We’re predisposed to love some films because they speak to our sensibilities—they wear our hearts (or our discontents) on their sleeves. Others catch us unawares in a whirlwind of surprise and glee. Clear-cut yet fabulously mutable, Ghost World did both things, fulfilling many high hopes and expectations while at least half its pleasure lies in the craggy, melancholy detours Terry Zwigoff takes getting us there—adding unexpected twists to already twisted material. Audiences in 2001 had never seen such a tonally jousting, pinwheel immersion in late-adolescent ennui, and it struck a quotidian, satiric-poetic underground-comix chord—and nerve. Honoring Daniel Clowes’s poker-faced, weird-out comic book while folding Zwigoff’s own neurotic baggage into the mix, Ghost World made desperation not only morbidly funny but also cheekily enigmatic, moving, and sort of heroic, in a Sisyphus-goes-to-the-convenience-store way.
The two eighteen-year-olds at the off-center of Ghost World, the artsy-kitschy Enid (Thora Birch, profoundly and riotously engaged with disengagement) and her implacably sullen coconspirator since childhood Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, a smirking no sign), are a match made in mutual disgust at their wan lives and strip-mall, masscult surroundings. Then there’s the squeaky third wheel, Steve Buscemi’s “clueless dork” turned Enid’s mentor Seymour. In the comic book, he’s a walk-on, the sad-sack victim of the girls’ personal-ads prank, but Zwigoff, with cowriter Clowes’s assistance and blessing, expanded Seymour’s passing, passive role to a pivotal degree—very much along the lines of Zwigoff’s documentary portrait of his friend R. Crumb, with a whole panoply of asocial misanthropy introduced, along with blues connoisseurship, record collecting, and cartooning. (Among the movie’s nods to Crumb, Enid picks up a record by the Cheap Suit Serenaders, the old-timey string band that Crumb founded and Zwigoff was a member of; Seymour discourages her from purchasing it.)
Female friendship thus takes a back seat for good portions of the picture, sidelining Rebecca and shifting the dynamic considerably. This dicey move skirts Woody Allen territory (that spot where Oscar bait and jailbait meet), Zwigoff and Buscemi steering things into productive, aptly conflicted pastures. Buscemi’s performance is a pinpoint masterpiece of aggravation, self-loathing, thwarted intelligence, and buffered neediness—he’s like a Peter Lorre castoff who has spent his life accumulating scratchy old blues records (“I’ve got about 1,500 78s at this point. I’ve tried to pare down my collection to just the essentials”) and memorizing W. C. Fields routines. Enid first sees Seymour as target practice, then as a project, and eventually as a doppelgänger.
Striking a balance between competing strains of comic disdain and stealthy compassion, Ghost World succeeds as a defiant, almost mathematical antithesis to every gummy John Hughes teenfest. But on its own terms of truculent alienation and personal injury/indignity, it has a ton of heart and twisted soul. Birch gives Enid three-dimensional scope and heft—all her posturing and fumbling and plunging down rabbit holes is a way of trying to connect with something that will carry her out of a stifling, dead-end street. When she dances to the ecstatic Indian rock song “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” or drifts off in a trance to the Skip James record “Devil Got My Woman,” she levitates to another plane, and the movie follows her.
Johansson’s pitch-perfect Rebecca is—and I mean this as a serious compliment—a major drag: she has the slow-motion demeanor of someone whose every muttered reply and snarky put-down springs from a toxic combination of indifference and elated contempt. Her goading of Enid is a borderline personality’s idea of affection and even nurture: they feed off each other and bond in ways that stunt their possibilities for connecting with anyone else. As soon as they make contact with the adult world and have to adjust to its demands (or not), you palpably feel the pair pulling away into separate corners and futures.
Just the way they walk, in a unison, plodding-stalking march, speaks sloggy volumes, bad posture and jaded attitudes going hand in choreographed hand. Enid and Rebecca have cultivated a dumpy, desexualized look—an antifashion statement that reads like an obstinate inversion of Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It. Their breasts aren’t billboards; they’re deadweight they are forced to lug around like unwanted packages. Between Enid’s schlocky-goofy Salvation Army castoffs and Rebecca’s World’s Ugliest Miniskirt, these outfits are straight off the fallout-shelter runway. (It’s as if the pair are torn between making themselves inconspicuous and sticking out like sore middle fingers.)
Clowes despised the label “graphic novel,” calling the term a “vulgar marketing sobriquet” (he helpfully supplied alternatives for his relentlessly uningratiating saga, like “narraglyphic picto-assemblage”). This attitude parallels Zwigoff’s relation to the pseudo-hip independent-cinema bandwagon, as a documentarian interloper whose 1995 breakthrough, Crumb, was intransigently unfashionable. Zwigoff’s deep investment in that whole antiquarian, blues-centric aesthetic, and corresponding underground-comix sociosexual provocations, differentiates Ghost World from the work of an ace condescension specialist like Todd Solondz. He brings out the empathy and solidarity that are faintly latent in the comic’s gusts of clinical depression: Zwigoff is the only person to ever stumble onto a spiritual terrain where R. Crumb, Robert Bresson, Skip James, and Laurel and Hardy could all coexist on more or less the same beatifically distressed plane.
The brilliance here lies in how handsomely his counterintuitive gambits pay off, as the adaptation opens up the material in cryptic ways. Inserting Seymour as a wedge between the platonic couple—after they graduate from high school, Rebecca becomes obsessed with realizing her childhood fantasy of the pair living together as roommates—serves to underscore and deepen Clowes’s notes of moral nuance and ambiguity. Over and above the Clowes-Zwigoff/Enid-Rebecca knack for caricature and ridicule, Zwigoff presents the satire as a form of misdirection, where Enid’s POV is underscored by the creeps and dimwits in her line of sight (or fire), and then destabilized by events or human chain reactions.
Key to the movie is Zwigoff’s decision not to open it with the gruesomely funny but predictable high-school-graduation set piece, opting for a burst of out-of-the-blue euphoria from the night before: a clip from the 1965 Bollywood production Gumnaam, a performance of the madly infectious, drum-happy “Jaan Pehechaan Ho.” With its masked dancers gyrating like the crazed offspring of Bob Fosse and the Batman TV show, Zwigoff immediately stuns you; then cut to a long establishing shot as the camera dollies past nighttime apartment windows where sub–Diane Arbus grotesques lounge around in their robes and underwear. What is this, a horror film, a Hitchcock–De Palma send-up? It doesn’t compute until we reach Enid’s bedroom, where she’s watching the videotaped movie and emulating the wild dance moves in her red graduation gown—both utterly apart from and wholly one of the inmates of these dismal quarters.
Cinematographer Affonso Beato’s framing throughout is pointedly storyboardish—people are photographed as if in panels—keenly underlining the sense of everyone being compartmentalized and cut off. Zwigoff’s trick is reversing the psychological angle: contrasting and comparing Enid’s circumstances with the uninhibited dance routine she apes. (The scintillating dance routine has been attributed to renowned dancer/choreographer Herman—sometimes credited as Harman or, bizarrely, Late Herman or Late Harman—Benjamin, seen here as the bandleader lip-synching the song, a pencil-mustached, white-suited, Jewish-Indian ringer for John Waters as a Little Richard impersonator. But in fact, Surya Kumar, who choreographed over one hundred Bollywood films, was the man behind those hip-swiveling moves.)
This way the graduation farce, keynoted by its sanctimonious quadriplegic student lecturing the assembly about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse (“High school is the training wheels for the bicycle of life”; later, she’s shown taking hits off a flask in the background), is put in a refurbished context. In Ghost World, shooting insipid fish in a barrel is only an incidental perk (see the Masterpiece Video customer who can’t make the stone-dense clerk understand that the movie he wants is 8½ and not 9½ Weeks, or David Cross as an arrogant geek putting the moves on Rebecca). The main thrust is challenging, obstructing, and tweaking Enid’s worldview at most every turn.
Ambience operates as sub-rosa backstory, from the windowpane-prison apartments to the glassy decor in the faux-fifties diner Wowsville to the hideous canned music and drone of mind-numbingly patronizing TV commercials used as background Berlin wallpaper. Places like Wowsville (with an unfortunate waiter whom Enid and Rebecca humiliatingly dub Weird Al) and the multiplex theater and the pseudo-Starbucks refract urban depersonalization: textureless, brute autopsy tables standing in for architecture deep in the trackless sprawl of the LA basin. The city is never named in Ghost World, but it was shot there and in satellites like Northridge; both its urban blight and residual sense of mystery are on display. So is LA Weekly, renamed the Free Weekly, which figures prominently in the personals hoax and the scandal involving Enid’s politically incorrect “found art” project. (Having written for LA Weekly, I felt a special recognition in seeing Enid and Seymour as readers when I first watched the film—my dream audience, my “people.”)
Another pivotal motif: the forsaken man, Norman, at the bus stop with NOT IN SERVICE stamped across the bench, is the most emblematic figure in the movie. You don’t realize it when the girls first come upon him, a side-street apparition silhouetted against a huge, canvaslike pink wall, but he signals a shift in tone. A lost soul insisting he knows where he’s going, as stoic as a statue, he’s a riddle that can’t be solved or accounted for, only embraced or overlooked.
There’s a bumpy symmetry that binds a truckload of odds and loose ends, all caught in the perfect little plunking variations for piano and cellos that make up David Kitay’s score: a hovering, metronomic twinge that encapsulates spying girls and obsessive collectors and every other type of stranded, alienated life-form clinging like snails to a wet sidewalk. The casting could not be better: immaculate handwringer Bob Balaban as Enid’s dad; the great Teri Garr as his stern romantic interest and Enid’s nemesis, Maxine; Illeana Douglas as Enid’s epically insufferable art teacher (her every perky utterance is a six-inch fingernail gouged across a blackboard). Charles C. Stevenson Jr. is the noble visage of Norman, Bruce Glover is the annoying faker in the motorized wheelchair, and Pat Healy is the neo-Nazi who sells Enid bootleg videotapes.
Tom McGowan as Seymour’s flatulent roommate brings a touch of Oliver Hardy impatience to the party, though Buscemi’s slow-burn embarrassment manages to suggest Stan and Ollie simultaneously. And there are another dozen or so vignette-style performers who are equally good—a golden buffet of deplorables. Zwigoff maneuvers the whole menagerie with very lifelike nonchalance, setting up a rich eavesdropping effect. Bits like Enid dragging Seymour into an adult video and toy store and his diatribe in the car about the hateful stupidity of “classic rock” radio are grounded in honest, painful discomfort. (That the Batgirl dominatrix mask she picks up in the porn store recalls the “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” dancers is a serendipitous bonus.)
Ghost World floats along at a leisurely pace, content to linger over small exchanges and minor incidents, even as Zwigoff is patiently laying his groundwork: Enid trying to find a woman for Seymour (“Well, maybe I don’t want to meet someone who shares my interests—I hate my interests”), the girls irritably shopping or poring over an old scrapbook, Seymour showing Enid an appalling souvenir from a fried chicken franchise’s racist beginnings. All these hints and more coalesce in the last act, in a perfect shitstorm of unfortunate events—a hopeless star-crossed/crossed-wire parade of unintended consequences where one emotional misstep after another pretty much unravels all their lives in the span of about one reel.
When a plot kicks into gear that hard, typically it puts everything gratifying about a film in a choke hold and won’t let go until it attains the Hollywood word for submission—closure. Zwigoff showed tremendous resourcefulness in navigating these traps, raising his aim accordingly: Ghost World asks if it is possible to find a tragicomic back door into what Paul Schrader called “transcendental style in film”—perhaps the servants’ entrance? Through whatever unnameable alchemy between Clowes’s original conception, Zwigoff’s embellishments, the immersion of Birch, Buscemi, and Johansson in that strenuous world, Affonso Beato’s camera, David Kitay’s theme, Skip James’s unearthly voice on a vinyl compilation, “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” bursting forth from a small TV—together, they summon the spirits of another life, and find a silence breathing inside noisy beings.
Right before everything tumbles down, Enid tells Seymour her fantasy: to one day just get on a random bus to a random city and disappear. In the aftermath of the disintegration of all her relationships and prospects (not to mention Seymour’s own hopes and dreams), Zwigoff devises a triple-tiered finish that is especially evocative. She first visits Seymour in the urgent-care clinic where he has landed himself and makes a simple, surpassing gesture of reconciliation—showing him her woozily affectionate drawings of him as existential superhero. (As if.)
Then she steps into the LA sunlight, where Rebecca is sitting on a bench waiting (recalling and foreshadowing Norman at his bus stop). Their short, emotional conversation, ending with them squeezing hands with resolute sensitivity, says more about the twining of love and friendship and vulnerability than practically any film this side of paradise or Arnaud Desplechin: it’s Johansson’s finest, most breathtakingly compassionate moment, and Birch’s most exposed one.
Enid walks off, and the afternoon turns to dusk; she sees Norman at his stop, as always. Then a bus comes and whisks him away; Enid stares in disbelief, or relief. Ghost World seems over, satisfyingly complete, but it fades back in. Now Enid is walking again, at dusk, dressed to travel. Seymour is in a cramped office trying to convince his new therapist he’s doing better; the therapist looks like she’s ready to shoot herself. Enid’s at the bus stop. She boards the deserted ghost bus. This is either the most transcendental ending of an American comedy or the most unflappably, inscrutably nihilistic. Or both.