Quirked Around

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

We’re drowning in quirk. It is the ruling sensibility of today’s Gen-X indie culture, defined territorially by the gentle ministrations of public radio’s This American Life; the strenuously odd (and now canceled) TV sitcom Arrested Development; the movies of Wes Anderson; Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s Web site; the performance art, music, and writing of Miranda July; and the just-too-wacky-to-be-fully-believable memoirs of Augusten Burroughs.

It’s been 20 years of beneficent, wide-eyed gazing upon the oddities of our fellow man. David Byrne probably birthed contemporary quirk around 1985— halfway between his “Psycho Killer” beginnings with the Talking Heads and his move to global pop—when he sang the song “Stay Up Late”: “Cute, cute, little baby / Little pee-pee, little toes.” (As it happens, Byrne appeared on July’s recent book tour.) Jon Cryer’s “Duckie” Dale in Pretty in Pink came a year later, and quirk was on its way.

As an aesthetic principle, quirk is 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 (on HBO’s recent indie-cred comedy Flight of the Conchords, the titular folk-rock duo have one fan), and unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits. Quirk takes not mattering very seriously.

Quirk is odd, but not too odd. That would take us all the way to weird, and there someone might get hurt. Napoleon Dynamite became a quirk classic by making heroes of Napoleon and Pedro, boy-men without qualities who team up against an alpha blonde to elect Mexican- immigrant Pedro class president at an Idaho high school. Napoleon seals the deal with a dance so transfixingly, transportingly wrong that it becomes a kind of deus ex machina. Pedro wins. (Indeed, inappropriate dancing is a big quirk trope, inasmuch as it provides a dramatic moment at which value systems can collide. See, for example, 7-year-old Olive’s unwittingly hypersexualized routine to Rick James’s “Super Freak” that brings the dysfunctional family together in last year’s Little Miss Sunshine. This itself called out to the unwittingly only-slightly-less-hypersexualized preteen dance troupe Sparkle Motion in the 2001 quirk-noir Donnie Darko, a movie in which Jake Gyllenhaal takes orders from a giant rabbit.)

VIDEO: Watch Napoleon Dynamite's "transfixingly, transportingly wrong" dance routine

In Garden State, Zach Braff’s generation-defining 2004 movie about 20-something adult-onset agita, quirky Sam (Natalie Portman) shepherds sullen, affectless Andrew (Braff) off the well-trodden path of bourgeois conformity onto the slightly-less-trodden-upon fescue along the side of the road. After burying her pet hamster, they end up at a houseboat situated at the lip of a Newark quarry, where the inhabitants happen to be antique dealers. Random. The antique dealers have a piece of jewelry that belonged to Andrew’s dead mother. Andrew finds newfound purpose in life—purpose-lite, really.

The avatar of contemporary quirk is undoubtedly Ira Glass, the 40-something host of the long-running radio show This American Life, which recently completed its first season as a documentary series on Showtime. The TV show hews closely to the radio format (full disclosure: two of its executive producers are working with me on another project). Glass introduces each episode of the TV version from behind a deco desk placed somewhere nonsensical, like a parking garage or the Utah salt flats. It’s a wryly funny visual gag: Throwback to older medium introduces TV show as if he’s come from the first days of TV.

Famously, the radio show tells multiple stories around a theme, with Glass, the pleasantly nasal narrator, gently prodding the action along and summing it up in ways that correct yet almost always redeem the people—white and middle-class, to a disconcerting degree—who populate his stories. “Ours really is a ministry of love,” Glass told Entertainment Weekly earlier this year, in that non-ironic ironic way favored by the self-styledly quirky.

It’s easy to fall in with TAL. The rhythms are lulling, and everyone involved appears to be—is—smart, idiosyncratic, charmingly self-effacing, well-meaning, much as most of us would like to be seen. Glass tells stories, and who does that anymore? The radio show has birthed and nurtured a slew of alt- culture stars (John Hodgman, Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris), and it thrives as the voice of a generation too young to buy into the broader public-radio mission (“This is the sound of Guatemalan basket weavers; their way of life is threatened …”) and too smart or old for the braying of commercial radio. It’s the sound of Austin, Boulder, Berkeley, Red Hook, Madison, Cambridge, Adams Morgan—of people who tend to think of themselves as engaged, aware.

TAL, as has been apparent for years, is really the opposite of documentary reportage. It’s more like sociology, wherein the paradigm is set and specific circumstances are nipped, tucked, torqued, and squeezed until they fit the theme. Radio listeners can’t really fight through Glass’s scrim, so they have to take his word that the story is what he says it is. In the harsh light of television, however, the affectations of the radio show become glaringly clear. You can see how determined Glass is to bestow small breakthrough moments on his protagonists, whether they’re aware of them or not. We’re told, for instance, that the religious father of a lapsed-Mormon woman has come to a tentative understanding with his daughter after seeing her boyfriend play Jesus in a photo shoot. But mostly, she still just seems pissed off, and he remains a doctrinaire bore. Then there’s the rancher who loves his one-of-a-kind, tourist-attracting bull (“Chance”) so much that he clones him (creating “Second Chance”). The man is said to have learned a gentle lesson about unintended consequences after the clone gores him in the testicles. But actually he doesn’t seem to have learned much of anything. He still believes Second Chance will be bankable, once the bull gets the testicle-goring out of his system. Mostly, the rancher seems either economically needy or a bit touched.

In a short introductory piece, an elderly guy who visits his wife’s grave three times a week, but also brings along a TV set for company, is seen as just another piece of this magically odd tapestry we call America. There almost certainly are some depths here—the loneliness of losing a spouse, the poignancy of aging, perhaps a touch of senile-onset dementia—but we’re directed to see him as simply quirky, a guy doing his thing, man. “Well,” Glass says, “it’s This American Life.”

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.”