Sunday, August 12, 2007

"Quirked Around?"

I just received the September issue of Atlantic Monthly, which has an article by that title about public radio’s This American Life, a program I listen to occasionally and am fond of.

Author Michael Hirschorn’s thesis is that Americans have become seduced by “quirk,” which he describes as “indie sensibility.” (I call it Sundance disease, a hip obsession with the new and different.)

Hirschorn says that “as an aesthetic principle, quirk is an embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream,” and cites examples of this, like the films Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State and Little Miss Sunshine. (I liked two out of those three, failing to understand the hoopla over Garden State).

And he attributes quirk’s founding to David Byrne in 1985: “halfway between his ‘Psycho Killer’ beginnings with the Talking Heads and his move to global pop.” (I’m not ready to concede this point, I’m afraid.)

Interestingly, he chooses This American Life as a prime example of “quirk” and he characterizes its host, Ira Glass, as “the avatar of contemporary quirk.” To Hirschorn, “Quirk is odd, but not too odd. That would take us all the way to weird, and there someone might get hurt….Correctly deployed, quirk yields unexpected treasures.”

Ultimately, his point is that “quirk” has its limitations: it’s also too “easy to achieve: Just be odd… but endearing.” And it’s far easier to make it work in short spurts, (like the sound-bite stories retold on This American Life), than in any sustained narrative form—where he believes it just gets tiresome.

That may be true, but it’s no less true that experimentation is practically an instinctual human desire and that artists crave to find a way to stand out from the crowd. The cutting room floors and garret wastebaskets are evidence that, more than not, the attempts are failures. But from the trial and error of a few brave (maybe foolharty or insane?) souls emerge some fascinating, different and, well, quirky things.

Until next time…


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