TERRY ZWIGOFF'S GHOST WORLD IS A STRANGE MOVIE.
Based on a 90s cult comic released in 2001, it was an eerily prescient look into the future, foretelling the rise of hipster culture and beautifully encapsulating the struggle of twenty-something Millennials in the 2010s before that struggle had ever begun. It’s a coming of age story focalized through two teenage girls that don't have sexual awakening (or even a romance, really) at its’ center. It’s a movie that, like people, goes through cycles, and those who’ve loved it at one point in their lives may find that it gains and loses and regains relevance as they age, change, and grow. Its’ a film about the uncertainty of the future, and the idea that maybe there isn’t any reassurance to be had about facing it. In other words, it’s the perfect film for the times we live in; and whether you’re one of those people rediscovering it, or just coming across it for the first time, Criterion Collection’s release—out now on Blu-ray—is the perfect way to experience it.
Enid and Rebecca (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) have finally graduated high school, and they’ve got one summer left before the pair… do something? Neither one is quite sure; there’s no college aspirations or career dreams before them. It’s not that they’re lazy (well, maybe Enid is); it’s just that they don’t know what to do with themselves. Inveterate outsiders, they’ve spent the better part of their lives existing on the periphery of society and coasting through school, but now that they’re out in the dreaded “real world,” the revelation hits them that they can’t necessarily continue that pattern. For her part, Rebecca decides to go to work in a chain coffee shop, while Enid finds herself faced with the prospect of re-taking the art class she failed in order to secure her high school diploma. To dull the pain of their respective frustrations, the girls decide to prank a nebbish named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) whose missed connections letter they read in the local paper. As it turns out, though, Seymour’s a guy right up Enid’s alley: another avowed outsider with an encyclopedic knowledge of classic blues and a decidedly outsider ethos. The two hit it off, and as Rebecca slowly drifts away into the world of adult responsibility, Enid finds herself simply drifting…
To the burgeoning hipsters of the early 2000s, Ghost World was a breath of fresh air. I counted myself among those young people who adopted it not as some avant-garde, art film oddity (as many of the critical elites did at the time), but as a sub-cultural manifesto. As Millennials, we had a nice variety of coming-of-age films from which to choose as we made the transition into adulthood, but they were all of a very particular stripe. The kids in Can’t Hardly Wait, Crossroads, and American Pie were white, middle-class, and, above all, average. Reach into any high school in middle America and you’d come back with a big ol’ fistful of Jim Levensteins (and never mind that the character is Jewish in name only—I went to high school in Middle America. He wouldn’t have been treated so well—at least not without some casual, good-natured Anti-Semitic ribbing from the guys). The audience surrogates we were given were liked well enough by their peers, had comfortable support systems, were conventionally attractive, and had very common problems. I’m not faulting the filmmakers—there’s a lot of wisdom in marketing your teen films to the average teen. Yet just on the outer periphery of young-middle America in the early 2000s were kids like me—weird, maladjusted kids who dressed in vintage clothes and listened to old music and were into super-obscure films. Our coming of age was less about losing our virginity so much as it was about trying to find a tribe. We spent our Friday nights alone, watching grindhouse movies and listening to synth—and if we weren’t alone, our relationships were a hell of a lot more awkward than anything even John Hughes could’ve come up with.
And then along came Ghost World.
For the first time, we saw ourselves onscreen. The social discomfort. The esoteric interests. The comfortably-uncomfortable home lives and strained interpersonal relationships. The struggle of growing up in a world not quite made for you. For the young, social misfits entering the adult world circa the early 2000s, Ghost World wasn’t just a breath of fresh air—it was a lifeline.
Of course, we all grew up, and found our tribe, and a fair lot of us today wear the hipster label, as either a self-applied badge of honor or a sobriquet granted by polite society to describe that green-haired girl in the kilt and her boyfriend with the crotch-length beard. And the interesting thing I discovered about Ghost World was that, as I got older, many of my contemporaries and I found that the film had begun to lose meaning for us. As sixteen-year-olds in 2001, Enid’s cattiness, refusal to conform, and aimless journey through a nameless town-out-of-time seemed bold, heroic, even romantic. Her failed relationship with Seymour was the kind of tragic pseudo-love story we could only hope for. And then we aged a few years, got jobs, entered into relationships of our own, and suddenly Ghost World took on a whole different meaning. Just as Rebecca and Enid drift apart as the former gets a job and an apartment and starts looking at a life beyond senselessly pranking middle-aged men, so too did I and my friends find ourselves identifying less and less with Enid. Her acerbic wit was suddenly mean-spirited and cruel; her nonconformity was childish and without conviction. Her relationship with Seymour was sad and desperate and… well, okay, we still identified with that part of Enid. Suddenly, though, ten years on, we young adults of 2011 didn’t’ so much identify with Enid as we did see her as a sad artifact of our own embarrassing adolescence. Tellingly, when I considered selling my DVD copy of the film in 2012, the only people I knew who balked were the ones who'd gone through three job changes in as many years, the thirty-somethings still living with their parents who'd never met a friend they couldn't alienate or a relationship they couldn't sabotage. If I had any lingering sentimentality for the film, it died the instant that revelation sank in, and Ghost World went to the shelves at Half Price Books later that afternoon.
A funny thing happened, though, when Criterion announced they were releasing the DVD. I found myself thinking about the movie for the first time in five years, and it was almost wistful. My assessment of the character hadn’t changed that much—Enid was still painfully immature, stubborn, and maybe a little cruel. But it was a bit like looking back on a doomed romance. Enid was the person we needed in our lives at that time—someone to show us we weren’t as alone as we thought, that our experiences weren’t painfully unique, that our loves and interests could be shared with others. And if I didn’t necessarily want to reconnect with Enid, then maybe I at least wanted to have a cup of coffee with her, see what she was up to these days. Though we can’t overlook her faults, I think we can at least understand them, and look back in enjoyment on the early aughts—at the people we were, and how they led us into the people we became.
The Criterion Collection, as always, has made that trip down memory lane especially poignant with a series of special features to enhance audience appreciation for and enjoyment of the film. Not only did Zwigoff supervise and approve the film’s new 4k transfer, he also recorded a new audio commentary with comic creator Daniel Clowes and producer Liane Halfon, while Scarlett Johansson, Thora Birch, and Ileana Douglas (whose turn as a trippy art teacher defined an entire generation’s perception of art teachers) all turn up in new interviews. Of course there’s deleted scenes, as well as the requisite essays (one by Zwigoff on the film’s soundtrack, another by critic Howard Hampton, plus a mini-issue of Ghost World that includes an appropriately ambiguous coda to Enid and Rebecca’s relationship), but perhaps the most appropriate special feature of all is an extended clip from the Bollywood film Gumnaan, which features prominently in the film’s opening sequence. It’s a bizarre piece of ephemera included as a piece of ephemera on a special-edition Blu-ray of a film about ephemera. Enid would be pleased.