school friends Enid Coleslaw (Thora Birch) and Rebecca Doppelmeyer (Scarlett
Johansson) absolutely cannot wait to be free of the prison of school, defiantly
flipping the bird and squashing their mortarboards following their graduation.
Enid isn’t off the hook just yet: her “diploma” is instead a note informing her
that she must “take some stupid art class” (her words) if she hopes to graduate.
Their fellow classmates are caricatures of everyone we all knew during our
adolescence. Melora (Debra Azar) is inhumanly happy all the time and oblivious
to Enid and Rebecca’s sense of ennui and contempt. Todd (T.J. Thyne) is
ultra-nervous to talk with the insouciant Rebecca at the punchbowl. Another bespectacled
student sits off by himself. Enid and Rebecca are at both an intellectual and
emotional crossroads. They want to share an apartment; however, they seem unaware
of the amount of money they will have to come up with for such a
venture. Instead of finding jobs, their post-graduation afternoons are spent
meandering through life while frowning upon society, following strange people
home, bothering their mutual friend Josh (Brad Renfro) and admiring the Weird
Al wannabe waiter at the new 50’s-themed diner which plays contemporary music.
Seemingly without a care in the world, the women have no plans to attend
college, preferring instead to prank an unsuspecting nebbish named Seymour (Steve
Buscemi) who has placed a personal ad in an attempt to communicate with a
striking blonde he noticed, with Enid feigning said blonde on Seymour’s
answering machine. Rebecca is a dour and solemn counterpoint to Enid’s aloof
yet occasionally jovial demeanor. If
Holden Caulfield had a girlfriend, she might be someone just like Enid,
sneering at the losers and phonies in her midst. Searching out Seymour, they
approach him and his roommate at a garage sale where he is unloading old
records for next to nothing. His affection for collecting 78 rpms begins to
endear him to Enid, who confides in Rebecca that she likes him despite their
25-year age difference. They have some truly funny moments together such as
attending a “party” for guys who talk techno mumbo-jumbo, riding in the car
together as Seymour screams at people walking through an intersection, and a
humorous romp through an adult video and novelty store.
Rebecca grows tired of hearing about Seymour,
and presses Enid to get a job but she only succeeds in getting fired repeatedly,
even from her position at the concession stand at a Pacific Theatre cinema when
she ribs the customers over their choice of movie and their willingness to eat
popcorn with “chemical sludge” poured on it. The tone of the film shifts from
one of comedic commentary on the world to one of disillusionment as Enid begins
to feel her world slowly begin to crumble around her. Her friendship with
Rebecca, an anchor in her life for years, is ending and like so many of us at
that age, she has no idea where her life is going or what she needs to be doing
when she isn’t changing her hair color or her now-famous blue Raptor t-shirt or
donning punk rock garb as a sartorial statement. Her summer art teacher
(Illeana Douglas) shows her students her personal thesis film Mirror, Father, Mirror which itself is a
parody of the pretentious student films submitted to professors. She pushes
Enid to create interesting and powerful art when Enid is only interested in
drawing the people she knows and Don Knotts. In short, nothing seems to be
going well for her. The only person she can rely on is Norman, the well-dressed
man who sits on a bench at a bus stop that stopped service a long time ago and
holds the key to the film’s long-debated denouement. Enid is almost like an
older version of Jane Burnham, the character portrayed by Ms. Birch in American Beauty (1999). In that film,
she barely reacted to her father (Kevin Spacey) and here her contempt for her
father (Bob Balaban) and his girlfriend Maxine (Teri Garr) is even more
Director Terry Zwigoff takes the source
material created by artist and writer Daniel Clowes and fashions one of the
most brilliantly entertaining and poignant ruminations on adolescence the
silver screen has ever seen. Ghost World
also boasts excellent use of music, much of it pre-existing, although the main
theme by David Kitay is an elegiac
piano theme that recalls David Shire’s theme to The Conversation (1974). The film starts with a bang to the
seemingly non-diegetic tune of the Mohammed Rafi hit “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” from
the 1965 Hindi film Gumnaam, the
scenes of which are intercut with images of the apartment complex’s
inhabitants. As the camera tracks from the exterior windows of these
grotesqueries, it settles upon Enid’s bedroom where the night before graduation
she dances to the aforementioned tune which we now see is being played back on a
bootleg VHS tape. The beat is frenetic and infectious. Enid, for the first of
only a handful of times in the entire film, appears to be in a state of joy as
she mimics the moves of the dancers. If only she could always feel this way! With this singular sequence, Mr. Zwigoff
achieves something reserved for only the greatest and rarest of filmmakers – re-identifying
a popular musical piece with his movie. I can’t hear “The Blue Danube” without
thinking of spaceships spinning throughout the galaxy.
Ghost World opened on Friday, July 20, 2001 in
limited release in New York and Los Angeles and garnered immediate critical
acclaim. Filmed in 2000, the film is a product of a simpler and more innocent
time. Before the brutal wake-up call of the September 11th attacks, there is a
complete lack of cell phone usage in the film. It makes a great companion to
2001’s other minor masterpiece of adolescent angst, the cult favorite Donnie Darko.
Ever since Mr. Zwigoff’s documentary, Crumb (1995), was released by the Criterion Collection in 2010 I’ve been secretly hoping and wishing that Ghost World would receive the same treatment. Writing to the company and expressing my desire to see such diverse films as The Navigator: An Odyssey Across Time (1988), Meet the Feebles (1989), La Belle Noiseuse (1991), The Adjuster (1991), Exotica(1994), and Crash (1994) released on Blu-ray, Ghost World was at the top of my list. In May, the film became available and the Blu-ray is a much-welcomed and appreciated treat that boasts the following extras:
A new and restored 4K digital transfer from the 35mm interpositive which was supervised by cowriter-director Terry Zwigoff, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
An audio commentary featuring Mr. Zwigoff, Ghost World comic creator and film cowriter Daniel Clowes, and producer Lianne Halfon. This is a very interesting behind-the-scenes discussion at what it took to bring the writer’s and the director’s vision to the screen.
New interviews with actresses Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Illeana Douglas. All shot separately, it’s a credit to Criterion to have gotten these major players back to discuss the film - proof that they hold their film in high regard on their acting résumés.
An extended excerpt from Gumnaam (1965) featuring the Bollywood number that appears in Ghost World’s opening title sequence, with commentary.
Deleted scenes, including one where Enid seduces Josh and reveals that she’s in love with him.
An excellent essay by critic Howard Hampton
A 2001 piece by Zwigoff on the film’s soundtrack
Reprinted excerpts from Clowes’s comic Ghost World
Now, if we could only get Mr. Zwigoff to option the rights to Terry Moore’s comic Strangers in Paradise and adapt that into a film…