Next to Normal: When are we OK with weird movies?

By looking at the title of this post and choosing to read on, you are, at the very least, open to the idea of a weird movie.  This is an important step, I think.  “Weird” is an abstract concept, one that for the purposes of this post means where what you’re seeing collides with your perception of reality.  Think of the final minutes of 2001: A Spacey Odyssey or, more recently, the beginning and the end of The Tree of Life.

What makes us associate the weirdness with those examples more than, say, traditional Hollywood comedy?  Comedy is rooted in expectation.  When a situation defies our expectation of what we think should happen, we laugh.  You don’t expect Brad Pitt to bite the bullet in Burn After Reading so quickly and brutally, so when he does it comes off as comical, but him walking on a beach with other lost souls in Tree of Life is just out there.

Tone is everything when it comes to weirdness and our ability to accept it.  You can be weird and funny; present a cheetah for the stoned idiots to ride on in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, but don’t you dare show me dinosaurs in The Tree of Life!  If a film isn’t science fiction, horror or comedy, directors are expected to play it safely within the confines of realism.

This can also again be illustrated using The Tree of Life (which is indeed the inspiration of this post).  Contrast its 20-minute detour into the creation of the universe with the exact same (if shorter) sequence from Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.  When the tone is rapid-fire, it’s easier to not take it seriously than when Terrence Malick forces you to look at it.  However, the goal of these two sequences is largely the same: put the characters and the filmmakers’ ideas into the context of all of creation.

Charlie Kaufman’s delightfully out-there screenplays are a perfect example of weirdness being more acceptable in comedy. Even within his own body of work, you find disjuncts.  Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are in some ways just as bizarre as his 2008 directorial debut Synecdoche, New York.  That film, though, is serious, and therefore was much more divisive among critics.  Kaufman had been maturing significantly with each new screenplay, and Synecdoche was his most ambitious project.  Conceptually, it is right at home with his other work, but tonally it is not.  That was the problem.

There’s something about the voice of comedy that clarifies things,” Laura Linney said in an appearance on The Daily Show in 2010.  “It’s a laser-like sense of truth; if it’s true, if you touch truth it will inevitably be so refreshing or astounding that people will just start to laugh.

That point is the easiest way into why comedic weirdness is more readily accepted.  Dramatic sincerity, like in Synecdoche, New York or The Tree of Life, is not meant to be laughed at.  But laughter is a natural response to things that safely threaten our world-view in the movie theater; in the case of The Tree of Life, probably the weirdest movie to infiltrate mainstream cultural discussion in years (thanks, Brad), loud sighs and looks of bewilderment replace the chuckles.  One movie theater in Connecticut even went as far as to post this sign out front:

Linear narrative is also important when looking at audience acceptance of the bizarre.  When Pulp Fiction reached $100 million at the box office upon its American release, the then-unheard-of success of independent cinema showcased that audiences were willing to accept a movie with a disjointed structure.  However, that movie takes place in a relatively compact time period, and stays based firmly in an acceptable (if heightened) version of reality. 

Audiences have changed since 1994, though, and now rarely accept films that detour from convention.  Christopher Nolan’s Inception is probably the most bizarre recent movie to find success in a mainstream audience.  Though I wasn’t such a fervent enthusiast as most people who liked the movie, its success was important.  Nolan had a clear narrative path through the movie, but its mixed realities and dreams-within-dreams concept is very heavy-handed for a blockbuster.  His realistic approach (and all those stars) is what paved its way; never do those dreams sprout mythical creatures or trips to other planets, and never do they interrupt the linear story arc.

Contrast Inception with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.  Here is another neo-noir dream thriller, but told completely out of order.  Both films contain ambiguous endings, though Inception’s is more “Did that top tip over?” and Mullholland Drive’s falls more along the lines of “What the hell just happened?”  Audiences did not respond to Lynch’s film for that reason (and the fact that studios would never take a chance and release that in more than a few screens).  As pure cinema, though, Mulholland Drive is far and away more competent.  It masterfully captures the tone of dream logic while also conveying a frightening allegory about the corruption of Hollywood.

Part of Mulholland Drive is a bold, brazen attack on the way things are done in Tinsel Town.  It is everything a studio executive would cringe at, both stylistically and narratively (though I use the latter lightly).  Though it is no weirder than Terry Gilliam films like The Holy Grail or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it is one thing they aren’t: deadly serious.  Financially, that’s dangerous in a world that isn’t animated by explosions or the people at Pixar.

It’s quite sad that from one year to the next, stylistic risk-taking seems to evaporate from movies more and more.  Instead you get daring within familiar premises, like putting an all female ensemble in a gross-out buddy movie Bridesmaids (though why it’s seen as daring is an idea for another day).  Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was a real risk-taking comedy, and despite its limited release became the director’s biggest financial success.  Word-of-mouth proclaiming its warmth and charm surely helped draw people in, but I’m sure tacked onto all the discussions of its weird twist was that all-important selling-point, “And it’s funny, too!” 

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