pink karmann ghia

9/17/07

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.

IanCalebJonLindsay2(bl).jpg

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.

0 thoughts on “pink karmann ghia

  1. kent

    I love This American Life. I condemn this man Hirschorn in advance of reading his piece. Where is the quirk for quirk’s sake? There is David Sedaris, who might be accused of too much Quirk, but it’s mostly the stories of real people. Some unbelievably sad. Not only that they’re stories — unlike, say, Donald Trump’s autobiography — that not only ring true, but come off completely raw.
    Screw Hirshorn and his Quirk hobby horse.

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  2. Anne D.

    Quirk is why I’m not as big a fan of “House” as I was a year or more ago. That was the first show that came to my mind when I starting reading your post today.

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  3. jason savage

    Fantastic entry. Really helps crystalize my frustration with so many movies and bands (“I Heart Huckabees” springs to mind).

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  4. Ehren

    Gosh, I really want to jump on this one, but I feel like I need to read the article first, but then of course the time will have passed.
    I can see the phenomenon — pre-quirk, movies are about narrative arcs; post-quirk, movies are about strange people simply existing in relation to one another.
    I think this is part of the way an entire generation sort of opted out of doing stuff for the man. Somehow, action seemed uncool or not worth the trouble or completely pointless, so perhaps that made narrative arcs seem sort of hokey. Instead people fetishized the detritus of their youth (video games, kickball, The Human League) and turned inward. The stories we tell and which speak to us then show people without forward momentum who define themselves more by what they LIKE than what they actually DO.
    I mean, I’m just talking out my ass here, but I wanted to put something down before the blog wheel turns.

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  5. Lars

    Anyone watching “Flight of the Conchords?” Set in Ian’s and mine old neighborhood. Or close at least. Where does this fall on the PREMISE — Authenticity scale?
    Lars

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  6. emma

    I agree with the good quirk and bad quirk “premise”. Looking at the article’s examples, I love Classic quirk – Talking Heads, “duckie” Dale, also Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye. I think these people are comfortable with their quirks. As for the other quirks, I loved Olive’s LMS dance, but Napolean Dynamite’s – not so much. David Sedaris is one of my favorite quirks, but it pains me to read Augusten Burroughs. I enjoyed the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Zach Braff in Garden State – couldn’t stand him. I think whether we like certain quirks or not are dependent on how well the character is developed, but also dependent on our own quirks.

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  7. Ian

    I thought “Flight of the Conchords” was a bad example – they’re not quirky, they’re just intentionally, hilariously bad (and the dream sequences are frequently dead-on parodies of AM radio hits from the ’70s, which ain’t easy to pull off). It takes actual skill to do what they do.

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  8. Claudia

    So well said. This is my favorite of your posts to date.
    I think that Quirk is, at least in part, a reaction to the Schmaltz that our generation was fed in our youth. The Boomers had Kitsch and Camp; we had Afterschool Specials and “Full House.” The trick for the artists of our time is to balance depth and emotion with intelligence and reality. Lose either aspect, and you wind up with problems–perhaps the same problems on either side. Quirk, as I think you point out, can be just as vapid as Schmaltz.

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  9. Alyson

    I have been tired of this sort of thing for years (though I don’t think This American Life is so guilty of quirk for quirk’s sake), and I kept accusing things of being gimmicky while knowing that was the wrong word. It’s quirk. It’s supposed humor that has lost the metaphor, and doesn’t have anything to say about anything. I can’t understand why everyone laughed the other night at the Emmys when Steve Carell walked onstage and thanked the audience for being there and for applauding. He just said something completely normal while wearing no expression at all. Quirky? Yes. Funny? No. I wish people would start writing actual jokes instead of combining a lot of wacky things and calling it art.

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  10. jason savage

    Just saw “Knocked Up” again on a business trip. great example, i think, of the balance between quirk and substance.

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  11. egypt4

    It did seem Hirschorn had some bone to pick with Ira Glass, as if much of the article was written to justify Hirschorn’s irritation (disappointment?) with TV TAL. But he did raise some good points.
    I take issue with tossing Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite into the mix of Gen X quirkiness. The folks I saw wearing Vote for Pedro t-shirts were UNC undergrads. That movie was a big hit amongst Gen Y, the millennials, whatever you want to call them. And Garden State was a good movie, too, but I didn’t think it was trying to speak to me (and, born in ’73, I’m on the youngish end of Gen X).
    Eh, maybe I’m missing some generational timelines. Ultimately, it seems to come down to this:
    Authentic, harmless quirks good.
    Affected quirks bad.
    Alyson, in response to your comment about Steve Carell: the giggles and guffaws were in anticipation. People familiar with Carell knew he was in character because of his deadpan (I disagree that it was a normal voice). Or maybe the audiene was just nervous seeming him in character.

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  12. Kelly in NC

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the show that ushered in the age of quirk (at least on tv): Northern Exposure. I loved that show at first then quickly came to loathe it.
    Seinfeld, on the other hand, seems to have held up with age.

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  13. Neva

    The show Monk would be my addition here. It makes me squirm to watch this guy. I see nothing funny in a psychiatric disorder. Same with House, which others already mentioned..

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  14. Scott Malchus

    I believe this age of quirk began in the late 80’s with the emergence of the Cohen Brothers. I can’t tell you how many of their films I have watched and felt that I should have liked it. The performances are good. The technical aspects are generally superior. However, there is always something missing for me. A perfect example of this would be “Barton Fink”.

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  15. grumphreys

    Enjoyed the article and your response. I do enjoy TAL when driving on the weekends, though i sometimes feel the same irritation with TAL’s embrace of all things quirky.
    People embrace their own quirks to reassure themselves of their own individuality in a mass consumption world; it follows that they enjoy seeing this trait reflected back in their own media consumption, which is why you might want to continue using it in your writing. I don’t mean that you should use it as substitute for plot, narrative arc etc. – you’re totally right that writers use Quirk as a big crutch – but because your audience identifies with it, judging from the list of quirky character-driven hit movies, radio, and TV shows.
    Furthering your analogy, you’re right that cakes made of frosting suck – but would you rather have a cake with some frosting or without any? Not that i follow my own advice; i prefer to write lyrics in very broad universal strokes and usually avoid the “see how quirky and unique we all are” approach.
    what about the relationship between Quirk and Snark?

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  16. kent

    I vote thumbs down on the show “Monk” but thumbs up on Tony Shaloub. The show is the usual amalgam of 70s procedural lameness — but they did pick up one thing from, e.g. The Rockford Files, or Columbo — if the protagonist is sufficiently compelling, it’s not so bad if the stories are kind of lame.
    Shaloub’s portrayal of OCD is very funny, but only slightly exaggerated from the reality of OCD. Shaloub actually underplays the material given to him, but at the same time shows how completely raw to the world he is. He is simultaneously gentle, terrified, crafty and and clueless. Each show is worth watching for at least one scene where he’s tears down your face funny, trying to cope with a world his brain chemistry has rendered scary and insane.

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  17. xuxE

    i think a lot about this since i’m making these short films now, and from what i can see this quirk-as-substitute-for-depth thing is totally rampant in that arena because you get such a tiny amount of time to actually depict a character, but you also have the other end of the barbell with awesome *real* stuff because it’s in short budget-able, risk-able bursts and nobody can really stop you.
    so anyway, i think the overuse of quirk is due to insecurity.
    i mean, clearly our gen-x-ish brethren and sistren got a kind of aloofness and distance from media as a source of authentic expression, right? i remember one of the classic traits is that the mtv generation can’t be “sold” advertising because they just see right through it. i think that somehow this pervasive tendency to deconstruct and mock everything, snark everything, or whatever you want to call it, seems to make everyone feel like they have to be overly clever and not emotionally invested in their writing for fear it will be shredded. i think the pervasive view is that it’s better to be shredded over some bit of cleverness you schemed up rather than have your actual soul and guts shredded if you actually put something real out there.
    making quirky stuff seems like a big intellectual jerk off rather than art with some emotional depth. people should accept that if they come off as cheesy – so what. it’s better than hiding behind a bunch of tongue-in-cheek bullshit out of fear.
    just tonight i was just looking at this ad for a Broadway version of Xanadu, and my first reaction was, YAY! i want to go see Xanadu! i love Xanadu! then i was like, oh wait – maybe it’s not *really* Xanadu, it’s probably hipsters doing Xanadu in a farcical or satirical way to make you laugh at the idea of them actually doing Xanadu while you have mojitos. i assumed it was like ‘my big fat Greek Xanadu’ or something and got disgusted immediately.
    living in the shadow fear of not being clever enough just leaves everyone insecure.
    and now, having been fed up to our eyeballs with tons of uber-cleverness, irony upon irony, quirk upon quirk, i’m not sure if writers are really willing to get really naked and real, i think either they forgot how to do that, or have forgotten how to NOT second-guess themselves.
    but the really unfortunate thing, is that all the forced attempts to be too clever, to make the quirkiest characters and maximum ironic twists, they all miss the mark anyway, because there’s nothing under the surface that’s really memorable. if they had just written something really real, squashed their insecurities and said fuck whatever snark people may come up with, they probably would have had not only tons of cool quirkiness but ALSO all the depth they needed to make it really stick.

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  18. kjf

    neva – i thought moores film used quirk as a device instead of really exploring the problems with health care in this country. i think his commentary itself is the quirk – like when he was reviewing hillarys first foray into health care reform or when he was on the boat to cuba. or that thing with the dude with his fingers sawed off. and its not just sicko. i think in all of his films he takes an issue and rather than be intellectual about it he makes stylistic choices that result in diluting the point he is trying to make at the cost of making himself the (quirky) saviour savant.

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  19. Neva

    Makes sense kjf. Appreciate the explanation. He is a quirky fellow for sure and I agree with your points. I do think he gets attention on the subject which is helpful. However, he is so hated for who he is, sometimes the subject is completely ignored. But… I think without the quirky premise few people would watch a documentary about a public health/political issue…
    oh wait, there was that Gore thing … ha ha

    Reply

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