Satanists and an old man perpetually waiting for a bus at a bus stop, which has been out of service for two years. It is this same curiosity, this same search for something to identify with, which leads her to Seymour. Intrigued by an advertisement he has placed in a lonely hearts column, she and Rebecca sadistically contact him simply in order to see what sort of person would place such an ad. Upon observing his distress at the non-appearance of the woman and perhaps prompted by feelings of remorse, she begins stalking him.
In the creation of Enid, this rebel in search of a cause, Zwigoff and Clowes are to be congratulated on resisting the temptation of extremes. Although the product of a one parent house, her bumbling father is sympathetically depicted and she is conceived of as the product of an obviously financially comfortable middle class background. Like Antonioni, Zwigoff refuses to allow material concerns to interfere with the concentration he fixes upon the psycho-spiritual malaise of his disorientated heroine. The forms Enid’s rebelliousness assume are unusually free of tabloid material for a teen movie, not going beyond oddball dressing and losing jobs through exasperation with the idiocy of her employers. Yet this comparative behavioural mildness, along with the humour, make it easy to overlook what a pessimistic film Ghost World actually is. Neither Seymour nor Enid find the relationships they seek and their own relationship with each other only leads them to the realisation that they cannot really help each other. Even though Enid manages to engineer and then wreck his chances with another woman, it is very unlikely that that relationship would have developed. Our last glimpse of Seymour is leaving a session with his analyst, accompanied by his mother. As he closes the door, the camera stays with the analyst just long enough to register her grimace of exasperation at the departing patient.
Nothing works out for Enid either. She feels alienated from her father who is planning to remarry. Her mother is never mentioned – what became of her and what her relationship with Enid was remains unstated. But what is dealt with is Enid’s attachment to the past and her fear of growing up. Its most amusing statement is the scene in which a still jobless Enid attempts to raise some money by having a sale of her old possessions, but when customers arrive she can’t bring herself to part with any of them!
The one apparent chance of success and happiness that presents itself to Enid that summer is taken away from her. She has been attending art classes and their depiction is one of the movie’s most satirical inventions. Presided over by an excessively politically correct teacher, Roberta (Illeana Douglas), who encourages the students to create challengingly personal, conceptual work, the two students given the most attention are a glib goody two-shoes whose clichéd attempts at feminist statements (a Tampon in a teacup!) win her praise, and a braindead video game fan. The latter describes his drawing of a man’s head being smashed in as representing the game character ‘the Mutilator’ which causes the teacher to disappointedly remark that she thought it might be his father! In contrast, she is condescending towards Enid’s sketch filled notebook/diary and it seems Enid is in for another snubbing. But when she presents a racist piece of advertising for a restaurant from the 1920s, which she has borrowed from Seymour’s collection of antique memorabilia in answer to a request for challenging material the teacher is finally impressed. It is selected for exhibition, which will ensure Enid a scholarship for the next year. However it causes such uproar that it is taken down and the teacher is obliged to fail Enid. The scene where she breaks this news to Enid is particularly well conceived – occupied with making a plaster mask from a model, Roberta hardly even looks at Enid. Like the affair with Seymour, this bitter episode belongs only to the film and is more despairing than anything in the comic.
At the end Enid disappears, just gets on a bus and leaves town. And not just any bus. It is the bus that was discontinued for so long, the bus the lonely old man was always waiting to catch of which Enid remarked that of all the changes she is experiencing at least she can always rely on his being there. The small town universe created by Ghost World is so self contained that the existence of a wider world outside its confines is almost unthinkable, which is what makes Enid’s elliptically presented flight so disturbing. She has never discussed future plans – unlike many other small town films in which the future and the outside world are, as it were, mythologically present, in Ghost World Enid seems to vanish into a complete blank. While we might choose to accept as implicit an optimism in Enid’s taking responsibility for herself and attempting to escape the environment that fails to recognise her, Zwigoff doesn’t necessarily support this view. He is boldly non-committal, declining to show the circumstances leading to her departure or her emotional state leading up to it, still less any possible destination. She just disappears. Symbolically her catching the bus she thought would never arrive might be interpreted as a final acceptance on her part of the inevitability of impermanence, a realisation of a hard truth of life rather than a solution to it in a similar way that her relationship with Seymour led her to the realisation that neither of them could save the other from loneliness and could at best offer understanding.
It is probably this understated, delicately expressed insistence on impermanence and acceptance of the passing of time rather than limited, superficial similarities in their minimalist visuals that left me with the unshakable feeling that the films which Zwigoff’s masterpiece have most in common with are those by Yasujiro Ozu, a director whose use of humour and love of American cinema is sometimes overlooked in favour of his melancholy side. There are, of course, great differences. While Ozu’s universe tends to be closed, regarding the individual in relation to and in the context of the family, for Clowes and Zwigoff this institution seems somewhat redundant and the focus of the drama (Enid / Seymour) is located elsewhere. But both are united in achieving an extremely rare, unsentimental, precisely controlled gentleness of touch, avoiding melodrama to evoke the numerous day to day emotional defeats that suddenly, at the end of the film, have added up to a lifetime. Ghost World, like the best of Ozu’s cinema, has captured the shadow of time passing.