The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Film Features

Never Growing Up: Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World At 20
David Robb , May 21st, 2021 08:27

Ghost World was far from the first coming of age film, but its portrayal of unresolved cynicism and self-consciousness still resonates 20 years on, finds David Robb

For a particular type of young person searching for an identity in the early 2000s, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World functioned as both a helpful instruction manual and a cautionary tale. A movie adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name, it follows the exploits of rebellious teen protagonist Enid (Thora Birch), and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) in their nameless suburban town. Sneering at the local losers, poseurs, and normies, they fumble with their newfound freedom after graduating from high school, foregoing college and trying to figure out what they should do next.

Anyone who had ever masked their own adolescent insecurities with obscure musical taste and eccentric outfit choices immediately felt a kinship with Enid’s self-conscious non-conformity, perhaps hoping to emulate her spontaneity and confidence. And in Seymour (Steve Buscemi), the lonely middle-aged record collector she ruthlessly mocks and eventually befriends, we saw a bleak potential endpoint of all this youthful contrarianism. But 20 years since the film’s release, with many of us now much closer in age to the latter character, it’s still Enid’s unresolved story that resonates the strongest. Watching her in 2021 feels a lot like hanging out with an old friend, while acknowledging that they’re someone who we ultimately had to outgrow. The last time I saw the film, it called to mind a memorable Joan Didion quote, from her essay about keeping journals and the concept of self-authoring: “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

Ghost World was far from the first quirky coming-of-age film, following in a tradition that dates back at least as far as Hal Ashby’s 1971 comedy Harold and Maude – another story about an inter-generational quasi-romance. Zwigoff’s portrait of slackers and oddballs in a suburban setting also had some similarities to the early 90s work of Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater, two figures who were garnering a cult following around the same time that Clowes’ original stories were first published in his long-running comic book Eightball. As for the film’s distinctive deadpan tone, this had been a notable feature of Wes Anderson’s breakout hit Rushmore some three years earlier, as well as MTV’s archetypal Gen X animation Daria, whose titular high-schooler shared Enid’s penchant for thick glasses and sarcastic put-downs. In spite of all this, Ghost World’s 2001 release now makes it feel quite unique – the product of a singularly liminal, transitional era. It seems to exist somewhere in between the jaded cynicism of the previous decade and the anxious, internet-addled narcissism of millennials that would soon follow.

One of Zwigoff’s masterstrokes was to eschew the contemporary cultural references that peppered Clowes’ comics, making the film’s setting deliberately vague and anonymous. This lack of specificity gives Ghost World’s visual and auditory palette a timeless quality absent from many of its precursors, and from the slew of offbeat movies that followed in its wake throughout the 2000s and early 2010s. I wasn’t immune to the charms of Juno’s Moldy Peaches-inspired ukulele duet finale, and I could at least hypothetically accept Garden State’s premise that someone’s life could be changed by hearing The Shins, but these films’ efforts to capture the indie zeitgeist came with a built-in expiry date. With Ghost World, our pair of misfits bond instead over a rare ‘78 of Skip James’ ‘Devil Got My Woman’ – a crackly recording of a haunting blues lament that even Harold Chasen might have dismissed for being too old. Much has changed since the film’s release, but it’s this feeling of being perpetually out of step with the times that allowed it to age so well – and it makes the characters and setting relatable despite the broad strokes of their comic strip origins.

Of course, the way people engage with music has been entirely transformed in the intervening two decades, perhaps more than any other aspect of our culture. No longer a hidden relic from a bygone age, ‘Devil Got My Woman’ is just a few clicks away from most of the population these days, on a YouTube sidebar or any number of Spotify playlists (probably including one called something like “Songs to Seduce Your Hipster Crush”). The identities that once shakily formed around carefully-curated music collections and other cultural artefacts have been toppled by the free-for-all of streaming platforms and their impersonal algorithms. Conversely, while Seymour’s depressing record collector party is used as a punchline in the film, today’s proliferation of Tumblrs, subreddits, and other niche online spaces tends to encourage even the most well-adjusted people to bond over their most idiosyncratic interests. It’s hard not to wonder how Enid’s aestheticism would be affected by all this. Would she still be into 1960s Bollywood movies now that anybody can get their hands on them? Would she be able to connect more with others, or would she have lost everything that defined who she was? If anybody can be Enid, does that mean that nobody can?

The film is preoccupied with these ideas of authenticity, coolness, and conformity. Though it tempers its snobbery with a healthy dose of self-awareness, it’s clearly put off by modern society’s lurch towards a crass homogeneity. Oddly, this may now be its most dated aspect. In the absence of an inescapable monoculture, it doesn’t feel all that important to debate whether something is “so bad it’s good” or “so bad it’s gone past good and back to bad again”. For better or for worse, the kind of attitude that distinguishes the blues from Ghost World’s cringey bar band Blues Hammer, and the Fellini classic 8 ½ from the trashy Mickey Rourke vehicle 9 ½ Weeks, is now regularly dismissed as a kind of elitist gatekeeping.

Those who came of age in the years following the release of Ghost World are no longer quite so keen to judge, or to chart a hierarchy of different artistic niches, and this is partly due to increasing awareness of how race, gender, class, sexuality and various other social factors determine people’s sensibilities. Wary of causing offence or appearing ignorant of their own privilege relative to others, subsequent generations have tended to avoid the kind of snark that Gen Xers once revelled in. And, as the internet has helped to give marginalised voices more of a platform than ever before, inclusivity and diversity seem to be just as important as getting one over on the squares.

It may sometimes come across as aloof, but Ghost World is definitely conscious of its broader social context, and it engages thoughtfully with America’s troubled history primarily through its art class subplot. After failing art in school, Enid is forced to enrol in a remedial summer course run by a pretentious, overly earnest teacher. For her final project, she borrows a wildly offensive 1920s advertising poster once used by fast food chain Cook’s Chicken (from when it was known as C**n Chicken), claiming it as a found object that comments on the persistence of racism in society. Creating a scandal when displayed in an exhibition, the image ends up scuppering her chances of going to a prestigious art school, where she might have found some sense of purpose and belonging.

Though it came out over a decade before so-called “cancel culture” and faux-progressive re-branding became a part of everyday conversation, the film succeeds in predicting the contours of this discourse quite accurately. The outrage from Enid’s classmates, the art world, and the general public seems as superficial as it is righteous, the kind of response that sees depiction as endorsement and risks entirely missing the point of an artwork, as well as punishing a creator while letting the true perpetrators of historical injustice off the hook. And, while it’s clear where our sympathies are supposed to lie, the film doesn’t suggest that Enid is any more committed to tackling racism than either her critics or her targets are. After her own impressive cartoon sketches are dismissed as trivial entertainment, she uses the offensive caricature mostly just to provoke a reaction, and to second-guess her teacher’s demands for something emotional and honest.

This potentially thorny subject would undoubtedly cause heated debate if the film were to be released today, but its languid pacing and gently satirical tone allows us to see the basic human vulnerabilities that always underpin conflicts like these. As ridiculous as they may often appear, we can see that everyone involved is ultimately just trying to do what they think is expected of them, while trying to hang on to their own sense of what’s right and true in an increasingly alienating world. And, without protesting her innocence, Ghost World takes pains to distinguish Enid’s youthful, bratty cynicism from the subtler, more self-serving kind displayed by those in real positions of power.

“People still hate each other, but they just know how to hide it better, or something,” is Seymour’s analysis of the socio-political upheavals of the last century or so, offered up shortly before he admits that the corporate chicken franchise with a barely-disguised racist legacy is now his employer. This ambivalent attitude perfectly sums up the compromises of capitalism and the disillusionment of adulthood, which Ghost World illustrates poignantly, particularly in its second half. As the mystery and enchantment of Enid and Rebecca’s small-town freakshow fades, and financial responsibilities begin to take over, the local weirdos they used to enjoy become boring customers just like everyone else. Mass-produced homeware takes precedence over treasured possessions from childhood, which are now worth nothing more than a couple of dollars to strangers at a yard sale. And old people who used to sit in the same spot every day are suddenly gone for good.

This sense of melancholy at the heart of the film has only deepened over time, as the two decades since its release have stripped away many of the elements we might have recognized or wanted to identify with. What’s left is a ghostly suburbia being gradually abandoned to economic ruin, and a lost teenage girl lying on her bedroom floor, playing the same sad song over and over. The struggle to carve out a place for yourself in the world, which once seemed like a youthful rite of passage, has since revealed itself to be a lifelong pursuit with no guarantee of success. But as tempting as it might be to retreat from this into ironic detachment or a fetishisation of the past, it’s ultimately something we all have to face up to. What we’ve hopefully gained in the intervening years, as we try to mature both individually and as a culture, is a crucial sense of perspective. Anyone can relate to the raw emotion of an old blues record, but not everyone can just hop on the next bus and leave town.