Amy X Neuburg on
Ghost World
By Amy X Neuburg
Dec. 4, 2002

I would like to ask some teenagers what they thought of  Ghost World. I imagine that the average American teenager might admire 18-year-old protagonist Enid (played by Thora Birch) for her self-assured quirkiness during a time in life when one is not generally encouraged to be different. The subtleties that make this film much more than a celebration of individualism, however, might be lost on a young mind. Though this is a movie about teenagers, it is not FOR teenagers but for those of us who have grown into our cynicism with experience and who even now feel that we “can’t relate to 99% of humanity”—in the words of Seymour (whom I’ll introduce later).

I wonder, though, whether we misfits are truly only 1% of the population. The movies that interest me most are those that in this country are considered “art house” films—the ones that don’t rely on giant budgets and special effects and superheroes but deal frankly with the idiosyncrasies of (seemingly) real people, that share my disenchantment with social norms by bringing attention, mostly through dialog, to the ugly and absurd norm-breakers. Thus one might deduce that 99% of the population will find  Ghost World unbearably edgy and the characters unpleasant, which is why it has been relegated to the art houses. My guess, however, is that the great majority of us have felt at one time or another that we can’t relate to 99% of the population. Who has not suffered from the loneliness of being misunderstood? Who has not felt keenly aware of his own idiosyncrasies and questioned his role in society? “Creeps and losers and weirdoes,” says Enid. “Those are our people.” And she is proud of it, though unsure of herself, and we are proud of her for having the courage to nurture her own strangeness while continuing to search for its meaning.

Who has not wanted to comment honestly at the spectre of a fat woman ordering extra butter on her popcorn, or asked a sheepish waiter, “Do you mind if we call you ‘Weird Al?’” The girls in  Ghost World—Enid and her best friend Rebecca— speak their minds in ways we all wish we could. They may lose their jobs over it, but we admire them, and we laugh out of both discomfort and relief. This comic uneasiness is ever-present in  Ghost World, so that the film teeters on the line between comedy and drama. In the video rental shop I found it filed under “Independent.” It could be that the film simply didn’t have the financial backing to make it past the art houses, but it’s likely that its independent viewpoint kept it from garnering financial backing in the first place despite its potentially wide appeal. This is the classic futile challenge for American artists trying to express original ideas; the big companies dictate what the people will be exposed to.

Here’s the basic scenario: Two iconoclastic best friends have graduated from high school somewhere in “middle America” and now, faced with uncertain futures, must figure out how to proceed. Through what begins as a cruel prank, Enid finds herself befriending the eccentric loner Seymour, played utterly convincingly by Steve Buscemi. Seymour, obsessed with ‘”old-timey” music and artifacts, is perhaps a middle-aged fully-developed variation of what Enid sees herself becoming, and she is both repulsed and intrigued. The movie depicts the surprising twists and turns of their friendship, along with the effect of impending adulthood on the relationship between the two girls.

Ghost World is based on an underground comic strip (which I have not had the pleasure of reading, so I hope this does not disqualify me as a reviewer), and it might have been tempting for director Terry Zwigoff to make the characters garish, overly colorful, larger-than-life in a David Lynch sort of way. The brilliance of  Ghost World, though, lies in the fact that the characters appear to be, for lack of a better term, “real human beings”; we may not agree with their choices of words and actions, but we root for them because we see them struggling with those choices. With the exception of a brash shirtless weapon-wielder loitering at the convenience store (“It’s America, dude. Learn the rules.”), even the minor characters are portrayed with surprising realism. Minor characters in films are often represented by stereotypes, so they can make a big impact with a small number of lines. But in  Ghost World, the overly-talkative classmate, the feminist art teacher, and Enid’s earnest but slightly inept father are never quite over-the-top; they don’t shout their essences but firmly suggest them. The town, too, seems like a real place—there’s the diner, the mall, the Radio Shack—but Zwigoff takes care not to overstate the normalness of this unspecified town, and that makes it seem somehow more normal. Even resident crazy man Norman (sounds like “normal”!), forever waiting for the non-existent bus, seems only gently oblivious. As the one predictable person Enid can rely on, Norman’s occasional appearances tie the scenes together and offer a form of stability to the film itself.

Zwigoff’s initial foray into the film world also used cartoons as a springboard; “Crumb” documented the disturbingly weird life and drawings of R. Crumb and his even weirder family. So Zwigoff is clearly fascinated with the plight of true “creeps, losers and weirdoes” and knows a few of them personally. Perhaps this informs his ability to make us sympathize with the bizarre characters of  Ghost World and his experience as a documentary filmmaker keeps them genuine.

I worry that these subtleties may not come across to an Italian audience when the voices are dubbed over; much of the believability is in the acting. Buscemi, in particular, is so believable as to be heart-wrenching, and in my opinion deserved an Oscar for his performance. The teenagers talk with the slurred, disaffected ennui so typical of young Americans. Lines that could have been hammed up (“Don’t thank me; you’re doing all the work,” says Seymour’s psychiatrist), are delivered with touching authenticity. (Knowing nothing about the Italian dubbing process, I certainly don’t want to pre-judge the abilities of the voice-over actors, but I’d be curious to know how well they succeed with the nuances.)

In America we celebrate our individualism and our much-touted freedom of speech, and we admire those who break out of the mold, but at the same time we are frighteningly concerned with trends, social decorum, and fitting into the increasingly conservative framework of life. In this regard  Ghost World pegs the American spirit from a sub-culture perspective. I will be interested to know whether the Italians are as moved as I was by the portrayal of this paradox within the characters, each of whom could easily have been me had my circumstances been just a little different. Feel free to contact me with your opinions.

© Amy X Neuburg 2002

Editor's note: It was during the summer of 2001 that I became aware of the movie Ghost World, thanks to many - and much favourable - reviews that appeared in US magazines. I thought it was a movie I had to see - that is, provided it had a theatrical release in Italy, where I live. It occurred to me that some of the themes that appeared to be important for the movie - the omnipervasivity of "mall culture", the search for cultural authenticity - reminded me of themes that I find relevant for Amy X Neuburg's songs. So I wrote to her and found that she had liked the movie a lot. And so it was only logical - Ghost World being about to be released here, and CloudsandClocks about to launch - to ask her to write a piece about the movie. Fortunately she agreed, and I thank her a lot. | Dec. 4, 2002