Amidst the cluttered and campy landscape of director Terry Zwigoff’s new film “Ghost World” protrudes the marvelous bosom of Thora Birch. Jutting into the space of the frame, Birch’s breasts dare the audience to ignore the incipient womanhood they so glaringly represent.
Enid’s (Birch) is a reluctant maturation. Indeed, at the core of Zwigoff’s masterful work are the very perils of adulthood — that chasm which annihilates wit, friendship and the secure luxuries of irresponsible youth.
Though this sort of coming-of-age story is universal and the setting familiar (the summer after high school graduation), “Ghost World” is like no other story you’ve seen. It competes with “Catcher in the Rye” for its teen telepathy. It rivals “Clerks” for brilliant banter. But peculiarities of narrative and characterization make it an entirely original piece.
We meet Enid and her best friend Rebecca (the lovely Scarlett Johansson) at their absurd, astutely conceived high school graduation, complete with a saccharine student speaker and embarrassingly enthusiastic entertainers. Can it even be called a parody when it’s so true to life?
Enid is who MTV’s Daria wanted to be. She is a goth Lolita. Rebecca is the sidekick of every teenage girl’s dream. They ooze cool with the proper mix of cynicism and insult. They are adolescent Camille Paglias, raging against dominant cultural messages.
And, of course, they hate everyone.
Well, they don’t hate Josh (Brad Renfro), the passive reluctant to their pranks and plans. Actually, both have muted crushes on him. And they don’t really hate the various other rejects, losers and loners that populate their circle of nonfriends. But the population at large? Definitely loathe them.
Theirs is a world of superficiality (the perky high-school classmate shrilling “call me!”), Jerry Springer shows and a public bloated on commercialism. There is no virtue in this banality. It is also a world without history — a clerk at a video store hasn’t heard of Fellini’s “8 1/2,” and the mise-en-scene itself amalgamates cultural objects from the past four decades, collapsing history by mingling its icons. It is this very timelessness that both displaces the narrative into the magical surreal and makes it so poignantly universal.
Much of the film’s dialogue is taken up with Rebecca and Enid’s searing criticisms of mainstream sellouts. But in contrast to the aforementioned “Clerks,” Zwigoff is telling a really profound and moving story here, in between the memorizable snippets of meanness.
The best friends’ plans to move in together after high school are problematized as Rebecca moves toward a domestic and mainstream existence (including the mandatory Starbucks-type summer job) while Enid plods through existential pursuits. The film itself documents the end of the two girls’ conspiratorial company, as each finds her own version of growing up, and their friendship, in turn, becomes but a fond relic of their childhood.
Added to the narrative mix early on is middle-aged and hyperbolically pathetic Seymour (Steve Buscemi), initially the object of the girls’ ridicule, and later of Enid’s own version of respect. Seymour is a bureaucrat by day and gentle, reclusive record collector by night. He introduces Enid to soulful country blues; she befriends him and says, “He’s the exact opposite of everything I really hate.”
Buscemi is a brilliant character actor, so it’s no surprise that he brings a deep pathos and lovability to Seymour, whining his way into Enid’s and our hearts.
Like Birch’s breasts, signifying the womanhood she can’t control, Buscemi’s face tells his story. The physical lushness of these actors, combined with the flatness of the world around them (in too-bright colors and swarming with objects) creates a visual definition of humanity, in all its gross fleshy realism.
Buscemi’s wrinkled visage is the very paradox of his character. He is a beauty prism: from certain angles, with his mouth closed and head slightly tilted, he is a beautiful and handsome man. But! He opens his mouth and his too-large teeth appear against lips too red for a man; he looks up and those trademark sunken eyes capture you in orbs of pained insight. He’s so ugly, he’s sexy.
And in a corresponding paradox, though he’s the adult voice in the film and tells Enid early on that she’s a beautiful young woman with every possible future in store for her (fulfilling the implication of his name and literally “seeing more” than Enid does), he has a terrific blindness toward his own life and potential. That our last scene with him returns him to his overbearing mother is no accident. When Enid leaves, his need to be an adult vanishes, and he regresses just as she progresses.
Enid and Seymour’s bond begins and ends with art. Seymour adores music, Enid draws cartoons. “Ghost World” is based on the graphic novel of the same name (comic book doesn’t even begin to capture it — there’s nothing particularly comic here) by Daniel Clowes, who also co-wrote the film with Zwigoff. In the novel, Enid’s full name is Enid Coleslaw, an anagram for Daniel Clowes. Both there and in the film, Enid is a stand-in for the lone artist who created her, observing but never entirely fitting in to the very society she attempts to articulate.
That one of the most viciously constructed characters in the film is Enid’s art teacher Roberta Allsworth (Illeana Douglas) suggests further that Enid is Clowes’ stand-in misfit, misunderstood by authority at large. Though Allsworth insults Enid’s cartoons for their frivolity and lack of political import, these cartoons provide one of the most moving scenes in the film as Enid awkwardly pays loving homage to Seymour right before leaving him forever.
“Ghost World” ends as Enid boards a bus for futures unknown. Her trip is one historically reserved for young men, bursting with curiosity and impatience. Think “On the Road;” think “The Graduate.” Rebecca’s adulthood includes daily work, perhaps Josh as a boyfriend, and domestic bliss with a house and flatware. Enid’s contains a melancholic wish for the sanctity of childhood mixed with her quintessentially American need for self-discovery and adventure.
In our last sight of Enid, she sits on a bench printed with the words “Not in Service” as she waits for the bus. Her body blocks out most of the letters, leaving the text “Not Ice” to surround her body. It’s a textual joke that we already get: we know that Enid isn’t ice. Her passion for art and attempts at love for Seymour betray her warm, maturing soul. And the text’s concurrent admonition to “notice” Enid’s great act is a lesson for us all.
Despite Enid’s youthful cruelty, it is the promise of a deep and caring adulthood that sustains the film’s moving account of her moral and personal re-invention. In a world of ghosts, she is all too of the flesh.