Ghost World

dir: Terry Zwigoff
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Movies tend to celebrate the triumph of the individual. The underdog beats the less-likeable and usually wealthy favourite to win the adulation of the crowd. Villains get their comeuppance at movie's end, with the hero finally getting the girl and the acknowledgment that they deserve, usually with a large television audience watching in masturbatory glee.

We as people want to associate ourselves with winners, with success, with victory. We can relate to the personal hardships that the film protagonists go through, as we all have mishaps, accidents and fuckups in our lives, just probably not on the same scale. And when they (usually) inevitably triumph over the odds to win the belt, the cup or kill the bad guy, we feel that associative rush as well, sharing in their triumph. We're winners as well. Our value systems, whilst certainly not uniform around the globe, tend to prize success, coolness, triumph in competition against others, the overcoming of obstacles, prejudices etc to achieve what we all ultimately want: acceptance and approval by society and those around us.

It's ingrained into us, inculcated from a young age. From school onwards we are in competition with each other. The entire spectrum of sports and cinema reflects this and projects this onto us as well. Of course, let's not forget the main economic system on the planet of capitalism which is theoretically at least centred around the ideas of self-interest and competition being balancing forces.

If this idea has any merit at all, then it begs the question: what about the others? What about the people that society doesn't hold up as paragons of studliness, virtue, sporting prowess and the nobility of the human spirit? Who tells the story of the other people, not only the ones that didn't win, did not triumph, but the ones that aren't in the competition at all?

Of course it begs the question as well whether anyone would find these 'other' stories interesting in the first place.

I guess Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff exist to serve as the counter-example. Their work and their lives speak of another world which seems to coexist with the 'real' world, but which has little, if anything, in common with it. Where people have rough edges, people rarely ever get what they want or need, where human interaction is difficult and often undependable, and figuring out what you want to do with your life (or however much of it you have left) is an exercise in futility.

People speak of "rebellion" and "counterculture" as if they are marketing devices. Those that have truly rejected what society relentlessly tells them is "worthy" don't look like male models married to sitcom actors or waifs with heavy eye make up and designer dishevelment, they don't wear nice leather jackets, big expensive boots or smoke seductively just to advertise how much they reject consumerism. They are generally lonely people that are as mystified by the values of mainstream society as the "well integrated" members of society are as derisive of them. I hope that last sentence makes some kind of sense :)

Ghost World is a painfully poignant, beautifully made film about characters that most people would not give a fuck about. It is not a film that tries to perpetuate some idea of the cult of the "loser", rather it looks at the way in which many people don't choose to be "left out" of society; they never had a chance of being picked for the team in the first place.

The story is told mostly from the point of view of Enid (Thora Birch), a teenage girl who has just finished high school and hasn't got a clue what she wants to do with her life. Whilst she has an almost geriatric level of cynicism and fatalism, she also suffers from a profound lack of ambition and an inability to do anything for her own benefit without engaging in a herculean effort that ends up backfiring anyway. Thora Birch captures the character beautifully, mixing her adult intellect with absolute adolescent listlessness, making her essentially adorable, sympathetic and frustrating at the same time. It has to be said that it is not easy to like Enid. And if you don't "like", on some level the protagonist of the film you're watching, it's unlikely that you're going to like the film overall (I bet this is what happened with Miss Havisham, eh?).

She is difficult to like at some points, but her story (such as it is) never failed to engage me. Her behaviour is sometimes completely infuriating, but I could see where she was coming from at all times. When her actions are inconsistent or contradictory, her behaviour isn't, and her confusion with the world, with the people around her, with her self is almost palpable.

She is equal parts cruel and compassionate, having found that she does not exactly fit into the world as she is. Her bestest friend Becky (Scarlett Johanson) is less keen to sit on the sidelines for the rest of her life, and finds that the little compromises she never thought she'd have to make are easier to bear than she thought. At the same time as she is abandoning her stance of being constantly critical of the world and the people in it in order to get a better 'fit' into it all, she and Enid seem to be walking on paths that are diverging more and more.

The film wisely doesn't depict Becky as being some mindless automaton pod person who sells out just by getting a job, thus making the building tension between the two friends more believable. She does however get a job at the local Starb*cks, which is pretty repugnant all the same.

Apart from their growing dissatisfaction with each other's desires for life (or lack thereof), there is also Enid's relationship with Seymour (Steve Buscemi) that Becky finds inexplicable, to say the least. The real question in terms of this film is working out how much of Clowes, Crumb, Zwigoff and Buscemi are invested in the Seymour character. I couldn't separate any of them. He seems to stand for a person who embodies all their fixations, their alienation and disenfranchisement with and rejection of a world they are becoming less and less able to relate to or understand. And there is a burden and loneliness that comes with all of this, and it doesn't come from any idea of "knowing" what's really going on in society, or constantly ranting about military-industrial complexes, Masons, Marilyn Mansons, Maccas or Macarenas. It comes from the knowledge that even if you wanted to fit in, to conform, to grind off those prickly corners of your own personality in order to make of yourself a square peg to fit square holes, it still wouldn't work, and you'd be none the happier or the wiser.

Seymour embodies this entirely. He is a complete sad sack loser by society's estimation, but for Enid he represents someone she can admire, although at first it's hard to see exactly why. Their relationship, which is ultimately a friendship between two very different people, is believable and uncomfortable at the same time. They need each other for different reasons at different times, and as unconventional as it seems, it rings true.

There is an interesting subplot regarding both the nature of 'art' (as to whether it has to always have some deeply significant sociological meaning to ever be 'worthy') and also a significant point regarding racism and political correctness.

A very controversial image sparks a debate which is given short shrift, but is very interesting all the same. The point is made using an image certainly inspired by Crumb's reappropriation of early 20th century advertising which used parody / caricature of African Americans in blatantly racist ways. The literal whitewashing of these images over time is represented more as being a desire to hide a deeply racist streak running through a culture that pays lip service to the concept of political correctness, rather than being for the purpose of decrying the evils of injustice. Needless to say that the person who tries to propound this idea during the film certainly does not have their good deed go unpunished.

I remember seeing the trailer for the film and advertising for it on the idiot box, and I have to marvel at the abilities of the marketing department to so completely misrepresent a film. You'd think that the film was a laugh a minute rib tickler and thigh slapper of a smash hit comedy, when it is certainly nothing of the sort. The tone is quite light at times, but there is a melancholy feel to it, especially towards the end. Some reviewers cite similarities between this and the work of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Doll House, Happiness, Storytelling), but I wholeheartedly disagree. This film has none of the mean spiritedness and abject misanthropy of Solondz's work.

The main character is desperately cynical, her view of the world is prematurely jaded and acts as her only form of self-defence: judge the world before it fucks me over, everything is changing and I can't rely on anyone. The film, however, is not cynical. It doesn't agree with her, and doesn't share her sense of fatalism, and doesn't "agree" with her actions, in fact it makes her actions look downright ridiculous at times. It doesn't necessarily offer any great degree of hope (dependant on how you interpret the ambiguous ending, of course), but there is a level of humanism that permeates the story to give us, if not Enid some hope that meaning can be found in our lives. That we can find some purpose that doesn't require sacrificing that which makes us truly unique in order to be able to fit into a society that we don't know whether it's truly worth being a member of.

The print that I saw at the cinema looked like a parade of midgets wearing hobnail boots had marched across every single frame of the film it several hundred times. Aside from that, visually it is a competently directed film. The scene construction, shots of streetlights and telephone poles, colours, and production design are all meticulously put together and beautifully realised in what is a very low key film. I got the feeling that Seymour's house and Enid's bedrooms were real, lived in places as opposed to being sets whacked together according to blatant cliches. The soundtrack is at times quirky but carefully put together as well. One of my favourite gags in the film is certainly when Seymour holds up a particular record and Enid asks him if it's any good. He replies "Not really" and goes on to suggest a different album. The record he'd originally held up happened to be by Robert Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders, a band that Robert Crumb and Terry Zwigoff happen to play in :)

Thora Birch so perfectly embodies the character that she plays, even on a purely physical level she has that perfect combination of teenage beauty and oddness that differentiates this role from any other. I loved her in this, utterly loved her, and not only for the fact that she looked identical to a woman I loved and lost. Of course, the behaviour was the same as well, which I'm less happy about :)

All the same I love that woman. And her clothes, and the figure hugging properties thereof. My goodness, I think I'll need to have a lie down...

Steve Buscemi also perfectly handles the role, but I feel like he deserves little praise, since it seemed to take so little effort for him to perfectly capture the character he's meant to be playing :) There's an able supporting cast as well filling the quirkier roles. Illeana Douglas, who I really like, embodies the worst aspects of every art teacher that's ever lived.

There is one possible misstep, something which I feel could have been excised to give the film a better ending point. Let's just say that in my anything but humble estimation, the film should have ended when a certain person gets on a bus, a truly memorable, powerful and sad scene, the bit after it feels like a double ending which was unnecessary. But what do I know.

This is certainly one of the better thoughtful films to have come out in the last year or so, which has the singular virtue of being able to make me smile and depress me at the same time. It is very hard to do that convincingly, and is a testament to the direction of Terry Zwigoff and the writing of Dan Clowes that they are so good at capturing the essential humanity of people who share our own confusions, and have requiems for their own dreams as well. We’re lucky that we’ve got these guys telling us these kind of stories. Let’s be honest, no one else is going to.

8 out of 10

-- "I'd hate to live in a world where a guy like Seymour can't get a date." - Enid, Ghost World