Ktismatics

4 March 2008

Ghost World, 2001

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 2:34 pm

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17 Comments »

  1. Dad you’re readin my mind, yet another one of my New Millennium favorites. A biting satire of Western spiritual decline, (mind you: not of symbolic efficiency) tour de force performances by Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi, and one of the best indictments known to me of Global Communism. I can’t for the laugh of me grasp why the director slipped into BAD SANTA later, but this jewel stands out regardless.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 4 March 2008 @ 7:43 pm

  2. Yes PC, I like this movie too. The title: Enid (Thora Birch) and Seymour (Steve Buscemi) haunt contemporary LA, seeing through the phony bullshit of social popularity, high-concept pretentious art, and market-hyped greasy food. But there are remnants of a more real and authentic world that died maybe in the 30s, leaving only hauntological remnants of itself in scratched vinyl blues records and old posters. Seymour serves as a caretaker for this ghost world, turning his apartment into a kind of shrine, but in this world he’s a loser, stuck in a loser job, hanging out with fellow-loser collectors of hauntological tchatchkes, doomed to romantic failure. Enid is drawn to Seymour’s ghost world, but it’s too ephemeral and insubstantial to sustain life for more than a few minutes at a time. And nobody else can see this ghost world, because it’s been varnished over by too many layers of make-up, the rough lines of authenticity smoothed over by graphic artists and special effects. So what is Enid to do? Become a ghost like Seymour, or sell out like her friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, in which case she loses the real and vanishes into the marketplace? Time to get on the bus.

    I don’t see the indictment of communism. To me it’s more a condemnation of capitalism and its abandonment of authentic excellence for the sake of exploiting shallow popular tastes that are easier to mass-produce. Knock-off 50s restaurant chains rather than real restaurants, knock-off blues-based rock rather than real blues, etc. It’s a kind of old-fashioned movie, yearning for a return to the real before McDonalds and Disney and Hollywood took over America.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 March 2008 @ 2:18 am

  3. But you don’t understand, the moment Disney and Halliwud took over America, Communism won… this was the moment when UNIFORMITY took over, as you see very well from the scenes where both Enid and Seymour experience rejection because they don’t fit into stereotypes (Seymour doesn’t like to dance and displays no interest in fashion, he also prefers his bachelor’s existence and collector’s passions to any heteronormative ”happiness”, Enid is unable to reconcile herself with confectionary art, or conventional relationships, et cetera)

    The critique of lefty ”avantgardism” is piercing – through the character of the art teacher – and reminds me of characters like the circle of blogospheric cultural theorists that we know so well. The radicalism of her critique reaches a limit when confronted with real challenges.

    And the muffling of subversive art as displayed by Enid is the film’s most painful and touching moment.

    The vanishing of character behind the uniformization is another important theme – the loss of American personality, the town’s quirkiness.

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    Comment by parody center — 5 March 2008 @ 8:24 am

  4. “the moment Disney and Halliwud took over America, Communism won… this was the moment when UNIFORMITY took over”

    Clearly there’s more than one route to uniformity. In the USA it’s the marketplace that’s accomplished the feat, squeezing out idiosyncratic excellence in order to maximize market share and efficiency of production/distribution. As I learned in economics 101, if you were to place two and only two gasoline stations randomly in a town and let the free market operate, eventually the two stations would relocate so they were right next to each other, selling gasoline for exactly the same price. Trafficking in outmoded and unpopular but authentic stuff is relegated to garage sales and second hand stores. In Ghost World even shitty authentic stuff is more interesting than good but uniform stuff.

    So too with popularity. Seymour’s new girlfriend is clearly a more popular model than Seymour, fashionably dressed, apparently successful in selling real estate for a living, offended by the anomalous (and therefore inapproriate) friendship between Seymour and Enid. Uniform, presentable, bland, and consequently popular and successful. But… Seymour is a loser, squeezed to the margins by his idiosyncrasies, defeated by the marketplace of success and popularity, alive only in the hauntological realms of the old and the forgotten. When Enid first sees Seymour’s bedroom, crammed with old records and posters of a more real age, she tells him, “This is like my dream room. I’d KILL to have a room like this.” To which Seymour replies, “So kill me.” Enid thinks she wants to move into this room with Seymour, but she realizes late in the game that this isn’t going to get her anywhere. The movie ends on an ambiguous note, not particularly hopeful in outlook, as Enid rides the empty bus up the empty street headed god-knows-where.

    When I woke up the next morning after seeing this movie I was persuaded that I shouldn’t offer my psychological services to the high schoolers until I could convince myself that I wasn’t really Seymour, a loser looking for validation wherever I could find it. On the other hand, I might be the Dude from The Big Lebowski, who in some ways is a kindred spirit to Seymour, occupying similar heterotopic haunts in loser-LA.

    I’m off for a walk — see if anything else comes to mind while I’m out in the freshly fallen snow.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 March 2008 @ 8:59 am

  5. What came to mind as I walked were the other occupants of loser-LA, the literary forebears of the Dude and Seymour. The underground cartoonists who influenced Daniel Clowes, the guy who wrote Ghost World as a graphic novel, were mostly San Francisco. (It should be noted that the drawings in Enid’s sketchbook, of which I just put up a screengrab, were the work of R. Crumb’s daughter). But then there’s Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe character was clever but ultimately a loser who always fell for the dame and remained stuck in cheesy LA private-I work. And Philip Dick of course. Charles Bukowski. Jack Kerouac. Earlier there was a guy named John Fante who in the thirties started writing semi-autobiographical novels about a down-and-out LA loser novelist. More recently there was Frederick Exley who wrote A Fan’s Notes in the 60s, a semi-fictional account of himself as a drunken and possibly psychotic loser more or less stalking the former USC football star Frank Gifford. There must be more I’m not thinking of.

    Filmmaker nerds like the Coens, Tarantino, DiPalma and Lynch pay homage to the LA loser tradition.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 March 2008 @ 10:49 am

  6. Oh, I almost forgot — Thora Birch, who plays Enid: her parents were porn stars, her mother having appeared in Deep Throat. The sleazy porn world of an earlier era is another loser-LA heterotopia, commemorated of course by DiPalma.

    Another interesting note: there’s a character named Josh, a friend of the two girls who works at the convenience store — this character is played by Brad Renfro, who died recently of a heroin OD in loser-LA.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 March 2008 @ 11:16 am

  7. Thora Birch was always way hotter than Scarlett O’Johannnsen. Just her surname gives me an icy frisson.

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    Comment by Dominic — 5 March 2008 @ 1:52 pm

  8. What do you think this is Dominic, some sort of fanboy site? Although getting an icy frisson from a surname does qualify you for special status as theory-fanboy. Birch — I presume the term “woody” carries the same connotations throughout the Anglophone world.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 March 2008 @ 2:12 pm

  9. Scarlett O’Johanrahanrahanssen is the reason white people like Japan. They think she’ll be there waiting for them the moment they step off the plane.

    You should read the Filthy Critic’s review of Ghost World.

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    Comment by Dominic — 5 March 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  10. At first Enid and Rebecca are attitudinally indistinguishable, but then they begin to swerve apart. There’s a lot more force pulling in the direction Rebecca takes, suggesting that Enid is actively resisting. On the other hand, you sense in Rebecca a determined and disciplined commitment to attaining squareness, signaling not just drift but choice. And Seymour no longer needs to put up any kind of resistance to occupy the ghost world. That world holds him in place as surely as if he’d resolved himself to climbing the fried chicken corporate ladder.

    The Filthy Critic sees Enid has having made an irrevocable choice not to conform to the square world. But she’s also resolved not to accede to the ghost world, at least on the terms Seymour has negotiated for himself. Where to go when neither world beckons? Like the old man, you get on the bus — maybe there’s some other place; maybe there’s noplace, the undiscovered country. Maybe you just keep riding the bus until for some reason, or perhaps for no reason, you get off.

    Our society grants the young an interval of indecision, of riding the bus, of deferring the making-actual of potential, of the refusal to eliminate any options. At what point does someone come to realize that this indecisive interval is the life one has settled into without ever having really chosen it? And the old man: did he decide it was time for him to get back on the bus, or was there just no place left for him? Filthy Critic regards him as a sad case, but the bus does stop and he does get aboard.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 March 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  11. this is a strange ritual

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    Comment by dionysusstoned — 5 March 2008 @ 4:30 pm

  12. Clysmatics you did not understand that as soon as the word NERD was uttered Comrade Fox felt himself drawn to the discussion, and you shouldn’t scare him away because after all we are all nerds here or we wouldn’t be having these marathon vivisections of movies while other people are going about their mundane daily business. I am now waiting for Jonquille to appear and remind us of all of just what sorry wimps we are while she’s sitting on her Republican throne in the midst of all that decadence, at which point I will try to win back her services by a clever one-liner or two.

    I think the satire of capitalism is primarily centered on selfmanagement double binds and other systems of softly fascist that is to say Communist control systems, such as the UPSCALING policy of the burger seller which requires you to motivate and entertain sluggish American middle class consumers instead of fucking them off ironically as Enid does in a hilarious scene. This faked happiness and optimism, the positive message of capitalism, is Communism indeed, at least in its known forms.

    I believe Seymor and Enid sleep with each other because they are one and the same person, and this is what ends the relationship, although in that short time they spend together they are the only couple in the film thats playing it straight to each oher, while all the other characters the Scarlett bimbo included are faking life, making these practical and ideological decisions in the name of reproduction of happiness *tm of success.In this sense theirs is TRUE LOVE as Lacan would define it, they sort of recognize their profound missedness of their encounter.

    But my favorite is the guy who has a kind of an internet extension of himself who comes to Scarlett every week in order to guess the prize question, and then does it by googling the question on his laptop, after which Scarlett gives him an extra coffee or something. That was such a great joke, telling you whimsically how character is trying to survive the blandization.

    I don´t know a lot about Bukowski, never attracted me for some reason, but I love CRUMB, he is one of my biggest inspiratios in life, especially his misogynist drawings.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 5 March 2008 @ 4:31 pm

  13. “this is a strange ritual”

    It is, isn’t it? I never subjected a movie to more than cursory scrutiny before visiting the Parody Center just about a year ago now. Dejan and Le Colonel Chabert were engaged in an impossibly long and complicated discussion of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. They disagreed vehemently and repeatedly about things I couldn’t even see, let alone form an opinion about. I had never witnessed such a ritual, and yet… I found myself strangely attracted to it. Tentatively at first but later with increasing confidence I began thinking and writing about movies. I found that making one observation frequently triggered other thoughts, other memories of the movie itself. Someone else’s remarks would then precipitate another line of thinking, another trajectory along the plane of immanence, gradually transforming the movie into something significant, something real.

    Now is this ritual important in any sense, or is it comparable to the Dude’s bowling — a basically useless undertaking that, with attention and experimentation, becomes a skill, or even a passion. It turns out there are books and schools of thought about film interpretation and analysis. Dejan tends toward the continental-Lacanian point of view, Seyfried is more of an empiricist. I remain an amateur enthusiast. Another important motivation is that I like writing fiction, and thinking about cinematic fiction is helpful to me as a writer.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 March 2008 @ 5:59 pm

  14. “Now is this ritual important in any sense, or is it comparable to the Dude’s bowling — a basically useless undertaking that, with attention and experimentation, becomes a skill, or even a passion.”

    nah bru, its beautiful. The pleb that i am, i haven’t seen the vast majority of movies covered here. But what i like about ‘this strange ritual’ is that its collective, a writing and thinking in common. i like that

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    Comment by dionysusstoned — 6 March 2008 @ 6:57 am

  15. I like that about it too. One reason I don’t write posts about these movies is that I’m lazy; the other reason is to see what emerges and evolves in free association with the screengrabs.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 March 2008 @ 7:16 am

  16. Ghost World begins with a sample from some old Bollywood movie from the 60s, featuring the song-and-dance number depicted in the first screengrab — I also put up the YouTube of the full performance. Yesterday I found myself humming The Ketchup Song, a Spanish pop tune that was wildly popular in France and all over Europe while we were living there. Why did this song bubble to the surface of my consciousness all of a sudden? I realized that its rhythm and even part of its melodic line echo the song from Ghost World. See what you think: here’s the video. The three sisters who perform this song call themselves Las Ketchup, and they point back in time from their beach-party popularity to an earlier ghost world of Spanish authenticity. Their father is a flamenco guitarist known as El Tomate — the Tomato. The authentic Tomato gets processed into Ketchup.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 7 March 2008 @ 5:10 am

  17. Clysmatics I also got addicted to that song, in the manner of LA MACARENA from the nineties. Latins are good at these goofy and brainless songs which however never seem forced, like a Paris Hilton performance. Are you listening Jonquille? I mean it! It’s interesting that you mention the link because as it seems to me this kind of a jois d vivre seems to be the object of the contemporary American’s romantic longing… as if joy was completely drained from the ”ghost world” and all you can have is a recolection of the joy that used to be before. Did you know that the film’s slogan is ACCENTUATE THE NEGATIVE, a particularly nice touch because it reflects the Marxist negativism as an alternative to Capitalist Realism – the happy clappy go lucky world of Enid’s parents.

    There is by the way a superb parody of them in the film: they are both completely infantile and impotent, like Mickey and Minnie Mouse (Terri Gar is always marvelous but especially here), and they are forcing Enid to become as infantile as them all the while pretending that they actually care about her and not themselves. For if they cared, they would see Enid’s enormous talent, helping her to struggle for her own voice and stick to it as you stick to dear life.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 7 March 2008 @ 3:27 pm


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