Ghost World (2001)

Dir. Terry Zwigoff. Starring Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi, Scarlett Johansson

While I was in college, one of my professors referred to a mutual acquaintance as an “LSEOR” (ell-see-or), which stands for “low self-esteem overreactor.” Enid (Birch) must be able to see the relevance of that acronym to her personality, but the true LSEOR would overreact defensively; no doubt Enid would reject the term with prejudice.

There are many things about Enid which are frustrating. She seems to be immune to Grice’s maxims in her short-lived professional life as well as her personal one. She postures impotently. Rebecca (Johansson) asks Enid to dress in some semblance of business attire so apartment complexes will be more likely to rent to them; Enid immediately dyes her hair green, gets called out by an obnoxious guy who effectively punctures the punk look she’s trying to cultivate, and immediately dyes it back to black. When a young woman in Enid’s remedial art class, ’90s cute, starts to win praise from the teacher for her facile abstract pieces, Enid decides to one-up her with “found art” that is much more shocking (and also just tremendously racist). The longer this goes on, the less it feels like Enid is playing her art teacher (Ileanna Douglas), an artistic pretender herself, for a sap. It becomes clear that Enid is one of those people who accurately recognizes the worthlessness of this summer school course but would rather die than be anything less than its star student, and that person might literally be the worst person on the planet. Enid is also deeply troubled by the fact that every boy she knows prefers Rebecca to her (if only she knew what 2008 would be like!), which is one of those all-too-real teenager worries; surely part of her attraction to Seymour (Buscemi) later on is a way of proving that at least one guy would rather bang her than Rebecca. The fact that Rebecca also acclimates to the bourgeois world that both of them had previously scorned with some success, down to getting excited about pull-out ironing boards, furthers the wedge between them. Rebecca has a plan that goes as far as next week, it seems, ready to get on with whatever the rest of her life is. Enid has no such plans, nor does she seem content to follow Rebecca meekly while she makes her own nebulous choices.

All of those are at least understandable. American teenagers are, and have been, addicted to making themselves appear invulnerable while simultaneously wondering why nobody treats them with the deferential kindness they really want. Yet there is no good excuse for the prank she plays on a stranger who obviously can’t stand any more disappointments. Near the beginning of the picture, she reads Seymour’s ad looking for the woman he ran into and felt a connection to; she calls Seymour up, pretending to be that woman, and watches him as he waits for a woman who isn’t coming. One understands punching up, but punching down is dirty, and it’s a sign as much as anything that the movie is brave enough to make us dislike its protagonist before we’re comfortable with her. It’s also not a blow that the film makes easy to recover from; it doesn’t allow us to ever get comfortable with Enid’s relationship with Seymour. At first, we like that Enid is trying to do something nice for a guy she had been purposefully unkind to without purpose; then we get annoyed at the way Enid uses Seymour as a go-to for attention until we realize that Seymour seems perfectly happy to funnel himself in her direction; in the end, there’s the sex, and the reveal of a whole bunch of friendly sketches, both of which are decentering in their own ways. I am firmly in favor of movies which keep us biting our fingernails and raising our eyebrows, but if Ghost World is the vault, it never really does stick its landing. We’ll get there.

In short, Enid is scared to death of what it would mean to change herself; she is risk-averse in the extreme. It’s meaningful that the movie is set when many kids are preparing to go to college; one of the first events of the movie is a high school graduation, which neither Enid nor Rebecca takes all that seriously. (It’s hard to blame them, really.) Rebecca doesn’t have college plans, but she moves quickly. She intends to get a job and move into her own apartment, which she does with relative speed, but she intends to do so with Enid. Enid doesn’t show any sign of moving out of her dad’s house, and the one job she scares up she loses within minutes of getting behind the counter at a movie theater. A yard sale with Enid’s stuff, predictably, doesn’t include any sales; she’s too attached to even the most meaningless items. Even the threat of her dad’s old flame and Enid’s great nemesis, Maxine (Teri Garr), moving in with them doesn’t push Enid out the door. It takes a minor miracle – a bus mysteriously appearing at a route that’s been inactive for two years – to push Enid to something new.

Ghost World is set in a small city which never quite veers into absolute strangeness. The bus route suspiciously, amazingly resumes for the people who sit on the bench, including an old man in a suit who can always be seen there.  A girl Enid’s age pops up and talks about her upcoming auditions with as much excitement as Enid and Rebecca can exert in a year. A man with a mullet and an allergy to shirts (but who still has a tremendous tan-line) terrorizes a local convenience store. An art teacher makes her own short film which has been subsidized, quietly, by her parents. A boy with an exhausted countenance works at the convenience store and lets our heroines browbeat him into bumming rides in his old car. Exxon is putting out ads talking about how much they love the environment, which, given the fact that they actually do that now, is a little creepy to watch. Like most cities, the nostalgia diner isn’t so far away from the local sex shop, and both are like lamps for a moth like Enid, who senses the rightness of being in both. Whether or not it’s true, both places are easily read as the kind of places that losers inhabit, and of course those places are Enid’s coziest haunts.

No loser’s haunt is more appealing than Seymour’s apartment, which he shares with a roommate whose favorite activity is carrying a milk carton around the apartment and whose favorite piece of art is a taxidermy mongoose facing off against a cobra. Seymour has a collection of records, largely 78s, virtually all of them rare, and all of them ragtime or bluegrass. Buscemi, as usual, is playing a powerfully frustrated individual, prone to over-explanation and easily picked apart fibs. He’s lonely, more or less stuck with his records and absolutely sure that he won’t marry or have anything more than what he has. Even his ad in the small newspaper leeches desperation; it wonders if the woman he’s looking for could possibly remember him, much less want to reconnect with him. But he’s not quite as weak as we’re used to seeing him. Seymour is really knowledgeable in his chosen field; he’s not pretending to be an expert on the difference between ragtime and the blues, even if he’s mansplaining it to some poor woman who didn’t sign up for his proselytizing. And professionally, he’s not some schmo; he has a stable, if unexciting, office job with a fast food joint called Cook’s Chicken. Enid throws in her lot with Seymour fairly quickly once she has the opportunity, and despite the fact that he could be her dad, Seymour takes to the brash teenager who unironically and totally gives her attention to a man who may, truly, never have known what that feels like. If she insists on invigorating his dating life (motivated by the humanizing guilt he doesn’t know she feels), then he goes along with it; if she browbeats him into buying a Batman mask for her from the sex shop, then that’s the price he pays.

(I confess that I was put off by the surprising sex they have towards the end of the movie. I had hoped that Seymour would recognize that the girl he was hanging around was, in fact, just that, and that the movie wouldn’t throw that scene at us. I would be less put off by it if it had gone somewhere. Seymour and Enid have a single interaction after that, which is warm enough, but it’s a rare scene in which the movie seems to lose control of itself. There’s no pressing reason for the two of them to finally break their self-restraint, which one sort of guesses they would have ruptured already if they were going to do the deed; the film also seems as confused by their intercourse as Seymour is, and after this it sort of flails at a conclusion, hoping for the best but never landing any of its emotional blows.)

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