Gradually and authentically, Ghost World depicts an unraveling friendship

Gradually and authentically, Ghost World depicts an unraveling friendship

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Movies aren’t very good at depicting things that happen gradually. It’s a sudden medium, by and large—the narrative’s “inciting incident,” as screenwriting manuals call it, usually occurs quite abruptly, and subsequent events are likewise handled with a concision that telescopes days or weeks worth of emotion into one big dramatic scene. That’s not meant as criticism; it’s just the natural by-product of conveying an idea in roughly two hours. A TV series that runs for six or seven years has the breathing room to depict a relationship incrementally; a movie doesn’t have that luxury. Some filmmakers get around the problem with tricks, the most famous example being Citizen Kane’s breakfast-table montage: in the space of two minutes, we see the dissolution of Charles Foster Kane’s first marriage over a series of increasingly short and hostile conversations over many years. But it’s rare for a film to attempt to do that sort of thing over the course of its entire running time, and rarer still for it to eschew any one big encapsulating moment.

Ghost World is remarkable in that it’s fundamentally about the slow death of a friendship, which expires very gradually over the course of the entire movie without ever quite receiving the last rites. Director Terry Zwigoff co-wrote the screenplay with Daniel Clowes, adapting the latter’s graphic novel, and they make this conceit work by foregrounding other, more conventionally dramatic elements and letting Enid and Becky drift apart in the margins of those adventures. On its surface, the film looks like it’s primarily about Enid (Thora Birch) and the unexpectedly rich relationship she develops with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), the middle-aged, vintage-music collector she meets when she and Becky play a practical joke on him after reading his personal ad in the paper. (Significantly, Seymour doesn’t exist in the graphic novel, though elements of his personality can be found in a couple of minor characters.) But the heart of the film are the scenes between Enid and Becky, even though they never have a major tiff and their duets play like pauses between the main action. I’ve chosen a representative scene from the middle of the film to discuss here, following Enid’s visit to a sex shop with Seymour, but any of them might have worked.

That’s Crispin Glover’s dad, Bruce Glover, as the trivia buff in the wheelchair; he’s probably best known for playing one of Blofeld’s assassins in Diamonds Are Forever. Maybe I’m dating myself, but I was surprised, watching this again, to see that even as late as 2001, the idea of being wirelessly connected to the Internet was unusual enough that only one person would think to game a daily free-coffee trivia question in this way. Presumably such promotions have vanished since the advent of the smartphone. This was also an era in which movies could still get away with completely fake-looking search engines—Wheelchair Dude clearly just types the words “DOUGLAS POUCH” into a Microsoft Word document or something similar, which isn’t connected to the Internet at all. (He appears to be using a Wallstreet Series PowerBook G3, though, which was Apple’s current laptop around the time Ghost World was shot.) For the record, the technical name for the Douglas pouch is the recto-uterine pouch, though writing those words on the chalkboard would probably have put customers off their decaf mochas. 

Anyway, Enid abruptly enters the scene in a Batgirl mask she just had Seymour buy her at the sex shop. (Why a sex shop would have such a mask for sale puzzles me, I confess, but perhaps that just reveals my ignorance about BDSM or role-playing or what have you.) This automatically places her on a completely separate plane from Becky, who’s at work in her pseudo-Starbucks apron. The film begins with both Enid and Becky as perpetual outsiders who hold the “straight world” in contempt, but immediately after their high school graduation ceremony, Becky begins to assimilate herself into everyday society; that she has a job and Enid doesn’t—which Becky pointedly notes in the course of this brief conversation—is emblematic of the divide that’s forming between them. Making Enid look weird, by having her wear the mask throughout the scene, serves to make Becky look even more “freakishly” normal than she otherwise would. As in a comic book or graphic novel, it’s possible to get the gist without any dialogue at all. Just a glance at the two of them together tells the whole story, their utter cordiality notwithstanding. (Becky does call Enid a cunt for going to the sex shop without her, but that’s trash talk, not a genuine insult.)

What really makes this scene (and the entire movie) work, though, is Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Becky. One of the reasons I thought to write about Ghost World now is that Johansson’s evocative work as the voice of the operating system in Her, combined with her equally offbeat starring role in Jonathan Glazer’s forthcoming Under The Skin, have reminded people that she’s actually a formidable actress, so long as she’s used correctly. Here, she doesn’t strain to make Becky seem like a sellout or a shallow caricature of nascent materialism—she just sort of shrugs at everything Enid says, unable to agree, but unwilling to start an argument. When Enid asks Becky to guess where she got the mask, Becky doesn’t even try to guess; she offers a quick “Um…” and then simply repeats the question. And when Enid objects that creeps, losers, and weirdos are “our people,” Johansson’s little half-shrug in response is sheer perfection, conveying the distance between them in the most casual, un-emphatic way imaginable. Part of that is the writing (her line is just “Yeah, well”), but mostly it’s a factor of how hard Johansson isn’t trying to sell this moment. It’s arguably the key exchange in the movie, and it passes by virtually unnoticed, as we wait impatiently for Enid to get back to Seymour and his esoteric self-loathing. (“I hate my interests.”)

Zwigoff does, I think, push a little too hard in the scene’s final seconds. Its last shot shows Enid and Becky from across the room, and we hear Becky say, “God, I can’t believe you went to Anthony’s without me.” That line appears to have been added in post-production, as it doesn’t match Johansson’s lip movements at all. (More precisely, Becky moves her head intimately forward toward Enid, ostensibly on the words “without me,” in a way that makes no sense in regards to body language. It’s hard to see her lips from that distance, but the disconnect between image and sound is clear to me.) The scene has no function apart from showing the rift between the two girls, and Zwigoff apparently got worried that viewers wouldn’t understand that Becky feels betrayed (though Enid mentions to Seymour in the previous scene that she and Becky had been wanting to go into Anthony’s for ages), so he used a little ADR to seal the deal. To my mind, it’s overkill, because the whole point is to make their growing apart seem as imperceptible as a two-hour movie will allow. In truth, that’s still “not very”—even here, the differences between them get underlined much more than they would over a given couple of minutes in real life. It’s shorthand. But by cinematic standards, it’s slow-motion shorthand, with the most important scenes, like this one, almost registering as interstitial afterthoughts. Only at the end does their significance become retroactively clear.

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