The Most Subversively Conservative Movie, Ever

 

In an earlier post, I explained why Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero is my all-time favorite movie. Now I’d like to share another favorite, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, and explain why I think it is one of the most conservative movies ever made.

It was released in 2001, and the plot centers on recently graduated Enid (Thora Birch), and her best friend, Rebecca (played by a young and deadpan Scarlett Johansson). They are both unsure what to do now that they are done with high school, but they plan to get jobs and share an apartment. It turns out Enid has not completed her academic requirements for graduation, so she must take an art class during the summer.

Rebecca begins to follow the game plan, getting a job and finding an apartment. Enid becomes more and more aimless, unable to stay long in any job. The scene where she works at the concession stand in a movie theater and recites the sales pitch for the supersize refreshments to a customer while her manager fumes is priceless.

Enid decides to play a prank on someone who posted a personal ad in the newspaper by pretending to answer it and watch him get stood up in a diner. Their victim is an older man, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), who is another hapless person with no direction in life. Enid and Seymour become friends, and he introduces her to his 78 rpm record collecting friends.

As Enid discovers a whole new world through old jazz and blues, she realizes how empty and superficial life in America in 2001 is. The scene where she first hears Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” is beautiful. For the first time, Enid feels a true artist’s real emotion and pain. (Take a minute and a half, and watch it below)

All we see of Enid’s town are strip malls. She could be living in any mid-sized American city at the turn of the century. Seymour (see more) is Enid’s guide to the old America, before every town and city became homogenized and overrun by McDonalds and Wal-Marts. The Ghost World. Meanwhile, in her art class, it’s clear Enid is a gifted artist. Her drawings are beautifully rendered, but her instructor only rewards the students who know how to play the game and come up with hideous “art” that is absurd and ugly. I don’t want to go any further, because I don’t want to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it.

So why do I make the claim that Ghost World is a subversively conservative movie? Well, in scene after scene, contemporary American culture is contrasted with earlier eras, and it definitely is found wanting. For example, in one of the first scenes – their high school graduation – some girls perform a “Graduation Rap” that is more like a stripper routine while befuddled parents and teachers smile and nod.

In another, Seymour goes to a music club to hear an old blues legend who is the opening act for a band called Blues Hammer. That’s an appropriate name, because they pound the blues into submission with their plodding ZZ Top-like rock. But for the young patrons, that is what the blues are. When the real bluesman comes out to play, Seymour can’t hear him, because everyone is talking over him.

Enid’s parents are divorced, and the movie is an unflinching portrayal of the damage divorce does to children. When her completely ineffectual and self-absorbed father (Bob Balaban, in a hilarious performance) tells Enid he is getting back together with an old girlfriend, the stoic and superior facade she’s maintained up to that point disintegrates, and she runs to her room, weeping.

Enid and Rebecca are friends with a classmate, Josh, but they have no idea how to interact with him. Basic etiquette no longer exists, so all they can do is make crude jokes at his expense. He works in a convenience store where a frequent customer, Doug, always comes in without a shirt, just to antagonize the Greek immigrant shopkeeper. The shopkeeper has a greater sense of propriety than native-born Americans. Doug goes outside and blasts loud music from his car. When the shopkeeper goes out to tell him to turn it down, Doug responds, “It’s rock ‘n’ roll, dude. Freedom of speech!”

The people who fit into contemporary American society are coarse and numb. Enid and Rebecca are dressed according to the early 2000’s teen fashion, which means looking as unattractive as possible. They wear ill-fitting tops and army boots. They color their hair in unnatural shades. As Rebecca conforms more and more to expectations, she becomes less and less interesting as a person. As Enid’s eyes are opened, she sees remnants of the rich culture her town used to have. She also sees an elderly man waiting for a bus at a defunct stop. She tells him buses no longer stop there, but he assures her one will. By the end of the movie, she is waiting for a bus to take her away from the materialism, ugliness, and superficiality of modern life.

One final word of praise for the soundtrack. Besides the silly Graduation Rap and Blues Hammer track, the majority of songs are old hot jazz and blues tunes taken from real 78s. The highlights are some songs written and performed by Lionel Belasco. He was a composer from Trinidad and Tobago and his music is elegant and beautiful. They have a calypso lilt to them that evokes a lost era, which is perfect for the movie.

Ghost World was marketed as a teen comedy (despite the R rating), but it is certainly not one. It has very funny moments, but it also has far more depth and meaning than most comedies made for that demographic. I’m surprised it was even made, it is such a condemnation of everything Hollywood promotes these days.

There are 20 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    SO MUCH better than this year’s Booksmart, also about two smart adolescent girls but woke.

    • #1
  2. Thaddeus Wert Coolidge
    Thaddeus Wert
    @TWert

    Eustace C. Scrubb (View Comment):

    SO MUCH better than this year’s Booksmart, also about two smart adolescent girls but woke.

    I haven’t seen Booksmart, but I know it was a favorite with the critics. That alone made me wary!

    • #2
  3. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    fyi, Ghost World began life as a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes – to which I cannot speak as I have not read it. 

    I do own the DVD and it’s going to get another look. 

    • #3
  4. Jdetente Member
    Jdetente
    @

    I love this movie. This came out as my friends and I were entering our 20s and it really spoke to us as we entered the real world.

    It is interesting that the criticism this movie makes about throwaway consumer culture contrasts deeply with at least one current conservative message.  How often have we heard that we live in the greatest time because we can buy cheap and plentiful consumer products? Frankly, I find that perspective incomplete and strange that some conservatives (think Ben Shapiro) place so much emphasis on materialism. Food for thought…

    • #4
  5. Thaddeus Wert Coolidge
    Thaddeus Wert
    @TWert

    Jdetente (View Comment):
    How often have we heard that we live in the greatest time because we can buy cheap and plentiful consumer products?

    Excellent point. I think conservatives should not be afraid to point out that there is more to life than cheap and plentiful products.

    • #5
  6. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…
    @GumbyMark

    A few years ago I came across the movie on cable just as it started.  At first I thought it was just weird but decided to give it more time and ended up quite enjoying it.  You’ve done an excellent analysis.

    • #6
  7. Thaddeus Wert Coolidge
    Thaddeus Wert
    @TWert

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    A few years ago I came across the movie on cable just as it started. At first I thought it was just weird but decided to give it more time and ended up quite enjoying it. You’ve done an excellent analysis.

    Thanks!

    • #7
  8. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    Jdetente (View Comment):

    I love this movie. This came out as my friends and I were entering our 20s and it really spoke to us as we entered the real world.

    It is interesting that the criticism this movie makes about throwaway consumer culture contrasts deeply with at least one current conservative message. How often have we heard that we live in the greatest time because we can buy cheap and plentiful consumer products? Frankly, I find that perspective incomplete and strange that some conservatives (think Ben Shapiro) place so much emphasis on materialism. Food for thought…

    Fundamentally, being able to worry about other stuff than survival and material goods is a luxury that was rare throughout history.   I am not saying meaning is not important, but it is also important to recognize how good we have it.   For example, I love reading Sherlock Holmes and Kipling.  They have a lot to tell us about logic and the human condition, respectively.   I would not want to live in the 19th century, despite all that.

     

    • #8
  9. Jdetente Member
    Jdetente
    @

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Jdetente (View Comment):

    I love this movie. This came out as my friends and I were entering our 20s and it really spoke to us as we entered the real world.

    It is interesting that the criticism this movie makes about throwaway consumer culture contrasts deeply with at least one current conservative message. How often have we heard that we live in the greatest time because we can buy cheap and plentiful consumer products? Frankly, I find that perspective incomplete and strange that some conservatives (think Ben Shapiro) place so much emphasis on materialism. Food for thought…

    Fundamentally, being able to worry about other stuff than survival and material goods is a luxury that was rare throughout history. I am not saying meaning is not important, but it is also important to recognize how good we have it. For example, I love reading Sherlock Holmes and Kipling. They have a lot to tell us about logic and the human condition, respectively. I would not want to live in the 19th century, despite all that.

    You won’t find disagreement in that regard.

    • #9
  10. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Sounds intriguing. You and I share the same “favorite movie of all time”, so I’ll find this one and give it a look.  Thanks!

    • #10
  11. Weeping Inactive
    Weeping
    @Weeping

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):
    I would not want to live in the 19th century, despite all that.

    I totally, totally agree! Whenever I hear someone say they wish they had lived back in x times (Victorian, Elizabethan, pioneer, etc.), I always think what I thought whenever I’d hear this song: Spoken like someone who’s never experienced it.

    • #11
  12. Thaddeus Wert Coolidge
    Thaddeus Wert
    @TWert

    Weeping (View Comment):
    I totally, totally agree! Whenever I hear someone say they wish they had lived back in x times (Victorian, Elizabethan, pioneer, etc.), I always think what I thought whenever I’d hear this song: Spoken like someone who’s never experienced it.

    It’s too bad we can’t have the best of earlier eras’ culture with today’s medical and technological advances. But I guess those advances are what drive changes in the culture, right?

    • #12
  13. Donwatt Inactive
    Donwatt
    @Donwatt

    Your post about a young adult learning from an older one reminds me of the more prevalent trend of Hollywood that celebrates the exact opposite lesson.
    I’m thinking of films like “Pleasantville” which turn television shows like Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, et al on their heads.  That movie’s message is simply if we would just obey the teens, our world would erupt into a full color upland of peace and harmony.

    And that my friends, is how we get Greta . . .

    • #13
  14. Samuel Block Support
    Samuel Block
    @SamuelBlock

    I really like that movie. I love the song from the opening credits.

     

    • #14
  15. Thaddeus Wert Coolidge
    Thaddeus Wert
    @TWert

    Donwatt (View Comment):
    That movie’s message is simply if we would just obey the teens, our world would erupt into a full color upland of peace and harmony.

    Brilliant point! 

    • #15
  16. Scott R Member
    Scott R
    @ScottR

    Thaddeus, just discovered your “Local Hero” post through the link. Thought our little family here was alone in its love for that movie and music. We vacation every year in the Georgian Bay, where the terrain and vibe is strangely similar, and nothing evokes the emotions of leaving and longing to return like “Local Hero”. 

    We’ll check out “Ghostworld”. Here’s a sleeper for you or anyone else: “Dean Spanley”.  Brilliant little movie.

    • #16
  17. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Jdetente (View Comment):

    I love this movie. This came out as my friends and I were entering our 20s and it really spoke to us as we entered the real world.

    It is interesting that the criticism this movie makes about throwaway consumer culture contrasts deeply with at least one current conservative message. How often have we heard that we live in the greatest time because we can buy cheap and plentiful consumer products? Frankly, I find that perspective incomplete and strange that some conservatives (think Ben Shapiro) place so much emphasis on materialism. Food for thought…

    My impression is that this is usually in response to anti-capitalist whinges and complaints that Boomers own everything and have ruined the economy, and not so much a stand-alone pro-conservative argument. 

    And even an ascetic should rejoice in the availability of comforts and entertainments on behalf of others lest he find himself in the company of monodeoderant Berniebros. 

    • #17
  18. Samuel Block Support
    Samuel Block
    @SamuelBlock

    Okay. So this one may be too subversive for some (you’ll know what I mean if you watch the trailer), but I’ll swear by it. 

    And here’s another.

     

     

     

    • #18
  19. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Thaddeus Wert (View Comment):

    Weeping (View Comment):
    I totally, totally agree! Whenever I hear someone say they wish they had lived back in x times (Victorian, Elizabethan, pioneer, etc.), I always think what I thought whenever I’d hear this song: Spoken like someone who’s never experienced it.

    It’s too bad we can’t have the best of earlier eras’ culture with today’s medical and technological advances. But I guess those advances are what drive changes in the culture, right?

    That is the question that keeps Islamic clerics up all night. 

    And not just them – conservatism wrestles with this as well. 

    Can you expect character from a people who have never known hardship? 

    • #19
  20. Thaddeus Wert Coolidge
    Thaddeus Wert
    @TWert

    Scott R (View Comment):
    We’ll check out “Ghostworld”. Here’s a sleeper for you or anyone else: “Dean Spanley”. Brilliant little movie.

    Thanks, Scott! I’ve never heard of Dean Spanley.

    • #20

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.