GHOST WORLD (2001)
IMDB Synopsis: With only the plan of moving in together after high school, two unusually devious friends seek direction in life. As a mere gag, they respond to a man’s newspaper ad for a date, only to find it will greatly complicate their lives.
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Writers: Daniel Clowes (comic book), Daniel Clowes
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson
2001’s Ghost World, based on the dark and funny comic by Daniel Clowes, offers up a perfect example of a modern romantic notion of a perfect, unobtainable, and always fictional past. When we look forward in time through science fiction, popular culture always portrays a dystopia of environmental and social injustice. Pop culture is littered with that particular view. The future is always dark subject matter when it comes to sustainability. But when we look back – not in historical terms but with a longing – we recall a simpler time that wasn’t. Past is a remembered perfection that we use to contrast a sense of modern fucked-upness. This is the case with both the movie Ghost World and sustainability.
Ghost World opens with Enid (played by a rich man’s Christina Ricci, Thora Birch) dancing to a perhaps imagined 60’s tune. Clips of a dance party from the same era cut in and out, placing her perfectly out of place – she is living in the wrong time. Modern products looking to playu with a sense of eco-nostalgia play this same game as well – their packaging is retro inspired, their sugar is throw-back cane, they are new version of an old, happier, seemingly more authentic self. We should question all marketing, but especially marketing that claims to be authentic.
Enid is graduating high school, that special coming of age moment – the cusp of adulthood but not. Hip Hop performers at the graduation, rhyme “graduation” with “now we’re members of the general population.” High School is a safe place and Enid and her fellow classmates are being thrust in to adult life – a life akin to prison Gen-Pop.
If brooding, punk Enid represents that dark side of modernity pining for a pastoral perfect past dance party, than her friend Scarlett Johansson – the most unconvincing slacker ever – represents light and hope of a brighter future. ScarJo is excited by the prospect of a job and an apartment. Enid continues to want to fuck around with the past, so much so that she sleeps with Steve Buscemi. Not a young Steve Buscemi either (he would have been 43 during filming). His age is off-putting, but to Enid, his age is a way to recapture the past. He introduces her to the blues. Her musical taste moves from the Buzzcocks (a near past) to the delta blues of Skip James (a distant past.) The further back she goes, the more authentic she feels the experience is. And this is a core value to the consumption of brands, products and concepts that claim to be sustainable. In many ways, what we are buying is a promise of
wholesome goodness the way it was. Or rather, the way we are told to remember it – a mythology.
Like modern marketers, Enid knows the power of cultivating the past for present value. She enters into a record store wearing her tartan plaid skirt, combat boots, and newly died green hair.
Store Manager: “Oh, man didn’t anyone tell you? Punk rock is over.” Enid: “I know it’s over, asshole.”
Store Manager: “Want to fuck up the system? Go to business school. That’s what I’m going to do. Get a job at some, like, big corporation and fuck things up from the inside.”
Enid: “You know I’m not even trying to….”
Store Manager: Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Enid: “Go die.”
Store Manager: “Get a job.”
Enid: “It’s not like I’m some modern punk, iIt’s obviously a 1970 original punk rock look.”5
The Store Manager’s strategy is to make a difference from the inside the system. I think that is fool’s progress. I used to have a blog called Sustainability Punks. Each week it profiled someone in the environmental or social justice space that was a gadfly for positive change. It’s tagline: Fucking Shit Up For Good. It was not about insiders, it was about outsiders. Unless you’re a virus, it’s hard to change the host from the inside. Anyway, Enid’s is a kind of manufactured punk based on an authentic punk. A simulacrum, maybe. But at the very least a simulation and not The Thing. That she admits this is what makes her authentic or very strategic – like many modern brands.
The punk aesthetic is interesting here.
German sociologist Theodor Adorno piously said, “tThe Culture Industry piously claims to be guided by its customers and to supply them with what they ask for. But while assiduously dismissing any thought of its own autonomy and proclaiming its victims its judges, it outdoes, in its veiled autocracy, all the excesses of autonomous art. The culture industry not so much adapts to the reactions of its customer as it counterfeits them.”
The same goes for what passes for punk rock these days. It’s a pop veneer of the ideology that defined punk. It’s simulated punk, and it’s just like simulated sustainability. A replica. Maybe of something that never existed – a simulacrum.
Greenway, Yellow Card, All Time Low, Blink whatever – it’s all watery reflection. And – like much of Corporate sustainability – it serves only the purpose of driving consumption of itself. That’s the job. When Bono endorses Capitalism (not with a human face, but with a human mask at best), you know both capitalism and U2 has lost their edge.6
Punks by nature of what they are defining themselves against, embrace early gyrations of 70’s sustainability: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – simple, effective, DIY. Each of these strategies are attacks on consumerism, so punk’s relationship to capitalism and corporate elitism is personal. It’s also political. That they adhered to the three R’s of sustainability may or may not be (likely ‘not be’) out of some atypical love for the earth – – again it’s more political than environmental. But that is likely what modern sustainability needs to be – more political than emotional.
Punk was searching for something by creating something real, raw. Its ideology is Naked Lunch, the William James Burroughs’ novel about being a junky. It’s stripped down rage without flourish. It’s crap tattoos not the curated ink of today. It’s straight edge and partying. As a reaction to a culture of consumption of and for happiness, punks simply didn’t consume. It wasn’t about a tiny house. They had to crawl back to the suburbs. Which is worse? Today, we consume more because we are told that there is happiness through ownership.
We saw an earlier form of this exact problem in The Clash’s 1979 Lost in the Supermarket:
I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality
The Clash can be called cartoon punk in the same way that much of Corporate America does cartoon sustainability. There is real sustainability happening underneath for sure, but most of it we never see because it just doesn’t sell soap. We can’t see it because they don’t talk about it, because it’s not sexy. And this is one of the problems. We (consumers) want Abs and Coke. We want Fast and Fuel Efficient. We want Cheap and Sustainable. So that’s what they sell us. And we want these things because they have tricked us into thinking that we can have it all: Unique and Tribal.
Also like us (consumers), grunge gods Nirvana wanted it both ways – to be deviant and mainstream. When they made it to the cover of Rolling Stone, front man Kurt Cobain used the new mainstream fame to make that very statement. “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” read his t-shirt not hidden under an ugly green (now) hipster sweater. He was hav ing his Abs and his Coke – his fuck you and his fame. He got to be both on the cover of corporate media and still shit on Rolling Stone. It was staged punk. No doubt Rolling Stone knew this and wanted some of that credit as well for “allowing” the picture. They knew the irony and did it anyway gleefully. Don’t smile Kurt, this is serious. Don’t enjoy your fame.
Caught in her own lie of punk Enid, she runs home, starts listening to the Buzzcock, then switches to Skip James on vinyl, and dyes her hair black again.
In 2001, when Ghost World was released, green marketing was a reaction strategy to counter bad PR. It was an early response to distrust of corporations, specifically in the energy and oil space. The Exxon Valdez disaster was in 1989 and solar and wind were getting more traction. As a freshman in college, I remember urging my mom to cut up her Exxon gas card – it was very Enid of me.
To put this narrative inside the movie, Enid and her father are eating dinner and in the background there is a television commercial for an oil company. The images are of marshes rich with birds, of fields covered in flowers, of people playing in the pristine outdoors. The voice over is classic double-green-speak.
“Is it crazy for an oil company to think about the environmental? We don’t think so….If we all work together we can make this planet a pretty nice place to live…preserving the splendor of nature to make the world a more livable place for everyone….”
The tagline at the end of the T.V. spot is: Solutions for People. People for Solution.
Very Soylent Green.
We’re told that the past was happier and healthier. We fetishize this notion of a return to a simpler Eden.
Slovenian quasi-Marxist Slavoy Zizek crashes in on us:
“Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with one self. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.”
Brands trying to help us become happy by giving us goods and services that create environmental and social value (as opposed to robbing those things from us), sounds amazing. Creating happiness is their new strat egy. This, perhaps, is more frightening than the dystopia future painted by science fiction. Actually, it is the same thing.
But of course, Enid’s own grasping for The Authentic will cost her a relationship with ScarJo. ScarJo could tolerate it when she went through her ”old lady phase” but no longer when she went through her Buscemi phase.
To close the film we see Enid once again dressed as an old lady. Her costume has gone from curated authentic 70’s punk to little old lady as she waits at a bus stop. A vintage bus pulls up, and she climbs aboard. I like to think she travels back in time to whatever she thinks was so great about the past. And that she finds, like Zizek warned, that “iIf you want to remain happy, just remain stupid.”
That’s what the worst of the sustainable brands want consumers to do.
5 This reminds me of a not-famous interview with Billy Joe from Green Day. The inter viewer asked him “What’s Punk?” Billy Joe kicked over a trashcan. The interview kicked over another trashcan. Billy Joe said “that’s not punk, now that’s trendy.” This event might have never happened.
6 Less Edge may be what U2 needs, actually. I don’t know why I hate on U2 so much. I just do