By Ciara Burke
God, I love teenage girl movies.
I’m not sure what it is about this particular brand of pop cultural smut, but throw a gaggle of angry girls into a high school, give them some eyeliner and flannel and hire the peppier end of Courtney Love’s social circle to soundtrack the destruction and you had me at hello. So, yeah, ‘Ghost World’ was made in 2001 and not 1994, but as the cast of Bad Salad trudged through grimy-Brighton towards the Duke of York Picture house, disgustingly laden with denim, Docs and cans of beer, I had the same gormless smile I get whenever I re-watch Empire Records, Heathers, Reality Bites and other movies starring Winona Ryder, our holy lady of the hardcore asshole genre. It probably helps that in 2001 I turned 13 and inherited an inferiority complex as vast and dangerous as the Grand Canyon and the back catalogue of Kathleen Hanna. To say I was prime for anything that wanted to soliloquise in monotone about the general ‘mehness’ of adolescence was an understatement.
Dan Clowes’ ‘Ghost World’ is satire with a vengeance, a story that is out to take no prisoners, armed instead with silver, dialogical bullets designed to run like magnets to the jugular – but with the impressive achievement of convincing us that it really doesn’t try very hard to mince the proverbial arse it leaves leaking in its wake. And boy does it draw blood, and vomit too judging by the beautiful but inebriated girls in the back row of the theatre getting a Steve Buscemi stomach pump (Step One, Steve Buscemi’s face. Step Two, bring on the bile) and hacking their popcorn back into the bucket. This kernel of bad cinema etiquette seems oddly appropriate for a movie that uses abhorrence of absolutely everything there is as not only its central thesis, but its religion.
Okay right, so this film is about the doomed youth, the disenfranchised, the disembodied, the perpetually dissatisfied, the freaks, losers, perverts, creepers, fatties, squints, chronic masturbators, Satanists avec umbrella and generally people who talk too much but have nothing to say (See: teenage angst). Watching it in a crumbling but beautiful red-velvet theatre that can surely only be financed by the unwillingness of the hipsters to let anything die – and I thank you for this one, hipsters – seems fitting too. We sat through two Riot Grrrl bands before the feature started, one energetic and riveting – Sacred Paws – one unbearable and robotic like the animated corpse of 1986 – Choo Choo Trains – and a handful of minute long animations about an evil wiggling jelly in the acid-licked adventures of ‘Button Moon’. But on to the movie…
When I watched Ghost World as a kid, I felt a unity with the characters, their pessimism and their anger. When I watch it now as I doggy paddle in the vast sea of post-grad employment, I feel a unity with the characters, their pessimism and their anger, but for very different reasons. If there is anything I have been lamenting since being spat from the birth canal of academia, it’s the gaping contrast between the things you dream to get you through school, and the realities you’re faced with when school is actually over.
It seems like we come from a generation that was promised that if you worked hard, read a lot of important books and genuinely believed it, you could do anything you wanted. Maybe it’s because our parents made sacrifices to give it to us, maybe its backlash for thinking our so called “economic boom” could ever be sustainable, but we are the spoiled kids that got to quit everything we tried in the guise of “keeping our options open”.
It’s hard not to feel fucked royally up the ass when you graduate from college and take a look at what you actually get; to realise that the hard work, if you’ve still got the fight left in you to get down on your knees and beg for it, is only just beginning. It feels like we should be in a different position than the two gum chewing girls, fresh from high school and determined to do as little as possible with their potential, but at 24 it feel as if very little has changed. Everything feels equally as uncertain and everyone I know is dangling their feet toyingly on the “cusp”. Of what I cannot say.
So I guess you could surmise I had things on my mind as I watched the film and maybe I wanted it to be some kind of experience in passive aggressive catharsis. I definitely felt better when I left. One of the best things about this film is that it doesn’t try to resolve its problems. Enid makes like Norman and catches a bus, disappears to God knows where. It is important that she goes, but is anyone left with the impression that when she gets off that bus she isn’t anywhere other than stranded in another ghost town/village/city/world? I don’t think it offers much in the way of possibility, it just shows us that the only real option is to figure out a way to deal with it all, to minimise the carnage as your plough your way through life, constantly underwhelmed by the lack of dimension available.
So I mean, there are so many things to love here, but the crime of the film, the absolute travesty that sends me seizing into hyperbole even as I think about it now, is what it does to Becky. The friendship between two teenage girls that is the underbelly of the graphic novel, with its moments of equally hinged hilarity and poignant laceration, is put on the bench for the film-specific Steve Buscemi story. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love The Snaggle as much as the next girl, and his portrayal of the erudite but utterly pitiful Seymore is absolutely genius – I like a man that knows his blues, I like a man that knows his khaki spectrum – but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that his importance in the film version is consolidated on the two dimensional re-writing of Becky. Scarlett Johansson gets to pout and make an odd addition to the intelligent and petulant things Enid says, but her existence in this Ghost World is only relevant insofar as it allows us to understand Enid’s character development. To put it cringingly, she gets to be one of the ghosts.
So Okay, there’s no crime there, that’s what adaptation is about. But what made Dan Clowes comic so touching for me is the mutual dependence Enid and Rebecca have on each other; why someone like Enid needs Rebecca and visa-versa; The absolute intensity of teenage friendships when you’re the kind of person who sleeps with a bag of hammers beside your bed, or listens to ridiculously pretentious tapes of Indian Rock and Roll or thinks everyone else in the entire world excepting you and your friend is a scumbag. Sometimes that intensity is scary, but more importantly it’s inhibiting and the point of the graphic novel, in my opinion, is that growing up means breaking up, too. If you’re going to be a person, and particularly a person that can be happy, then you have to learn to be one on your own.
And there are other facets of their friendship that are so scarily on the money that it flabbergasts me that this was not written by someone who has survived the ‘trauma’ of being a teenage girl – because Enid and Rebecca’s friendship really hits quite a few painful strings. Without writing a dissertation I probably couldn’t do Clowes justice, but their particular dynamic seems to gravitate around the elephant in both of their living rooms, and that’s inadequacy. Enid feels inadequate because she is constantly reminded that all guys like Becky more than her. It’s not even true, because these things never are, but it’s the mantra which she tosses out like its garbage but the intrinsic belief that secretly diminishes her. But then Rebecca has to deal with the fact that everything about Enid is so dramatic. She experiments with personality and extravagance, tries subcultural fashion like a hat – “It’s an obvious 1977 original punk rock…” – and despite the offbeat in her step, cannot but draw attention. She’s clever and she’s interesting as much as she is insecure and mean. She’s luminous and there is no other way to put that.
And despite feeling like more of an Enid in the negative respect myself growing up and feeling like all of my friends were beautiful, and that maybe I’d give up being clever and sometimes funny if I could have that one meat cleaver to make people pay attention, I’ve since learned that it can be hard living with an Enid, too. Maybe the film’s underplaying of Becky really just illustrates what it’s like to love a person like that – a person who is both alarmingly present and dependent on you, but unavailable in a very important way. People like Enid will always be distant because part of feeling like your worth so much less than everyone around you is pretending you are worth so much more.
It’s funny because when discussing this article with the other Bad Salad writers, each of us found ourselves identifying with one of the two girls in particular; as Lily put it, “everyone thinks they’re either an Enid or a Rebecca”. I guess that’s… kind of pathetic in a way. But it’s true and its true of most of the wonderful girls, women, ladies, beasts I have chosen to associate myself with in my early 20s. I’m not sure it ever goes away, although the painful lack of self-consciousness and nativity of the characters is embarrassing in retrospect. I’m not sure women ever recover from loving and being loved as an adolescent. I’m not sure men do either, though on that subject I have less insight and less to say.
They’re all just observations and deductions because in the end the point of a good film and a good book or song for that matter, is that it not only allows you to Mary-Sue yourself, it forces you to engage; in the case of Ghost World, to relive your most painful memories and make some torrid realisations about your own relationships, your dissatisfaction and why the fuck you don’t just do something with your life. I have absolutely no answers yet. I’m not sure I ever will, but one of the main reasons I keep coming back to this story, and I will admit I tend to revisit the novel more than the film, is that it never fails to strike a chord with me. And judging by the applause from the sold out show at the Duke of York, I think its safe to say I’m not alone.
You can visit the Riots not Diets site and facebook page for more information on their monthly badassery. They selflessly put on amazing touring bands and play many more films like the one I just bummed into next year. We hope to feature more of the valliant efforts in the future.