A look back at the 2001 film reminds us that it doesn’t matter how people engage with culture, pop or otherwise, as long as they get something out of it.
Ghost World is a cultural cornerstone for many who came of age around the time of its 2001 release. Terry Zwigoff’s film adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ seminal graphic novel captured the essence of a generation, and introduced audiences to Scarlett Johansson two years before Lost In Translation made her a star. Now a bona fide cult classic – with an Academy Award nomination and Criterion Collection release to boot – it’s known as a key text of disaffected early-2000s youth culture.
But Ghost World has greater significance that impacts a broader swathe of the population. In addition to a story of post-high-school malaise, it’s quietly one of the smartest films ever made about how we consume and appraise pop culture.
Ghost World tells the sardonic tale of Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Johansson), recent high school grads staring down the barrel of the adult-life gun. Enid has to take a summer art class to complete her diploma, while Rebecca leaps into finding work and apartments – but both spend their downtime wandering around observing washed-up weirdos. One such weirdo is Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a collector of antique blues records, with whom Enid forms a surprising connection. These three characters bounce off one another, falling in and out of friendship, leading up to an appropriately morose climax.
Pop culture is everywhere in this movie. In the very first scene, the camera peers through the windows of Enid’s neighbours as they watch their various TV shows of choice, before settling on Enid herself, dancing along to a Bollywood videotape. From there, the movie’s pop culture sprawls and sprawls – but it’s not the mainstream geekdom of Funko Pops and Comic-Cons.
Ghost World is smeared with a patina of tired, ugly, late-’90s Americana; consumer culture gone to seed. Enid and Rebecca’s high school graduation is sponsored by Tropicana, Hostess, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Long-lens shots compress entire city blocks’ worth of aging mom-&-pop shops and chain stores to the point of oversaturation. Enid wears a “Raptor” T-shirt that could easily be off-brand Jurassic Park merch. We visit comic shops. A movie theater. A Blockbuster. And everyone in the movie has some connection to music, whether it’s Enid’s fascination with punk and Bollywood, Seymour’s devotion to blues, or nunchuck-wielding Doug’s (Dave Sheridan) fondness for metal. You’d be hard-pressed to find a five-minute stretch of the film without prominently-placed brands – probably faded from years of sunlight.
Predictably, Ghost World’s characters use pop culture as a primary means of communication. They interact through references to culture, even abandoning real life in its favour. Enid and Seymour bond over a record she buys at his garage sale, while Seymour himself has built an entire social circle around record collecting. Consumed by their subculture, Seymour and friends discuss records as if they were the most important things on earth. But although Seymour is the first to admit how sad his obsession must seem, when he starts dating he’s almost primally repulsed by clashing tastes in music. In Ghost World, identity is defined by the culture you consume – or in Rebecca’s more self-consciously “adult” case, the culture you don’t.
A key element in Ghost World’s multilayered approach here is the revival and appropriation of aging imagery. Early on, Enid and Rebecca dine in a “retro” ’50s-style diner whose jukebox plays exclusively ’90s pop, redubbing their curly-coiffed waiter after Weird Al – himself known for reappropriating and parodying music. Pat Healy’s edgelord comic artist dismisses Enid’s attire – “obviously a 1977 original punk rock look,” per Enid – as a pose. Seymour witnesses a blues legend play a live set… as an opener for s****y “authentic” bro band BluesHammer.
Throughout Ghost World, the tectonic layers of the past resurface and merge with the contemporary, forming a messy sludge of invention and exploitation. It’s worth adding that blues itself originated in African-American culture, yet all the film’s blues lovers (along with BluesHammer) are white. Hell, two of them – Buscemi and David Cross – were later cast as the stereotypical “white voices” in Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You. You don’t get much whiter than those guys, and their casting fits perfectly in Ghost World’s carnival of appropriation.
The clearest case of all this comes alongside a treatise on the value of art. Enid’s observational cartoons go unappreciated by her art teacher (Illeana Douglas), who dismisses them as “low art” next to her classmates’ more self-important pieces. But when Enid discovers a discontinued, racist fast-food chain mascot in Seymour’s apartment, and brings it in as a found object, she instantly gains her teacher’s respect. Still, it’s too much for other staff, who order it taken down from a school exhibition. There are many attitudes at play here – various characters see fascinating tackiness, profound commentary, or horrifying obscenity – and all are viewed critically through Zwigoff’s lens.
Is any art truly “worthy?” It’s all just stuff, after all. Perhaps the prevailing theme of Ghost World is that culture bears only the value one places in it. Enid and Rebecca both engage in snarky, “ironic” cultural consumption – Enid with some measure of criticism, Rebecca with shallow dismissal. Seymour adores his blues records to the point of obsession, while his friends use their collections as status symbols. Side characters genuinely love material for which the protagonists have only scorn. And all of these practices are looked down upon by one character or another. But Clowes and Zwigoff have such clear affection for everyone in their movie that each approach seems equally valid. What difference does it make how people engage with culture as long as they get something out of it?
Daniel Clowes claims to have intended Ghost World’s eye on late-’90s pop culture as an answer to The Catcher in the Rye’s view of the ’50s. But far from Holden Caulfield’s cynicism, the film version of Ghost World in particular feels in love with the full breadth of the pop-cultural rainbow, in all its beauty and tackiness, its intelligent commentary and lizard-brain entertainment. Is there a “right” way to consume culture? Of course not. But somewhere within Ghost World, there’s a way that’s right for you.