“This is so bad it’s almost good,” Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) says with a laugh to her best friend Enid (Thora Birch) at their high-school graduation, marveling at the unironic chintziness of the band onstage. “This is so bad, it’s gone past good and back to bad again,” Enid snarks back. If the early minutes of Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 classic of disaffection Ghost World have any dramatic tension at all, it lies in that never-ending debate: What enjoyment, sincere or otherwise, can we draw from our increasingly decrepit culture? Or, to put it differently, what’s it like to be a teenager in the 1990s?
When Ghost World came out 16 years ago, it felt like the apotheosis of alienated Generation X cool, a movement of sorts that had roots in the music, alternative comics, and indie filmmaking of the ’80s and ’90s. It pushed back against the conformist monoculture of the Reagan era, embraced a strange kind of kitsch that reflected on the even more homogenous 1950s, and traded punk’s angry, vocal rebelliousness for an attitude of total remove. As a remastered, director-approved edition is released by the Criterion Collection this week, Ghost World feels undeniably dated, but in the best way—a reminder of an age since passed, told with the kind of universal empathy that helps it endure.
Ghost World sprang from the mind of Daniel Clowes, the prolific writer and illustrator who was best known at the time for his long-running comic book Eightball, released from 1989 to 2004 (on an ever-more irregular schedule). Clowes was undoubtedly indebted to the work of indie cartoonists like Robert Crumb, legends of past generations who had upended their industry with explicit, countercultural imagery and storytelling that also plumbed the dark side of America’s folksy past. But while Clowes’ early work channeled that nightmarish vibe, his later approach was often more internal, told with a veneer of small-town friendliness. He was fascinated with nerdy obsessives, social outcasts, and the growing sameness of pop culture.
In Ghost World, Enid presents herself as an outcast—a bold act of rebellion in earlier generations that has since lost its effectiveness. When Enid dyes her hair green in the middle of the film, she’s immediately mocked by the aggressive clientele at the local record store. “Didn’t they tell you? Punk rock is over,” John (Pat Healy) crows at her. “You really want to fuck up the system? Go to business school. That’s what I'm going to do. Get a job in some big corporation and, like, fuck things up from the inside.” Enid protests that she was going for a “1977 original punk rock look”—an aesthetic that even Rebecca confesses went over her head.
Ghost World the comic is a quieter, impressionistic work, with Enid (who is more brittle and outwardly negative) and Rebecca (slightly more conventional, if similarly cynical) wandering around their nameless town after graduating from high school and remarking on the pointlessness of everything they see. It’s a narrative of growing up and growing apart that soaks the reader in alienation and despair. When Clowes began to adapt the work for screen, he initially tried to transcribe his writing word for word, but quickly realized a film would require a clearer narrative to succeed.
The finished product is ascribed to both Clowes and Zwigoff, who before Ghost World had directed the acclaimed, bizarre documentary Crumb (about Robert Crumb’s life and career). They did a beautiful job capturing the original comic’s tone, down to the slightly oversaturated visuals and the almost robotic beats of its early scenes, where Enid and Rebecca present a united front of disgust toward everything. It also makes the first act of the film almost embarrassingly prickly on re-watch; the unabated scorn on display for everyone they run into, ranging from high school airheads to sad-sack waiters, can come off as unnecessarily vicious.
But Ghost World succeeds not because of its caustic humor, but because of its understanding of its leads, who are as lost and rootless as the targets of their mockery. Enid (her full name, Enid Coleslaw, is an anagram of Daniel Clowes) shuns obvious affection and commits acts of outright cruelty, like responding to a pathetic-sounding personal ad with a prank call and then lurking at a restaurant to watch her victim Seymour (Steve Buscemi) realize he’s been stood up. Clowes, Zwigoff, and Birch’s great achievement is turning this shiftless misanthrope into a sympathetic hero—an effect Clowes obviously struggled to replicate with Wilson, a more recent adaptation of his own work.
Johansson’s wonderfully subtle performance as Rebecca works because you can see, from minute one, that she and her friend are almost doomed to drift apart. Rebecca lets on early that she lacks Enid’s ruthlessness and bottomless well of disdain. Enid then gravitates towards Seymour (a career-defining performance for Buscemi), becoming fascinated by this outcast of a different generation, a record collector who can’t help but correct people over the difference between blues and ragtime. To Enid, Seymour represents some strange fantasy of her future, someone who’s steadfastly refused to conform with anything remotely considered “cool,” even though he’s highly aware of how sad his own life appears from the outside.
It’s the genuine sweetness of Enid and Seymour’s relationship, coupled with the realization that it’s doomed to go nowhere, that makes Ghost World such a lovely work despite its hostility. And it’s Clowes’ refusal to tack toward a happy ending, or even a darkly miserable one, that helps it linger. In the end, Enid gets on a mysterious bus heading to a mysterious future, aware that the route she’s boarding was shut down by the city years ago. Many have interpreted that as a metaphor for suicide, a reading that Clowes initially said he was surprised by. To me, the ambiguity of Enid’s future, and her confusion over her place in the world, is the crux of those final moments. Ghost World might have contempt for the corporate, homogenized world its characters are stuck in, but beneath the sarcastic quips lies deep pathos.