Haunted lives

1 ghost world scarlett johansson thora birch

In 1884 Arthur Rimbaud was in Harar Ethiopia and established in a business exporting coffee to Europe. He was 30 and had finally settled down after what could be considered a disordered life of indulgence in drugs, compulsive travel, and scandals that rocked Europe, as well as a brief period as a revolutionary and very influential poet. He was a close friend of the Governor Ras Makonnen. And he wrote to his family a letter that included what proved to be a profound existential question. He asked: “What am I doing here?” It was a question that didn’t trouble Rimbaud for long. Seven years later he was dead from bone cancer. But it expressed the dilemma of the outsider perfectly.

L’Étranger, a novel by Albert Camus, was published in 1942, when France had been defeated by the Germans during the Second World War. Camus was a Resistance fighter and was in Paris the following year when the city was liberated from the Germans. In 1945 he protested at the bombing of Hiroshima. It was a time when many ideas were being questioned, when many comfortable assumptions were being overturned. Camus said that meaning itself is a convention in society, that values are agreed conventions, a kind of medium of exchange, and that some individuals are unable to accept them. These people were the Strangers, the Outsiders of his novel. Camus adopted an amoral position. It was not a case of people who should or should not conform. It was just the way it was.

A stimulating study of the condition of isolation in society, being in it but not of it, is contained in Colin Wilson’s 1956 book, called, not surprisingly, The Outsider. Wilson looked at artists such as HG Wells, Vincent Van Gogh, Franz Kafka, William Blake, and individuals who could not find their niche, often great travellers, such as TE Lawrence. He would have included Bruce Chatwin had he known of him, a closet homosexual, art connoisseur and extraordinary traveller who used Rimbaud’s question as the title of his last published book.

The 1950s saw these ideas of alienation expressed in American popular culture, by film stars with an ‘attitude problem’ like Marlin Brando and James Dean, both rebels without a cause, and later, in the 60s by pop stars like Jim Morrison of the Doors with his Rimbaud fixation and interest in Hermann Hesse.

People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down (Strange Days 1967)

2 ghost world cover

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In 2001 Terry Zwigoff released his film of Daniel Clowes’ ‘graphic novel’ Ghost World, which explores the alienation of a teenage girl who is also an artist. To accentuate the alienation, Enid is an artist in a genre accepted only by a sub culture, comic book art. There’s not even a name for this art. ‘Comic’ is wrong, because that word means humorous. And ‘graphic novel’ sounds pretentious (and not that different to a ‘comic’). We have the same problem art historians have when referring to a preparatory drawing an artist makes for a painting. It’s called a ‘cartoon’. They have to explain the term as they are using it to avoid giving the wrong impression. I thought of the term they use in film production for visualising the scenes. What about ’storyboard writer’. Seems better to me than ‘graphic novelist’.

Ghost World is often described as a film (and book) about teenagers, and how they rebel at the need to conform. But it is concerned with much wider issues. It’s about the outsider, just as much as the books by Albert Camus and Colin Wilson. It’s about the Arthur Rimbaud who asked “What am I doing here?” The protagonist is Enid, an artist, and Rimbaud’s question is hers too.

In Ghost World, where everyone always has to have a nice day, all the inhabitants are somehow unreal, concerned with what you think are illusions, actually taking them seriously when you think they’re just funny. The world slowly takes on the flickering blue light of a TV set. Everyone seems to be ODing on normality, affected by the preservatives in their junk food or chained to a television set. That’s no good for a visual artist. And then Rebecca, your best friend and ally, starts to fade away at the edges. You come face to face with an uncomfortable truth. You’re alone. As in any crisis, no matter what people say, you have to face it alone. You never know if anyone else is really there. In Ghost World Enid finds that even her friend Seymour is becoming ghostlike.

ENID  You were a lot more fun before you met Dana. You’ve been acting way too normal lately… you’re a bitter,  twisted, fucked-up guy, Seymour, that’s why I like you.

Daniel Clowes said in an interview the book explored his own insecurities and sense of alienation. He made it about two teenage girls so as not to be too autobiographical. As it happened that was a good move. Teenage girls loved it.

Girls have to work harder to conform. Diets and exercise plans, hairdressers and cosmetics, clothes; trying to be a sex object and getting angry when they succeed; having relationships with boys who are just looking for some sex; coping with menstruation; supermodels and ever present advertising telling them what they ought to look like and how they should behave; facing the consequence of a slip-up, an unwanted pregnancy, and perhaps an abortion; and most galling of all, knowing that boys don’t have to worry about any of this.

3 welcome to dollhouse

The theme of teenage alienation was handled in a masterly fashion in an earlier film, Todd Solondz’ Welcome to the Dollhouse of 1995 (and followed by his masterpiece Happiness of 1998). Solondz was booed off the stage for dealing with reality in what is still the Dream Factory, but his example was inspiring to some. Daniel Clowes did the poster artwork for Happiness the year he released the book of Ghost World (written 1993-7).

If you don’t like the world where you find yourself, and have to ask, “what am I doing here?”, one of the things you can do is examine it, and replicate it, and in so doing try to understand it. This is what artists do. Many artists are poorly adjusted and try to explore their psychoses (even when they’re also well adjusted craftspeople who exploit a market). But first you categorise it.

REBECCA  (watching band)  This is so bad, it’s almost good.
ENID  This is so bad it’s gone past good and back to bad again…

The summer school teacher Roberta helps Clowes and Zwigoff bring up the subject of the ‘purpose’ of art, as they did at greater length in Art School Confidential in 2006. In Ghost World though Roberta functions as another ghost, out of touch with Enid and totally wrong headed on the subject of committal, of art as social reform, a role for art beloved of socialist regimes. It’s hard to realise that no art has a meaning. Art provides those who experience it with an opportunity. It opens doors so people can find a meaning. It works (or it doesn’t).

The ending of Ghost World has been much debated, a risk you have to take when you try something not blindingly obvious. Some people see it as a metaphor for suicide, impressed by the terrible distress Enid is in at the end of the film. The point is, she waits for the bus, the one that stopped running two years ago. The old man she saw waiting, Norman, had told her she didn’t know anything. So now she gives it a try, she has a bit of hope, uses her imagination. There’s nothing much else. And it works. She leaves Ghost World, a sign that her career as an artist might take her far, far away. Poor Enid, she deserves it.

4 bus stop

Tributes for the film haven’t mentioned as far as I have seen, the art direction. As far as possible in a film the scenes look like cartoon, graphic art, even the two actresses, who are dressed and made up to look like their counterparts in the book. This gives the film a non natural look that expresses the kind of hopeful despair the characters, and writer, and film makers, convey.

The film pulls off a tricky compromise. It presents the world George Carlin excoriated with blistering satire, the world of fat Americans wandering through endless shopping malls and spending and eating compulsively, when not tied to the television set. But the town in which Enid lives, and its inhabitants, are seen through Enid’s eyes, and so the satire is muted. Enid is a misfit, and desperately unhappy, and her contemptuous dismissal of all around her is not bitchy, it’s heartbreaking. Credit should go to Thora Birch for a portrayal that, as Clowes intended, avoids caricature, shows remarkable sincerity, and hints at ways the character may develop. Scarlett Johansson, as good an actress, has a more muted part, and Steve Buscemi, an excellent actor, pulls off the Terry Zwigoff role of Seymour (as Birch does the Daniel Clowes role of Enid) with comic book conventions that limit the human drama of the film but make the themes crystal clear.

Zwigoff can’t be praised too highly as a director. He made one of the best documentaries ever made, on Robert Crumb, in 1994. Crumb, like Ghost World, is extraordinarily restrained for an American film. Both films allow the subjects, whether Crumb or Enid (both storyboard writers, or graphic novelists) space to hint at unexpressed sides of their characters, aspects which give their portrayal greater depth, and add considerable perspective to their stories. Zwigoff is good at getting poignancy across, often with delayed impact. That Zwigoff could make the films at all, and that they broke even, is extraordinary. It’s a field where audiences are processed by film makers who efficiently extract their box office fee by giving the people what they expect. If only some philanthropist would finance another Zwigoff film we might get another masterpiece (Art School Confidential, an excellent film, was a bit compromised). One can only hope.

5 enid and becky

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There is actually one out of a choice of two positions to take in life, a choice every individual must make. It’s probably always been the case, and is now becoming more obvious, and it confronts every individual who has ever lived.

Are you to be an outsider, or a conformist? Not an easy choice, but everyone has to make it. The classic study is by David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd of 1950. I haven’t read it, but I know it well.

The conformist is usually a status oriented individual. Social acceptance and achievement drive his or her day. The standards of the society they live in don’t matter as much as the level of prominence they achieve in it, so collecting your enemies’ heads, or spending a conspicuous amount of money, and gaining your peers’ approval, even envy, is what you aim for. These individuals usually join established groups. In our society they might be ‘motivated’ Christians, or go into politics. They want to be on the winning side, and high in rank in whatever group they join. They are considered ‘ambitious’.

The outsider internalises their values, even their social ones. They are usually task oriented. They aim to have a good opinion of themselves by doing a good job, by behaviour they approve of. Often they are reformers (and hated by other outsiders). An outsider doesn’t like some or all of the values of the society they live in, and typically withdraws from it or tries to change it. Revolutionaries, prophets, those with social concerns are all people who as they say think for themselves. Among these are non conformists such as criminals, artists, and some of those with what is often described as a personality disorder. People who somehow have ended up in the wrong place or time.

We are all familiar with this situation, because we all experience it in growing up. We go through a period of adjustment in growing up when in effect we attempt to align our values with those of the society in which we live, like Enid’s classmate Melorra in Ghost World. Some succeed. More than most people think fail. They use the concept of ‘normality’ as a defence. The normal person is a social convention to which we can refer to disguise our inability to fit in. In reality there are no normal persons, just various states of eccentricity.

6 ghost world

This situation is becoming more of a social problem for more and more people as the population of the world increases. Governments will become more and more impersonal in dealing with ever increasing numbers of citizens. Individuality will become more and more under threat.

Every value should be tested, every rule broken to see what happens, every comfortable but useless idea discarded. That’s called growth. For individuals and for societies. It’s getting harder to do this.

The way out for many is to join one of what are called sub cultures. Even conformists who find it increasingly harder to get to the top in open society will find fulfilment in gaining prominence in a sub culture. And outsiders have always found these groups a refuge. Not fitting in, not adjusting, is often the point of a sub culture. Like Brando in The Wild One, when asked what they’re protesting about, these people in effect are saying: “What’ve you got?” It’s better than becoming a ghost.

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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2 thoughts on “Haunted lives

  1. I particularly liked your historical lead into the film. Never thought of Rimbaud as the founder of the existential “movement.” Just put Ghost World at the top of my Netflix list. Thanks.

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