There’s a nice little piece in the Atlantic Monthly right now called Quirked Around – it’s right up my alley, since it deals with the faint ephemera of pop culture, and it’s about a phenomenon that may or may not be happening. This is the kind of article I was pitching from ’96 to ’03 or so. They’re always fun to write because they function as an airing-out of the theories you’ve been storing in your emotional linen closet for years.
Michael Hirschorn’s premise is that our culture is drowning in “quirk” – movies, docs, TV shows and plays featuring characters with “unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits.” He goes on to explain good quirk vs. bad quirk (“Rushmore” vs. “The Royal Tennenbaums”) and mentions several other offenders, such as “Napoleon Dynamite”, “Donnie Darko”, Zach Braff, and a special takedown of This American Life‘s Ira Glass.
I have certainly been guilty myself of Quirk – the Pink House screenplay was full of it, especially the character Windy, who mixed up all the words in her sentences and kept re-painting an oil painting that had been hanging in the living room for years. Never mind that her character was a cross between Chip and an old housemate of mine named Amy; there were plenty of odd character choices in that script that were initially written because they were true, but retained because they were… I dunno, cool. At least I thought they were.
Hirschorn’s dissection of Quirk is a close cousin to my favorite culture body-slam of all time: Caleb Southern uttering the word “PREMISE.” Caleb, as some of you know, produced and engineered most of the Ben Folds Five and Archers of Loaf oeuvre, and remains a legend in the Triangle. I lived with him for years in the Purple House on McCauley Street, and I can tell you, there was no better human being with which to experience the early ’90s.
We would be listening to a band that we wanted to like, but couldn’t quite get there. Or we’d be walking home from a movie that should have been better. Caleb would say nothing for hours, then suck on a piece of his hair and say “PREMISE.”
Jon Gray, Bud or Lindsay might have their own take on Caleb’s bi-syllabic koans, but I always took “PREMISE” to mean “idea at the expense of truth.” By adhering to an idea of what the art should be, by clinging to a kind of dogma or being self-satisfied by the overarching theme, the artist loses connection to the art actually being any good.
Words that float around this idea – while never actually hitting it – are “clever”, “precious”, and “twee”. I wish I could remember examples of specific bands or movies that got the “PREMISE” smackdown, as it would make describing it so much easier, but it’s something I definitely keep in the back of my mind as we develop scripts.
me, Caleb, Jon, Lindsay, December 2004
Anyway, Hirschorn spends so much of his Atlantic Monthly piece hating on Ira Glass that he (in my opinion) misses what makes Quirk such a big problem. Members of my generation, having rejected the literary canon and mostly ADD’d themselves out of being true dorks dedicated to some singular pursuit, have inserted Quirk and Quirky Characters as a shorthand for any kind of real insight.
In other words, Quirk is a hallmark of “good enough.” Instead of truly getting to the bottom of structure, or plot, or universal pathos, or whatever, most writers are content to give their lead character (or sidekick or girlfriend) a set of random, incongruous personality traits and let that be enough. My buddy Brian has an overwhelming fear of loose change and dirty coins – numismaphobia – and I thought, man, I really have to keep myself from using that in a screenplay (unless, of course, the character is a toll-booth collector, which we in the business would call “IRONY.”)
I’m having trouble understanding why it’s so hard for writers in my general age group to embrace “plot”. When we were 19-25 years old, all the stories and screenplays I read around me were stricken with emotional paralysis, full of characters that were not moving, and were never going to move. It was the logical endgame of nihilism – boredom and opting out.
A few years ago this was supplanted by Quirk, featuring a lot of stories about cool kids, ex-nerds, dorks who had been suddenly liberated by the internet and the dot-com boom. Both writers and characters were all wearing that fucking $45 “Gettin’ Lucky in Kentucky” T-shirt from Urban Outfitters, and even the phrase “jumped the shark” jumped the shark, but at least Fonzie was doing something.
I know, we’re in Hollywood now, and we’ll probably fight the opposite problem: lots of shit happening with no emphasis on character. All we can do is try our best to create things with some kind of emotional resonance and hope lots of other people get it. In a way, it’s refreshing. The diet of nihilism and Quirk was vaguely entertaining for a decade or so, but after a while you get sick from cakes made entirely of frosting.