After capturing Robert Crumb so evocatively in his 1994 documentary, Terry Zwigoff was the natural choice to direct an adaptation of Ghost World, Daniel Clowes’ cult 1993-1997 comic. To ensure maximum authenticity, Crumb and Clowes co-wrote the screenplay, which distils the main beats of the comic to an arc that unfolds around Enid Coleslaw (Thora Birch) and Rebecca Doppelmeyer (Scarlett Johansson), two young women who are fresh out of high school, and uncertain about their future direction. Gradually, they drift apart, especially once Enid develops a friendship with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a record afficionado that she meets through a prank. While she’s initially contemptuous of Seymour, Erink quickly develops an affection for him, and comes to rely on him lieu of a satisfying family life of her own, despite the best intentions of her father, played in a wonderfully milquetoast turn by Bob Balaban.
In the opening scenes, this plays somewhere between Woody Allen and Todd Solondz, as we meet Enid and Rebecca on the last day of high school, with all the existential ennui that entails. As the first generation to be born into high postmodernism, they greet the world with a blanket cynicism and a paranoia about consumer culture that only permits them to frame enjoyment in negative terms: “it’s the exact opposite of everything I hate.” They’re particularly suspicious of anything remotely feel-good, since that immediately suggests the banality of mass-produced sensation, but they reserve most of their seething rage for art that purports to be experimental, conceptual, avant-garde or feminist. Enid enrols in art school, but she’s quickly alienated by its “extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-Bohemian losers,” and particularly repelled by the feminist aspirations of her lecturer, who puts her off right away by praising the way in which a fellow student’s artwork celebrates a woman’s right to choose.
In their rage against both mainstream and experimental art, Enid and Rebecca express a deeper despair that there is nothing left outside consumer culture, and a fear that “indie” has simply become a new mainstream: “how alternative can be he if he wears Nike?” They’re poised at a precipitous moment when 90s irony had been utterly exhausted, but just before the new sincerity of the 00s had kicked in. As someone who was exactly contemporary with these characters at the time, I remember that feeling so acutely – the sense that there was nothing outside of the mass media that seemed to grow more uniform by the day. In a way, Enid and Rebecca are living at the very end of mass media, before the hegemony of film and television gave way to the niche media and multiplicity of digital platforms, which haven’t quite entered their world yet. Nowhere is that clearer than in Enid’s job at a local multiplex, where she tries and fails to stop herself from recommending films that can only be found elsewhere. Eventually, she’s fired because she just can’t get behind the multiplex’s rotation.
Faced with a mainstream and indie fringe that have converged on a singularity and uniformity of experience, Enid and Rebecca express their discomfort through a vague longing for things to be worse or stranger than they are. They spend much of their time people-watching, or more accurately adult-watching, so terrified of growing into the conformity around them that they have to keep adulthood at an uncanny remove. At the same time, they relish absolute artificiality, as if over-identifying with the system, or accelerating it from within, is the only legitimate countercultural impulse left. In particular, they’re drawn to the material culture of the 50s, not so much as a point of departure from the present, but precisely because the Eisenhower era was the nostalgic fixation of the very postmodern culture they abhor. These two tendencies finally lead them to Seymour, who they lure to “the Taj Mahal of fake 50s diners” by answering a singles ad, one of the many pranks they pull on unsuspecting adults.
However, while Rebecca is nonplussed by Seymour, Enid is drawn to him, since he embodies the complex relationship to the 50s that she is trying to articulate to herself. Seymour is an avid collector who treads a fine line between sincerity and irony. He’s fascinated by objects that would seem to cry out for postmodern irony, but treats them with a sincerity that is new to Enid. In effect, he represents the transition between irony and new sincerity, which he embeds in a insatiable taste for material culture. In one of their first conversations he tells Enid that CDs will never have the presence of original 78s, and extols the way that blues and country recordings bring out the hiss of vinyl. In turn, she leaves a note on a flier on his door, instead of phoning him, and this leads to their first walk, which ends with an adult bookstore. Rather than focusing on the titillating objects on display, Zwigoff relishes the swathe of videos, paperbacks and magazines, much as Enid announces to Rebecca that they’re meeting Seymour for dinner while browsing in a video store. This dinner turns out to be a swap-meet for record enthusiasts, and ends with Seymour showing Enid his “dream room,” full of exotica and marginalia so kitsch it demands irony, which makes his sincerity all the more appealing.
At this point, Enid’s ennui crystallises as a longing for a cultural underground in Los Angeles. Indeed, for the first part of the film, Zwigoff subdues any sense we’re in the City of Angels, using urban cues that feel more attuned to New York: “we’re looking for an apartment downtown.” While there’s some driving, it never reaches the level you’d expect from a film set in LA, and there’s no sign of a highway, or discussion of peak hour traffic. Instead, Enid, Rebecca and Seymour are always walking, or gravitating towards places that encourage walking, which in Los Angeles means the browsing-spaces of video stores, record stores and adult bookshops. These, Zwigoff suggests, are the only places you can discover a true flânerie, or flâneuserie, in the city, and so they are where Enid seeks out Seymour when the relationship goes sour: “I’ve been wandering the streets day and night just trying to find you.”
Before this happens, Seymour has already started to feel incidental, since he simply embodies the film’s yearning for a material subculture in an immaterial city. Over time, Enid realises that all of his collectibles are embedded in roadside Los Angeles, meaning that Seymour has recapitulated the city in miniature, as his own personal private sphere. He may be an assistant manager in the corporate headquarters of a fast food chain, but he’s compensated by documenting the material history of the franchise. His pride and joy is a racist picture of a black man that was used early in the restaurant’s history, which he gives to Enid to use as a found object for art school. Although she sells it as a “comment on how racism is whitewashed,” the film isn’t really interested in race, and ultimately works mainly to disavow it, much as Enid ignores a black woman in her art class who questions whether it’s her place to display this kind of image. Instead, Seymour’s artefact is her way of paying tribute to the impossibility of achieving a sincere subcultural space in the postmodernism of the present.
At the same time, Ghost World is sceptical about the possibility of digital technology in contributing to this subcultural impulse. The film is almost entirely devoid of contemporary social media, as if in an effort to lean into the preternatural quiet that Seymour claims is only available with analog technology. Similarly, the clutter of Seymour’s dream-room, and of his apartment more generally, feels like a strategy for keeping computers out. This is pretty prescient, since there’s no doubt that digital media has decimated décor as we once knew it. With mobile devices, in particular, to act as interfaces to the outside world, there’s no need to decorate our bedrooms or living rooms with objects that we’ve brought in from that world. As the main story unfolds, Enid’s father starts a romance with Maxine, an old flame who confirms Enid’s misgivings when she offers to get her a job at a local Computer World outlet.
Yet the real horror comes when Seymour gets a girlfriend. As soon as this happens, Zwigoff provides us with the first expansive shot of the suburbs, and the first image that indubitably situates us in Los Angeles. He follows this shot with a close-up of Enid tentatively putting one foot in front of the other, as if she’s uncertain how to keep walking now that she’s back in the sprawl, away from the endless miles of curated browsing-spaces. In the beats between those few steps, the underground that Erin has glimpsed in Los Angeles abruptly vanishes, leading her to an enigmatic figure who’s cropped up a few times in the background of the story: a man who sits all day at a local bus stop, even though the bus route now bypasses the stop. When Enid now sits down with him, instead of walking by him, she acknowledges a finitude to her own ability to navigate the suburban sprawl with any authentic autonomy or artistry.
From here on, Enid is faced with a rapid cascade of surbuban consolidation. Rebecca finds them an apartment in the sprawl, and while Enid initially risks the friendship to reject it, she finally caves, and gives in to a bourgeois existence. Meanwhile, her father announces that Maxine is moving in, at which point Zwigoff pointedly cuts to the first bank of computers in the film, which are even more glaring for being in the background of Enid’s art studio. Worse, Seymour’s new girlfriend works with computers in real estate, bridging the gap between the digital and suburban spheres that are closing in on Enid, whose primal fears are now personified by the only two adult women in her life as they compete for the affection of her father and father-figure respectively. At stake here, then, is a more specific anxiety about the ways in which women can step outside the mainstream and forge a life for themselves when even feminism seems to have been co-opted by a fourth wave of corporate self-advancement. It’s the same lingering ennui we see in the character of Claire Fisher, in Six Feet Under, who also articulates it through a complex relationship with art school in Los Angeles.
The conclusion here is just as morbid, in some ways, as Six Feet Under, since Enid never gets over the shock of the empty space that greets her when she moves into her new apartment. Suburbia, she realises, is the opposite of clutter, the antithesis of hoarding, a state of anhedonia after the primal joy of Seymour’s exotic room. She has an epiphany on the last night in her old apartment, when she looks at the Computer Station T-shirt sitting in the middle of the last great clutter in her life, like an emissary from a digital future that is bent on cannibalising every last effort to curate material culture. The ghost world is, finally, the detritus of an older Los Angeles, the hauntology of a subcultural space that cannot survive.
Zwigoff eulogises this ghost world ends with a remarkably resonant closing sequence that coincides with Erin’s first night in her new apartment, when experiments with going for a long walk in the suburbs, but without resorting to browsing-spaces, which seem to be closed anyway. She ends up at the bus stop, where the same man is still waiting for the bus that never comes, and glances across the road, where we see a strip mall, emblem of the Los Angeles sprawl, for the first time in the film. There’s a pointed contrast between this crude consumer space and the bus stop, which simply sits against a brick wall, like the residue of an older public sphere. Enid sets out to find a bridge between these two spaces, and appears to walk all night, only to arrive back at the bus stop, which now seems as hyperreal as the strip mall across the road, partly because Zwigoff’s lighting doesn’t reflect the time she has spent walking, suspending her (and the audience) in a strange stylised space between night and day.
Enid’s last grand effort to walk her way out the Los Angeles sprawl thus brings her back where she started, and yet the despair is complicated by the mythical bus finally arriving, and driving her over the Vincent Thomas Bridge to an ambiguous future. This is the only suspension bridge in Los Angeles, and looks quite out of place in conventional depictions of the city, meaning it’s often relegated to surreal sequences or closing sequences, as in To Live and Die in L.A., where we drive over it during the final credits. Between the fantasy of the bus arriving, and the anomaly of this bridge, which evokes an East Coast cityscape, some critics have read this as Enid’s admission that being a flâneuse in Los Angeles must ultimately be a suicidal gesture, since she can’t continue to walk in anything resembling traditional lived time and space. But the melancholy seems too gentle for that, more like a resignation that Enid must conform to the system, which of course is a suicide of sorts too. The beauty lies in this ambiguity, which evokes a yearning for a reality that could only be framed negatively, as a departure from a millennial world that often seemed to have absorbed all points of departure.