February 3, 2008

Review of Ghost World: Dare to follow convention

As part of my neverending fascination with teenage girls, I watched Ghost World for the second time, to give it a fairer shot than at first, when all I could think was, "Oh god, another death-by-sarcasm movie." On reflection, it does have a few points to recommend it, but overall it goes wrong.

The movie, based on a comic book of the same name (which I haven't read), follows the wanderings of two quirky best friends, Becky and Enid, who have just graduated high school. Becky slowly starts to follow a more normal course, getting a job as a cashier at Starbucks, looking for an affordable apartment in a nice neighborhood, buying cups and plates from Crate & Barrel, and finding ways to have fun that don't involve adolescent pranks. Enid refuses to join real life and doesn't even have short-term plans for what to do with her life, preferring instead to mock mainstream culture and play pranks in order to keep from growing bored.

Because this is an indie movie about quirky characters, you already know who receives a more sympathetic portrayal. However, by throwing into relief the different paths these friends are going down, the movie unintentionally highlights the importance of following convention: it keeps you from ending up a bitter loner with no job, and thereby compelled to rely on others for support -- others who, of course, the outsider cannot tolerate. Indeed, Enid's only friend after she and Becky begin to drift apart is her 40-something counterpart, Seymour, who she ends up having a drunken one-night stand with, to her regret. While the intention is to make us sympathize with her plight, the natural reaction is to tell her: "If you weren't so stubborn about refusing to grow up, you wouldn't get into so much trouble."

And to be fair, another positive part of the movie is its depiction of the role of chance in the development of personality traits. We know from studies in behavior genetics that about 40% - 50% of the variation in personality traits is attributable to differences in what's called the "non-shared environment," which includes chance events. In this case, the movie makes it clear that a major reason why Enid is so bitter in general and about boys in particular is that her best friend (played by Scarlett Johansson) is much better-looking than she is. It doesn't matter that Enid (played by Thora Birch) is not unattractive: when boys interact with the two, the difference between the two girls' looks is clear enough that they invariably hit on Becky and ignore Enid. *

Now, what genes a person received from their parents, or what environmental constraints they faced, are no more within a person's control than chance events. However, a quirk of human psychology makes us sympathize more with a victim of bad luck than a victim of bad genes or bad environments. Somehow luck seems even further beyond human control, even though of course a person has zero ability to influence who their own biological parents are. The movie taps into this feature of our mind and makes the Enid character a bit more likable.

But aside from this somewhat redeeming comment on development, and the own-goal portrayal of conventional life, Ghost World falls flat. The sarcastic dialogue is jarringly unnatural coming out of the mouths of girls who've just graduated high school -- if it sounds more like what a near-40 whiner would say, that's because it is. The Wikipedia article on the comic book says that its author, Daniel Clowes, has stated that he chose teenage girls as protagonists in order to sidestep criticism that his characters were mouthpieces for his cynicism. Sure, no one would ever find it odd that a 16 year-old Scarlett Johansson was talking more like a world-weary 40 year-old. Although, judging from all the praise the movie has received, it seems Clowes' little ruse managed to fool the critics (not that that's hard).

A running theme in the movie is the unforgiving march of mass consumerist culture over... well, it's not exactly clear what it's paving over. The movie was shot in Los Angeles, so it's not as if the Starbucks and faux '50s diners are replacing a distinguished past. In fact, that's true for most of suburban America. The only place where it would be burying something completely different would be in an urban area like Manhattan or a rural small town, neither of which case is happening of course. That's clear in the case of small-town America, and phrases like "the Disneyfication of New York" are really just ways of saying that it's cleaner and safer than before. It is impossible to wander around Manhattan and think, "Gee, so much consumerist culture surrounding me -- I can't tell if I'm in New York or an exurb!" This facile mocking of non-threats gets very tiresome.

And while the movie does a decent job at lampooning the self-importance of the art world, as depicted by Enid's art teacher, most people stopped taking the art world seriously at least 30 years ago, and a sizable minority 50 years ago. What would be truly subversive in the twenty-first century would be to take on the parts of the establishment art world that are not yet so gray that they might find it hard to defend themselves against charges of fuddy-duddery. Like, say, smug Gen X filmmakers. No one cares if you're quirky: you're still a mediocre talent with little passion and no insight.

This attitude is also reflected in the portrayals of normal people in the movie: restaurant patrons, movie theater managers, and anyone else who isn't a total weirdo, are all shown in caricature. This accurately shows the warped way in which Enid views the world -- to make mocking it simple -- but it's clear that the writer and director are on board as well, or else they would have reversed the perspective at some point and caricatured Enid as a stubborn brat who is (at least for now) beneath, rather than above, those she mocks.

At the website Rotten Tomatoes, which pools critical responses, Ghost World scores almost as well as Heathers (92 vs 94 out of 100), but the two movies about adolescent outsider girls couldn't be more different. Allow me to end by paraphrasing the latter:

You know what I want, babe?

[Shoots DVD of Ghost World]

Cool Gen X-ers like you out of my life.

* There may be ways to mitigate this in real life: try to bias kids to hang out with same-sex friends of similar attractiveness (if female) or of similar dominance (if male). Males do so naturally, by forming coalitions of similarly ranked individuals -- nerds and gym rats near the bottom, scholar-athletes near the top, and so on. Females do this too, but to a lesser extent: their cliques are not primarily based on attractiveness, though pretty girls do tend to hang out with each other. So, it is easier for same-sex competition over mates to threaten the stability of a social clique among females than among males.

Concretely, we could try to get females to join clubs whose filters are primarily about attractiveness or its close correlates. For example, nearly all dancers (ballet or modern) are pretty, whereas a catch-all "preppy" group will have far greater variation in looks. Similarly, by making available a wide range of cheerleader-like clubs, one ranked above the next, girls can join a club and make friends with those of similar attractiveness: the hot ones become cheerleaders and poms, while the less attractive join color guard (at least at my high school).

And while this minimizes within-clique competition, it also allows members at the same level to gang up on those of another level -- the hot cheerleaders would make fun of the plain color guard, while the color guard would hurl insults about anorexia or sluttiness toward the cheerleaders. We will never get rid of conflict, so the best we can do is make it group vs. group so that at least the adolescent doesn't have to go it alone. Someone will have their back when things get rough, and they'll have friends during inter-war periods. Obviously this doesn't apply to all contexts: poor urban males would form gangs that would threaten the larger social order, even if they started out as something benign like neighborhood basketball teams.

8 comments:

  1. So one of the girls is a cashier at Starbucks yet is looking to rent an apartment on her own in a nice neighborhood? Now that would be sheer fantasy, especially in a costly city like Los Angeles.

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  2. Nice as in safe and bland, rather than expensive and exciting or poor bo-ho. they make it clear that she's going somewhere, as she starts dressing more professionally -- not a permanent starbucks jockey.

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  3. Gym rats are near the bottom of the pecking order? I didn't know that, or was it just a subtle dig at Peter?

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  4. This attitude is also reflected in the portrayals of normal people in the movie: restaurant patrons, movie theater managers, and anyone else who isn't a total weirdo, are all shown in caricature.

    "Pulp Fiction" is a good example of promoting this kind of an attitude. And we all remember what a Gen-X moment that movie was.

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  5. cuchulainn2/5/08, 3:37 PM

    Thing is though, Becky actually does sound and talk like Scarlett herself. Ever heard her interviewed? She's a 40 year old liberal cynic!

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  6. Can't make any alpha male arguments with this movie, can you?

    Indeed, Enid's only friend after she and Becky begin to drift apart is her 40-something counterpart, Seymour, who she ends up having a drunken one-night stand with, to her regret. While the intention is to make us sympathize with her plight, the natural reaction is to tell her: "If you weren't so stubborn about refusing to grow up, you wouldn't get into so much trouble."

    Huh, I didn't get that from it. I thought we were supposed to sympathize with Steve Buscemi, not Enid. He was finally taking a stab at maturity, unglamorous though it may have been, and his efforts were derailed by the whims of a cranky, spoiled kid. I don't remember her seeming damaged in any way by the encounter. She just got tired of him.

    I didn't notice a disparity in their effect on guys, either. The only guy I remember except Buscemi was their one male friend, and Enid didn't like him. Scarlett went out of her way to flirt more. I thought Enid was too full of herself to like any male peers. That's why she latched onto an older guy, but was disappointed by reality.

    Thing is though, Becky actually does sound and talk like Scarlett herself. Ever heard her interviewed? She's a 40 year old liberal cynic!

    Johannssen talks like one of those rich spoiled girls who hang socially around older horny artsy men who tell her she's smart to flatter her. "My God, that's so insightful! You are truly an old soul, despite your tender years." Like that.

    Concretely, we could try to get females to join clubs whose filters are primarily about attractiveness or its close correlates.

    Any ideas about how we do this? I do remember many women who seemed to do a lot better with men than their looks merited, simply because they had lots of sociable friends. But why is that bad?

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  7. She didn't grow tired of him -- you can't grow tired of someone overnight. So it's clear she regretted their one-night-stand and felt awkward talking to her former confidant.

    Re: disparity on guys, in one of the opening scenes, they're at a graduation party with their whole class. A guy comes up and talks to Becky while ignoring Enid, who says something like, "What, am I like invisible?" He gives her a token "hey what's up" and then goes back to hitting on Becky.

    At another point, they're in a cafe and a band member comes up to let Becky know his band's performing, he hopes she can make it, etc., while ignoring Enid, who makes the same observation as before.

    In both cases, the guys approached Becky, so it wasn't a matter of her being more social and flirtatious, but of guys being more drawn to the better-looking friend.

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  8. Hmm, I never noticed that. I was distracted by comiserating about how it sucks when your friends drag you down. Perhaps that betrays a lack of empathy on my part.

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