The Strip Mall Wasteland of GHOST WORLD

November 7, 2023 - 4:28pm
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on Ghost World were written by Sarah Mae Fleming, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Ghost World will be screened at the Cinematheque on Saturday, November 11, presented in person by Director and Co-Screenwriter Terry Zwigoff. A discussion with Mr. Zwigoff will follow the screening. The screening is at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Sarah Mae Fleming.

“It was held together by hair and spit,” remembers Daniel Clowes, on co-writing the screenplay for 2001’s Ghost World with director Terry Zwigoff. Clowes, a cartoonist and illustrator, wrote the anthology comic book series Eightball, which spawned the comics (and later graphic novel) Ghost World. When Clowes and Zwigoff were able to work together on a film adaptation, Clowes began by transcribing the comic into the screenwriting software Final Draft before realizing that adaptations don’t quite work that way. Zwigoff, too, was a Hollywood outsider. Born in rural Wisconsin before transplanting to Chicago at a young age, he fell into filmmaking to tell a story no one else wanted to tell. Both Clowes and Zwigoff, untethered by Hollywood conventions, have an interest in shining a light on society’s underbelly–characters that don’t fit in and don’t want to--until they do. Ghost World, a hybrid of a teen girl coming-of-age story and a quirky indie comic adaptation, fits neatly in neither category. Instead, Clowes and Zwigoff give genuine voice to adolescent malaise–snarky and suffocating under American monoculture.

Zwigoff became a film director somewhat unintentionally. His filmmaking origin spawned from blues musician Howard Armstrong, who Zwigoff profiled for a magazine. After spending two days with him and reaching out to uninterested filmmakers about producing a documentary, Zwigoff did it himself resulting in 1985’s Louie Bluie. Ten years later, Zwigoff’s next documentary, Crumb (1995), was released, and this time the subject famous underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and his dysfunctional family. Crumb was met with critical raves but was snubbed at the Academy Awards, resulting in a media frenzy that pressured the Academy to alter the documentary nomination process that had previously been controlled by distributors. Zwigoff was then approached by Jean Doumanian, Woody Allen’s former producing partner, to make his third film: a documentary about Allen’s jazz band on tour in Europe. Zwigoff passed on that opportunity, instead opting to direct his first fiction film–Ghost World.

Ghost World stars Thora Birch as Enid Coleslaw and Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca Doppelmeyer, with Steve Buscemi taking on the role of Seymour–a character created solely for the film whose misanthropic personality and collection of rare 78s suggest a stand-in for Zwigoff himself. Others have also pointed to Enid Coleslaw (whose name is an anagram for Daniel Clowes) as a stand-in for the author. However, rather than suggesting that these characters act as mere ambassadors for Zwigoff’s and Clowes’ thoughts about America, consumerism, and faux-retro diners, the characters of Ghost World are lived-in and true to the world they inhabit. Clowes and Zwigoff faced resistance from producers who argued that teenage girls would never speak the way Enid and Rebecca do. The experience of talking to a teenage girl (or being one) begs to differ.

“Look at all these creeps,” Enid loudly sneers in an adult video store. “Some people are okay, but mostly I just feel like poisoning everybody,” Rebecca states flatly at her barista gig. Enid doesn’t allow the conformity of her strip-mall saturated hometown to smother her quietly, while Rebecca’s monotone suggests that she allows her ennui to wash over her. This crucial difference in outlook is what drives the two best friends apart. Rebecca starts to want a small slice of the American Dream–namely an apartment to call her own. Enid can’t hold down a job or sell her belongings (e.g., a hat from her “little old lady phase”) to make enough money for one. And she’d rather spend her time with social outcast Seymour, anyway. While Rebecca finds joy in the wall-mounted ironing board in her new place, Enid dreams of disappearing.

Employing a slightly over-saturated palette, Ghost World’s cinematographer Affonso Beato studied Clowes’ comic books to create the visuals of a consumerist world. The heightened colors of Enid’s hair, or Rebecca’s clothes, invoke the constant hovering of strip-mall signage that floats around the characters. The film emphasizes emptiness and aimlessness, and often, background players wearing legible clothing wander zombie-like, seemingly serving little purpose in this world other than as walking billboards or as consumers of “delicious yellow chemical sludge” and other junk foods. In other sequences, the lack of extras is palpable, and instead of humanity, Ghost World’s backdrop is filled with storefronts. Alienated by the world and then by each other, Enid and Rebecca drift and search for something to hold on to. For Enid, Seymour becomes the object of her fascination. The dynamic between Seymour and Enid may provoke apprehension from some viewers, but as journalist Hayley Campbell puts it, “to call Seymour and Enid’s friendship ‘problematic’ is to be reductive and unimaginative about who or what teenage girls might find interesting.”

Zwigoff is drawn to characters–real and imagined–who intentionally exist on the margins. Clowes and Zwigoff found creative success by operating against the grain of convention. While this approach may have challenged the sensibilities of Hollywood studios and executives, it perfectly suits the angst and listlessness experienced not just by moody teenage girls, but by anyone who has felt the weight of modern isolation–a loneliness that grows heavier with every purchase with which we surround ourselves. Ghost World remains an achievement of resilient filmmaking, as well as a monument to the search for meaning–through friendships, records, traditional jazz or maybe ragtime, or through waiting for the bus.