Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Ghost World

Yesterday I watched the film Ghost World for the first time in about two a half years. I first saw the film in 2001. I loved it then and I still love it now, though it was a bit odd watching the film and being older than the characters in it. However, the thing that separates Ghost World from other 'teen movies' is the fact that here the characters just happen to be teenagers, but their concerns are universal. This is a film I always really relate to, it's quietly brilliant.

Ghost World is one of my top 20 films of all time, and the only film comprable to it within the twenty is Chasing Amy. Both are films that on the surface seem rather disposable, good, but not spectacular, either in terms of scope or filmmaking technique. While I think Ghost World is better shot than Chasing Amy, both films are extremely minimalist, relying almost exclusively on dialogue to forward the plot. Both films are about shifting relationships, the hazy line between friendship and romantic relationships, and the complications that emerge between friends. Even though neither one seems particularly ambitious in terms of plot, the character interactions are apocalyptic for those involved, and each film follows the total destruction of the status quo over the course of the film. And the other big similarity is the way both films seamlessly navigate between some of the funniest dialogue ever captured in film and utterly devestating emotional drama.

The sharpest writing in Ghost World comes in the early going as we get to know Enid and Rebecca. I love the opening sequence, both for the great music and visuals, and for what it says about our main character. Right from the beginning it sets Enid as someone who's so hip and cool she's spending her time watching 60s Indian movies. She places herself above the mainstream, and as we soon find out, clearly looks down on everything that mainstream culture stands for, something brilliantly articulated in her apalled reaction to the graduation speeches. And yet, even as she hates it, she wouldn't want it any other way, because her identity is composed as a reaction to the blandness of mainstream culture.

The party scene brilliantly captures the feeling of leaving high school, in that it's simultaneously something you've been waiting for forever, a great event, and a bit sad because it means you'll never again see all the people who were just there. What once was a group now splits into disparate individuals, all going on their own path. I love when Melora says they should get together over the summer and Enid says "That'll happen," knowing that that's something people say but don't really mean.

As the film moves along, we start to see conflict emerge between Rebecca and Enid. Recognizing that high school is over and it's time to start growing up, Rebecca makes plans to move towards mainstream society. In high school it's ok to be the crazy girl who hates everything, but when it's time, she recognizes that it's time to stop looking down at the people who work at the coffee shop and instead become one. This is further evident in the scene where she goes shopping with Enid and is picking out bland looking plasticware, much to the offense of Enid. Rebecca is less concerned with being hip than with ensuring that she's successful on her own.

However, Enid is much too self conscious to allow her to become so shamelessly mainstream. After Rebecca suggests that they should dress like yuppies in order to get an apartment, she goes out and dyes her hair green, totally rejecting the safe, mainstream image that Rebecca wanted to project. This probably stems from her jealousy of boys' attraction to Rebecca's blonde haired, blue eyed beauty, leaving her uncomfortably on the fringe. I think her fear is that Rebecca could leave her behind and live a normal life, as if the persona she had was just a construct, and the text would support that idea. At the beginning of the film, Rebecca's eager to follow the 'satanists,' but at the end she's most excited about a fold out ironing board, and this leaves Enid alone. She'd been able to be a defiant outsider because she had someone to support her, but when she's alone, her fears about being alone come to the surface.

This issue also comes up in her interaction with Seymour, most notably in the bar scene. In Seymour, she saw someone she could relate to. He's totally outside mainstream societal norms, and his obsession with kitsch objects fits her perfectly. Also, he's someone who needs her more than she needs him. She takes on the mission of finding him a date, but when she actually succeeds in putting him together with a woman in the bar, she finds herself uncomfortably alone, staring at people who are having a much better time than her.

The scene is genius in the way it conveys her simultaneous disdain for and jealousy of mainstream culture. She watches these people drinking beer and playing pool and hates them, yet they're having so much more fun than her, and they're connecting with others. She is too self conscious to allow herself the pleasures that other people take. She couldn't enjoy something so mainstream because to do so would be to lose some of that which makes her unique. She would rather confront societal expectations, as with the punk apparel, than conform to them, and that makes it impossible for her to fit in in that environment. She seems completely out of place, with her 50s style glasses, pale skin and dark hair, next to the tan, blonde people who populate the bar. This same dichotomy can be seen in the graduation party scene, when she looks at a jock type popular couple together, mocking them, but at the same time standing alone.

The film seems to set up blonde women as representative of mainstream society, with Enid as the deviation from that. Dana lures Seymour away from his unique lifestyle, and towards an existence that is more acceptably mainstream. He's someone who's so lonely, and has such a low opinion of himself, that he's willing to go along with this relationship, even though he has nothing in common with Dana. It's only when Enid expresses a sexual interest in him that he's able to end it with Dana. If she hadn't, it's unlikely that he would find the courage to reject her.

The film takes a mocking and elitist tone, clearly looking down on a lot of people, but at the same time, it recognizes that that stance is flawed. Enid finds herself alone at the end of the film because she has alienated everyone around her, and ruined the relationship she had with Seymour by making him think she would give him something she never could. She so strongly values her individuality that she's unable to compromise, and that puts her at odds with the world at large.

In the end, she sees Seymour as who she might be in thirty years, working a boring office job at Computer Station, collecting strange stuff, but ultimately disconnected from the world, unable to reconcile her disdain for the general populace with her strong desire to connect with other people. And that's the reason that she walks away from it all. In another place, she could get a fresh start and redefine herself, freed from the shackles of the identity she'd created. I don't think it would be a total redefinition, but it would be a chance to start relationships anew, and it's her willingness to leave the prescribed path and try something different that makes her so unique. Everyone else is pushing her towards college and a job, thinking of that as the only way. Instead, she chooses something different, and boards the bus, unsure of where she's going, but that doesn't matter, because all she wants is something different.

Watching the film this time it reminded me a lot of Six Feet Under. There's the obvious Thora Birch->American Beauty->Alan Ball connection, but there's also strong similarities between Enid and Claire and Brenda. It's the same defiance of mainstream norms and fear of being a cliche, subtly navigating the line between sincere and ironic. Enid's ironic commentary on 70s punk is quite similar to Claire dying her hair blue as an ironic commentary on blue hair. Plus, their pretentious art school misadventures are not far removed.

I've said it before in talking about Six Feet Under, but I think the navigation between original and cliche, sincere and ironic, mainstream and subcultural is full of dramatic potential. These are conflicts that don't lend themselves to easy resolutions, but can produce challenging stories.

Ghost World is one of the funniest movies ever made and also incredibly sad. I don't usually enjoy a film that's just funny, and that's because stuff like The Office and this film showed me how comedy can be used as a way to open deeper wounds and raise relevant issues about the direction of a person's life. This is a film I loved when I first saw it and watching it today, it's if anything, even more relevant.

1 comment:

rahul m said...

superb review,one of best i have read for this movie,m n aspiring film director from india,good luck for ur films