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The 'Quirky' New Wave

Written by James MacDowell.

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NOTE: A more recent article on 'quirky' can be read here.

What Wave?

I, like most other right-minded people, hate the word 'quirky'. It seems to lead far too easily to other distasteful terms such as 'wacky', 'zany', or even that most pointless of critical adjectives: 'weird'. So try to imagine my dismay when, time and again, I read reviews that consistently tar some of my favourite new American films with the quirky brush. What exactly does this word mean to these reviewers? And what is it about these films that makes them so quirky?

It seems to me that the word is being used as an easy blanket term to describe a particular trend in the style of much of the recent 'indiewood' output, a trend which is noticeable in the work of - probably - enough young directors for it to now officially be called a 'Wave'. But what (and who) does this Wave constitute, where does it come from, and what kind of cinema does it create? I hope that such probing will help me to define this trend in more helpful ways, and with better words, than 'quirky'.

Let's first try to define what we are dealing with. Here is a selection of contemporary filmmakers and films who are continuously called quirky (or 'offbeat', a closely related word): Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Michel Gondry, Hal Hartley, Spike Jonze, Jim Jarmusch, Charlie Kaufman, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Terry Zwigoff, Buffalo 66 (1998), Secretary (2003), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), American Splendor (2003), Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), Thumbsucker (2005).

Whether the names on this list do constitute a 'Wave' or not is probably debateable, but I hope to show that they have at least as much in common with each other as do the films belonging to other established Waves such as the 50s/60s French New Wave (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol etc.) or the 60s/70s Hollywood Renaissance (Scorsese, Altman, Coppola et al). The current commercial popularity of these 'independent' films and directors alone suggests there may be some kind of winning formula at work.

A Comic Wave

Indeed their value as entertainment is a key defining feature. If looking for similarities, the first thing that leaps out from the list above is that most of the names are predominantly (though not exclusively) associated with comedies, and even if we can't define every individual film as a comedy, we can at least say that it probably contains strong comic elements. This seems to be a defining feature of the 'quirky', and could partially explain why a director like David Lynch - whose work is said to be 'surreal', 'strange', 'unique': all words closely related to quirky - often escapes the term; his films are likely simply too dark to be called quirky. A borderline case would be someone such as Todd Solondz, whose work (particularly Happiness [1998], Storytelling [2001] and his recent Palindromes [2005]) treats extremely troubling and controversial subject matter with a tone that teeters exquisitely between dark comedy and high melodrama.

'Quirky' - as applied to recent American film - has a dismissive undertone that suggests a safe and non-controversial kind of strangeness, one which is much helped by the vague association of the movies with the seemingly inoffensive genre of comedy.

But having located the comic element, what style of comedy is being used in these films? I think it is fair to call much of it painful and emotional comedy, often focussing on loss of love, loss of confidence, loss of control. Watching Adam Sandler suddenly burst into tears in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), John Cusak wanting to literally be someone else to win the woman he loves in Being John Malkovich (1999) or Nicholas Cage's sweaty anxiety attacks in Adaptation (2002), we laugh - but uncomfortably, empathetically.

There's nothing necessarily new about that, but the same films often also treat us to moments of transcendentally silly slapstick as well. Such moments tend to occur suddenly and out of nowhere: Bill Murray grabbing his son's throat in Rushmore (1998), Jason Scwhartzman getting clothes-lined in I Heart Huckabees (2004), a naked husband sprinting angrily after a car in Sideways (2004).

<i>I Heart Huckabees</i>
I Heart Huckabees
Whatever else quirky means, it certainly seems to mean 'unusual', and when applied to film 'unusual' tends to be defined against the expected techniques of mainstream Hollywood. Both the individual qualities of the films' humour that I have mentioned - the grounding in seriousness and the sudden and illogical physicality - contribute to their quirkiness in this way. The first is quirky because it is still unusual for American mainstream cinema to confidently and forthrightly mix the comic and the tragic, and the second because slapstick outside the realms of 'a slapstick comedy' is also unusual, and seemingly just - weird. It is the combination of the two, however, that makes these films' comedy particularly unique, and therefore - I suppose - particularly 'quirky'.

Fathers of the Wave

It's worth taking a moment here to ask where this current trend grew from. I would say that, just as the French New Wave had its Jean-Pierre Melville and the Hollywood Renaissance had its John Cassavetes, so the 'Quirky New Wave' (by the way, a terrible name which I hope doesn't stick) has its spiritual forerunners in Jim Jarmusch and the Coen Brothers.

These filmmakers are influential partly because of the way they began outside, then tentatively explored within, the Hollywood mainstream, but also because they pioneered their own specific and idiosyncratic styles of wry absurdity. Their cameras' amused, detached view of their characters' pointless, meandering conversations, the skewed silliness of the situations, the playful mixing, rewriting, or disregarding of genres, the ever-present but unforced irony: its all clearly in evidence in this current Wave. Indeed, the work of these originators has continued to contribute to, and play a large part in, its growth.

Common Trends

<i>Buffalo '66</i>
Buffalo '66
So why else are these films a Wave? For a start, there are clear overlaps between films in their visual and soundtrack styles. When I try to think of a representative shot of the Wave, a certain kind of image comes to me: some sort of evenly-framed long or long-ish shot, almost geometric in its calculated quality, with something faintly absurd happening in the centre of it. See for instance that iconic kiss from the poster of Punch-Drunk Love, any one of Wes Anderson's many face-on character introductions, Christina Ricci's dance in Buffalo 66, or the failed ramp-jump in Napoleon Dynamite. These kinds of shot (which also undoubtedly demonstrate their debt to Jarmusch's and the Coens' visuals) create a certain sort of flat, 2-dimensional look that is common in many, though admittedly certainly not every one, of the films.

The resulting style could almost be described as cartoonish (as could the style of slapstick) and contributes to the slight sense of distance and gentle unrealism that floats over many of the Wave's films. This is helped by the fact that the style vaguely calls to mind the adult comics and graphic novels of the likes of Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, making it no surprise that we find adaptations (Ghost World [2000], American Splendor), biopics (Crumb [1994], American Splendor) and poster designs (Happiness, American Splendor) of the Wave that are directly inspired by these same artists. Like their character drawings, these films seem both simplified, mildly exaggerated and unreal, yet are simultaneously preoccupied with the day-to-day and with conveying 'real emotion'.

<i>Punch-Drunk Love</i>
Punch-Drunk Love
Speaking of emotions, I would argue that there is a remarkably consistent feel and mood across many of the films of this Wave. As well as all the comedy-as-tragedy, tragedy-as-comedy, which creates its own unmistakeable vibe of poignant ridiculousness, there's also another layer of feeling here, one which I think is contributed to a great deal by the films' soundtracks. Their music, whether specially composed or specially compiled (or both), often favours the sweet and simple, and the repetition of the sweet and simple with melodies or patterns played at the higher end of the musical register. Jon Brion's delicate scores for Punch-Drunk, Huckabees and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) are exemplary of this, as is Mark Mothersbaugh's work for Wes Anderson, but other examples can also be found in Malkovich, About Schmidt (2003) and Buffalo 66.

What this does is create a definite child-like feel, and I would say that a melancholy and a nostalgic longing for a time past (perhaps childhood, perhaps just some impossible, fictional, mythic time when everything was uncomplicated and everything was generally 'all right') pervades many of the films. This feeling is condensed and summed up in much of their music: fragile, yearning, sad, yet somehow hopeful, they comment on the action as if it were all already in the past, as if the best moments of life are always already in the past.

Why the Wave is Special

There is a danger in writing about the stylistic similarities and shared themes of these, or any, movies (and wrapping them up neatly in a Wave) that I risk implying that they are all the same or that they are perhaps a collective one-trick pony. This is certainly not the case here. Of course, there are the bland as well as the exceptional examples of the trend, and it only takes a certain amount of unimaginative repetition for the 'offbeat' to begin to stroll to its own uninspired 'onbeat': for every Fargo (1996) there is an Intolerable Cruelty (2003). But most of the films avoid this trap and continue to plough their own unique and intriguing furrows. This is why I particularly object to the word 'quirky' - because, while it implies, as I have said, something out-of-the-ordinary, it also implies something small, inconsequential, safe.

Its that last connotation that I especially take issue with. Some of these films, despite their relationship with their contemporaries, are individually wildly innovative and risky, feeling exciting in scope, creativity and originality. They are capable of showing us things we've never seen anywhere in the cinema before - let alone the Hollywood cinema. Is there any other suburban drama that so bombastically throws us into the strange and poetic unknown as Magnolia (1999) does at its shocking finale, any romance that so directly and beautifully conveys the frenzied and fragmented workings of a love-lorn mind as Eternal Sunshine, any film that so effortlessly captures the sad farce that is philosophical thought than the sad philosophical farce that is Huckabees, or any comedy that is so unexpectedly and literately hilarious throughout as The Big Lebowski (1998)? These films may not be perfect, but if they are inconsequential and safe, why do I feel I want to rank them with some of the Hollywood greats almost for their brave ambitions alone?

<i>Eternal Sunshine</i>
Eternal Sunshine
It could be that these films are just 'quirky' because of their lack of explicit contemporary social or political relevance - because they don't have the same kind of (largely) unspoken revolutionary purpose as, say, the French New Waves or the Hollywood Renaissance. Maybe it is also this, and not just the Wave's links with comedy, that mean it is not taken entirely seriously. It's certainly true that the eccentric, mercurial worlds created in many of the films seem often to bear little resemblance to the real world and its problems, and I admit that if I could choose one thing to 'improve' in the Wave it might well be this. But that's not to say that these filmmaker's are entirely introverted and self-absorbed: see, for example, O. Russell's critical Gulf War film Three Kings (1999), Payne's sly political satire in Election (1998) or P.T Anderson's subtle observations on the implications of Reagan's conservative reign in Boogie Nights (1998).

And why is it, exactly, that in order to be Important a film or movement must tick certain boxes of Relevance? It's worth noting that the films I've just mentioned are also the ones from the Wave that have tended to receive the most unanimously positive reviews; it seems that an obvious social conscience often automatically means something will be treated more kindly by critics. While it's true that engaging overtly with the political struggles of the society around you is one way to make great art, it is by no means the only way, and I believe that the Wave deserves recognition and respect on its own terms for a number of other reasons...

Its innovative aesthetic: the films have managed to smuggle a highly distinctive, rich and striking visual style into the Hollywood mainstream that is all its own. Its complex characterisation: not since the Renaissance have there been so many complicated, multi-faceted, sometimes contradictory, and endlessly engaging people consistently inhabiting the industry's stories. Its proliferation of exciting new artists, most with their own intriguing and exciting visions: the contemporary cinematic landscape as a whole would be far the poorer without Wes and P.T Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, Jarmusch, the Coens, and O. Russell to keep mixing it up, pushing the boundaries and providing popular American cinema with a breath of fresh air.

<i>The Life Aquatic</i>
The Life Aquatic
But, perhaps above all, what I love about this Wave is that it has - probably more than any 'wave' before it - managed to blur the boundaries between the arthouse and the mainstream, giving us all the pleasures of 'auteur' cinema that I have been outlining whilst also remaining ceaselessly entertaining and, well, fun. You only need to look as far as the casting to see the Wave's love of popular Hollywood cinema - stars like Bill Murray, Tom Cruise, Burt Reynolds, Jim Carrey, Mark Wahlberg, Nicholas Cage and Adam Sandler have all given extremely fine performances in these films, sometimes probably the best of their careers. These famous figures are not just cynically cast to give a commercial boost: the fact that they appear in the films also indicates the Wave's refreshingly non-snobbish and open-minded attitude to popular culture. As well as this, the actors' well-known personas are often used in knowing and complex ways, sometimes forming an important part of our understanding, and reaction to, the movies. That the Wave manages to be fulfilling intellectually, aesthetically, emotionally, and simultaneously remain hugely enjoyable is, I think, perhaps its greatest achievement. I am a believer in the notion that great cinema can only be so great if it is not also a pleasure to watch.

So, am I able to describe the Wave in any other word than 'quirky'? Well, as I've suggested, the term certainly does not do the films full justice. On the other hand, I'm ashamed to say I can't necessarily find a single word that does a better job. Though I reject some of its connotations, and hate its frustrating over-use, it does have something about it that condenses certain aspects of these films rather well. Finally, though, what does it honestly matter what we call this Wave? Let's just appreciate the fact that it exists (even if no one is acknowledging it), and look forward to being excited, surprised, moved and entertained by more of its output while it lasts.

This article was published on July 21, 2005.