**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, Steve Buscemi
written by Daniel Clowes & Terry Zwigoff, based on the comic book by Clowes
directed by Terry Zwigoff
by Sydney Wegner Say "privilege" in 2017 and you will inevitably trigger an allergic reaction, particularly if you precede it with the word "white." "Privilege" feels inflammatory and overused, a casualty of the movement for basic human decency snidely referred to as "PC culture." For those to whom it applies, it can be hard to confront and accept--especially in America, where the idea that anybody got anything by luck alone goes against everything we've been taught is admirable and pure. But in order to use your unjustly-granted powers for good, the knee-jerk defensiveness needs to be agonized over and dealt with. As I've matured, I've learned that you can't grow without feeling like garbage, that the concept of learning from your mistakes often applies to learning from the ones you didn't make intentionally. Now that being a better person seems to have become a radical political act, it's something that is on my mind a lot.
After over fifteen years of friends telling me I had to see Ghost World, once I finally sat down to experience this mysterious phenomenon that was supposedly so perfectly "my thing," I got pretty much what I'd expected: disillusioned girls, bitchy friendship, a rotating cast of weirdos and freaks I'd absorbed through quotes and gifs and memes and Halloween costumes. What I didn't anticipate was an accidental manifesto on how lucky you have to be to have the luxury to be pessimistic and counterculture cool--and how much distance from the depths of humankind's evil you have to have in order to do something as superficially simple as a provocative stunt for art class. As a teenager, disdain seemed like a powerful statement, while depression often felt like a personality trait rather than a disease. It isn't until you grow up that you realize how much courage it takes to keep your head above water, and how privileged you have to be to disconnect from the world around you. You can't mouth off and get fired from your job unless you have a room waiting to welcome you at your parents' house.
What the comic-book version of Daniel Clowes's Ghost World did so well was legitimize these ultimately self-absorbed reasons for feeling lost. The pain of being eighteen and hating yourself is just as real as the stresses of adulthood; depression is depression no matter your circumstances; and the comics made these antihero girls relatable, whatever their flaws. In the film, it isn't quite as easy to pick sides. For something so breezy and essentially plotless, Ghost World encompasses a hell of a lot. It's a movie that someone could watch every five years and have a totally different experience with each time as they mature. Entire essays could be devoted to individual aspects of the film--the way it captures the wandering souls who came of age right before the internet, for instance, or how demeaning it can feel to be someone who doesn't fit inside America's suburban/corporate expectations, or the slow dissolution of friendship when two people take different paths.
Ghost World follows tenuous best friends Enid (Thora Birch) and Becky (Scarlett Johansson) over the first few weeks of summer after high-school graduation. Through a cruel prank involving the newspaper's personals, they meet the crabby Seymour (Steve Buscemi), and Enid gradually becomes enamoured of him while distancing herself from Becky. Enid's curiosity about him stems from her search for something genuine, a break from the sports-loving hornballs she knew in high school. Moreover, Seymour's collections of old jazz records and tasteless antique figurines signal some new reality to her. She spends the film trading styles as if trying on different personalities; she dyes her hair green but changes it back immediately after someone makes a snotty remark about it. She pairs a child's dinosaur shirt with vintage cat-eye glasses, flirty miniskirts with matronly tops. As fashion-forward as she is, when paired with her awkward, clunky walk, she seems more like a lost child being pulled in ten directions than a trendsetter. To her, Seymour's grumpy refusal to change is heroic, because while she throws up the façade of confidence, here's someone who's made his insecurity his whole identity. It's as if the only person she can respect is someone whose nerdy hobbies and dusty old clothes have left him mopey and alone. What most people would see as pathetic or shameful is proof of a pure soul to Enid, a legitimacy and a dedication to weirdness that nobody else in her life possesses. To be a loser is, at least, to be authentic. Spinning a two-page diversion in the comics into the heart of the film, director Terry Zwigoff and his co-screenwriter Clowes craft an alternate reality for two characters, Enid and Becky, who are parallel but not identical to their literary selves, building for them a concrete trajectory that serves as the final straw in a friendship that is strained at best. They are both at that pivotal moment where any decision could determine the course of their lives. That's how it seems, anyway, when you're young and get that first taste of adulthood, and part of what resonates with so many fellow freaks is how important and sad and yet incredibly hip Enid makes this soul-searching feel.
I'd been prepared to get all that from Ghost World, the justifiably-beloved cult classic that most of my comrades in depression have seen a hundred times. What I didn't know about in advance was the subplot involving a poster. That in itself signifies my own privilege, because apparently nobody thought it out of the ordinary--at least not enough to mention it between fawning over the brilliant performances and obsessively-detailed sets and amazing clothes. Enid is taking a summer-school art course in order to graduate, and the class actually provides a healthy portion of the movie's funniest moments. Illeana Douglas plays the iconic stereotype of an art teacher, a ditzy performance artist/filmmaker who tells her students to push boundaries and be unafraid to express themselves. She fawns over one student's "shocking" statement on feminism, a teacup with a tampon in it, and encourages the other kids to be similarly bold and conceptual. When Enid visits Seymour's room full of records and knick-knacks, she finds a poster adorned with the former logo of the chicken franchise that employs Seymour, whose name used to be a racial slur. A blackface caricature grins maniacally out at her in a repulsive parody of cheer that was the logo for a real restaurant launched in 1925 that lasted up until the late-1950s. (I include this detail because it seems preposterous that such a place could have existed, but my own father would have been in middle school around the time it closed.) Enid gets excited and begs to borrow it for art class. Seymour explains how he came across it at work, and the camera focuses on an album of other artifacts mined from the restaurant's archives. Napkins, menus, and stationery depict an evolution of the racist cartoon as it becomes less and less vulgar, finally transforming into a bland white woman.
Enid and Seymour take their time flipping through these images, the camera lingering on them with an almost reverential fascination, and nobody in the movie hesitates to repeat the slur or ogle the offensive material. Outrageously enough, Zwigoff wanted to show even more of this album until a producer convinced him to cut the moment short. It's baffling that this is in the movie, because even though the poster is a catalyst for Seymour losing his job and Enid an art-school scholarship, there is no reasoning behind or examination of why she gravitated towards that particular graphic. Enid's half-assed defense of the piece to her teacher is that it demonstrates how racism used to be out in the open as opposed to the way it's hidden now, but she doesn't buy her own rationale, which the teacher eats up in the same pretentious way she showers praise on the idiotic tampon in a cup. Yes, the poster is what leads to two of the main characters' downfall, but even then the film appears to hold the uptight white-collar society that shuns Enid's submission more accountable than the irresponsible people who thought it was an acceptable artifact to display publicly. It comes off as simple morbid curiosity utterly devoid of empathy or respect. Had Enid uncovered a graphic crime-scene photo of a murder and taken it to class, it would have been no less shocking. An antique caricature is just as violent and should be just as painful for anyone to look at. It's propaganda that was used to make black men and women look inferior, a vile insult masquerading as a joke. The desired result of such cartoons was always to uphold white supremacy. These characters and the writers who created them are blind to the fact that it is an enormous gift to be able to stare at this iconography without flinching. Keeping it alive is not some way of remembering our history so as not to repeat it, because it isn't history: America is still racist, wrongs haven't been righted, and the past is not yet past. For Zwigoff and Clowes to acknowledge that, of course, would mean acknowledging that an idolization of some "authentic" past before pop music and television commercials is a childish fantasy of rewritten history in which sweater-vested blues enthusiasts were welcomed with open arms. In a movie based around characters who go through life in a state of unreality, where everyone they encounter is a pawn in their own story, I suppose it's only fitting they would be ignorant of that, too.
As a teenager, I undoubtedly would have adored and connected with Enid, but as an adult I'm not so smitten. What's difficult for me is how Enid captures the way we all wish our angst looked better than how it really was. While she embodies the sense of directionless anger and poorly-disguised self-loathing, her perfectly-curated room and unique taste make her look impossibly hip, untouched by the ugliest parts of adolescent depression. Ultimately, Enid suggests an adult’s reimagining of their own childhood unhappiness as something daring and enviable. At 31 years old, I know the enormous amount of privilege required in order to search your soul, that to sit with friends and make snide comments at awkward passersby, you have to feel free enough to waltz in and take over a room. You have to exist in an Us vs. Them bubble that requires an ignorance of consequences and other people's emotions. Although we can tell that Enid's oppressive personality comes from a place of very real pain, we also see her dismiss her clueless but loving father (Bob Balaban), scoff at a free ride to art school, and loudly announce any insult that comes to mind. For all her callousness and fear, she must feel safe in the belief that nothing life-threatening will cross her path.
Ghost World is furthermore not a story of female friendship, but rather a study of the ways in which we use each other to grow. When we first meet the girls, it's easy to believe they've spent their school career glued together, and there is no real conflict between them. And yet, from the start we can sense they're already doomed. Pretty, "normal" Becky is so obviously destined for steadiness, so set on the job and apartment and conventional freedom that cause Enid to hesitate. Since we never saw them adore each other, their separation is hardly devastating. This friendship has moved past the all-consuming insularity of teen girls, and years in joint seclusion have brought them to a breaking point. Away from high school and the enemy forces of their peers, there is at last room to breathe. The reasons they needed each other are no longer relevant, as it's clear this bond revolved around the idea that they were kindred spirits adrift in the same hellish sea. To put it this way sounds awfully cold, but we've all had people like this in our lives, people we depend upon only to drift away from. This is, perhaps, the real tragedy of Enid and Becky--not that they have to separate, but that they have to accept that they've changed into incompatible people. It's a process filled with grief and confusion, and it's one of the hardest things to handle in life.
Despite the inexplicable inclusion of the poster subplot, it's remarkable that a story could take on so many different meanings entirely dependent on the viewer's perspective. As an adult, Ghost World is a movie to reflect on like our high-school years: If we're lucky, we look back on them with equal parts tenderness and embarrassment. That person may no longer exist, but they did once. They were full of shitty opinions and noxious attitudes and poor decisions. They had bad hair and ill-fitting clothes. Yet without them, we wouldn't be who we are today. I can see myself as that confused and sad person; I have pity for her and I wish I could go back to protect her. Maybe the real value of Ghost World is as a temporary comfort, and then a reminder. The teenage audience can view it as a mirror, a movie that sees and understands what we're suffering. Ideally, we move on from this self-absorbed disillusionment, so as adults we can see Enid and Becky not as peers, but as innocents we yearn to shield from what we know is coming. We hope that no matter the mistakes they're sure to make, they continue to grow wiser and kinder while retaining the energy and brazenness of their youth. We can look on them the same way we look back on ourselves, critical yet compassionate, maybe slightly envious. If nothing else, the film is a little time capsule of what it felt like to wander forward onto a bus with an indistinguishable destination.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Ghost World's 1.85:1, 1080p Blu-ray presentation, sourced from a new, Zwigoff-approved 4K transfer of the interpositive, is the usual impeccable work of the Criterion Collection. The movie's production design is possibly its greatest achievement, and here the vivid, comic-book colour palette and elaborate set dressing really come to the fore in a uniformly sharp, vibrant image. Every frame of Ghost World is a marvel, an achievement in making the deliberate decisions feel effortless and creating a universe that is, in spite of its departure from the monochrome of Clowes's original panels, probably the best actualization of a comic book in cinematic form. There are minor technical issues, including a slightly conspicuous grain structure that, interestingly, all but disappears when Enid visits Seymour in the hospital and, earlier, when she sits with Becky at the bus stop. Zwigoff says on the audio commentary that these scenes were shot after principal photography wrapped, which may account for the discrepancy--a different film stock or even a different cinematographer could be the culprit. Neither of these issues detracts from the overall excellence of the transfer. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is on par with the image. This is a dialogue-driven mix but it doesn't let the surrounds go to waste, with David Kitay's spartan score enveloping the viewer; all of the music is beautifully reproduced and powerful when called upon without ever being overbearing. Voices are consistently audible, except, oddly, in one scene. Near the end of the film, Enid admits to Seymour that she's been a shitty person and needs to get her life together. It's one of the few times she exhibits any kind of genuine emotion, and you can barely hear what she's saying. Whether this is a flaw in the recording or a conscious artistic choice I'm not certain, though I wouldn't be surprised if it was the latter, as it seems fitting that this poignant moment would be almost embarrassed to announce itself at full volume.
Said yakker reunites Zwigoff with Clowes and producer Lianne Halfon. This is my ideal commentary track. Genial and funny, the participants are full of interesting stories about casting and style decisions, and strike a good balance between expanding upon what's onscreen and wandering off on related tangents. Clowes discusses the different mindsets that went into writing the movie vs. writing the comic book and Zwigoff talks about how he identifies with the character of Seymour; with this film, especially, it helps to understand the ways in which it's personal for the creators. One thing I found fascinating was the singling out of two minor roles, Debra Azar's Melora (a dorky classmate of Enid and Becky's) and a random guy (Brett Gilbert) who approaches Becky to promote his rock band, Alien Autopsy. Zwigoff and Clowes reveal that both of these characters were supposed to be unpleasantly obnoxious, but the actors they cast brought an unexpected level of pathos that made them come across more like Enid and Becky's victims than like their enemies. Maybe this is key: These human punchlines, the type who would be grotesquely drawn and unimaginably annoying in the comics, are instead rendered sympathetic collateral damage of Enid and Becky's snarling angst. The actors' decision to play against type, purposely or not, shifts everything: the girls are harder to identify with in these scenes--instead of being misunderstood in a world of horrors, they are swarmed by deflated people who badly want to be accepted by them. This extends to almost all of the excellent supporting cast, in fact. The alleged banes of Enid and Becky's existence are so genuine, so clueless, it's hard to see why we're supposed to root against them.
Video-based extras begin with a 10-minute block of deleted scenes, transferred from tape but bumped up to 16x9. As with most movies, the reasons for their exclusion are fairly obvious. There is, however, one gem that's new to this release involving Enid sleeping with her friend Josh (the late Brad Renfro)--a piece of plot that would have changed the tone of her sexual encounter with Seymour completely. In this elision, she goes to Josh's house and seduces him. Lying in bed afterwards, she listens with a blank look on her face as he professes his love, then walks out without saying goodbye. She's wearing the same outfit she has on the day of the art show, so presumably Seymour is the second in her line of desperate grasps at connection, as opposed to a hopeful consummation of a crush and its subsequent disappointment. I assume it would have gotten too convoluted had it been left in the movie, but it's interesting to consider what impact it might have had, had it stayed.
A new retrospective featurette, "Art as Dialogue" (42 mins., HD), interviews actors Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Illeana Douglas. Birch and Johansson are oddly stiff, sounding a little scripted; delivered with relaxed humour, Douglas's are the most enjoyable, insightful, and fond recollections by far as she reflects on the thinking behind her portrayal of Robert Allsworth, art teacher. Still, it sounds like the production was a special experience for all involved. Rounding out the disc-based features is the full musical number from the 1965 Bollywood film Gumnaam that's excerpted during Ghost World's opening credits. There is (informative) commentary for this as well, written by David Cairns and Stephen C. Horne and narrated by Roshini Dubey. It's a joy to be able to watch the dance in its entirety.
There is also the obligatory insert booklet, festooned with drawings by Clowes, production stills, and various ephemera from the making of the movie. It contains a witty, effusive essay by FILM COMMENT's Howard Hampton, in addition to "About the Music," a piece by Zwigoff focusing on the soundtrack--its use of blues musician Skip James, in particular. In my opinion, the best part of this release is the miniature, abridged reproduction of issue #13 of Clowes's EIGHTBALL, featuring the comic inspiration for the scene where Enid holds a yard sale along with a bonus update in which Clowes imagines different futures for the girls. Not only is it a fun thing to have, but the ability to reference a piece of the source material directly adds some dimension to the characters.