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February 22, 2007

Are Indie-Quirk Movies As Formulaic As Mainstream Rom-Coms, And If So, Is There Anything Wrong With That?

I have a visceral hatred of "quirk as a subgenre." Not sure why. And I'm not sure why I like oddball, over-the-top, or simply buffoonish characters, and yet there's a special place in the hell of my heart for characters which are merely "quirky."

I've always hated this thing called quirkiness. Loved Twin Peaks, but everytime the "quirky" Log Lady came on the screen, I wanted to choke David Lynch with his own eraserhair. (And the thing about the pie? Pretended I thought it was cute and funny, along with everyone else, but really wanted Kyle MacLaughlin to shut his goddamned piehole about how much he liked pie.) There's something too cutesy and cloying about it, something that reads to me "anti-comedy," trying to do comedy while self-consciously preening about being being above conventional comic tropes.

Maybe that's what grates -- that it's comedy for those who look down scornfully on actual comedy, and what annoys me is the posturing as being above comedy grunts while, in fact, delivering fewer, and shallower, laughs than "regular" comics.

As Cartman observed, there's really no point in watching any indie movie, because they're all about "gay cowboys eating pudding." And they really all are. Quirky people acting kookie. Pretty much says it all.

The amateur leftist webzine Slate wonders why there's so much backlash against Little Miss Sunshine, and focuses on the public's -- even the indie-lovin', art-house-supportin' public's -- growing tedium with the increasingly formulaic and predictable variations of quirkiness. The article as a whole defends indie-quirk, and wonders where the hate is coming from.

He's responding to this hit on indie-quirk by Time's Richard Corliss:

The kind of indie film nurtured by Sundance has become the dominant non-Hollywood movie form for smart people. They're the ones who made Little Miss Sunshine a hit, and Ryan Gosling's turn in Half Nelson a must-see. The moguls have taken note too. In terms of product and talent, Sundance has become the crucial farm system for the major studios.

Problem is, indie movies are getting as predictable as Hollywood's. Sundance movies have devolved into a genre. The style is spare and naturalistic. The theme is relationships, beginning in angst and ending in reconciliation. The focus is often on a dysfunctional family (there are no functional ones in indie movies) that strives to reconnect. Within this genre are a few subspecies: the family breakup film (The Squid and the Whale), the finding-your-family-at-school movie (Half Nelson, Brick), the gay drama (Mysterious Skin). Way too frequently, the family goes on a trip.

That was the one thing I think was missing from Cartman's lament: the road movie thing. He should have said "gay cowboys eating pudding while driving to an oddly-named town in New Mexico," because that's present in 90% of these flicks.

Is there anything wrong with a road movie? Goodness no, or at least, no, nothing wrong with them per se. The trouble sort of comes because the road-movie structure basically involves meeting a lot of people who are even stranger than the gay cowboys eating pudding, and getting into all sorts of nutty and crazy adventures. It's a thin premise by which to string together a bunch of silly bits of episodic comedy.

And there's nothing wrong with it per se, but the indie-quirk genre has this air of smug condescension about it, and you sort of want to point out, "Wait, isn't this the same basic road movie as, say Dumb & Dumber, or Tommy Boy, or Road Trip?"

Well, so what?, I guess the obvious rebuttal to that is. And I guess my answer would have to be, "So: These movies feature a lot of crude humor and simplistic plotting which you art-house goons would despise were it to come from funny folks like the Farrelly Brothers. But you've got that quirky gay cowboy eating pudding in it, and somehow that changes this all to elevated, 'smart humor.'"

I guess I'm not so annoyed by the formulaic nature of these movies themselves, so much I'm annoyed this is a formula beloved by people who vociferously denounce the formulaic nature of more mainstream fare.

Another bit of annoyance comes from the predictable swooning of the critics, which simply can't be trusted. You know these movies will just hew to their own set of tired cliches, but critics will all but mau-mau you into "supporting" these "daring, bold" films just because this set of tired cliches is now considered fashionable among the art-house goons.

The predictability of recent Sundance films is a pity, because the fest used to discover original movie minds...

You don't find as much originality in Sundance films these days, and for a simple reason. In the beginning, the festival was a home for the homeless, for a rambunctious outlaw take on filmmaking. There was no need to be cautious, since indie films were rarely hits. But as Sundance became the showcase for a form of movie gaining marketplace pull, young directors naturally made films to fit the new mold. Sundance films weren't quirky; they did quirky. Quirky became another genre.

In fact, truly imaginative movies have always been anomalies at Sundance. The program is heavy with earnest studies of emotional accommodation. This isn't a supple form, and now it's become formula--creaky and calcified through endless repetition.


Sundance used to be a daring, occasionally dazzling alternative to Hollywood; now, it's just a different sort of same.

Pretty much I agree with that, even though I don't bother watching these movies (even when I was at Sundance, I can proudly say I saw no movies whatsoever, even the Squid and the Whale, which everyone was praising to Valhalla, and which I knew, in the back of my mind, would feature long, boring, mannered scenes of a teenaged boy talking to his female psychiatrist (whom, of course, he has sexual fantasies about).

Am I wrong? Maybe. But I could take three more guesses and two of them would be right.

One little nit: Corliss' claim that Brick is a finding-your-family-at-school movie is pure jackass, an attempt to shoehorn a recent indie rave into the template he's complaining about. It's a noir detective movie set in high school; full stop. If there's a goddamned thing about family in the movie, he'll have to explain to me where he sees it, and if he's claiming the law and stooges constitute a "surrogate family," well then The Maltese Falcon has apparently been a man-in-search-of-a-family movie for all these years without anyone noticing.

That bit of can't-let-any-contrary-evidence-impede-my-thesis jackassery aside, he gets it about right. No longer can I read critics without applying a deconstructivist analysis to their reviews; I can figure out if I'll like a movie or not from reviews, but not based upon critics' claims as to whether it's good or not. I kind of read them as if they're in code, separating the valid criticisms ("the film becomes so plot-heavy as to become incomprehsible, but, worse yet, immobile") from the kneejerk ones ("the film's idea of excitement seems to consist wholly of automatic weapons fire, karate kicks, and enormous naked breasts all over the place").

And I also know how to decode their positive reviews, too. "Quirky" is pretty much a guarantee of a bad movie, of course, and "smart" is becoming a pretty dangerous slam as well, given that most critics are borderline retarded think the fact that a movie features smart characters makes the movie itself smart.

PS: Little Miss Sunshine was okay. Greg Kinnear-- hey, can't go wrong with him. As Slate's writer says, he saved what would have been the typical white-suburban-dad-who-only-cares-about-careerism cliche and made the character sympathetic.

If there's hate for the movie, it's because it was so wildly oversold beyond its merits. The movie wouldn't have become a hit without the critics claiming it was the funniest movie in the history of the universe, but, when you make those sort of claims, you're going to find a lot of backlash from a public exiting the theater saying only, "Well, that was... cute."

Thrillers: How come Hollywood doesn't make thrillers or detective stories much anymore, if at all? (Well, they do, but only if they're based on some dumb John Grisham book. No book, no built-in audience = no movie.)

I guess the reason is that thrillers underperform or outright bomb at the box office.

So why doesn't the Sundance crowd produce more low-budget thrillers like independents (real independents) used to do, like when the Coen Brothers scored a big hit with the zero-budget Blood Simple?

The thriller is a fairly popular genre; I guess it's just not popular enough anymore to be a bankable genre at studio-level costs. Way too much money to spend on such movies.

So, given that independents have produced some really good thrillers/dic pics at very low budgets that managed to make big money, why not spend more creative effort reviving this former staple of Hollywood fare?

Gotta be more rewarding to breathe new life into a vital, entertaining genre rich in Hollywood history than cranking out yet another gay cowboys eating pudding movie.

PS: A pretty amusing independent comedy worth seeing is See This Movie, with Seth Meyers from SNL, the Asian guy from Harold and Kumar, and the British announcer from Best In Show. (Jim Piddock, I think.)

Basically, it's about a couple of guys who attend a three-day movie making class given by a hack British camaraman (Piddock) and decide to enter a bit Toronto Film Festival, but having not actually shot a movie at all. They don't even have a script, but Meyers is pretty sure all a movie needs is one sex scene, one gunfight, and one part where everyone cries, and then the rest of the script can just be written on the fly around that. Meyers is pretty funny as a guy who lacks anything close to talent but has the singleminded drive and infectious enthusiasm of a retard eyeing up a Fudgie the Whale ice cream cake.

Not super hilarious, but consistently amusing. And it's kind of cool to see a well-done movie made for, like, four dollars.

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posted by Ace at 08:33 PM

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