Ghost World (2001)
February 21, 2016 11:31 PM - Subscribe

With only the plan of moving in together after high school, two unusually devious friends seek direction in life. As a mere gag, they respond to a man's newspaper ad for a date, only to find it will greatly complicate their lives.

Many things to love here, including nunchucks guy, a David Cross cameo, and young Brad Renfro (RIP). The first time I saw this movie, as a morose teenage girl, I felt like someone had made a movie "about people like me." Thank you, Dan Clowes and Terry Zwigoff.

Did anyone else love this movie? Can we call it an early 00s classic?
posted by Miss T.Horn (18 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've grudgingly come around to kind of admiring the movie... but this is one of those things where if you love the original book (as I do) the movie diverges from it so much that it's just deeply frustrating. I've met fans of the movie who've never read the book, and when I explain to them that the book is much more about the dissolution of the girls' friendship and the Seymour character only appears in one chapter and never speaks, they're amazed. Rebbecca hardly exists in the movie, and in the book she is a much more central, vivid character.

I also just knew too much about the director's personal quirks, and the movie sometimes felt kind of embarrassing as a result. I'm an R. Crumb fanatic, so when I saw this film I already knew plenty about Zwigoff's close friendship with Crumb, I knew Zwigoff was really into old graphic design and "race" imagery and I'd read interviews where Crumb talked about their shared mania for old blues records and kind of made fun of Zwigoff for going out with these much younger women Crumb described as kind of childlike and bratty. And then I saw this movie where a homely, middle-aged guy obsessed with blues records and vintage, racist graphic design enters into this weird relationship with a beautiful, kind of bratty, misfit teenage girl. And then he gets her really into the blues! There's a shot where she's lying down in bed while Devil Got My Woman plays, and her body kind of dissolves into the phonograph needle, and... Oh my lord, it made me cringe like I was reading Zwigoff's diary or something.

I'm not one of those people who automatically gets sneery about stories created by older guys about young women having relationships with older guys. I just care about if the story is done well and if I can buy the relationships. (In fact I find it offensive when people act like it's just gross for a young woman to be with an older man, like they should have a say in other people's relationships. As long as everybody is of legal age, I don't care if one of them is 22 and the other's 100. Whatever makes them happy.) But this was a situation where we had an excellent book that was very much about these two young women, and it became a movie about this young woman who gets obsessed with this older man who is just way too much like the director. It was too easy to picture Zwigoff reading Clowes' book up to the chapter with the pitiful "bearded windbreaker" nerd guy and saying, "Ah, well, here's how it SHOULD have gone..."

All that being said, when I put the book aside and came back to the film years later, I did like it more. Enid is still an interesting character, and Seymour is kind of a lovable schnook too. It's probably not fair for me to judge Zwigoff for inserting himself into the story, because MOST artists probably do that to some degree. I just happened to know enough about this particular artist that it made it squirmy for me. Enid is still Enid and the relationship between Enid and Seymour is compelling. It works as its own thing, and I can see why it speaks to people.

But at the time this movie was kind of the indie Phantom Menace for me. I went into it so excited and then I sat there getting madder and madder, feeling like the director was squandering all this potential and indulging himself.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:58 AM on February 22, 2016 [15 favorites]

This so needs a sequel with the original actors.
posted by sammyo at 6:08 AM on February 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ursula Hitler, yes, I can see your frustration (and kind of expected Clowes/Crumb fanatics to pipe up here). Obviously you have to view the film and the book as two very different works. It's funny, because...maybe I was younger than you when I saw it, but I actually found that the book, though excellent, was not as engaging and compelling for me, as a young person, as the film. And I loved graphic novels, so this must have been a simple "time in my life" thing. Part of it was maybe the subversive aspect of a young girl being attracted to an older man with few conventionally attractive qualities that was so interesting at the time...or of a young woman being depicted as being interested in old things, which you don't see often in film. Of course, I didn't know or care much about Zwigoff, so it's interesting to hear that this was sort of his fantasy. As far as fantasies go, it's kind of charming, in its way. Sort of...quaint? "I want to corrupt her with 1920s blues." "Oooooh boy, a girl who actually shares my interests."

Anyhow, if this movie is Zwigoff's fantasy, he undercuts it at least somewhat when Seymour ends up alone and in therapy.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 8:22 AM on February 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I loved this movie when I saw it in the theater. At the time I was a disaffected, bespectacled, often deeply unpleasant teenage girl who listened exclusively to music created before I was born, prone to overwhelming, life-eating crushes on men decades older than I was, so it definitely got me where I lived. I definitely had lots of differences with Enid too, but I think if my kids ever ask me what I was like to be around as a teen this movie is the closest I'll get to being able to convey it to them.

I saw it with my best friend who was (as I recall) just about to head off to college, and I was still stuck with one more year in high school, and we went to a place afterwards that served extremely elaborate waffles drowning in ice cream and strawberries and hot fudge, and had an awkward, sad conversation. I don't remember what we actually said but I remember it as such a sad, poignant movie-and-waffle excursion.

Definitely read most of Clowes' back catalog after I saw it.
posted by town of cats at 1:29 PM on February 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

I always liked it because I feel like more stories need to have that point where the young girl is like "wait, what the fuck, why am I relying on this random old guy I don't really want to fuck for validation?"
posted by stoneandstar at 3:42 PM on February 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I love the comic and the movie, but it still bothers me that the movie shifted the important relationship from Enid and Rebecca to Enid and Seymour. I used to have a mega-list of movies where teenage girls' intellectual development and growing up was depicted through them having sex with a much older man. Once you start noticing it, it never stops.
posted by thetortoise at 4:06 PM on February 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

This movie is one of the ones that's in a project that I'm working on this year so I've revisited it pretty recently. It was -- more or less -- the inspiration for my project.

I really like this movie (like people used to just say to me "You've seen Ghost World" in a way were it was not a question), but as I get older, the more I'm bothered by Enid's relationship with Seymour. Not because it seemed at all predatory or anything ... it's just that it feels like such a cliche. I was OK with them being friends -- and I would've liked it they had just stayed friends, honestly. As a teen, I know I knew several older men who treated me kindly and with respect and actually acted interested in me. (Maybe it was sexual for them. I am not being naive there -- I just have no idea. I just know that I actually felt like I was being listened to and my thoughts mattered.)

And while Enid's relationship with Seymour turning sexual makes some sense in terms of the plot, it just makes me tired. It's like men can't find any other conclusion for relationships between men and women.

But I like Enid a lot. I think she captures the particular kind of asshole teenage girls often are without knowing it or meaning to be. I liked seeing someone who was kind of like me on screen. I liked that a movie based on one of those weird indie comics that I liked (although I wouldn't read Ghost World until later) was actually made. It made me feel validated in a way few other things did.

I do feel sad for Rebecca in this movie, though. Enid's really not cool toward her & I don't blame her for lashing out at Seymour.

(I also keep trying to convince people to cosplay as Enid at Small Press Expo but no one will do it.)
posted by darksong at 4:35 PM on February 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

"wait, what the fuck, why am I relying on this random old guy I don't really want to fuck for validation?"

I think the only way to feel good about what happens here is if you regard Seymour as a predator, which he's not, or you just don't consider his feelings at all. I like Enid and don't really fault her for her actions here. She's a fumbling, inexperienced kid and doesn't set out to hurt anybody. But Seymour is not exactly a worldly sort, he's kind of an arrested kid in many ways himself and he's perhaps as out of his depth as Enid is. The whole thing is just really sad. It may be a growth experience for both of them, but at least Enid is younger and has more room to grow. For Seymour it's just one more heartbreak, in a life that seems to have been full of them.

After my earlier comments about Zwigoff, I feel like I should add that Clowes has been pretty open about Enid being kind of a fantasy woman for him too. He even puts himself in the book, and Enid crushes on the idea of this cool older cartoonist until she meets him and he's this gross, leering creep. But to me part of the reason the book works better is because Clowes' story is very much about Enid and Rebecca, we're learning all about them as troubled individuals and as a pair. Zwigoff's story makes Enid a quasi-romantic partner for a Zwigoff surrogate. The phrase "masculine gaze" kind of makes me hurl, but I have to use it here: in the movie we are looking at Enid through Zwigoff's eye, but in the book I feel like we are looking through the eyes of Enid (and Rebecca, to a lesser extent). Enid doesn't feel like anybody's fantasy girl in the book, even if she was to some degree.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:24 PM on February 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't think that's true at all; Enid and Seymour are both terribly confused and more worthy of empathy than scorn, but that doesn't mean that Enid learning something about herself is not a valuable moment of self-realization re: young women being young and confused in their enmeshment in the validation-relationship matrix. (Also, as much as I can identify with Seymour, he's very much the end product of a life devoid of emotional labor. I think once Enid realizes that he's opening up to the possibility of a real relationship and she'll be on the hook for that kind of thing, not free to be the caustic and irresponsible youth that she is, she flees. It's the wake-up call.) The fact that he's older than her makes it possible for him to be a burden on her without actually being a bad guy, though. She realizes she's going to be the one calling the hospital when his back gives out.

And Seymour is naive, and it's exactly that naivete that attracts Enid to him and then repels her, when she realizes what it would be like to be in a traditional relationship with someone not of her generation (where certain layers of irony are taken for granted). In the context of the movie she obviously still likes Seymour, but she has a dawning realization that she found someone she thought was cool and "safe" (because he's NOT her peer), but ultimately that can be alienating, and is one of the reasons Enid and Rebecca drift apart. It doesn't have to be Seymour's "fault" to also result in Enid realizing that she doesn't need the kind of validation she was unconsciously toying with with Seymour.

What happens to Seymour is sad, but I think there's also a dimension of the movie that ignores that in real life, cool women are not THAT few and far between, and it's very possible he's single into his middle age because he wasn't really willing to build a genuine relationship with another adult woman. I mean, now I'm just editorializing, but it's so common for men with emotional difficulties to date very young (like, college-age or younger) women because they are very emotionally open / accepting. Enid teases him for his girlfriend's ugly jeans and yells about his bad behavior but she's ultimately game for his bullshit, whereas his anger problems, etc., would probably not appeal to another healthy adult. So it's possible that Seymour is a good and interesting human being but not a good partner, which is sad, because he's lonely. But it's also possible to be happy for Enid that she has the self-possession to realize she's fundamentally confused and her pursuit of Seymour is deeply wrong for her, despite their kinship.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:59 PM on February 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'd read a lot of Clowes when I was a suicidal trans teen.. I was 29 when Ghost World came out, and I was just full of dread.. It burned to watch. Even the opening credits (to Jan Peechan Ho) were painful, like a mini-movie of sordid unhappy lives in little boxes, the introduction of Enid dancing obliviously, miming the dance of this massively gendered Bollywood musical, where everyone is wearing masks... Then the rest of the movie is Enid feeling the box closing around her, her own befuddled unrealistic attempts at expression and carving out a reality for herself. Seeing it while living in what felt like a wreckage of a life defined by suicide attempts, this movie is just too personally evocative for me.

Part of the reason I failed as an English major (beyond the other reasons someone could fail at that that arose in your cynical brain) was that I had my own trans gal interpretations of things that I could never share, that the creators of art never intended, that it felt like no one else would understand, or dismiss with a cis backhand comment. I suppose I could dismiss it all to myself as trans gal feels.
posted by nom de poop at 5:25 AM on February 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

stoneandstar, as I said I don't blame Enid for what she did. But I think your interpretation may make Seymour kind of a prop in her story. Yes, she learns things about herself from sleeping with him. But that decision ends up hurting him badly (he tells the shrink that his life fell apart!) and it hurts Enid too. It's the kind of mistake you make when you're lost and confused, and hopefully you learn from it on your way to becoming a better person. I think she ends up regretting that night and probably always will. When I was young I did things that hurt people I cared about, and I did learn from that and I changed my behavior. I still don't know if I'd call those experiences "valuable".

I don't think Seymour was seeking out a younger woman, or looking for a woman to deal with his "bullshit". I think he thought of himself as a lost cause and was through looking for love. I think he was attracted to Enid, but he went into their friendship kind of baffled why she was interested in him at all and he felt deeply ambivalent about the situation. He wasn't trying to manipulate Enid or turn their friendship into anything else. There was this beautiful young woman who inexplicably insisted on being part of his life, and that freaked him out but he was willing to follow where she led. As I think about it, the story almost plays like it's from Seymour's POV. It's like this middle-aged guy telling us about about how he was pursued by this mysterious young woman, and his motives were pure and he never did anything wrong, and she inexplicably seduced him and broke his heart.

(Whoa. I haven't seen the film for a while, but is it possible that when he has his scene with the shrink at the end, the whole movie we've been watching is his version of the story?)

Nom de poop, I've experienced a lot of frustration myself as a trans person, dealing with cisgender art and cisgender people's interpretations of art. When we sense a trans quality in a work, I think we're often right. Even if the author wasn't aware of it, or was aware of it but was attempting to conceal it. In the case of Ghost World, Clowes has said that he tried to take everything he didn't hate in humanity, and put it into Enid and Rebecca. (Note that that isn't quite the same as saying they represent everything he LOVES in humanity!) He's also said that he felt like he could have them say things that a homely guy character couldn't. It seems like Enid and Rebecca were his avatars, he hasn't denied that.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:44 PM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I guess it says a lot about me that the Seymour/Enid relationship is the LAST thing I think about when I think about this movie. Which was my introduction to Clowes, and to comix that I might actually care about. And then to Aimee Mann. In addition to the vintage blues records, of course. And Thora Birch is so good in this! Such a shame about her horrible father.

What I do think about:

"This is an authentic 1973 punk look. EVERYONE'S TOO STUPID"--glossed upthread as "the particular kind of asshole teenage girls often are without knowing it or meaning to be." Yes, yes, yes. How to be critical without being an asshole--a lesson many of us continue to learn.

And all the art school stuff!! "Tampon in a Teacup." "Mirror. Father. Mirror. Father." (and the detail that the film is funded by her parents!). See above. Loving this movie clearly laid the groundwork for my loving Six Feet Under.
posted by kickingthecrap at 9:14 PM on February 23, 2016

Seymour is a prop in her story! It's a story about her. Rebecca is a prop in her story, too. And for all intents and purposes, Enid is a child. Yes, she's legally an adult, but... I mean, she is literally about to graduate high school when the story begins. If it were set one year earlier, their sexual relationship would be illegal. Her teenagehood is painfully real to the extent that the movie is a thematization of it.

the story almost plays like it's from Seymour's POV. It's like this middle-aged guy telling us about about how he was pursued by this mysterious young woman, and his motives were pure and he never did anything wrong, and she inexplicably seduced him and broke his heart.

Well, no. It's very explicitly from her POV, as a young woman who is confused and finds someone who she thinks isn't as "fake" as the people around her, only to realize her confusion is deeper than she could really understand, and that she needs to get the fuck out of dodge instead of looking for something elusive in her limited, high school surroundings. It's kind of weird to me that such a delicate and multilayered view of confused female adolescence could be cast as a very boring tale of a pure and innocent man who dated a teenager and was victimized by her wantonness.

The movie is very sympathetic to Seymour but it doesn't do much to earnestly cast him as the victim of a high school vixen. I mean, I didn't get that vibe at all. Seymour can be a sad sack, but I think it's less what Enid did to him and more just... his life. There is a tragedy in a middle-aged guy being bowled over by a confused, hurting teenaged girl who doesn't know what she wants yet, but it's more of a dark tragicomedy in the film.

I think it's kind of lame to say that it's not a "valuable" narrative-- teenaged girls are allowed to be teenaged girls. They do stupid things, they hurt people. No one doesn't. Because it involves a sympathetic older guy doesn't make it meaningless. I'm guessing the vast majority of young people have highly meaningful and highly painful early relationship experiences, both with their peers and otherwise. It's practically a cliche that people learn from their failed relationships. The movie ends with Enid beginning to break free; I've read that it's the point where she is beginning to realize that she's an artist, and that as a viewer you can imagine a long life of artistic highs and personal lows ahead of her.

I'm thinking of Y Tu Mama Tambien as the genderflipped version, where the boys obviously act like young jackasses and the story belongs to their older lover as much as to them, but in that story, the older woman is wise and knows that screwing around with high school boys is more a kamikaze mission than a potential for a real, reciprocal relationship. (This isn't to say that older women don't get involved with younger men; my point is more that not every adult is blind to the fact that a teenager is a bad life partner 99.9% of the time.)

PSA: don't date people who are literally still in high school, because, spoiler, they don't know what they want yet.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:11 PM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's kind of weird to me that such a delicate and multilayered view of confused female adolescence could be cast as a very boring tale of a pure and innocent man who dated a teenager and was victimized by her wantonness.

Hang on. I was questioning the intent of the filmmakers, not saying I had it all figured out. I was wondering if we might have had an unreliable narrator situation going on, because if a guy like Seymour was telling a story about his experience with a girl fresh out of high school, his version of events might sound a lot like this. It may be a stretch to call Seymour "pure and innocent," but for a story where a middle-aged guy has sex with a girl fresh out of high school I think maybe he IS an unrealistically good, blameless character. Maybe.

If it turned out the whole thing was supposed to be Seymour recounting the story to his shrink, it would be interesting in a different way. Then it would have this formal twist that you could easily miss, and we'd have to look back at the whole story and question what was real. But again, I'm not sure that's what happens. It just suddenly hit me that the movie ends with Seymour talking to his shrink, and having not seen it for a few years I wondered if there was this whole other angle I never saw before.

And I would never use the the word "wanton" to describe what Enid does here, because I definitely don't think she was trying to be cruel. I don't like the sex shame-y connotations of the word either. She made a mistake, and so did Seymour. I actually had a whole paragraph in my previous comment about how they were both confused and they were both being selfish to some degree and they probably both knew it was a mistake but they briefly convinced themselves that this could work. (I cut it because my comment was too damn long already.)

I think it's kind of lame to say that it's not a "valuable" narrative

I wasn't saying the NARRATIVE wasn't valuable, at all. I was questioning the use of the term valuable for how Enid would regard this. To me, when you make a mistake that ends in pain for you or people you care about, it seems kind of strange to say that's been valuable. Value makes me think of something good, something to treasure.

I think this whole disagreement is something where if we argued it out we'd eventually find that we agree much more than we thought. There was plenty if your comment that made me say, "Oh, I agree with that, actually," and other stuff where I thought, "Wait, that's not what I meant..." But I feel like this might take more time and mental energy than I've got, so I'll just say the stuff I've said and leave the rest unsaid.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:56 AM on February 24, 2016

This whole conversation has gotten a bit odd, IMO. There is nothing in the film to indicate that it's from Seymour's POV. If you were talking about it as if it were a story it'd be in 3rd person, mostly 3rd person limited, with a few moments of being close to Seymour.

I think the only way to feel good about what happens here is if you regard Seymour as a predator, which he's not, or you just don't consider his feelings at all

This seems to be the only way for you to feel good about it.

A lot of the stuff you mentioned about Zwigoff, etc, is fascinating, but I don't agree with the idea that a) films and stories must always make us feel good (whatever that means) and b) there's necessarily something deviant about either Enid or Seymour in this film. We can have more complex feelings about it than that. Which is, I think, what originally attracted me to it as a teenager: the idea that things are complex, that they don't tie up neatly and no-one is completely right or good, yet everyone deserves love and compassion no matter how strange they are.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 10:46 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

There is nothing in the film to indicate that it's from Seymour's POV.

I wondered if there was, and I hadn't seen it for a few years so I wasn't sure. If it was all his version of events, I felt like it had to be a pretty subtle thing, easy to miss... because I'd missed it!

This seems to be the only way for you to feel good about it.

What the what? I don't understand that at all.

I don't agree with the idea that a) films and stories must always make us feel good (whatever that means)

That's not what I said. Another commenter seemed to be describing Enid and Seymour's sex scene as something positive and "valuable" to Enid, and I was questioning that. I thought they both probably learned some grim truths that night.

b) there's necessarily something deviant about either Enid or Seymour in this film.

I didn't say that either. Was that line in reference to something I'd said?

We can have more complex feelings about it than that.

I agree.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:07 AM on February 26, 2016

I thought they both probably learned some grim truths that night

I mean, you're making it sound like the consequences of a young woman realizing she doesn't want to have sex with someone she cares about are REALLY DIRE. They're not. It can actually be quite freeing to wake yourself up from a haze like that. I mean, it seems like she cares about Seymour, but I don't think it's exactly going to ruin her life. The idea that a teenager inhabits that kind of moral doominess is a bit odd. She is flip. Looking back I bet she'd have a pang of tender sadness but also a cogent realization that he is an adult who should have probably pulled his life together at some point. Teenage girls aren't responsible for adult male wellbeing and the idea that in general, women are responsible for male wellbeing is a nontrivial thorn in our side.

The idea that she is morose and grim about realizing her fling with Seymour wasn't what she thought it was is not really borne out by the film. She returns to him with affection but it becomes clear that Enid *thought* she was a mature woman, better than everyone else around her, who wanted something different... but she's actually just barely not-a-girl. There's so much she doesn't know, and now she realizes it. That's what I see in that final scene between Enid and Seymour. She is nice but almost childlike. A little abashed but tender. Then she leaves town because she realizes she's about to begin the rest of her life. Melancholy but not grim.

Sorry to react so strongly, but the idea that a teenage girl who is practically a child is equally or more culpable for seducing a middle-aged man is very present in our culture and barely present in the movie, so it rankles to see it applied to this particularly successful female-centered film. You don't have to hate Seymour to realize that Enid is not really responsible for (nor does she probably totally understand) what has happened to him, and that what happened to him is sad but also a consequence of his own actions. The sad-sackness of Seymour is probably the result of Zwigoff's personal storytelling.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:33 PM on March 3, 2016

So, to you she seems to be feeling just fine as she abandons her life and takes that bus ride to wherever? I'm not saying that was all because of her disastrous relationship with Seymour, and to some extent she was probably looking for new adventures or whatever. But I think the ending of the film is supposed to be quite melancholy. That's not a fun, empowering journey she's going on. It's a trip to anywhere but here, on a phantom bus line that's not supposed to exist.

Having dug up the film's ending on Youtube, I now I have a clear answer to my question about whether Seymour's therapy session possibly served as a framing device: it's definitely not. (And that is some heartbreaking, plinky piano music!)

As I said in my previous comments, one of my problems with the film is that I felt like it shifted things from the book so we were getting less of Enid's own perspective. But this movie is one of those things with men and women in it, and those are almost always a mistake to discuss on Metafilter.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:39 PM on March 3, 2016

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