The problem with “quirk” (and how it used to be so different…)

Queen of quirk - Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer

In critical terms “quirky” is a much-derided word these days, often with good reason. It’s twinned with derisory adjectives like “arch” and “knowing”, and screenwriters like Diablo Cody get taken to task for cobbling together character from a series of meaningless phrases like “honest to blog” and “homeslice”. Look around, though, and quirk is everywhere; widespread and readily accessible. Quirky Zooey Deschanel has made a career out of it. Quirky Natalie Portman won an Oscar by subverting the common perception of her as a sweet nothing who coaxes Zach Braff out of affected bouts of melancholia that involve paralysing his mother with a dishwasher. Her quirky predecessor and Black Swan co-star Winona Ryder regained some credibility by playing off a similar typecasting that had stuck with her since Reality Bites. There are countless other examples of women quirking it up in different films over the years – Parker Posey for Hal Hartley, Christina Ricci for Vincent Gallo, Renee Zellweger for Cameron Crowe, Meg Ryan for Rob Reiner – to varying degrees of success. Currently Greta Gerwig reigns supreme amongst her peers, occupying roles for Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman identical to the ones she played in the string of meaningless mumblecore movies years earlier, and which require her to do little more than spout ponderous drivel about the futility of her existence.

Quirk has become accessorised and streamlined to an absurd degree – the cynicism of which can be observed in the likes of already largely forgotten efforts like Smart People and Adam.  In cases such as these, wayward protagonists make some profound mystical connection via music or a film, or are otherwise reduced to a series of thuddingly obvious pop cultural clichés. Juno strums out a meaningless ditty by The Moldy Peaches. Portman insists Braff listen to The Shins. Deschanel implores the viewers that one day they’ll be “cool” in Almost Famous with her bug eyes and a box of old vinyl.  Deschanel, again, woos Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer with a mutual admiration for The Smiths (appropriate – everyone in that film appears to think the sun shines out of their behind) and sobs at the climax of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. He repays the favour by getting drunk and belting out ‘Here Comes Your Man’ by The Pixies at a karaoke bar and dancing with cartoon birds to Hall & Oates. The madcap family in Little Miss Sunshine, riddled with more diarrhoeic quirk than Pauline Quirke on a prune-only diet, work out their collective differences by bopping to ‘Super Freak’ by Rick James at a talent contest.

If there a was modicum of ingenuity about any of these choices – say Deschanel was a massive fan of Delta 5 and The Wild Swans and broke up at the end of Nichols’ The Day of the Dolphin (tagline: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the president of the United States!”) instead – perhaps I’d have more tolerance for this sort of thing. As it is, I usually leave the cinema feeling sullen, wonder if I’m secretly a replicant incapable of feeling human emotion, and entertain for a moment punching out the next passer-by who has the temerity to venture that if I cheered up and started feeling good about myself “it might never happen”. Perhaps if we all made an effort to be quirky and ironically wore pork pie hats at a jaunty angle, life would be better. We could all wallow around in this fetid pool of mutually-agreed cultural epithets (usually they involve making a Star Wars reference), and everything would be ok. Personally it makes me feel like the harried Laura Linney barking “von Sternberg!” at her confused lover in The Savages, after he’d mistakenly identified Eric von Stroheim as the director of The Blue Angel, but instead of cinematic trivia pedantry I’m screaming in the rain at holistic Seth Rogen-esque dickheads doing their zillionth Darth Vader impression whilst pimp their Animal Collective EPs as if they were the first people in the universe to happen across them.

Nowadays “quirk” in film and TV terms is a by-word for normalcy and banality. The attractive kids from Glee are supposedly quirky outsiders, not the ones from My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks. The word “kook” is similarly debased – once used to describe Julie Christie in Petulia, now more likely to be about the simpering Emma Roberts in The Art of Getting By or It’s Kind of a Funny Story. But then mainstream comedies used to look like Shampoo and not I Don’t Know How She Does It, Jack Nicholson used to make films like The King of Marvin Gardens, and Robert Pattinson and Orlando Bloom had yet to be born. The genuine daring of independent films in the 90s like Citizen Ruth, Pi, Schizopolis, Slacker, Spanking the Monkey, Stranger than Paradise and Poison have never seemed further away, with their respective directors advancing into more mature territory, leaving no-one to pick up the slack. Even a tough-edged film like Brick saw its director Rian Johnson follow things up with the arch, knowing and – yes – quirky as hell The Brothers Bloom.

PTA's Punch-Drunk Love - endures with lasting vitality

Fittingly, Gus van Sant doesn’t make films like Mala Noche anymore. He makes films like Restless. Viewers have been keen to point out van Sant’s liberal lifting from Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude as inspiration, though it superficially appears to have more in common with the recent Kate Hudson/Gael Garcia Bernal terminal illness rom-com, A Little Bit of Heaven. Elsewhere the specificity of Wes Anderson’s vision is often lifted wholesale and rammed into conventional shit-your-pants bad material (Ceremony; Rocket Science; Charlie Barlett) or conjured for effect, and the only independent alternative going is the last-gasp wheeze of the rapidly aging ‘iconoclasts’ of yore, Harmony Korine and Gregg Araki, who wave around their moth-eaten pom-poms in an effort to still seem ‘with it’. Perhaps only Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, a romantic comedy from 2003 about an emotionally-stunted man-child who appears to be genuinely suffering from crippling depression and not a loose approximation of the real thing, seems to endure with any sense of lasting vitality.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying things were better for American cinema in the late 60s and early 70s. “No shit”, you might mutter, with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and all the other classics that are wheeled out, usually in the summer months when critics have tired of sitting through The Smurfs or Marmaduke. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs dedicates a large chunk of a recent, wide-ranging interview to discuss that very subject. One thing that stuck for me as slightly incongruous was Dobbs’ antipathy towards the period when the rot of quirk had begun to take hold. In his words:

When we talk about how “great” the 60s and 70s were, if you forced me to discard or discount certain movies, it would probably be those ones that anticipated the kind of shit we get now — those films that were prematurely quirky, that were then referred to as “offbeat” or “oddball.”  I can’t say I’ve ever really warmed to even the best or most highly-regarded of them.

It struck me that of the “prematurely quirky” ones Dobbs’ cites by name – Where’s Poppa?, Lord Love a Duck, Little Murders and Stay Hungry – the writer’s diagnosis is a little off. Stay Hungry, granted, has Jeff Bridges doing the dirty with Sally Field on the stairs, a fitness instructor who insists on being called “Thor” and a madcap jet-skiing sequence set to wacky music that has little bearing on the plot. But it also has some of the most disturbing and incongruous sex scenes in cinema history, as Thor has his way with a prostitute and finishes the deed by hanging her up on some gym equipment, whilst his co-worker Wamba (supposedly the “Jungle Bomb”) ties a buxom woman to a massage table and gags her mouth shut to keep her quiet. Not one screaming out for a Zooey D and JGL remake.

The other three are similarly stuffed with acts of obvious provocation.  Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa?, for instance, opens with George Segal calmly getting out of bed, donning a gorilla suit, before bursting into the bedroom of his senile mother (Ruth Gordon) and attempting to scare her to death. To his dismay, she survives. Moments later he fantasises about her being eaten by a dog or – better yet – simply shrinking into nothingness. Gordon’s degenerative mental illness is played for broad comedy. In one memorable sequence she pulls down Segal’s trousers, mistaking him for her dearly departed husband, and kisses his bare backside whilst declaiming, “I’d know that tush anywhere!” This zaniness extends to Segal’s professional career as a defence lawyer. Having recruited a nubile young nurse with a chequered sexual history (the last man she loved “made a caca on the bed”) to take care of his demented mother, he spends some time mounting a defence of a “punk” who called out an army colonel for being “full of shit”. The colonel initially wins the judge’s sympathy, before descending into an anti-hippie tirade about the amount of “gooks” he shot through the brain in Vietnam and revealing his son keeps one of the offending organs in a jar as a bedroom souvenir. Shortly thereafter Segal returns home with the nurse he’s sexually attracted to and assures his mother, “If you mess this one up, I’m gonna punch your fuckin’ heart out.” She reveals his penis size over dinner, and he eventually commits her to a retirement home.

The bizarre Little Murders

Reiner’s film also contains one particularly indefensible scene, in which Segal’s brother, dressed in the aforementioned gorilla suit, is forced by a group of African-Americans to rape a woman in a park. The character is overcome with wanton carnality (shockingly the men tell him it’s part of their natural “heritage” and scream the victim is “rape tight”) and he proceeds to carry out their instructions with seeming delight. Upon being arrested and detained at the local police station, it transpires the person he violated sexually was actually a male police officer or, more specifically, “one of those guys who walks around in drag, looking for purse snatchers.” Fearing he’ll be locked up forever, the situation soon dissipates when a guard produces a bouquet of long-stemmed roses from the victim, with a card asking for his phone number and inscription “Thanks for a wonderful evening.” He’s flattered by the gesture, and coos about the flowers in a taxi on the way home. This is comedy in horror-film garb and arguably as black as anything Todd Solondz ever produced, though there are shades of Jack Lemmon being briefly mistaken for a child molester in The Out-of-Towners and chased down by the police for his troubles.

Little Murders is equally bewildering. One of Alan Arkin’s early directorial efforts, it boasts Gordon Willis as cinematographer and Jules Feiffer (Carnal Knowledge) as screenwriter, whose career as a cartoonist speaks for itself. It features a mortally jaded Elliot Gould as a photographer who “shoots shit” for Harper’s Bazaar, marching slowly towards marriage with Marcia Rodd, whilst both are plagued by a mysterious breathy caller who never reveals his or her identity and a city that boasts 345 unsolved or “little” murders. Early on in the film Rodd ventures of Gould, “Are you really so down on people or are you just being fashionable?” and introduces the man to her parents over dinner. The result is a scene almost Dadaist in its abstraction. Gould is presumed to be a “fag”; we learn Rodd’s younger brother is a layabout at graduate school reading something called Lesbians of Venus. When Rodd bursts into the room, her parents start giddily screaming “Patsy!” in unison like something out of The Evil Dead and she rugby tackles her little brother to the ground, claiming she’s “always head this mad thing” for him and panting sexually. The evening takes a turn for the worse when, having scrutinised their daughter’s use of eyeliner by candlelight, her father degenerates into a fit of hysteria over being called “Carol”. It’s a nightmarish hellscape – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by way of the Leatherface family.

When the two finally do attempt to get married, it’s by the only pastor (Donald Sutherland) who’ll consent to a Godless ceremony (though Gould insists he’s more an “apathist” than an atheist) who starts the proceedings with howlingly inappropriate anecdotes about the futility of marriage and trills about having married off a musician the preceding week “who wanted to get married in order to stop masturbating”. The ceremony devolves into a violent free-for-all between various members of the congregation. Later Gould tries to identify the root cause of his general disdain for humanity by interrogating his parents with a tape recorder. Unable to communicate with their son outside of incoherent psychobabble – they chalk it up to “sphincter morality” and his subconscious desire to rob his father of his penis – the most substantive fact Gould coaxes out of them is that they “don’t remember” much of this upbringing. Later he bonds with his would-be wife’s immediate family by taking pot shots out of a window with a sniper rifle. They have dinner afterwards, throw lettuce leaves about and fall about laughing. Though it goes without saying, this is a million miles away from Garden State

Roddy McDowall in Lord Love A Duck

Meanwhile the protagonist of George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck is equal parts Billy Liar and Mick Travis, a florid fantasist who anticipates and transcends the flights of fancy conjured up in the likes of Altman’s Brewster McCloud and the recent Submarine. Styling himself as “Mollymuck”, a bird thought to be extinct “but isn’t”, the then middle-aged Roddy McDowell plays ostensible high-schooler Alan Musgrave, a man with a “psycho-suicidal personality” who squawks incessantly and is prone to running over members of his graduating class with diggers. He’s hopelessly in love with Barbara Ann (Tuesday Weld), a “total vulgarity of our time”, whose mother is a cocktail waitress but dresses like a Playboy bunny, insists that “Everybody has got to love me. Everybody,” is named after Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan and longs to be a movie star. Barbara Ann melds two of Axelrod’s chief concerns in his work as a screenwriter – the sweat-soaked male gaze of unrequited sexual rapacity in The Seven Year Itch and the oddball female kitsch of Breakfast at Tiffany’s – and drags them kicking and screaming into the tail end of the 1960s, and arguably several decades beyond that.

As you’d expect, Lord Love a Duck is summarily obsessed with sex. Barbara Ann and Alan happen across a movie producer who suggests she star in I Married a Teenage Bikini Vampire on Some Kind of a Fish for him. The school principal upbraids a botany or “plant skills for life” teacher for teaching the kids about plant reproduction and “the stamens and the pistons”. “Get your mind out of the gutter, man!” he barks. In the film’s most disturbing sequence Barbara Ann and her estranged father visit a sweater store in order to join the school’s prestigious “Kashmir Sweater Club” (don’t ask). She tries on the garments one by one, begins fondling the material and orgasmically screeching their suggestive names like “Periwinkle Pussycat!” and “Papaya Surprise!” with her father braying in the background like a crazed donkey. Eventually they roll around in the clothes in ecstasy, maniacally laughing. It’s a terrifying scene, topped only by the revelation later in the film that Barbara Ann’s mother has overdosed on pills and killed herself. Upon learning the news, Barbara Ann entertains becoming a prostitute and Alan remarks that the woman’s tragic death has rejuvenated his “faith in suicide.”

At one point during Axelrod’s film Alan pours out a bottle of wine, admiring the drink’s “impudent artlessness”, in oblique acknowledgement to the film’s inherent absurdity. But if we are to have ‘quirky’ films that are essentially conciliatory, marred by distasteful feel-goodery and ones which propagate nonsense about the nature of modernity and romance; I’ll stick with the beserko-comic, horrifying, artlessly impudent run of films during the 70s over the bland homilies of (500) Days of Summer any day. The true horrors on the cinema screens of our own time are not the unexploded taboos of rape, incest, murder, mental illness and the other societal mores the films listed above attempted to interrogate, but the insufferable, rampantly merciless ennui of Post Grad and – God forbid – Away We Go. But what’s that, you say? Cheer up? It might never happen? Too bad. It already did.

2 thoughts on “The problem with “quirk” (and how it used to be so different…)

  1. Candice Frederick

    very good piece. even as someone who’s not very into the new wave of quirky films and characters, i still appreciate. sure, it used to be different. but everything now is threatening to go mainstream, even things that aren’t mainstream–like quirk.

  2. Dan Heaton

    Interesting piece. I think one of the problems in making anything truly “quirky”, not a transparent attempt to cash in on it, is the lag time between when a movie’s created and the actual release date. References that might actually be unique come off as old news when they appear nine months later. It’s also tricky because a writer (or team of writers) speak from their own experiences, so something that seems really different to one person is mainstream to another. The culture’s moving so fast that big movies and TV have no way to catch up. I definitely think the rise of the “manic pixie dream girl” or its male equivalent has grown tired, but I don’t think it’s going away, especially when you see New Girl’s success. The best move would be for creative writers and directors to try and create their own trends instead of trying to latch onto the current wave.


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