A few months ago, I put Ghost World among my favorite movies of the past decade. I would go further to say that it is one of my favorite movies of all time. The following is a “film note” I wrote for the local independent Brattle Theatre, for their screening of Ghost World, with author/screenwriter Daniel Clowes in attendance. I write about Norman, the character that inspired this little short story of mine back then.
“I wonder if he’s just totally insane, or he really thinks the bus is coming?” says Enid, as she watches Norman sitting at the bus stop, waiting for the bus that never comes. This is probably the most enduring image from the 2001 cult classic Ghost World, which has a wide range of powerful iconography to choose from. From the opening sequence set to 1960’s Bollywood pop, to the angle of the shot in the final scene, every scene is full of detail for those paying attention.
But our minds keep returning to Norman. Is he insane, or does he really think the bus is coming. It is more likely that both of these are true. There is a quiet assuredness to Norman, so we are never quite sure. We feel for the old man. We don’t want him to sit there waiting forever, for a bus that was cancelled two years ago. But then, an even more frightening thought hits us. Maybe this is all he has. Where would Norman go, if he did not sit at the bus stop? He seems funny, but we don’t laugh.
And that is how it is with Ghost World. Each character could play the lead in a riotous comedy about their life, but this film is not playing their quirks just for laughs. We see ourselves in some of them– in the rebellious teenager Enid, and the lovable misanthrope Seymour. And in others, like the video store clerk who can’t tell the difference between 9 1/2 Weeks and Fellini’s 8 1/2, we see the world around us. The ghost world.
Enid is on the verge of graduating high-school and is being forced to be a very specific kind of adult very quickly. She is a jigsaw puzzle piece in the wrong box, a box that most of the people around her seem to fit quite well. She loves Seymour, a lovable nerd who hates the world, but is beginning to realize his cynicism is not sustainable. “Maybe I don’t want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests,” he tells Enid. Seymour is what Enid probably imagines she will become in another twenty years, for better or worse.
As the movie progresses, we wonder if Norman is the only one who has a grip on his life, if not on reality. He has a purpose in life and cannot be moved from it. If this is insanity, maybe it is preferable to the chaos of those around him. He is the only constant, until the point at which Enid’s life really needs a constant to lean on. At that point, he is gone.
The significance of Norman and his bus have been discussed for many years by fans of the original Daniel Clowes comic book on which the movie is based. What the bus means to you may tell you more about yourself than about what the writer intended. Some people think it is death, and have found subtle clues pointing to this explanation. A better way to think of it is that the bus is an escape. The bus shows up for the first time at the precise moment when Enid’s life is hitting its lowest point. She needs an escape. What do you think happens to those who get on the bus? Here is a hint– look at the words on the bench after Enid sits down at the end of the movie. Unfortunately, this hint is not the answer, but maybe it will help you come up with your own. Whatever your answer may be, as the final shot of the bus driving out of town fades in to the Bollywood pop credits, Ghost World will leave you with a lot to think about. It is a film that a certain kind of teenager must see before they are thrust head first into adulthood. Before they become part of the ghost world.
And to tell you the truth, Norman at the bus stop is only the second most enduring image of Ghost World. The most enduring– and terrifying– image from Ghost World is “mirror, father, mirror”. That is the stuff of which cheesy nightmares are made.
Daniel Clowes at The Brattle on 4th May, 2010