Ghost World at 20: the comic-book movie that refused to conform

ion the 20 years since Ghost World was released, nerd culture has become dominant culture, turning a term once associated with the dweeby outcasts of 80s comedies to a shorthand nearly everyone can self-apply. Now you’re a nerd for seeing Ant-Man and the Wasp on opening day. In truth, the term was always meaningless, whether it applied to pitiable dorks with taped-together glasses and pocket protectors or the hordes jamming Hall H at ComicCon every year, hyped up over the biggest movies on the planet. Authentic nerds are exiled from the culture entirely – few people want to spend time around them, much less pay money to see them on the screen.

And so despite excellent reviews, superb performances, and abundant insight into the lives of such alienated misfits, Ghost World was not a hit in 2001, but has a cult following, which is perhaps the proper fate for a film that clings to the arcane. Based on Daniel Clowes’ comic book and directed by Terry Zwigoff, who co-wrote the script with Clowes, the film clearly loves these salty misanthropes and brings the audience into the private spaces where they dance along to 60s Bollywood numbers or pick through 30s blues rarities on 78, with their pops and cracks and evocative warps. But Clowes and Zwigoff have the integrity to allow their characters to be off-putting or cruel, and to make the kinds of terrible mistakes that account for their loneliness.

Take the very first scene with Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), best friends rolling their eyes through a valedictory speech at their high school graduation. “High school is like the training wheels for the bicycle of real life” is an eye-roller of an opening line to be sure, but the speaker is wearing head gear from a near-fatal accident from drug and alcohol abuse and they can’t stand to see her turn that experience into lame inspirational bromides. “I liked her so much better when she was an alcoholic crack addict,” Enid snorts. She instinctually defaults to the meanest thing she could think to say. It’s both a weapon and and a defensive mechanism.

For starters, Ghost World is about how much that bicycle analogy stinks. Enid and Rebecca haven’t even looked at their bikes in four years, much less learned how to ride them, and the hard question they face, “What are you going to do now?", leaves two basic options: conform or not conform. It’s heartbreaking for Enid to learn, over the course of the film, that she and Rebecca don’t share the same answer to that question. When they meet Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a middle-aged record collector with a crummy shared apartment and no romantic prospects, it’s like a visitation from the Ghost of Nonconformist Future. Rebecca recoils in horror. Enid is intrigued. “He’s the exact opposite of everything I hate.”

Seymour was Zwigoff’s creation, not the comic’s, and the two share the same music obsessions and probably plenty of other qualities, pure. At first, he’s the target of a prank Enid and Rebecca decide to pull over a personals listing they find particularly pathetic, one where a man seeks a woman over a “moment” that he’s probably imagining. When Seymour turns up at Wowsville, a fake 50s diner they take pleasure in despising, the two have a notably different reaction: Rebecca laughs at this sad little dork in the ratty green cardigan, but Enid is struck by how casually he accepts this humiliation. He expected something like this to happen.

For guys like Seymour – and for future Seymours like Enid – the world has a way of affirming your most uncharitable assessments of it. Or maybe those assessments become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The main difference between Seymour and Enid is that Enid isn’t old enough to realize that she has to participate, however wearily, in a society that repulses her, which means that she can’t afford to get fired from a low-wage job on the first day and she may not find a romantic partner who shares her weird interests. And she learns, over the course of the film, that Rebecca is a conformist at heart, perhaps drawn to gravitational force of Enid’s sarcasm in high school, but now showing an interest in conventional guys and the department-store dish sets that could go in her new apartment. Enid is taking the hard road – and, in the film’s final moments, maybe a road that leads to oblivion.

As a comic book movie, Ghost World is subtly extraordinary, rejecting both the cutesy life-as-a-comic-book framing of a film like American Splendor two years later and the slickness of blockbusters to come. There are sequences that feel like a succession of highly detailed panels, like the “Jaan Pechechaan Ho” opening, which peers into the odd lives of people in Enid’s boxy apartment complex before we see her dancing in her graduation gown. But Zwigoff, whose only previous credits were the brilliant documentaries Louie Bluie and Crumb, isn’t given to flashy displays of artistry. He and Clowes trust that the types of vignettes that comprise Clowes’ comics – offbeat, mordantly funny, with an ever-so-slightly elevated realism – will not only cohere on screen, but have the same graphic vividness.

This may be Enid’s world, but there are worlds within worlds in Ghost World, each a short story in themselves, much like those apartment rooms in the opening sequence. And everywhere you look, there’s something provocative or funny or astutely observed: a remedial art class run by a teacher (Ileana Douglas) who favors a “confrontational” tampon-in-a-teacup display over Enid’s impulse to draw an illustration of Don Knotts; a store called Masterpiece Video where “every film is a masterpiece”, but no one knows the difference between Fellini’s 8 1/2 e 9 1/2 Weeks; a yard sale where Enid either refuses to sell her old stuff to uncool passersby or prices it too high, piace $500 for the dress in which she claims she lost her virginity.

The film is made in the details. Sometimes it’s in details of performance, like Birch’s Enid having a wordless realization that Seymour is a kindred spirit or the way Buscemi suggests that Seymour knows his pedantry about the difference between blues and ragtime is a killing his chances with a potential mate, but he can’t stop himself from doing it. Sometimes it’s an item of clothing, like Seymour’s cardigans or Enid’s ironic T-shirts. Zwigoff and Clowes are not above a simple, well-timed fart joke, either. In the context of Ghost World, even a fart can be existentially revealing.

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