Not everyone is quirky but even typical people have quirks. Myself, I’ve always been called quirky. Same with the movies I tend to love. It’s a word I’ve owned and resented in turn, bending so slyly from compliment to euphemism to insult. When I call myself quirky, or the movies I love, it also bends but it’s never a euphemism, never an insult. As a way to categorize movies in this guide, quirkiness operates on multiple levels while always emphasizing strength of personality.
First of all, quirky refers to movies with characters—and by extension actors—who are unconventional, eccentric, conspicuous, goofy, defiant of social norms, unpredictable, or, to use a word from Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), pixilated. The screwball comedy era of the 1930s-1940s, and into the 1960s really, demanded a steady flow of distinctive faces, voices, and demeanors that’d have a hard time passing today’s telegenic standards. Many such stars like Judy Canova, Andy Devine, Maude Eburne, Marie Dressler, E.E. Horton, Patsy Kelly, Guy Kibbee, Don Knotts, Marjorie Maim, Edna May Oliver, Zasu Pitts, Charles Ruggles, Clifton Webb, and Roland Young, as well as more drama-prone actors like Louise Beavers, Beulah Bondi, Laird Cregar, Peter Lorre, Agnes Moorehead, and Edward G. Robinson, can be found in the first section of this guide.
Devoted to quirky dramas and comedies from the last fifty years, the second section casts Quirky’s widest net. In it obvious choices like Harold & Maude (1971), Thundercrack! (1975), Angel (1984), The Big Lebowski (1998), and A Mighty Wind (2003) keep company with personality-driven choices that are either somber or severe in their realism, rendering even ordinary characters quirky when compared to mainstream characters. To see what I mean check out Bone (1972), 3 Women (1977), Variety (1983), An Angel at My Table (1990), Benny’s Video (1992), Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), L.I.E. (2001), or mumblecore-ish films like Goliath (2008). Also included in section two are a number of experimental films, trashy obscurities, and low-budget wonders.
Quirky may also apply to characters considered macabre, troubled, pathological, obsessive/compulsive, sexually transgressive, monstrous, or grotesque—in appealing or repellent ways, sometimes both at once. The third section, barely containing all its horror movies and psychodramas, presents enough characters with disturbing quirks to populate a small town in the middle of nowhere. Ed Gein’d be its founder, of course.
Modern horror could not be what it is without Gein, whose schizo personality resulted from religious fanaticism and gender dysphoria among other factors. Gein inspired Psycho (1960), Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Silence of the Lambs (1991), and countless imitations, variations, and homages. Examples herein include the psychotronic classic Deranged (1974), the Italian sickie Beyond the Darkness (1979), Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer (1997) with Carol Kane as the Gein figure, Lucky McKee’s indie fave May (2000), and the Steve Railsback vehicle Ed Gein (2000). That’s just one vein to tap in a section of mostly low-budget flicks rejected, or plain unacknowledged, by the mainstream.
Documentaries, thanks to more widely available technology, are also a rich source for real—and I mean real—quirky people. The endearing Tiffany-obsessed man in I Think We’re Alone Now (2008) insists that it’s the people who are a bit cracked who let light into the world. And the Documentaries section of this guide provides many supporting examples. From Marjoe (1972), Grey Gardens (1975), and Vernon, Florida (1981) to The Goddess Bunny (1994), Alma (1999), and Winnebago Man (2009), the variously extreme personalities are each a force to be reckoned with—making for documentaries with surprisingly wide appeal in the new century. Of course, even the more standard talking-head documentary may feature an obsessed expert or key witness whose personality cannot be contained. The most rapidly expanding genre in the realm of cinema with personality, there are more entries from the last dozen years in the Documentaries section than in any other.
The film itself, from screenplay to editing, also factors into quirkiness, of course, often channeling the personalities of its makers. This is definitively true of auteurs. Capra, Hitchcock, and Altman are renowned examples. If you know who they are, you probably have a sense of how their films are Capraesque, Hitchcockian, and Altmanesque. Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Jane Campion, David Cronenberg, Spike Lee, Mike Leigh, Michael Moore, Agnes Varda, Lars Von Trier, Alejandro Jodorowsky, all are known for signature styles, tones, and themes.
Some lesser known and newer examples herein are Robert Aldrich, Percy Adlon, Andrew Bujalski, Larry Cohen, Lucio Fulci, Miranda July, Mitchell Leisen, Errol Morris, Paul Morrissey, Kelly Reichardt, Todd Solondz, Monika Treut, Melvin Van Peebles, Mike White, and Jacob Young. These directors possess strong personalities, discernable in their very idiosyncratic cinematic visions.
Not all filmmakers have the experience or funding to professionally realize their cinematic visions. Theirs is willpower-and-happenstance moviemaking. It’s working-with-what-you-got moviemaking. John Waters
claims that underground film legends Mike and George Kuchar were his first inspiration, specifically Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965). As described in Jack Stevenson’s Desperate Visions, Waters learned from Kuchar films the value of “outdated film stock and junk bought in armfuls down at the local thrift shop.” He saw that “over-acting and non-acting were sometimes preferable to good acting, and that a raw look, a confrontational approach and a flagrant perversity could all be forged into a low-budget film style.”
William Castle, Roger Corman, and Herschell Gordon Lewis are also legendary ‘schlock’ auteurs, though their films vary greatly in budget and execution. Herein you’ll find Giuseppe Andrews, Paul Bartel, S.F. Brownrigg, Bob Clark, Frank Henenlotter, Fredric Hobbs, Barbara Peeters, and Ed Wood. These are a few of the antiheroes of Cinema with Personality. Therefore I may praise them as anti-auteurs, or their films as anti-masterpieces, for achieving a unique kind of brilliance despite (because of) their disadvantages or unconventionalities.
In the 21st Century, we’ve got thousands of movies at the click of a mouse. We can even watch them for free via websites like The Internet Archive and YouTube. Netflix, especially during its earlier, through-the-mail peak when it all but promised every movie in the world, made an overwhelmingly wide array of films available to people in the remotest areas, ushering in another new age for film lovers. In a 2008 New York Times article on the subject, Clive Thompson wrote how Netflix “often steers a customer’s attention away from big-grossing hits toward smaller, independent movies. Traditional video stores depend on hits: just out-of-the-theater blockbusters account for 80% of what they rent. At Netflix, by contrast, 70% of what it sends out is from the backlist—older movies or small, independent ones.” And what’s not available can often be ordered on DVD or VHS for $1 to $20. The volume of choices is so great that Amazon, as with Netflix, relies on a “recommender system,” a techno-mode of sales pitch that goes something like “If you enjoy this, then you might enjoy….” I’m quite susceptible to it myself.
The only fly in the algorithm, if you will, was a certain kind of film that proved exasperatingly tricky to estimate how much a viewer will like it. What kind of film? “Quirky” films, according to Thompson’s article, which “tend to be either loved or despised.” One title alone, Napoleon Dynamite (2004), threw off Netflix’s accuracy rate so much (see graph below on which the red dot stands for ND) that the company offered a million dollar prize to anyone who could solve “The Napoleon Dynamite Problem.” It took three years to do this, which required a 10% increase in recommendation accuracy.
The fact remains, as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings admits, “Human beings are very quirky and individualistic, and wonderfully idiosyncratic. And while I love that about human beings, it makes it hard to figure out what they like.”
So open your mind and let Quirky lead you, deeper and deeper, into the realm of Cinema with Personality.
Some unforgettable people await you.