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Defining 'Quirky'

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article Richard Ayoade’s new coming-of-age comedy Submarine (2010) was quickly dubbed “the Welsh Rushmore" on the festival circuit. While this might at first seem a routinely lazy comparison, it is indeed difficult not to feel the influence of a certain kind of recent American movie upon the film. Having previously directed a video for the band Vampire Weekend which openly mimicked Wes Anderson’s style, Ayoade has also brought elements reminiscent of this distinctive mode to bear on his feature debut: intertitles announce prologues and epilogues; character introductions include listed idiosyncrasies; a quixotically romantic adolescent is both lampooned and championed by the movie’s tone. In short, Submarine would seem to be a British version of what now very often gets called a ‘quirky’ film.

Of course, the word quirky is tiresomely overused and frequently raises hackles: “Man, is that the only adjective they know?!” a disgruntled Jim Jarmusch has demanded of his critics. If being charitable, we might call it a convenient shorthand for a particular sensibility that emerged in U.S. cinema during the last fifteen-or-so years, and is now spreading abroad. If it is to be useful, though, the term needs to be better defined than all-purpose meanings of ‘kooky’ or ‘offbeat’ allow. This is something I’ve been trying to do for a while - first here, back in 2005, then later in this article for Movie: a Journal of Film Criticism. While trotted out ad nauseam for indie movies of all stripes, it’s my belief that the word can be more helpfully associated with a narrower strand of the contemporary American scene that does indeed seem to encourage comparable approaches, producing the kinds of comedies and comedy-dramas conjured up by names like Anderson’s, as well as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Charlie Kaufman, or titles such as Buffalo ’66 (1998) Punch-Drunk Love (2002), I ❤ Huckabees (2004), Lars and the Real Girl (2007), and so on. If treated as neither a meaningless blanket term nor a restrictive box, but rather as a sliding scale, I think ‘quirky’ can serve as well as any description for this currently prevalent and significant trend.

A cinema of tensions

Susan Sontag once said that, although we know it when we see it, “a sensibility is almost, but not quite, ineffable” - its overall feel sometimes slipping through our fingers as we grasp for its specifics. Like film noir, the quirky doesn’t seem to be identifiable by genre or subject matter, but is instead something like a worldview, with tone being perhaps its defining factor. While tricky to pin down, however, certain conventions are nevertheless discernable across many of the films that regularly attract the term, even if cropping up in greater or lesser numbers, with greater or lesser emphasis. The reason a word like ‘quirky’ seems appropriate here is that it suggests something of a half-way house. And indeed, this is surely a sensibility made up of tensions: between indie and mainstream, comedy and drama, naturalism and artificiality, innocence and experience, and - perhaps above all - ‘irony’ and ‘sincerity’.

<i>Harold & Maude</i>
Harold & Maude
These tensions can be gauged partly by a glance at what appear to be the sensibility’s precursors. Hints of a modern American quirky could be traced back at least as far as the ‘60s and ‘70s. Anderson has said (in this interview) that he always feels he is stealing from The Graduate (1967), and Nichols’ film certainly anticipates the quirky’s fondness for making polite society appear borderline surreal, as well as a desire simultaneously to cheer and gently rib romantic dreamers. Hal Ashby is also relevant, particularly The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), and Being There (1979) (in Submarine's press release Ayoade too cites these directors as influences). Whereas, say, Altman’s early satires often teetered on the threshold of disdain for their characters, Ashby regularly tempered his irony with a more gentle and heartfelt warmth for hapless protagonists; one might say he rejected Hollywood’s sense of heroism less completely than some of his New Hollywood peers. More recently, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, and the Coen Brothers would seem immediate forerunners of the quirky, even if not fully paid-up members. In particular, these directors introduced the ‘80s independent cinema boom to idiosyncratic forms of dry absurdity, all tending to treat characters in manners both comically distanced and loving. If their oeuvres contain elements that finally mark them as outsiders to the sensibility proper (different types, and meanings, of ‘coolness’ perhaps), all nevertheless helped carve out a niche which the quirky would expand upon in various ways.

Now located firmly within Indiewood - the blurred economic and aesthetic intersection of independent and Hollywood cinema developed since the ‘90s - quirky movies also seem in part a response to what the cultural critic Jeffrey Sconce has called ‘smart film’: an often cynical, nihilistic, or disengaged kind of 90s/00s indie movie typified by the early work of Neil Labute or Todd Solondz. The great film critic Robin Wood once wrote of Altman that “he seems terrified that someone might suspect him of being ‘romantic’”, and thus seeks “defence against a too intense involvement in the fiction”; we could say something similar of smart films, which regularly filtered their dark subject matter through a lens of ironic dispassion. By contrast, quirky movies can usually be defined by a tone that balances ironic disaffection with a more generous and sincere engagement, as we can see by looking at their comedy, style, and recurring themes.

<i>The Life Aquatic</i>
The Life Aquatic
Quirky strategies

Quirky films typically combine various types of comedy. There’s the deadpan: dry, perfunctory, taking moments that could be melodramatic and downplaying them for comic effect (“Was it dark?” asks Ben Stiller of a suicide note in The Royal Tenenbaums [2001]). This humour distances us from characters’ emotions, yet the same films may push embarrassment too, asking us to laugh sympathetically with awkwardness or pain - say, Ryan Gosling’s touchingly, sadly funny interactions with his sex doll in Lars and the Real Girl. Also occasionally added to the comic mix are explosions of credibility-straining slapstick that emerge with surreal incongruity - for instance, Bill Murray suddenly toppling head-over-heels, cartoonlike, down a flight of stairs in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004). When combined with drama, these styles form a cocktail relatively unique to the quirky: a comic address that requires we remain removed from and emotionally engaged with the fiction, view characters as pathetic and appealing, and their worlds as manifestly artificial and believable. These delicate balances can be tipped one way or another - Napoleon Dynamite (2004), for example, might mark one extreme, The Savages (2007) the other; but the existence of such a balance appears key.

<i>The Royal Tenenbaums</i>
The Royal Tenenbaums
The sense of artificiality mined by some of the comedy is picked up in aspects of the quirky’s style. Wes Anderson could be said to embody one extreme version of the sensibility’s aesthetic, having perfected a kind of shot found across many films: longish, presentational, flat, nearly geometrically even, rendering carefully-arranged characters faintly ridiculous through a composition’s distance or rigidity. We might think of Anderson’s familiar snapshot-introductions to characters, or, beyond his work, of Christina Ricci’s dance in Buffalo ’66, the opening image of Napoleon Dynamite showing Napoleon standing stock-still outside his house, and so on. One striking aspect of these sorts of shots is their self-consciousness, which can be usefully related to other anti-realist techniques: films beginning with theatre curtains opening (e.g.: Rushmore [1998], Being John Malkovich [1999]), the blurring of lines between fiction and reality (Adaptation [2002], American Splendor [2003]), etc. At the same time as being knowing, however, these images also imply a kind of naïveté - their boldness, simplicity, and measured beauty make them seem not only calculated, but also purified, suggesting an effort to remake the world in a less chaotic, more distilled form. This interest in the simplistic is also echoed in the recurrence of childlike drawings and models (The Science of Sleep [2006], Napoleon Dynamite), and in the films’ music, which regularly favours repeated sweet, high-register melodies that sometimes recall the tinkling of a child’s music box (Punch-Drunk Love, Tumbsucker [2005]).

Publicity for <i>Thumbsucker</i>
Publicity for Thumbsucker
This hint of the childlike in turn reflects the sensibility’s frequent preoccupation with innocence more generally. Young children occasionally feature prominently (Little Miss Sunshine, Bottle Rocket [1996]), but more common are adolescents who represent an uneasy tension between youth and its imminent loss (Rocket Science [2007], Thumbsucker [2005]). Equally, grownups often express a longing for childhood (Meryl Streep in Adaptation: “I want to be a baby, I want to be new…”), childhood items are fetishistically retained (Vincent Gallo’s locker loaded with early bowling trophies in Buffalo ’66), lovers flirt via play-acting like kids (Me, You, and Everyone We Know [2005]), and innocence is even sometimes regained literally, if only momentarily (in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2004], for example, Joel and Clementine actually return to childhood). Since they are usually observed from a position of adulthood, though, these films also seem concerned to remind us that childhood can finally never be retrieved. The influence of America’s foremost literary chronicler of nostalgia and its melancholy dangers, J. D. Salinger, is clear here: the ex-child geniuses of The Royal Tenenbaums and Magnolia (1999) are obvious descendants of Salinger’s Glass family, while Submarine has now become the latest movie to reference The Catcher in the Rye. With all this in mind, it is perhaps telling that the most recent films from two of quirky’s leading lights, Anderson and Spike Jonze, have been adaptations of children’s books.

One final point of definition is that the quirky tends to stop just short of being fantastical per se - or, at least, tries to locate the fantastic as much as possible in the realm of the humdrum; this is what bars, say, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, or Richard Kelly from entry into its ranks. Think of Magnolia’s amphibious rainfall being just “something that happens”, the creatures who behave like familiar children in Where the Wild Things Are (2009), the grubby exploitations of outlandish discoveries in Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine - glimpses of the otherworldly brought down to earth with varying degrees of bumps. More common though is for the sensibility to make everyday worlds themselves feel surreal: a Hawaiian kiss in Punch-Drunk Love morphing into a moving painting, a workaday office block housing ‘existential detectives’ in I ❤ Huckabees, Rushmore’s school plays that seem to require a Hollywood special effects team, and so on. This is a sensibility often concerned to augment or defamiliarise reality, but never quite abandon it.

<i>Being John Malkovich</i>
Being John Malkovich
Reconcilable differences

Although many of these films have earned widespread praise, certain quarters of the press regularly find them objectionable on principle. This can surely be explained in part by a familiar suspicion of the mainstream (for some, ‘quirky’ denotes anodyne: weird but not too weird), as well as a distrust of culture seen as either affirmative or escapist. It is certainly true that we will seldom feel things can turn out too badly for these films’ characters; their comedic worlds in general feel largely safe. Yet optimism need not be a dirty word, and it is in any case an outlook not usually merely presented, but rather probed, by quirky movies. Perhaps because they often exist on either side of the studio/indie divide, these films repeatedly concern themselves with both the importance and limits of fantasy: Be Kind Rewind (2008) cinematically rewrites cultural history in a community's imagination only; Miranda July in Me, You, and Everyone we Know (2005) uses her art to imagine herself closer to others; Submarine’s protagonist pictures his life as a film, and so on. Many of these movies are not simply escapist, but are to a significant extent about escapism.

Another common criticism is that the films can tend to be frivolously insular and apolitical, perhaps even conservative. Yet the meanings of artistic conventions are determined by use, not mere presence. It could be argued that, for instance, The Life Aquatic’s whimsical devotion to boys-own adventure causes it to cast its Filipino pirates merely as the dangerous ‘other’ of colonial imagination, or that Lars and the Real Girl’s affection towards its small-town religious community inadvertently results in a paean to Christian values. On the other hand, adopting a lightly ironic tone towards environmental activism does not prevent I ❤ Huckabees from criticising American foreign policy, nor from committing sincerely to its protagonists’ final pact to disrupt the oncoming corporate bulldozers. Equally, the sense of innocent hopefulness often fostered by the quirky is capable of producing, say, the utopian polysexual salon of Shortbus (2006) - a joyous enactment of a Red-State nightmare, and a lesson in the exciting places real cinematic sex can go when liberated from the shackles of arthouse miserablism. Here as elsewhere, an aesthetic does not equal a political position.

The danger in grouping films together under a banner is that it risks pigeonholing them and erasing differences. But when a sensibility can produce movies as disparate and distinctive as Magnolia and Synecdoche, New York (2008) it is not difficult to distinguish between its products. Of course, some will appear more obviously quirky than others, but all share at least a few aspects in common. These similarities can prompt accusations of cynical mass-production to type, and it is true that quirkiness can feel predetermined. A film like Juno (2007), for instance, exhibits noticeable strains in its pursuit: needless cutaways provide over-simplified illustrations of Juno’s flights of imagination, we pause the narrative for an arbitrary soliloquy about the suggestiveness of teenagers’ jogging shorts, etc.; certainly, some films try to force themselves into a ready-made bracket. Yet such a criticism could never be levelled at figures like Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry. Whether one loves or loathes their styles, few would deny that they appear to emerge organically as expressions of coherent worldviews rather than mere superficial doodling. Quirky is only a liability when it becomes an end in itself, or is attempted by artists unsuited to its demands.

Ayoade, though - the new kid on the block - seems entirely at home in the sensibility’s surroundings, also augmenting it with bursts of youthful, French New Wave-like spontaneity and a Malick-esque eye for the beauties of magic hour. That Submarine’s deliriously amorous passages can survive alongside its attendant impulse to subtly puncture impractical dreams might remind us that there is often something Romantic about the quirky’s worldview. Schlegel once described Romanticism as an “eternal oscillation of enthusiasm and irony”, and we could say something similar about this current movement. An approach seemingly longing to move beyond the wholesale irony of postmodernism, whilst still wary of naïve sincerity (see: Submarine’s dubious self-help mystic), the quirky struggles to find productive moments of tension between the two - something which links it with broader trends in art that are increasingly being summarised as 'metamodern’.

Given these tensions at its heart, it is perhaps not only target marketing that causes the quirky to be repeatedly drawn to bildungsromans - a form firmly founded upon problems of transition. “I don’t know if I’ve come of age,” says Ayode’s protagonist towards the end of his movie, “but I’m definitely older now”. A statement at once undeniably self-conscious and undeniably genuine, these words serve as a fitting conclusion for the latest entry into this now transatlantic sensibility.

This article was published on March 28, 2011.

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