Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Calling You Out: Quirky Indie Films

You know that quirky indie movie? The one that's a semi-love story? Where the girl or the guy has some sort of affliction that makes them awkward around "regular" folks (whether this affliction be something physical or mental doesn't really matter) and he or she finds someone as quirky or "messed-up" as they are? And these two strange people fall in love until one of them screws it up by being their "weird" self, or some misunderstanding is propagated by one of the lovers' not-so-strange or sometimes even-more-strange family members? And Zach Galifianakis is probably somehwere in it as somebody's offbeat friend? Yeah, that indie movie.  I'm calling you out: I'm tired of watching you.

Here's the problem.  Independent film was, at least on paper, supposed to be a place where cinema could talk about non-mainstream ideas - whether thos ideas were about art, love, life, the soulless TV generation, grunge, a girl and a whale, etc.  It was a place to go rogue, to swim in dangerous waters: essentially, independent films didn't play it safe.  In the past 10-12 years, however, there have been a number of films claiming the "indie" title - and, let's face it, "indie" is a misnomer if I've ever heard one - that fall short of the punk rock vibe of true independent film.  These films' purpose, it seems, are simply to entertain us and pull our heartstrings (rather over-sentimentally, at times) without getting into anything very deeply, without any larger meaning or subtext; it's just nice cinematography and some memorable/wordy/nobody-talks-like-that-so-it's-funny lines.  I'm not saying that is always a bad thing, except that these films seem to be saying the same thing over and over again.  The new face of indie is playing it safe.

This particular problem probably started before Wes Anderson, but I'm going to pinpoint him as the downfall.  Let's get one thing straight: I'm not blaming Wes Anderson.  Some of his films are some my favorites, though he even seems trapped in his own formula.  Once upon a time a film like "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" looked new and fresh (if stylized like "Harold and Maude"), but now it is these films' cinematography and aforementioned memorable lines and quirky, off-kilter characters that many of this new crop of indie films idolizes and copies - movies like "Gigantic" or "Juno" or "It's Kind of a Funny Story," or "Napoleon Dynamite."

"Gigantic" is a quirky love story about a mattress salesman and this girl he likes and the mattress salesman's dream of adopting a Chinese baby.  "Juno" is about a teenage girl's unexpected pregnancy and subsequent decision to give her baby up for adoption (some of the themes in "Juno," at least, do not reflect current "indie" trends; however the film is populated with one-liners and goofy indie music and the ever-monotonous Michael Cera).  "It's Kind of a Funny Story" follows a kid in a mental hospital where he meets a host of weird people (including regular quirky guy Zack Galifianakis) and he kinda/sorta falls for a girl.  "Napoleon Dynamite" is about a nerdy kid and his nerdy family in Utah and, of course, a love story with the nerdy girl in school.

These are just a few of the films I could choose from with this sense of sameness running through them - and I tried to pick films that, on the outside, didn't look like they had much in common.  All of them are one-liners.  All of them are filled with goofy characters. I mean, are there really any mattress salesmen anymore? Really?  I'm sure, somewhere, yes, it's possible.  Everybody has quirky jobs, quirky friends, quirky love interests, quirky clothes, quirky personalities.  They're uniqueness is what makes them exactly the same.  Because, at the end of the day, it could've been the kids in "Napoleon Dynamite" who wanted to adopt a Chinese baby or it could've been Juno Richie Tenenbaum was secretly in love with. Honestly, though, who wouldn't want to see Mr. Galifianakis as Napoleon's deranged older brother from New Jersey?  Am I right?

The problem isn't that these movies, by themselves, are bad or unwatchable.  It's the trend of making the same thing over and over again that I'm tired of seeing.  The idea of playing it safe, of doing the same thing someone else has done - whether or not you could do it better - is grating because it doesn't foster creativity: it kills it.

There are, of course, some excellent independent films, films that do not take the safe route (sometimes known as the "quirky road").  There are independent films that defy storytelling structure and stereotypical characters.  Some of these films rise to a level of art with a capital A and some, of course, fall flat.  Some of these movies only a handful of us will hear of and some we will only see in small arthouse cinemas in major cities.  But it's these films - the ones who take chances and don't rely on formulaic indie gold - that imbibe the true punk rock spirit of independent film.


  1. I'd like to point out that I think Zack Galifianakis and Michael Cera are both pretty funny guys in their own right; and that it isn't their fault for being typecast.

  2. correction: it isn't *necessarily* their fault.

  3. Ahhh.

    Good point here. Those films you mentioned (Juno, Napoleon Dynamite etc) are pretty much what I'd call mainstream now. The concepts were good, but you can't ride that same pony forever without it dying of exhaustion.

    Even in my local arthouse, you'd be hard pressed to find anything completely original. Quirky is 'in', I guess.
    I tend to stick to subtitled films if I want something freshm but people don't seem to want to see them because it's too much effort, or too distracting... I find some of the better films I've seen have been in foreign languages ;)

  4. Bex, I love foreign language films too. "Lust/Caution" by director Ang Lee is fantastic, if you haven't seen it. I've also found a new love for the documentary. Particularly, antying National Geographic does; but also the small-budget documentaries like "Darkon" or "The King of Kong."

  5. Ah, I haven't seen that. I'll give it a go!

    I'm a National Geographic fan too. If I give TV the time of day, it's usually for documentaries, and there's no arguing that NG have made some of the very best.