Amy X Neuburg on
By Amy X
Dec. 4, 2002
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 cant
relate to 99% of humanityin the words of Seymour (whom
Ill introduce later).
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 filmsthe ones that dont 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 cant 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.
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 WorldEnid 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
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 didnt have the financial backing
to make it past the art houses, but its 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.
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.
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 (Its 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
the overly-talkative classmate, the feminist art teacher, and Enids
earnest but slightly inept father are never quite over-the-top; they
dont shout their essences but firmly suggest them. The town,
too, seems like a real placetheres the diner, the mall,
the Radio Shackbut 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, Normans occasional
appearances tie the scenes together and offer a form of stability
to the film itself.
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
and his experience as a documentary filmmaker keeps them genuine.
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 (Dont thank me; youre
doing all the work, says Seymours psychiatrist), are delivered
with touching authenticity. (Knowing nothing about the Italian dubbing
process, I certainly dont want to pre-judge the abilities of
the voice-over actors, but Id be curious to know how well they
succeed with the nuances.)
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
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