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GHOST WORLD: Enid Vs. The World

Issy analyzes a deeply cherished coming-of-age cult classic.

In between the Freaks, Geeks, and Weirdos brood the Two Cool Kids. The most revered pack-animals of each high school, practically siamesed by either a blood pact, tied together shoelaces or cosmic magnetism. Bright-eyed, sharp-tongued, thick-skinned. Always in sight but too far away to touch — no matter, they’d bite your hand off anyway.

Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World imagines the untethered lives of the Two Cool Kids after they’ve split the high school scene. Its intricate narrative, lifted from the pages of Daniel Clowes’ comic book of the same title, stalks Enid Coleslaw (Thora Birch) and Rebecca Doppelmeyer (Scarlett Johansson) as they attempt to shed their adolescent skin and discern the uncertain future of their volatile friendship.

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Ghost World (2001) – source: IMDb

THE GREAT ADOLESCENT CLUSTERFUCK

With the end of school comes a whole new world, and it’s all on fire. The flames lick your shoes, the soles not yet worn-out. The heat makes you sweat. Childish capriciousness seeps out and disillusionment creeps in — an existential crisis of sorts. The Great Adolescent Clusterfuck iterated throughout film and literary history. It had Holden Caulfield grilling taxi drivers about ducks, Benjamin Braddock screwing Mrs. Robinson and Scott Pilgrim dating Knives Chau.

Despite the smorgasbord of male characters, female equivalents tend to fall between the cracks. There’s a Hollywood propensity for girls to either waltz gracefully into adulthood or to devolve into Carrie-esque chaos. The characters of Frances in Frances Ha, Christine in Lady Bird and Enid Coleslaw within this film complete the meager list.

ENID COLESLAW’S PRECIOUS LITTLE LIFE

With no plans for college or selling her soul to a capitalist enterprise, Enid is stuck in a gloriously paradoxical rut — but she doesn’t care, she’s the queen of slump days. Parading the Gen X slacker spirit, Enid is content drifting aimlessly between her local diners and record stores, sketching caricatures of a pair of dubious strangers she’s dubbed the “Satanists” and drinking milkshakes. All the while, fading into an insignificant dot on the pointillist portrait of suburbia.

With her mother out of the picture, Enid was raised by her emasculated father (Bob Balaban), rendering her solipsistic, emotionally stunted and cursed with an appetite for apathy. When the camera pans over the bland faces of their graduating class, all nodding sympathetically as a girl in a wheelchair gives a pseudo-motivational speech, Enid is rolling her eyes. But she’s far from the Anti-Christ — it’s just that the devil horns offer her a much-needed sense of invincibility.

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Ghost World (2001) – source: IMDb

Beneath her prickly skin, Enid is a hot-blooded artist — despite her art teacher, Roberta’s (Illeana Douglas), chagrin. A well-intentioned but intolerable woman who has seemingly bleached her eyes with political righteousness, she obsequiously praises art on its alleged symbolism rather than aesthetic beauty. This ultimately results in her dismissal of Enid’s adroit portrait of Don Knotts and giddily declaring a half-assed sculpture of a tampon in a teacup a “shocking image of repressed femininity!

OPENING MONTAGE

Ghost World’s erratic opening montage sinks its teeth into both the miserable underbelly of suburbia and the sentimental part of Enid’s soul. Oscillating between voyeuristic shots of various social burnouts (posing as the tragic consequences of normalcy) framed between their living room windows, and Enid dancing manically alone in her bedroom. As she convulses to the soundtrack of a sixties Bollywood film, we see the feral part of Enid that craves the moments that make her breath jagged and nerves burn — but only in private. This is the part of her sealed off from the outside world and buried beneath layers of unimpassioned coolness and bullshit confessions like: “I think only stupid people have meaningful relationships.

Because for Enid, everything has to suck all of the time. So, she bares her teeth, keeps her voice steady and projects indifference. It’s a defense mechanism masquerading as passive disobedience; or perhaps Enid, smarter than your average preemptively jaded suburbanite, is all too aware of the malign but inextricable relationship between womanhood and hysteria.

PUNK IS DEAD

Ghost World spends the rest of its run-time peeling off Enid’s skin layer by layer. When Rebecca begins flirting with conventionality and actually moving forward in life, Enid dyes her hair snot green in protest. A superficially blasé attempt at angsty, teenage melodrama, which does nothing to help the matter at hand but instead entices an ignorant heckle from a jumped-up record store clerk, dictating “punk rock is over.

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Ghost World (2001) – source: Rotten Tomatoes

As they stomp out of the store, Enid rants to Rebecca; “It’s obviously supposed to be a 1977 punk look” who replies bluntly, “I didn’t get it either”— a tepid utterance of seismic proportions. As Enid, fully aware that punk lived and died before she was even born, is mocking punk too. By adopting the iconoclastic spirit and edgy aesthetics typical of punk rock, Enid is essentially holding her hands up to the fact that she’s not the first person to ever despise corporate greed and phonies. But the satire is lost on her compatriots, and now Rebecca, too.

ENID AND SEYMOUR VS. THE WORLD

Left to her own devices, Enid replies to a pitiful personal ad in her local paper; resulting in her cahoots with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a bitter, middle-aged misanthrope with a collection of esoteric jazz records the size of a small empire. With the only person worthy of her unadulterated self slipping away, Enid searches for her fix elsewhere. First, Seymour’s bleeding-heart and then, regretfully, in his pants. Both are outcasts of their own design and lusting after bona-fide human connection — they’re too similar to fall in love, but soulmates nonetheless.

Like Harold and Maude, but with more self-loathing.

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Ghost World (2001) – source: United Artists

THE ICKY, IN-BETWEEN STATE

The Jacob’s Ladder between adolescence and adulthood has always been an arduous climb — at the base, a milk and cookies existence, the top, a life spent decomposing in an office cubicle. When you’re in the icky, in-between state, both polarities are equally repulsive.

But heat rises, as do you.

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