Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Reflection on "Quirk"

Well here I am. Nice to be back. Been hibernating in the studio and home in Boston. Two eps in the bag which you can hear here and here. Two recent articles inspired me to take fingers to keypad once again.

An article by Michael Hirschorn in The Atlantic this month discusses the concept of "quirk" and how it is employed by Wes Anderson, Ira Glass, David Eggers, tv shows like "Flight of the Concords" and other artists. He argues that these folks create a skewed but familiar world that unfortunately often skitters into the blandness that they are trying to undo. Thank-you Mr. Hirschorn! Ever since "Little Miss Sunshine," I have been irked but unable to articulate what it is about these "quirky" projects that bother me so much. Interestingly, a response to the article that (weakly) tries to defend "quirk" actually sharpened my opinion of why it is problematic. In his article "In defence of quirkiness," Phil Hoad writes

"Maybe because I fall smack-bang in the middle of the demographic that created it and I have a tendency to regard my life as a string of encounters that some unspecified observer (my peers, if I'm feeling particularly desperate) may or may not be taking a dim pleasure in, I find it (quirk) harder to condemn."

This is a sentiment that I find irritating with not only these aforementioned artists but many Gen X'ers and Y'ers in general. Hoad is alluding to "quirk" as the performance of detachment. Social interaction becomes a series of clever exchanges that play with convention (i.e. carrying themes through unrelated discussion topics, articulating contrarian points of view in the first person) and then resolve with an appropriate amount of sincerity. There is an unspoken determination of success in whether the exchange had every element (cleverness, detachment, sincerity) in the right ratio. This success is determined by the "unspecified observer" (an individual's malnourished ego or the inflated ego of the over-intellectualized peer group.)

The performance of detachment is then reflected in the work of "quirk" artists (Mr. Hirschorn explains,) as they self-consciously give a character an extra little funny personality trait, pick an odd location for a scene or choose a song whose emotional tone is juxtaposed against that of a sequence just enough to detach the audience from the proceedings but not too much to lose the "timeless themes" as they unfold. In essence, the artist is sharing his/her ego with you, allowing for a masturbatory exchange of intelligence and cultural sophistication. I recently watched a film called "10 Items or Less" which embodies everything that is wrong with this aesthetic.

The film is about a famous actor (Morgan Freeman, essentially playing himself) who is researching the role of a supermarket manager for a small indie film that he may agree to make. Through his research at a supermarket, he meets smart, feisty Paz Vega (stereotype alert) who works at the check-out counter and wants more out of her life. After some obligatory "quirk" (Freeman mirroring the glacial movement of the elderly store manager, a long shot of Vega and Freeman walking in a lot with over-sized, technicolor trash containers expertly placed in the background) there is an exchange of belief between Freeman's privileged optimism and Vega's working-class realism. The audience is supposed to be delighted by the films's exploration of class and dreams through it's meticulously framed, hand-held "indie" camerawork, primary location of a real East LA supermarket and self-conscious casting. Needless to say, I was not delighted. To add another layer of annoyance, the film was financed by Freeman's production company and given a strict 15-day shoot. Given Freeman's deep pockets and his studio connections, I'm going to assume this shooting schedule was a conceptual choice. Therefore, the whole project was predicated on the notion of artificially creating something small and personal with a script and cast to reference its own transparency.

And this brings up the ultimate failure of "quirk" - it is just too calculated to be emotionally revealing. To me, risk is crucial. Hirschorn is very critical of "This American Life" because despite its often unusual settings and subjects, the stories are always framed within a strict narrative of conflict and resolution, i.e "lessons learned." And this is true of most of the artists who use "quirk." The emotion of the work is often tempered and the structure is pedestrian. What is there to learn and/or absorb in the creative world of an artist who does not take structural or emotional risks? This doesn't mean that only strange or avant-garde art projects are valid. Rather, making a decision that will reveal something highly personal or uncharted in an artistic medium/genre is preferable to safely adding the clever texture of "quirk." If you're going to skew the world, why not just go all the way and turn it over a few times?