“The word boredom did not enter the language until the eighteenth century. No one knows its etymology. One guess is that bore may derive from the French verb bourrer, to stuff. Question: Why was there no such word before the eighteenth century? . . . (f) Is it because the self first had the means of understanding itself through myth, albeit incorrectly; later understood itself through religion as a creature of God; and now has the means of understanding the Cosmos through positive science but not itself because the self cannot be grasped by positive science, and that therefore the self can perceive itself only as a ghost in a machine? How else can a ghost feel otherwise toward a machine than bored?”—Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos
Ghost World DVD contains a tiny, five-minute clip from writer Daniel Clowes. On it, he claims that with the title he chose for his creation, “I never really understood what it means, I just thought it was a really evocative phrase.” Whether this is true or not, it’s certain that his primary theme—and our strongest clue as to what this film is about—is the title itself.
Ghost World suggests a vacuous world populated by hollow people seeking to fill up with anything and anyone they can. Call it the “search for substance,” if you like. This is meaty stuff, and we have less than two hours, so the film focuses our attention on Enid (Thora Birch), the main character, who studies what those around her are doing to “fill up.” Having observed, she herself dabbles here and there before finally leaving town to find answers elsewhere. That’s the short of it.
Enid and her friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) ask the question, “What do you do if you’re a Satanist?” Ultimately what they are asking is this: “What do you do if you’re a cynical teenager with a sixth sense for the phony and contrived?”
Starting at their high-school graduation, Enid and Rebecca are faced with that immortal question: “What next?” A typical two-point-four family with a stable income would have seen the parents discussing and planning the answer for months, years even. Moving on to college is an obvious next step. In fact, the obvious next step. But Enid apparently has no mother, and her father is prone to making polite suggestions rather than offering her firm guidance.
Although we don’t see her parents, Rebecca could be considered a more typical teenager. Freed from the shackles of education, all she wants is to live with her friend and get a job, thus achieving independence. She is looking forward, looking to the future, even if the immediate future involves spending most of her waking life at Starbucks. Rebecca is a “Ms. Practical”—someone so wrapped up in actually getting on with life that she hasn’t the time or inclination to stop and ponder. Happiness is four walls and a roof of her own—at least for the time being.
Enter Seymour (Steve Buscemi), Rebecca’s opposite. He is a middle-aged man who lives in the past. Although somewhat of a hobbyist, outwardly his life is his record collection. Inwardly, he’s well aware of the situation: “You think it’s healthy? You can’t connect with other people so you fill your life with stuff.” He blurts out his confession to Enid as he realizes she is one of the only people he actually can connect with.
Seymour looks to the past because he perceives exactly the same mask that Enid does, the falsehood that envelops much of pop culture. He says that when listening to the radio he “feels like I’m being jabbed in the face.” He recoils from the band “Blues Hammer,” which—as the girls themselves would no doubt say—may be many things, but definitely isn’t blues. “I can’t relate to 99 percent of humanity,” he bawls. His connection to Enid is due to her presence in that 1 percent. Despite Enid setting him up with a female companion (“significant other”), it is only when she herself sleeps with him that he actually wants to put it in the wind—leave town with her, and in so doing leave his past and (possibly) his record collection behind.
Enid, on the other hand, is going through the kind of realization most of us only experience after several years of work—that this is pretty much it. Her dalliance with the past is evidenced by her purchase of the record from Seymour, her brief re-styling of herself into a punk rocker, her submitting the drawing of Don Knotts in her art class, and finally the yard sale. Interestingly, Seymour’s record is the only thing sold in both the yard sales in this movie. Both Joe (Tom McGowan as Seymour’s portly housemate) and Enid ultimately decline to sell their old trinkets, as—rose-tinted specs or not—Joe, Enid, and Seymour each see the past as almost hallowed, and certainly more concrete than the flaky, consumer-obsessed present.
While Seymour retreats, Enid and Rebecca instinctively ridicule and reject anything they see as manufactured, packaged, and labeled with a lie. As in Fight Club, the prime target here is pop culture, where—as in Enid’s art class—a bent coat hanger masquerades as a masterpiece and a tampon in a teacup is considered art. “All these movies suck,” says Enid in a movie rental store that has never heard of Fellini’s 8½—another nail in the coffin of the past. Wowsville—the fake Fifties diner. Last season’s Levis lying on the sidewalk. The wheelchair-bound student with her synthesized remorse. The re-branding of “Coon’s Chicken” to “Cook’s Chicken.” On and on and on—the girls balk at anything that whiffs of the untrue.
Conversely, consider what attracts them. At the graduation, Enid is sad at seeing the last of a guy named Dennis. And both girls are attracted to Josh. Why? Both of these guys have that genuine rarity of being exactly what they appear to be—no pretense, no attempts to be cool. Even though Dennis is kind of a nerd, he isn’t trying to be anything else. And Josh is essentially a disheveled, placid kid (perhaps a little repressed); while nothing particularly seems to interest him, at least he’s honest.
The ending—like the film—is left open to interpretation. The blindly optimistic might suggest the motif: “Your bus will come in one day.” For the rest I offer the following—Enid is leaving to try and find her meaning elsewhere. In the same way so many people of her age—and in her age—travel the world to “discover themselves,” just as many seek to escape the pre-packaged mundanity of contemporary Western society. Unfortunately for her, much of life’s meaning comes from within and there’s no guarantee a journey elsewhere will bring meaning to the surface. Her perception of those things around her as banal and pointless is one of the few things within her power to change—her perception that is, not the things themselves.