By Christopher Sharrett.
I should say at the outset that my thoughts about the social-political vision (or failure thereof) of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World are dependent on the fine work of Henry Giroux, whose remarks are available on the Internet (I’d recommend his “Neoliberalism and the Disappearance of the Social in Ghost World”). Zwigoff’s film, now on a glowing Criterion Blu-ray that accents primary colors (the film is adapted from a comic book by Daniel Clowes), is one of the more appealing films about directionless teens; there is no sense of condescension, and while characterization is very close to caricature, the film isn’t saturated with the kind of nihilism in the otherwise witty social satires of Todd Solondz. Ghost World is pleasant, although at times aggravating in what it omits about children/teens in contemporary America – like all such films, the children of the rest of the world are of no consequence, nor is a moment given to the effects of U.S. state policies on teens here and elsewhere, who suffer from far more than angst. That said, Ghost World offers an intelligent glimpse of postmodernity that stays with the prosaic; it is a film that avoids the apocalypticism of Blade Runner (1982) or the Mad Max films, or the phony “retro” sensibility of Blue Velvet (1986).
Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlet Johansson) are teen girls (I use this word rather than “women” since despite their intelligence they lack maturity, one of the film’s major points – the deficit makes them vulnerable) graduating high school, but not really concerned with immediate prospects. Their charm is in their close bond; there is an intimacy here that one can call “lesbian” if we allow Robin Wood’s wide definition, applied relative to the women of Tokyo Story (1953). Enid and Rebecca’s mutual affection, so close they can observe something and share a glance and giggle, suggests they can almost read each other’s minds. It is the kind of relationship shared by boys, I think, as much as girls, and is snuffed out or fades as kids reach “responsible adulthood.” It borders so closely on the homosexual it would become most threatening were it to continue.
Enid and Rebecca enjoy satire; they giggle quietly when the physically impaired valedictorian delivers monotone bromides meant to be exhortations. They know that she is a heavy doper and alcoholic. Like Freemasons, Enid and Rebecca pretend that their knowledge is secret and special, even as they share it with chums. They hate the hypocrisy around them, but their quips suggest no real political outlook. The rest of the film is a kind of cook’s tour/station play, with Enid and Rebecca taking us around their town – it was actually shot in downtown LA for the most part, standing in for Main St. USA. The main arteries are festooned with gas stations and fast food franchises (an ungodly word for places that feed you, but then “food” has no application here), the main emblems of overdevelopment. They take us into a convenience store where they share jokes with the clerk (Brad Renfro) about local oddballs (a bare-chested heavy-metal type threatens people with nunchuck sticks) who make life miserable for the Greek manager, still dealing with a heavy accent. The film was made in the age of VHS rental stores (reminding us of a vanished if marginal piece of the social world); theirs has a clerk who can’t tell 8 1/2 from 9 ½ Weeks, a chilling moment for those of us observing the dumbing-down of society and the degradation of film culture. Then comes a stop at the local comic book store where they trade insults with a male customer, as everyone tries to prove who is the hippest – actually the most quick-witted. Enid gets adult accompaniment to visit the local porn store – she is both thrilled and appalled at this quintessential symbol of sexual alienation.
It seems that Enid and Rebecca live on a diet of popular culture, until Enid meets a middle-aged record collector named Seymour (Steve Buscemi). His world is scarcely better, filled with aging, record-collecting male “nerds” who are very well-observed by Zwigoff. Like Seymour, they have no relationships, at least not with the opposite sex (which raises questions about a fairly obvious subtext). But Seymour befriends Enid as she tries to find him a girlfriend; he enlightens her about the vicious racism under the smiling façade of a restaurant chain (one that actually existed but shut down rather than adopt a new exterior, as in Seymour’s tale). He introduces her to Delta blues – but not to its origins in slave cries and the despair of the post-Reconstruction South. But Enid learns more from Seymour than from her faded-hippie art instructor (Ileana Douglas), the kind of bubble-brained teacher who forces her derivative grad school films on her students, along with her strident judgments.
The film is plotless, a series of set-pieces and character observations that become less appealing when they tilt so much toward Enid. Johansson’s Rebecca, with her nasally-congested delivery, sultry stare, and comfortable-with-herself body postures, is more intriguing that Enid, whose problems with her mousy dad, his overbearing girlfriend, and the fracturing of relationships with almost everyone, tends to test one’s sympathy, especially given Birch’s bratty delivery.
The film is a comedy, so I might be unreasonable to follow Giroux’s lead and complain that there is little indication of the real strife facing young people. Enid grimaces as she pours “butter” over a massive container of popcorn as she works the concession stand at a multiplex while Rebecca works at a Starbuck’s-style coffee shop, but there is real terror lurking here that might have been brought a little to the surface. Dead-end jobs at minimum wage (something fought for constantly by the owners of capital) indeed face the young, and after college, not merely high school. At the end of Ghost World, Enid leaves town on a spectral bus – to go where? The lapse into metaphysics is a cop-out for a film with touching relationships and pointed satire that makes one feel “that’s close to home.” It has been fifteen years since Ghost World, and despite the claims of cultural theorists that the age of “postmodern irony” has ended with the events of 9/11 (the numbers always connote the worst evil every visited on humanity), the movie’s social jabs are still good fun. The world today has indeed changed, with a militarized society influencing popular culture, and future prospects for the young even dimmer than in the early Bush moment when the film was made. But the Trump gang has caused new activism that has inspired many college-age kids and younger, giving us a sign that the punkish “no future” mantra that feeds into Ghost World might be set aside as the monstrous nature of state power provokes new opposition, rather than just snarly asides, from the current generations.
While watching this disc, I couldn’t help but think of a dismal film of this past season, The Founder, about Ray Kroc, who stole an idea from two gullible brothers who applied the assembly line to the production of hamburgers, innocent for a local store, deadly to a national concept of food. The film was much too soft on Kroc, a Nixon fan and petitioner, who worked hard to dissolve child labor laws as he staffed his massive company with underpaid Enids and Rebeccas for the last half-century and created a model for unrepresented labor bested only by Sam Walton and Walmart.
The Blu-ray disc from Criterion has a commentary track with Zwigoff, cartoonist Clowes, and producer Lianne Halfon that resembles the confusing chatter on many commercial DVDs that don’t know enough to limit comments to a single person. Although the track doesn’t quite degenerate into the mutual back-patting and adolescent yucks about the production that we hear on many such “commentaries,” this supplement is largely a mistake. There are also substantial interviews with Birch, Johansson, and Douglas that are charming, if only a little enlightening.
Christopher Sharrett teaches film at Seton Hall University. He is Contributing Editor for Film International.