Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Theft of the Quirk

juno quirk quirkiness
"We're drowning in quirk."

"The quirk-mongers of Indiewood... have drained the words 'eccentric' and 'weird' of all meaning. They have accomplished what mainstream culture normally does: they have banalized the marginal and the offbeat."

The first quote is from a September essay in The Atlantic Monthly by Michael Hirschorn, and is referenced in the Reverse Shot review of "Juno."

Neither statement can really be denied, and I'm not sure anyone wants to. The reaction against quirk is about as unifying among the "with-it" set as quirk itself used to be.

However, are these statements accurate—accurate in the sense that they really get to the heart of the matter? Is it really quirk we're drowning in, and has it been co-opted by the mainstream from (presumably) some out-lying area of actual cool (or actual quality)? I think the answer in both cases is a tentative no.

Hirschorn defines quirk as "an embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream. It features mannered ingenuousness, an embrace of small moments, narrative randomness, situationally amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions... and unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits. Quirk takes not mattering very seriously." Sounds like the American perception of Canada.

Elbert Ventura corrects a small part of Hirschorn's definition ("it’s not the embrace of odd that he was railing against, it’s the dumbing-down of it") but I would imagine by and large, their irritations coincide.

Other buzzwords get tossed around throughout the two pieces: eclecticism, sentiment(ality), self-indulgent, self-satisfied, posing, preening, irresponsible, mannerism, etc.

But one word that stood out in Ventura's review was the curious modifier "contemporary"—"contemporary quirk has become less about opposing the mainstream but being accepted by it." Common to both the essay and the review (and most of the reviews I've read of other quirksome films—Rocket Science, Thumbsucker, Little Miss Sunshine, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and particularly the last two Wes Anderson films) is a pervasive sense of a briefly fun thing gone sour, overtaken by its success and viciously damaged by mainstream acceptance.

I would imagine that, as in my case, a great many critics—especially young critics—were seriously attracted by the first three Anderson films and were to some degree drawn into an interest in film largely on their strengths. As such, there is the need to narrate the history of "contemporary quirk" as a downfall of some small degree. It's not that those films—Ghost World, Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaums, and —were so great to begin with (although I think some people still hold onto Tenenbaums as a masterpiece), but that their present-day successors are so atrocious.

That may be an accurate narrative, but it also, I think, misses the bigger picture.

First off, what is this "contemporary quirk" business about? We all recognize that the quirkiness of Juno differs from the quirkiness of Ghost World not in kind, but in quality. So there is presumably a form of quirk that preceded the middle Nineties? What precisely would that be? Hirschorn posits David Byrne as the grandfather of quirk; I'm skeptical.

Perhaps looking at Wes Anderson's musical choices would be a good place to start—The Kinks, The Zombies, and David Bowie. Are these "quirky" artists? If so, quirk would have to occupy some middle position between tweeness and glam or camp—which is a definite possibility, but I still am skeptical.

I am skeptical because I think the problem is precisely that "contemporary quirk" has no true antecedents—neither in the avant-garde nor in the mainstream. Which is not to say that it is a new phenomenon, but that it was born illegitimately on both sides, and perhaps purposefully so.

Despite its illegitimacy, quirk holds itself captive to an imagined and incoherent past which is both idealized and displaced—the artistic correlate to the vintage fashion aesthetic. The problem is not so much that oddity and banality are conflated, but that timelessness and ephemerality have become virtually the same thing.

This is not pure eclecticism—the quirk aesthetic is crafted—half-baked, but crafted. It is not, when one thinks about it, all that inclusive. (If it were, how could we mark it so easily?) But to be selective does not mean that one's selections are coherent, and that incoherence is really the origin of the complaints about self-indulgent eclecticism.

Alongside this incoherence, however, lies a reluctance to re-situate cultural citations in anything approximating real creativity. What passes for creativity is setting two very literal citations next to one another or on top of one another—a Portuguese singer and David Bowie songs in Life Aquatic, for instance. Compare that to the work of Todd Haynes in I'm Not There—these are completely different levels of creativity at work.

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Hirschorn compares the easiness of quirk to the facileness of Nineties irony ("Like the proliferation of meta-humor that followed David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld in the ’90s, quirk is everywhere because quirkiness is so easy to achieve: Just be odd … but endearing"), but that comparison is closer than he probably intends. The "irony" of the Nineties was actually in most cases extreme literalism. Seinfeld (and Curb Your Enthusiasm) builds its irony on excessive devotion to the literal, exhausting the humor of a joke and making that exhaustion the subject of the next joke. David Letterman's routines worked in exactly the same way. The basic thinking was that playing up the literalness of mundanity exposes its oddity, that earnest attempts at earnestness are funnier than earnest attempts at humor.

Does quirk operate any differently? Quirky authors like David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs are always literal even when they're not factual; Juno's central problem is actually treated far more literally than 2007's other comedy about an unwanted/unexpected pregnancy, Knocked Up. This American Life could really not be any more earnest.

We are not, I think, drowning in quirk so much as we are drowning in literalness. Quirk is just the by-product of an overwhelming trust in the saving power of self-awareness—that letting your audience know that you know you or your film or your book is probably coming off as narcissistic or clichéd or insecure or self-indulgent somehow makes it the audience’s fault if they don’t end up liking you, your film, your book, or your routine. ‘If I know I’m being narcissistic, and I know you think I’m being narcissistic, aren’t we basically in the same position, and then don’t you have to like me?’ – that is the basic message.

Being earnest about being earnest—or being literal about being literal—is therefore not just a strategy for provoking laughs, but for ingratiating itself by lowering expectations.

The problem, therefore, isn’t, as the critics would have it, that quirk (or excessive literalness) “banalize[s] the marginal and the offbeat”—or in other words that it tries to make squares feel hip, that it tries to provide a “crowd-pleaser for people who like to think they’re above crowd-pleasers but are actually not.” Quirk doesn’t even exist in the dialectic between the margins and the center, between crowd-pleasers and crowd-provokers. Its audience, like its sense of time, is intentionally dislocated, scattershot, and incoherent. The point of irritation shouldn’t be who its audience is, but how it relates to the audience it ends up attracting.

Quirk wasn't stolen by the mainstream, and it doesn't raid from the "truly" offbeat and marginal to please the tasteless masses, and while that's not really the point of either the Atlantic Monthly essay or the Reverse Shot review, I think it is a fairly common complaint.

But do we really want the early Wes Anderson back? I don't know—I like to think I've grown out of identifying with Max Fischer.

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