Mind Blowing Movies: Ghost World (2001), by Amy Crehore

Mm200This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. -- Mark

Ghost World, A Movie That Knocked My Socks Off, by Amy Crehore

[Video Link] It starts out with an absolutely unforgettable and insane music video of an East Indian dance number from a 1965 Bollywood production (Gumnaam). A young teenager named Enid rocks out wickedly in front of a television set, wearing a cap and gown in a bedroom crammed with clothes and familiar-looking junk.

I knew it was going to be good, but I had no idea that the movie Ghost World (2001) would bathe me in such an uncanny sense of deja vu from start to finish. The characters are so real and familiar that they could have been based on my friends and me.

Director Terry Zwigoff had previously spent almost a decade making a documentary about his friend R. Crumb, the legendary comic artist. Crumb (1994) had been a grueling project, but the film made a big splash when it came out and he was rewarded with new opportunities.

In 2001, his first full-length fictional film was released and I was curious to see it. It is based on an earlier Daniel Clowes' comic called Ghost World, which features two teenage girl characters, Enid and Rebecca. The collaboration between Zwigoff and Clowes for the movie proved to be immensely fruitful with each adding his own personal nuances to the adapted screenplay.

Enid is played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson is Becky, her sidekick. The two best friends bounce deadpan observations off each other like a classic comedy team, constantly mocking the people and situations around them. Enid is the flamboyant, anti-establishment, artistic one. Becky is the quieter, more conservative friend with a hoarse voice whom the boys seemed to prefer. They sport the same funky clothes and youthful bravado that I shared with my friends and the same hidden unease about what the future might hold.

Steve Buscemi plays a nerdy, middle-age, obsessive collector of 78 records named Seymour who crosses paths with the girls. They find his number on a lonely hearts personal ad. Just for kicks, when they are bored, they call him up. The girls spy on him after they lure him to a new '50s diner. Seymour has such a perfect, worn-out, real-life quality. Apparently, this character is based on Terry Zwigoff himself.

In the late 1970s, Terry Zwigoff had played cello and mandolin in a band featuring R. Crumb called The Cheap Suit Serenaders. Collecting old music on 78s from the '20s and '30s and playing authentic old instruments is their passion.

I can relate to that. My friends and I subscribed to a magazine called 78 Quarterly, collected vintage National and Gibson guitar-family instruments and banjos, played '20s and '30s ragtime blues music in a hokum band. We bought underground comic books and even published our own comic book. We collected R Crumb's trading cards of country blues and early Jazz performers.

In fact, one of my favorite parts of the documentary Crumb was when R. Crumb pulled out Geeshie Wiley's plaintive "Last Kind Words Blues" (1930) from his shelves of 78s and put it on the record player. Ghost World proved to be just as satisfying to me when I saw Seymour's room full of vintage stuff. Zwigoff brought his own collection of 78s, antiques, blues posters and ephemera to the set. When Enid played Skip James' "Devil Got My Woman" for the first time, a record she got at Seymour's yard sale, it practically made me cry. She declared Seymour's room to be her dream room. It is mine, too. I noticed an art deco mandolin hanging on the wall.

We follow these two girls as they while away the summer after their high school graduation ceremony. Enid has to repeat art class in summer school to get her diploma. The art class is just like my own class in art school, complete with the hippie teacher played to perfection by Illeana Douglas who desperately wants her students' art to have meaning. I hung out in many a diner with friends and drew in sketchbooks just like Enid.

As Enid becomes closer to Seymour to escape her dysfunctional home life and uncertain future, Becky gets a job and looks for an apartment. At one point, Enid spies a giant vintage logo from the '30s in Seymour's room for a chicken restaurant franchise called "The Coon Chicken Inn". I was in Portland when I saw this movie for the first time and I knew that there had been a Coon Chicken Inn in Portland. As depicted on old postcards, the building had a huge head of a black man with a giant open mouth for the entrance to the restaurant. Zwigoff seamlessly weaves the ending to his film around this real-life piece of black ephemera.

Seymour admits to Enid that he has worked at Cook's Chicken Inn for the last 19 years, previously known as the Coon Chicken Inn. He shows Enid examples of the old logo and its transition to the new fictitious one (drawn by Daniel Clowes). Enid grabs the earlier logo for her art class and calls it a found object that challenges us to think about racism. Her teacher loves it, but the image ends up in an art show and creates a scandal.

Zwigoff and Clowes came up with lots of other fun details that ring true: a porno shop where Enid buys a catwoman mask, a nunchucks guy that hangs in the parking lot of the convenience store, an obnoxious honky "blues" band that performs after an authentic ragtime blues player in a bar, a surreal man who sits on a bench waiting for a bus that never seems to come.

This movie is perfectly constructed, beautifully shot and impeccably cast. It is one of the few films that I own a DVD of and can watch over and over again. Hey, who would have ever predicted that young Scarlett Johansson would become the glamorous movie star she is today? Thora Birch, however, is the real star here. Her Enid is unforgettable.


  1. I loved Ghost World with a  passion, but I don’t think I could watch again. It hits too close too home and for me is a sad film.
    There is a prevalent interpretation that Enid getting on the bus at the end, is a metaphor for suicide. Zwigoff denies it though. However I think that this interpretation is prevalent says a lot.

    There is something profoundly sad about Enid, not being able to find her place in the world, and having to move on.

    1. I saw it as her making a complete break with her old life, no going back, choosing a route that almost noone could see or follow her on. A lonely path, but it was the only one she could take and be true to herself

    2. Completely disagree.  Ghost World is indeed a mind-blowing movie, and that ending scene is something that has inspired me and given me hope more times than I can recall.

      I see it as Enid letting go of all the things that tie her to a dependent lifestyle she doesn’t fit into, and taking a chance on the unknown for the first time.  It’s the only way she can escape the things that hold her back.  The bus is an escape from adolescence, heading for an independent future; the destination is unknown, but far more important is the journey itself, and making the decision to start it.

      I’ve never heard the suicide interpretation before, but that seems like a complete misunderstanding of the whole film to me.

    3. SUICIDE!? Moving out of your parents’ house or your home town isn’t suicide. Jumping Jesus.

    4.  I can understand the suicide (or at least death) symbolism, but it may be from the comic rather than the movie.  Near the end of the comic, Becky sees Enid for the first time in a while and says she’s having trouble seeing Enid, that she’s all blurry (like a ghost, perhaps).

  2. I’m glad someone covered Ghost World.  I haven’t read the comics but I loved everything about the film.  I’m nearly that old record collector dude.  The turntable’s spinning as I write this.  It’s one of those rare small movies that seems not to suffer from its limited scale.  Speaking of which, and no pun intended, I hope someone covers The Stationmaster.  It’s fairly recent but shockingly good in ways you don’t expect.

  3. Loved the comic and flick to pieces.
    Sweet, mellow, existential little gem. The relationship between Seymour and Enid is quite a wonderful thing. 

  4. We just watched this last week.  Thora Birch was great, and I think her talent has been wasted in her subsequent career in bad horror movies.

  5. Like AV3000, I loved Ghost World, but found the film too  uncomfortable to see again. I’m more like Seymore than one of the girls; his rant about alienation, not having anything in common with his coworkers or the dating pool, struck home.

    Actually, I did see it again. I’d bought the film on discount VHS — probably still have it — and showed it to my parents. My father taught film appreciation and I like to show the folks that non-blockbusters films actually being made today. They were pretty impressed, as I recall.

    I actually liked the film better than the comic. Turning Seymore into a full blown character, rather than a one-scene anonymous shlub, was a brilliant move.

    I’d forgotten the art-class angle. Zwigoff went on to work on Art School Confidential, which was all about that scene.

  6. “…obsessive collector of 78 records named Seymour…”

    78 is a pretty small collection, but then there probably aren’t too many records named Seymour.

  7. Those of you who love this movie should see ‘Crumb’, like Amy mentions. It’s on Amazon Instant. If you understand Crumb’s outlook on the world it will open a whole different interpretation of this film: especially that final scene, where the camera pans down from the power lines and across the urban sprawl.

    Seriously, watch that ending again, it’s all drawn from Crumb sketches. A fat guy slurping a big gulp wanders behind. Enid strolls across a suburban wasteland. Pan down from the power lines. I always interpreted it as Enid getting out of suburban hell, out of adolescence, and into the wider world.

    I disagree that you shouldn’t watch this movie more than once. The first time, you’ll think it’s about two snarky adolescent girls. The second time, you’ll see it’s about two misanthropic old men.

    1. Agreed on the movie Crumb.  It’s a fascinating look at a brilliant weirdo.  It made me wish there were more like Robert Crumb.

      1. I don’t know if I would say he “got off easy in that family” as much as say he figured out how to cope with the world he was given to deal with.  His brother’s clearly barely understand the world at large; Robert Curmb at least had self-awareness & that is the key to how he’s far more mentally stable than his siblings ever were.

  8. Both R. Crumb and Ghost World were great. Steve Buscemi is his creepiest since Trees Lounge.

  9. Crumb, the movie, is as dry as toast without butter. But Crumb, the man it reveals, melts my brain. The staggering, unapologetic offensiveness of some of his creations contrasts shatteringly with the meek and harmless man that made them, in much the same way as the straight forward presentation of the film contrasts with the twisted and bizarre family it chronicles. Talk about your cognitive dissonance! I wish I could sum up my feelings for Ghost World as succinctly, but words fail me. Zwigoff is geniosity.

  10. “Ghost World,” is a brilliant film that really encompasses the world of ironic detachment more than any other piece of art I can think of.  I didn’t like Zwigoff’s additions but tolerated them as a natural addition that happens when a book goes “Hollywood.”

    Don’t know about anyone else, but the most profound moment for me in the film is when Enid is intruded to Seymour’s world of ephemera and the following exchange happens:

    Enid: Look at this room. This is like my dream room! Look at all this stuff… You are, like, the luckiest guy in the world. I would kill to have stuff like this. 
    Seymour: Please, go ahead and kill me.

    Nothing made me question my own collection of knick-knacks & ephemera more than that line.  The idea that Seymour has surrounded himself with shadows of the past, but can’t relate to others horrified me past belief.  And made me truly question the kitsch and tchotkes I have collected over the years and literally decide to sell them off on eBay or donate them to a thrift shop. I still have kitsch & odd stuff, but it’s really been pared down to things that echo what my life is and the stuff I find cool. There is some connection there.But in general, “Ghost World” really should be pared with “Blade Runner” in terms of both films dealing with identity & reality & how folks deal with the world.  Both really touch on the same topics.

    1.  Reminds me of when Enid tells Seymour he should meet people who share his interests, and he says something like “My interests are crap! I hate my interests!”

      1. Not to mention have you ever had friends come over & see your “wacky stuff” and then go out and buy whatever “wacky stuff” they think you would like & literally give it to you & say: “Here you like this!”

        Kitsch consumerism. A world that should be explored more & more.

  11. Ghost World is, and always will be my favourite  movie. Not only it shows the talent and beauty of Thora Birch at her peak, but it is still relevant on so many levels about the world we live in.

    Oh, and it makes for a great test movie for knowing if you can share a little more than good times with your new girlfriend.

  12. I think I saw this a year or two after it came out. I was in high school and on a very Seymore-esque path in life. Perfect time to see this film.

    I’m typing this now in the bedroom in my parents’ house where I grew up. I’m 25. There is useless (yet neat) stuff all around me including hundreds of vinyl records. I’ve already begun the process of getting rid of everything in here I don’t need or which isn’t truly meaningful to me, but being reminded of this film at this moment in my life really hits home for me. I was reminded of it recently when Daniel Clowes was featured here when Mark interviewed him at Meltdown Comics, and I’ve seen some gifs from the film pop up on tumblr recently, but hadn’t really thought about it that much until now.

    I’m both Seymore and Enid. I went to college and grad school but now can’t find a job and I don’t really want to because I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I have trouble building meaningful relationships. I still have the urge to collect things (though usually I resist – and @BarBarSeven:disqus has it right about the most powerful line in the film, for me too). 

    So what am I going to do? I think I’ll watch Ghost World again, for one. I too had resisted watching it again because I relate to it too much. It’s depressing.

    Then maybe I’ll get rid of all my junk and get on the metaphorical bus that Enid does. If anyone in California (my destination – was there for grad school) has a job opening soon, feel free to help to prevent me becoming Seymore :)

    This is a powerful film, to certain people anyway.

  13. One of those brilliant movies I will probably never see again. I was so Enid in high school (but without as much fashion sense) that I found the movie quite painful to watch. The film left me with an intense sadness I couldn’t shake for days.

  14. Thanks for posting this.  Ghost World is one of my favorites.  I recall randomly discovering  this film on a plane trip.  I had never heard of the comic or any of the actors except for Buscemi (of Coen Bros fame).   The film is masterful on many levels, and the ending is the essence of bittersweet.  I turned in my window seat,  looked out over the clouds, and  tried to hide my tears as the credits rolled.

  15. Having been born in the ’80s, I idolized these girls when I first saw Ghost World.  They seemed so insightful, yet world-weary.  Re-watching it as an adult, I saw Enid in a new light.  She is a very selfish person, from her domineering control of her friendships, to her immature view of her dad’s emotional needs.  She sees something she wants and she takes it.

    Eventually, she does show remorse after realizing how much she hurt the people around her. When she gets on the bus at the end, I do not think it is an inspiring and brave move towards a brighter future that accepts her.  No world accepts people that are hurtful and only out for themselves. She is leaving behind a trail of damage, but next time she’ll get it right. The bus and the escapism is showing that she’s finally growing up (or committing suicide, either way).

    In the beginning she thought it was the world keeping her down, but then she realizes that she is the one who needs to change.  I love this movie, but it does hurt to relive all the pains of adolescence along with Enid.

  16. I’ve seen this movie. Can someone describe it what way or respect it’s “mind-blowing”? Isn’t a movie where ” The characters are so…familiar that they could have been based on my friends and me” the opposite of mind-blowing? Perhaps I am using a different definition of the term. Or was it mind-blowing that people exist who are similar to you in some ways?

    1.  It’s “mind blowing” because it shows you these characters and at first you think they’re sooo cool. Then the movie shows why you are wrong and why the characters are wrong – at least they start out that way – and then things proceed from there.

  17. I particularly like Bob Balaban as Enid’s dad in this movie.  And a great small role by Teri Garr as his girlfriend, too.

  18. A similar but simpler example is the movie Juno. In that movie, Juno is full of bluster and sarcasm, and some people think that the movie is therefore about bluster and sarcasm. But really it’s about her growing out of those things and learning how to be better. Ghost World is the same, but with more characters and more angles.

  19. I was quite taken aback by Ghost World when I saw it.  I liked it a lot… but what blew my mind? The fact that they included the first dance number of one of my favourite 60’s Bollywood films, Gumnaam.  It was a “I am not alone” moment for me that if I didn’t have better control of myself, I would have leapt for joy in that cinema tears streaming down my face. Seriously, it was a remarkable moment. 

    Gumnaam, despite the jauntiness of that opening number, is a murder mystery a la (no pun intended here) “Ten Little Indians.” But with  dance numbers, a funny fat guy and more importantly, Helen. Yes, Helen (no last name needed…) Who, in my mind & heart (with Sridevi & Zeenat Aman being a distant second & third), is the greatest of all Bollywood actresses. Hyperbole? Maybe but seriously check out this or this. Ne plus ultra.

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