Quirky is a word that critics apply to American ‘indie’ movies with a tiresome predictability – indeed, it sometimes seems to be treated as synonymous with the contemporary American independent film landscape as a whole. However, while it certainly can be used merely as a tedious buzzword, I would also argue that – properly defined – it may also be the best shorthand we have for one observable strand of recent American film – specifically: the sorts of comedies and comedy-dramas conjured up by names such as Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Jared Hess, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Miranda July, and so on. I have recently published an article in the new Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism.
Quirky is a sensibility that can be recognised most easily by its tone, which we might broadly describe as walking a tightrope between a cynically ‘detached’ irony and an emotionally ‘engaged’ sincerity. This tone is created in a number of ways.
The quirky’s comedy can be divided into three strands: deadpan, slapstick, and comedy of embarrassment. The deadpan is dry, perfunctory, excessively functional, taking moments that we might expect to be made melodramatic and downplaying them for comic effect. An example might be a deeply disheveled and seemingly alcohol-dependent Herbert (Bill Murray) in Rushmore answering an enquiry as to his emotional state with a nonchalant “Mmm, I’m a little bit lonely these days” while puffing on two cigarettes simultaneously. Such comedy, which is emphatically based on distancing our emotional experience from those of the characters, might suggest that the quirky’s preferred comic style is primarily a cold or detached one. This sense is tempered, however, by the fact that the same films will often also use another style of comedy: a comedy of embarrassment (see: Barry [Adam Sandler] bursting into unfortunately-timed tears in front of his sister’s husband in Punch-Drunk Love). This, by contrast, is an uncomfortable and painful humour resulting from a character’s emotional distress being situated as simultaneously pathetic and poignant – a comic address inextricably fused with relating to pain and embarrassment, and, as such, with empathy. Completing a cocktail of comic styles relatively unique to the quirky is the use of slapstick, which will often emerge unannounced, surprising us with its suddenness and borderline-surreal incongruity (e.g.: Jason Schwartzman and Mark Whalberg hitting each other in the face with a ‘space-hopper’ in I Heart Huckabees). Such moments bring with them a hint of the absurd, making us understand that we are to an extent dealing with a special kind of ‘artificial’ world in which physical pain can be experienced without any real consequences.
This feeling of artificiality is picked up in the quirky’s approach to style. Perhaps more than anyone, Wes Anderson typifies the sensibility’s visual style, and has perfected a kind of shot that we find across many quirky films: a static, flat-looking, medium-long or long-shot that appears nearly geometrically even, depicting isolated or carefully-arranged characters who are made to look faintly ridiculous or out-of-place by virtue of their composition’s rigidity (see the image from The Royal Tenenbaums at the top of this post). One of the most striking aspects of these kinds of shots is their apparent ‘self-consciousness’, a fact that needs to be linked with other meta-cinematic techniques used by the movies: say, films beginning with theatre curtains opening onto the action (Rushmore, Being John Malkovich), the blurring of lines between characters and their real-life counterparts (Adaptation, American Splendor), and so on. However, as well as conveying knowingness, there is another almost contradictory pull in these shots towards the construction of a particular kind of naïveté – their boldness, simplicity, and measured beauty seeming not only excessively calculated, but also intentionally purified, bespeaking an effort to remake the world in a less chaotic, more simplified, and, in a paradoxical sense, a more unaffected, form. This courting of the pointedly simple – or even simplistic – is reflected in the films’ music too, which tends to favour the continual repetition of the sweet and simple, lending it a sound and feel reminiscent of the tinkling purity of a child’s music box (e.g.: The Science of Sleep).
The childlike nature of much of the quirky’s music in turn reflects the sensibility’s preoccupation with childhood and innocence more generally. Characters’ dialogue may express a longing for childhood (Susan [Meryl Streep] in Adaptation: “I want to be a baby, I want to be new…”), childhood items are fetishistically retained (Billy’s [Vincent Gallo] locker loaded with trophies of his youth in Buffalo ’66), and childhood is sometimes even regained literally – if only momentarily (in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Such moments simultaneously create the sense of a desire for regression to a childhood state, whilst reminding us that it can, of course, never be retrieved.
All these aspects of the quirky contribute in different ways to the construction of its trademark tone. Its mixture of comic registers mean that we can simultaneously regard the world of Punch-Drunk Love as partly unbelievable, laugh at its flat treatment of melodramatic situations, and be moved by Barry’s tears. Its aesthetic can both provoke an awareness of the artificiality of The Royal Tenebaum’s compositions and promote an appreciation of their charming naïveté. Its invocation of innocence allows Eternal Sunshine both to recapture the kind of authenticity and enthusiasm that comes with childhood and simultaneously remind us that it must finally remain, because only fantasised about from a position of adulthood, forever out of reach. Together these elements add up to create what is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the quirky: a tone that exists on a knife-edge of judgment and empathy, detachment and engagement, irony and sincerity.