I knew a pair like this in high school. "The REM Girls," people called them, because in Fullerton in the 1980s REM was still this edgy underground act. They wore things like t-shirts with the names of film festivals on them and burgundy stockings, and, legend had it, hung out with Camper Van Beethoven.

After graduation, one of them went to Santa Clara and spent a couple of years writing sardonic letters about her Delta Gamma roommate. Then she transferred to Oregon (aka UC Eugene) and switched her major from film to physical anthropology with an emphasis on osteology. Then she went on her first actual archaeological dig, didn't like it, and gave up on becoming a scientist. She hung out with Lisa Carver for a while and wrote porn and zine articles. She moved to New York and worked for Allure and for sidewalk.com. Then she moved to San Francisco and wrote eight installments of a newsletter in which she: wrote breathless accounts of incredibly mundane events like seeing a dog on a couple of different occasions ("Am I predator... or prey?"); ran a silly and mandatory (under threat of public humiliation) "Kontest Korner" with topics like "You are Elton John. You have been commissioned to write a song for Charles Schulz's decision to retire Peanuts. What is it called?"; referred to people by title and surname; and waxed enthusiastic about her two big hobbies, alcohol and astrology.

The other REM Girl became a corporate lawyer in Anaheim.

This sort of thing is basically what Ghost World is about.

That's one aspect of it, anyway. It starts with a couple of REM Girls graduating. Over the course of the summer, one gets a job and an apartment and some housewares; the other tries to soldier on with her suburban-bohemian schtick, trying to make a life out of doodling in her sketchbook and chatting with the town freaks. Unsurprisingly, they drift apart, and it's no one's fault; the film doesn't take sides on the issue of whose path is ultimately more fulfilling.

It does, however, focus on the slacker, Enid, as two hours watching Rebecca serve up lattes probably wouldn't have been very interes— well, wait, Rebecca is played by Scarlett Johansson, so two hours of her serving lattes would have been very interesting indeed. But Enid is played by the also very pulchritudinous Thora Birch, and her story is the more cinematic. Though largely anecdotal, there is a narrative arc in which she befriends dweeby Seymour (played by — need I say it? — Steve Buscemi) in the old "come to like someone you're initially playing for a sucker" plot. The film suggests that Seymour is who Enid might become in 25 years were she to grow steadily more introverted (and get a sex change); after an evening at a bar where everyone talks over an authentic elderly ragtime player but which comes to foot-stompin' life when some 20-year-old blond guy beats on an electric guitar and yowls about "pickin' cotton all day long," he laments, "I can't relate to 99% of humanity — I'm not even in the same universe as those creatures back there."

Films are in large part a mechanism for people to live out their fantasies; I recall a column that appeared after a spate of movies about buying women (Pretty Woman, Milk Money, several others) suggesting that since studio executives are usually gross little trolls who have nothing going for them but money, the ability to buy a movie star for sex addressed their fantasies, and since they're the ones who greenlight films, how a bunch of such movies ended up at the multiplexes wasn't such a mystery. Ghost World would be the equivalent for misanthropic misfits like Seymour and, uh, well, me... the idea that you could just be doing your thing, at right angles to the culture at large, and Thora Birch might take a shine to you and start hanging out with you and seduce you and stuff... it's basically geek porn. And realizing that brought home the extent to which a lot of my favorites revolve around the same theme: Three Colors: Red has an old crank befriended by a good-hearted young model, Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle succeeds in luring Iris to breakfast (John Hinckley's favorite scene, and no wonder)... even in college, I remember writing about Fahrenheit 451 and the fantasy of the Clarisse figure, the young beautiful non-conformist female who inexplicably attaches herself to the older male protagonist. (And these fantasies are malleable. During the Enid-n'-Seymour scenes, I thought about how cool it'd be to have a smart, cute REM Girl develop a crush on you. During the scenes where she was hanging at home with her dad, I mused about how nice it'd be to have a smart, cute REM Girl as a daughter. During the scenes where she was with Scarlett Johanssen... well, I'm already in enough trouble here, I think.)

But while Ghost World does feature this fantasy component, it's also in large part about the reality of calculation and compromise: how much will you put up with at work to maintain your standard of living? how much will you put up with from your friends to keep from being left totally alone? if you decide to burn this bridge, how many escape routes do you have left? Given that the question of where to live and with whom and how to pay for it has been one of my big concerns for most of the past decade, it was nice to encounter a story that dealt with the same issues. Unfortunately, they do get resolved with a bit of a deus ex autobus. Though I suppose the alternative would be for the story to just sort of peter out, like this article.

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