WHAT MAKES A WEIRD MOVIE WEIRD?

Here at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, our staff is repeatedly faced with a perplexing question: How do you quantify a movie as “weird”? It’s like the old Supreme Court ruling on how to define pornography: “I know it when I see it.” OK, but our mission is to sort out the 366 Weirdest movies, on top of that. Now we’re forced to quantify movies, because some will be on the list and some will not. Given any two movies that appear equally weird, how do you rank them?

It’s an unanswerable question, ultimately. But here, submitted for the consideration of anybody who cares, is the closest thing to an objective system the present author can think of when ranking a movie’s weirdness. It’s the system I partially use when throwing in my vote for yay or nay on whether a movie belongs on the list. Since we even have reader polls once in awhile to vote movies onto the list, perhaps it will do some good to share it. It’s not an iron-clad rule, merely a guide.

What a silly exercise! No doubt Robin Williams from Dead Poets’ Society will charge in here after we’re done and tell us all to rip this page out of the textbook. Have at it, Robin, you’re probably right.

The Weird Movie Ranking System

You can rank a movie’s weirdness in four areas. These axes of ranking are:

  • Premise – A wild or original idea. The substance.
  • Presentation – The method, attitude, or approach of storytelling. The style.
  • Detail – The stuff you see in the “indelible image” and “three weird things” section of list entries.
  • Passion – The commitment to an individual and original vision imbued by the movie’s creator(s).

The higher we can rank a movie on each of these axes, the weirder it is. This isn’t anything silly like a one-to-ten scale, just a general mark of “high” or “low.” Most movies can’t make it onto the list with a high ranking in only one aspect. But the more boxes we tick on the list, the higher its chances. Now to examine each axis in more depth:

Premise

Premise appears to be the least important metric in measuring a movie’s weirdness. Premise is closely related to plot, but not identical. Some entries, such as Un Chien Andalou, have no plot to speak of. “A girl falls asleep and dreams about a magical fantasy land” can describe both The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. The premise doesn’t make the movie weird by itself.

Detail from Being John Malkovich posterBut it sure helps. Being John Malkovich is a great example: An office building staff discovers a portal into an actor’s head, and tries to exploit it for profit. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is about a bed that eats people. Elevator Movie is about two people mysteriously trapped in an elevator for days. The farther you go from standard Hollywood templates (“Boy Meets Girl,” “Heroes Save the World”), the more likely you are to veer into weird country. Clearly, indie and arthouse flicks have an advantage here, because they don’t have to pitch the premise to a board of investors.

But as we will see, the premise alone doesn’t make the movie weird. “Alien visits Earth” is a staple of science fiction; you could be talking about E.T. or The Man Who Fell to Earth. At the same time, you’d think a movie about a monster that lives in your colon and crawls out to kill people who cause you headaches would peg the weird meter off the scale, but Bad Milo starts with that insane premise and then plays it so safe and conservative that it darn near becomes a Seinfeld episode. Science fiction and fantasy has a disadvantage here, because we go in expecting the unusual already, so to qualify as “weird” it needs to get out there and do somersaults.

Hence the other metrics:

Presentation

This is the big one. It’s not what story you tell, but how you tell it, that leans the most weight into a movie’s overall weirdness. Year after year, feisty movies that otherwise wouldn’t have a chance shove their way onto the list because their presentation is just that outstanding.

Forbidden Zone doesn’t care beans about its premise, because it’s too busy being bonkers; it would not be one-tenth of the movie it is without the cardboard cutout sets, cartoon sound effects, jazz-age musical numbers, and ridiculous characters. A Scanner Darkly is another great example; without the rotoscoped animation and zappy casting, it would have been another phoned-in Philip K. Dick adaptation. Rubin & Ed would just be a story about two losers in the desert burying a cat without the amazing character Crispin Glover creates.

A film’s budget has the most impact on the style aspect. That can be either through a tight budget which makes the movie weirder through allowing us no suspension of disbelief whatsoever, as in After Last Season, or by a lavish budget recklessly handed over to a visionary given carte blanche to indulge their every bent whim, which is how you get a Brazil.

But more than anything else, the style is the indelible thumb-print of the auteur. Go ahead, rip off King Kong. We’ve seen King Kong before, but we haven’t seen your King Kong. Redo it as a Fifty Shades of Gray mashup that also parodies Atlas Shrugged and see what happens.

Detail

The weird is in the details. The details, individual moments that you can point out, are the last refuge of justifying a movie’s weirdness. This is what  (peace be upon the name of the prophet) calls “The Eye of the Duck”:

If you doubt a movie’s worthiness on the list of greatest weirdness, find its “Eye of the Duck.” That’s the scene that tells you whether we have left the mainstream. In Eraserhead it’s the baby. The Holy Mountain has too many damn Eyes to count, but the amphibian circus with frogs dressed as conquistadors simulating war is as prominent as any. Naked Lunch has that hideous typewriter-bug mutation.

The eye isn’t the ending or the plot or the central massage of the movie; it’s the one scene or object that is the movie’s weird showpiece. You may find yourself stumbling around trying to peg a movie’s weirdness, until you find the eye and then triumphantly declare “That’s it! The Chevy Malibu with the radioactive rays shooting out of the trunk that fries everybody who opens it! That’s what earns Repo Man a spot on the list! You’ve never seen that in a movie before, have you?”

Yes, sometimes the detail scenes are a cop-out, a fact which would bother us if we were handing out anything important like Nobel Prizes.

Passion

This is the most important metric in a movie’s weirdness. No matter how much you rank on the other three scales, if your movie is just a box office dump to make a fast buck, phoned in by people who couldn’t give a damn, it’s gonna fall off this list. It’s why movies like Avatar never have a hope of sniffing the bottom of the Capsule review queue here. It’s why Mars Attacks is the opposite of what we want here, even when it came time to throw Tim Burton a bone.

Passion is the lightning in a bottle. You can’t buy it nor demand it, merely sit tight and wait for it to come along, like a thunderstorm. Passion is the motivator for an individual director, writer, or performer to defy all notions of marketability and go for the goofy. Ego plays a lot into passion, because it takes some ego to be headstrong enough to insist that damn it, this movie about a vampire baseball team will be filmed as an operatic ballet, or I walk, do you hear me?

Gregory J. Smalley’s essay “In Defense of Pretense: The Joys Of Pretentious Movies” is an excellent reference on this point. When we want a movie to be weird, when we like it just because it’s weird, what we’re really saying is “Astonish me! Challenge me! Stretch my mind in places it didn’t know it could be stretched!” And that commitment and dedication can’t come from the rational mind or the pragmatic wallet, but from the heart and soul.

This is not to say that a movie has to be a flop before it’s considered weird. There’s plenty of movies that have made money here. But big box office does tend to work against a movie’s weirdness. This is because to make a work popular, you have to concede to the greatest number of people. And your passion gets snuffed out right there. Your vision doesn’t matter; our market panel focus group doesn’t like it. Demand your pure, unique vision be realized and you just alienated a big chunk of the audience. Pull enough of the crowd along with you after that and you have a cult classic; there’s your Rocky Horror Picture Show. Some people hate it, but the ones who love it are fanatic about it. Alienate even more of your audience and you’re making a movie just for you, and then you’re lucky if one idiot like Pete comes along in a decade to appreciate you for it.

Weirdness appreciation is almost exactly a celebration of passion. We love pretentious auteurs who feed their muse and ride their hobby horses and use their director’s chair for a bully pulpit. We want originality, bold revolutionaries, and fat, happy muses. We certainly aren’t going to get that from the market panel focus group.

In Conclusion

Well, take it for what it’s worth. The world probably didn’t need this weirdness quantification scale (WQS), but it’s better for having it out there. Mostly, by trying to come up with the most objective method possible to gauge a film’s strangeness, it proves that weirdness in movies is impossible to quantify. Let us all pledge to study and consider it, then go back to rating movies using any old willy-nilly criterion we want.

7 thoughts on “WHAT MAKES A WEIRD MOVIE WEIRD?”

  1. The personal passion factor is probably most important for me in so far as how much I enjoy or engage with a weird picture. You either feel that passion behind it or you don’t, and feeling it can go a long way towards drawing you into an offbeat world or notion. That’s why I love Ken Russell…he was never afraid to passionately follow his muse even if the end result turned out to be a spectacular failure. I’ll take a spectacular failure from a passionate, committed artist over a successful mainstream product any day of the week!

    By the way I had no idea 366 Weird had taken over the UMRK. Which one of you operates the Icing Anointment Utensil? :P

  2. A good, thoughtful essay on the subject. I do need to add something to clear up any misunderstandings. Assessing a movie’s “weirdness” is only half the battle. When deciding whether to place a movie on the List, we first decide whether it’s weird at all. Then, once it’s met that threshold requirement of weirdness, we decide whether it should go on the List because it’s either impressively made, noteworthy, or is an appropriate representative of some director, style or subgenre.

    In other words, we are not technically searching for the “weirdest” movies but for the “best weird movies.” It’s possible to imagine a movie, for example, where a single character dressed half as a clown and half as a zombie ran around a city screaming nonsense syllables for two hours, scored to the sounds of a chimpanzee set loose on a church organ. This would undoubtedly be one of the weirdest movies we ever encountered, rating high on each of Pete’s proposed axes—but would it be something anyone would want to watch? A good weird movie requires a certain nexus of artistic structure and outlandish behavior. That’s where the inevitable subjectivity in selecting the films really comes in.

    These comments don’t negate anything Pete says; I just want to again stress that we’re selecting the “best weird movies,” not the “weirdest” movies. That’s why you’ll sometimes find movies that earn the “Weirdest!” tag that nevertheless don’t show up on the List. We’re not always precise about this distinction, but it is important to keep in mind.

  3. Glad that this article was written! Now that this site has mutated my interest in fiction, it can discuss the nature of this mutation.

  4. You mentioned it in the Presentation section, but I’m curious as to what kind of relative factor sound/soundtrack/score plays in your assessment of weirdness.

    For me, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey was a childhood favorite (not to make a testament of quality or weirdness; I know it’s just nostalgia). To this day, I can still remember each specific line that was dubbed over later, including a few I’d be surprised if anyone else in the world knew.

    Granted, the number who remember any lines at all from that film is already a small cadre.

    To me, that kind of sticky memory is why I love Forbidden Zone. Of course love the [for lack of a better word] plot and production. But I am near certain that none of us would have ever known it existed except for there being an Elfman on the project.

    And – thank His Noodly Appendage – we got both.

    For most people I’ve met, the soundscape of a film is part of the background, even in iconic Godfather-type scenarios. At least, it is while watching; e.g. I know they hear the Williams piece when Vader first arrives, and feel the impact it delivers.

    But I’m sitting on the other end of the couch, eyes focused on the screen, with my mind’s eye imagining a musician driving with visceral force across cello strings. A converse silence, used to effect, conjures the feeling of being alone in a dark forest. Both injecting a powerful sliver of reality into the story’s fiction.

    Realize that last paragraph might edge me toward a weird rating myself, but again I’m quite curious how the curators of such an interesting film resource experience sound in film format.

  5. Well, I guess the sound fits into the ‘detail’ category. It’s true, a movie’s soundscape is a factor of its atmosphere as well. Goofy sounds and cartoon sound effects contribute to Forbidden Zone, I mention. I should also mention David Lynch works brilliantly with sound; Eraserhead is a disturbing movie to experience even blindfolded.

    And the Icing Anointment Utensil is run by the cat, the only one trained to make little green rosettas.

  6. Sounds like my fellow contributors are thinking too hard. Me, I’m in it for the money, glory, and fast cars.

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