Content September 2007

Quirked Around

The unbearable lightness of Ira Glass, Wes Anderson, and other paragons of indie sensibility

TAL lives at a kind of permanent 70 degrees, moderate humidity. Everyone says his or her piece, is shown to have a flaw, then is revealed as a pretty all right person in the end. The TV show comes alive, as TV always does, when there’s real anger and passion. The filmmaker and actor G. J. Echternkamp goes home to come to terms with his stepfather. The guy is Frank Garcia, most awesomely the bassist in a band called OXO, which had a hit back in the ’80s called “Whirly Girl.” Now he’s fat, hairy, drunk, and completely disengaged. Frank and G.J.’s mom scream at each other in spasms of mutual distrust and miscomprehension, and she tries, within her limited emotional range, to explain why she was such a bad parent.

G.J. starts from a position of radical empathy for Mom, but makes a classic Glassian turn, realizing that Mom is feeding the dysfunction: She’s as crazy and narcissistic as Frank is. He, still fat and hairy, but maybe not so much of a drunk as G.J. thought, turns out to be a decent guy after all, if flawed in the way we all are: “I want the best for you,” Frank tells G.J. at the end of the segment. This narrative turn might have worked on radio, but on TV, these sloppy, damaged (and completely riveting) characters don’t settle nicely into the Jell-O mold that Glass-as-producer has poured them into. From the start, G.J.’s mom is quite clearly unhinged, and only the most compliant viewer will accept the easy closure Glass imposes on the action.

To be fair, quirk, for all its steel-pike-like dominance of the great lake of indie culture, is not all bad. Wes Anderson’s wonderful 1998 film, Rushmore, about Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a disaffected 15-year-old with a penchant for colorful lies and wildly over-the-top high-school theatrical productions, anchored its quirk in authentic human emotion (see particularly the deflated rich guy Herman Blume, played by the peerless Bill Murray). And Anderson’s seemingly random music choices—the Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” plays just as Max sets a trap for Blume with a hive of bees; Yves Montand’s “Rue St. Vincent” bubbles in the background as Max awkwardly tries to seduce Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), the object of both guys’ affections—bespoke a deep understanding of how music can capture and elevate a specific feeling.

Correctly deployed, quirk yields unexpected treasures, perhaps even finds new ways to unlock that hoary emotion called sentiment, banished from the mainstream American novel (at least the fashionable, well-regarded novel) since sometime before John Barth. Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 novel, Everything Is Illuminated, uses quirk—it’s narrated in part by a Ukrainian with a uniquely malaprop take on English—to set us up for a powerful, and not at all quirky, modern-day confrontation with the Holocaust’s legacy. In Mark Haddon’s 2003 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the narrator is an autistic boy, necessitating a quirkily reductive lens through which the action must be described. Once understanding dawns, the book is that much more affecting and profound. Likewise, Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem’s stylized 1999 genre novel about a detective with Tourette’s—quirky modern hero situated in classic gangland milieu—works because of the author’s masterful narrative control. (Not-totally- depressing afflictions that generate amusing dramatic configurations are a sign that quirk is afoot: Tony Shalhoub’s quirky Adrian Monk in the TV series Monk has OCD; Natalie Portman’s Garden State character has epilepsy.)

Which leads to the problem with contemporary quirk: It can quickly go from an effective narrative tool to an end in itself. Anderson, flush from the brilliance of Rushmore, dove deep into self- indulgent eclecticism in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, which featured a family of dysfunctional geniuses with penchants for, among other things, youthful playwriting and breeding dalmatian mice. (Speaking of amusing afflictions: Bill Murray’s Oliver Sacks–like neurologist in this film is researching a fictional disease called “Heinsbergen Syndrome,” which is marked by “dyslexia, color blindness, amnesia, and highly acute hearing.”)

In Anderson’s most recent film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou—a 2004 take on Jacques Cousteau filled with off-kilter gestures, gorgeous moments, and little narrative thrust—the debased-father/ingenuous-son dynamic played so believably and movingly in Rushmore by Murray and Schwartzman is reprised by Murray (playing the aging and mildly fraudulent Zissou as a more rough-hewn assemblage of the same traits he had in Rushmore) and Owen Wilson as a series of odd poses without real character development. Meanwhile, on the ship, the Brazilian musician and actor Seu Jorge sings the songs of David Bowie in Portuguese. Anderson’s newest, The Darjeeling Limited, about three brothers traveling through India, opens the New York Film Fest this month, and it promises, if nothing else, forward motion.

Quirk, loosed from its moorings, quickly becomes exhausting. It’s easy for David Cross’s character on Arrested Development to cover himself in paint for a Blue Man Group audition, or for the New Zealand duo on Flight of the Conchords to make a spectacularly cheesy sci-fi video about the future while wearing low-rent robot costumes. But the pleasures are passing. 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. It becomes a kind of psychographic marker, like wearing laceless Chuck Taylors or ironic facial hair—a self-satisfied pose that stands for nothing and doesn’t require you to take creative responsibility. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

It’s harder to construct a coherent universe that has something to say about contemporary life. This is why Judd Apatow’s almost 100 percent quirk-free summer comedy, Knocked Up, packs such a punch. Its characters face real peril, show real anguish, and have genuine epiphanies. The comedy, at times so funny it’s painful, finds its potency in the absurdity of maleness, femaleness, singleness, married life. It dares to matter.

Quirk culture, by contrast, throws up its hands, gives a little chuckle, and says, “Well, it’s This American Life.”

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Michael Hirschorn is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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