WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING WEIRD FOR WEIRDNESS’ SAKE?

The names of film critics cited in this essay have been redacted to protect them from professional humiliation.

“The filmmakers are stoned on weirdness for its own sake…”—from a negative review of Being John Malkovich

“Soavi’s decision to emphasize weirdness for weirdness’ sake quickly lends the proceedings a distinctly interminable feel, to the extent that it becomes virtually impossible to appreciate the film’s few positive attributes.”—from a one star review of Cemetery Man

“It’s just weirdness for the sake of weirdness…”—from a negative review of ‘s Human Nature (2001)

Have you ever read some film critic’s dismiss a surreal movie with some variation of the stock phrase, “it’s just weird for weirdness’ sake?”

Weird for Weirdness Sake Un Chien AndalouNow, think quick: have you ever heard someone criticize a comedy by complaining that “it’s just funny for funniness’ sake?”

In researching this essay I quite easily came across a dozen critical citations of the phrase “weird for weirdness’ sake” and it’s variants, and I suspect that there are hundreds of examples out there awaiting cataloging. In every case, the reviewer considers the negative connotation of the magical phrase “weird for weirdnesses’ sake” as something so axiomatic that readers will automatically rush to delete the movie from their Netflix queue the second they see that description.

My only problem is that, among the dozens of quotations I uncovered, I never found one that explains what the phrase is actually supposed to mean… that is, what exactly is wrong with a filmmaker being weird for weirdness’ sake?

Since none of the critics who deploy the dictum so casually will tell us what it means, I’ve come up with six possible interpretations, each based on a different unstated premise, to supply some meaning to this persistent but confoundingly content-free phrase:

1. I don’t like weirdness, and I’m betting you don’t either.

The simplest way to decode this cryptic phrase is to assume that what the critic is actually saying is “I don’t like weird stuff; I’m guessing you, the reader, are normal like me and share tastes that lie well inside the fat area of the Bell curve.” The reviewer could have sent the same warning by simply saying “this movie is weird”; but this particular qualified phraseology holds out the possibility that there is some sort of acceptable, not-for-its-own-sake form of weirdness floating about out there somewhere. The formulation gives the reviewer an out so he won’t be forced to pan Mulholland Drive on principle, thus insulating himself from merciless mockery the next time he gets together with his critic buddies for a few beers.

2. Weirdness for weirdness’ sake is pretentious. Writers and directors only utilize it because they don’t have any real ideas and they want critics to think they’re profound. They picked the wrong critic, though, because I’m onto them! I’m too smart to be fooled.

We’ve discussed the abominable laziness of the “pretentiousness'” critique in another article. This sort of reasoning is more common among commenters on the IMDB or amazon.com customers than among professional film critics. Competent reviewers don’t try to read the author’s mind and assume motives that aren’t apparent from the work itself. An obvious fallacy in this stance is that, if it were true, the director wouldn’t be indulging in weirdness for weirdness’ sake; he’d be indulging in weirdness for narcissism’s sake. You’d still need a separate argument to explain what’s wrong with a director unpretentiously and unegotisitically indulging in weirdness just because the genre appeals to him—i.e., actually being weird for weirdness’ sake.

3. It’s pointless to be weird just to be weird.

In reviewing ‘s What Is It?, one reviewer writes, “It’s weirdness for weirdness’ sake… I disagree fundamentally with a film that has no purpose other than to make you go ‘huh … that was odd.'” That sounds like a convincing argument on it’s face—in asserting that it’s pointless to be merely weird, he’s at least going half a step beyond dismissing weirdness without comment. But it doesn’t explain the hostility in the statement. There are plenty of dumb action movies, predictable Oscar-bait dramas, and wacky formula comedies out there, all of which have little point to them other than to entertain audiences with a predilection for those genres. Would the same critic “fundamentally disagree” with a film that had no purpose other than to make you go “ha… that was funny,” or one that had no purpose other than to make you go “gee… that was exciting!,” or one that had no purpose other than to make you go “my… that was sad”? The buried premise in his criticism is that there’s something fundamentally disagreeable about being weird—if you’re going to get all weird on us, well then, you damn well better come up with a good excuse for putting me through this unpleasantness!

4. Without some nobler justification behind it, weirdness is a shameful, exploitative gimmick, like gratuitous nudity or needlessly graphic violence.

This one sounds ridiculous on its face (what’s shameful about, say, a dancing dwarf speaking backwards, or ants crawling out of a hole in a man’s hand?), but semantically it makes the most sense in explaining why the saying has stuck. It would be absurd for someone to criticize a comedy for including jokes that were “funny for funny’s sake,” but an objection that a movie contained nude scenes just for nudity’s sake, or violence just for violence’s sake, would at least make sense, even if we didn’t agree with it. This interpretation at least has the virtue of acknowledging that we instinctively delight in the unusual and unexpected, even if it inexplicably categorizes that interest together with the baser human instincts. That this prejudice is the basis of some people’s unthinking criticism of weirdness is explicitly supported by the following unthinking criticism taken from the comments section of the New York Times review of Dogtooth: “If a director subjects me to perversion, violence and plain ol’ weirdness, it should be for a reason other that for the sake of perversion, violence and plain ol’ weirdness.” C’mon, dear, why lump in weirdness—particularly “plain ol'” weirdness, the most innocuous kind—with such trashy company? It’s pure guilt by association.

5. Weirdness is inherently bad because it makes me uncomfortable.

This is a position that would make a lot of sense, but it’s far too honest for most people to cop to. Dismissing something as “just weirdness for weirdness’ sake” sounds a lot more existentially macho than confessing “I find myself unpleasantly unnerved by the absurd universe depicted in this weird movie.” This may be as much a philosophical objection as an aesthetic one; some people have a faith that the world is perfectly rational, and see no room for weirdness in it. Even so, having that faith challenged should not be seen as something intrinsically undesirable; we should all welcome opposing viewpoints—or, at the very least, not try to ghettoize them by implying they’re unworthy of being considered.

6. Good art is realistic and representational. If a movie presents an image it must symbolize something concrete and easy to pin down, or else it’s bad art.

It’s perfectly understandable that an individual critic might prefer realism to surrealism. In criticism, however, the best practice is to approach each work on its own terms and consider it within the conventions of its own genre. Even in my role as a weird-booster, I would never criticize a movie as being “realistic just for realism’s sake”—even though this is a far more pervasive fault than the thimbleful of movies produced each year that might be characterized as exhibiting “weirdness for weirdness’ sake.”  I would hope for the same courtesy from critics ensconced in the mainstream.

Upacking the “weird for weirdness’ sake” trope reveals little substance. It’s easy to imagine the very same critics who penned the objections cited above resorting to completely contradictory critical clichés, like a praiseful “this unpretentious little comedy doesn’t try to do anything but make you laugh, but it does it well!,” without ever stopping to think about the irony.

Any critic that literally considered “weirdness for weirdness’ sake” to be an inherently bad thing would run into what I call the “Andalusian Dog” conundrum. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí‘s 1928 surrealist film “Un Chien Andalou,” despite being only 17 minutes in length, is considered a masterpiece and keystone of cinema. Films 101 lists a few of the movie’s many honors: tied for #28 in the Sight and Sound critics and director’s poll of the greatest films ever made, on Empire’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema, on Movieline’s 100 Best Foreign Films list, and so on. But the movie—which features an eyeball being slit, priests dragged behind pianos on which dead donkeys are perched, and a man on a bicycle dressed as a nun, with no logical linkages between the cascade of weird images—is explicitly and unapologetically a celebration of weirdness for weirdness’ sake. The movie admits no symbolic or allegorical interpretation; in fact, it’s as weird as is possible to be, far weirder than the vast majority of movies the weird-for-weird’s-sakers complain about. The dedicated “weird for weirdness’ sake” hater would have to take one of three basic positions in regards to “Chien.” First, he could deliberately misunderstand the film and say that it has deep symbolism and is more than just “weird for weirdness’ sake,” and is therefore capable of being praised. Alternatively, he could swim against the critical tide and pronounce “Un Chien Andalou” a fraud. Thirdly, he could contend that it was a great idea the first time someone tried it, but assert that every purely weird movie since then has been a failure. None of those three are arguments I would want to defend, but if you insist that undiluted weirdness is obviously a bad thing, you’ll have to select one of them.

In the end, I think the issue is as simple as this: just as some people don’t have a sense of humor, some people are born without a sense of weirdness.

Some people are bored by dramas.

Some people are offended by comedies.

Some people are scared by horror movies.

And some people are just weirded out by weird movies.

But, lest you think every critic is a weird-hating yahoo, it’s important to remember that there are many, many more who “get it.” I leave you on a positive note with this quote from Jami Bernard, in an article on Winnipeg’s weirdest, the great Guy Maddin, written for the New York Daily News:

A film lover sees something weird and falls in love. Most moviegoers see the same thing and run for the hills, fearing they won’t “get” it, confused that it doesn’t fall into a familiar genre. They’re afraid the joke is on them.

Until these guys come up with a convincing explanation for why “weirdness for weirdness’ sake” is something to be despised, I’m going to assert the exact opposite, with an equally unfounded vigor: weirdness is inherently good, inherently interesting, inherently meaningful. Weird for weird’s sake? Yes, please. Thank you very much.

10 thoughts on “WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING WEIRD FOR WEIRDNESS’ SAKE?”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. It inspired many thoughts. Weirdness is, by its very nature, contrary to the mainstream, a deviation from the ‘path of same’, synonymous with eerie or unearthly. As such, it is used as a derisive reaction: “That man is looking at me weirdly.” “What was that weird noise?” . I would argue however, that us connoisseurs of the weird have reclaimed the word as a positive reaction. “You should read this book, it’s really weird! I loved it.” “I love you, you’re so weird.” As such, I believe that for a movie to be labelled as “weirdness for weirdness sake” even if intended as slander, it causes some people’s radar to go off and they are drawn to it as if it had been given a 5 star review. Like I said, I enjoyed reading your essay and to a large extent I agree with you but part of me while, for example, saddened to hear of Holy Motors leaving Cannes empty-handed feels that this somehow also gives it an almighty stamp of weird approval. Weird is good for me but not for everybody and that’s kind of the way I like it!

  2. Great essay, Rev! At a very young age I realized that anybody who uses “weird” as a negative adjective is somebody I really have no interest in talking to for very long. You’ve done a good job of pinpointing the hostility against weirdness many people hold.

    That being said, the “weird for weirdness” sake isn’t always unjustified.

    Let me talk about comics for a second. My bar none favorite comic of all time is Grant Morrison’s ’90s run on “Doom Patrol.” I love it. I full capitalization LOVE it. Even if you don’t read comics I recommend you check it out. It’s one of the most bizarre narratives you’ve ever read, destroying all genre conventions with a glee you can’t really understand unless you’re really familiar with genre conventions. A seminal work that ruined my young mind for lesser things.

    Eventually Grant Morrison left the book, and it went into the hands of another writer, Rachel Pollack. She kept up the weirdo elements, but the element of fun wasn’t there anymore. A lot of that was because she just wasn’t as strong a writer. It was weird, but there really wasn’t any point or central vision. It was “weird for weirdness sake.” No point.

    I don’t know, “weird” movies still have to be good. Anybody who discounts them just because they are weird are useless, don’t listen to them, but there still has to be quality behind them.

    I guess weird movies are like comedies. When comedies work they are some of the best movies ever made. But when they don’t… bad comedies are mind-scrapingly awful.

    I adore weird movies, and I don’t really care about the opinions of those who don’t. Sometimes, however, movies are just “weird for weirdness sake.” I’ll watch them, but the desire for them to be better is there.

  3. An interesting, thought-provoking essay. And by the way, although it’s not movie-related, Mofo Rising/Rob makes an excellent point about the Doom Patrol with which I couldn’t agree more. But I’m afraid I have to disagree with the fundamental basis of the entire article.

    “Funny for funny’s sake” is something that we all know, and most of us loathe. That guy who thinks he’s the life and soul of the party, who has to turn every single thing he says into some kind of ancient, hackneyed gag? That’s it. Or, if you live in the UK, the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, who have been recycling a five-minute Monty Python sketch for over 30 years, and are probably the most relentlessly wacky people on Earth, without having once ever done anything genuinely amusing.

    But of course, such people don’t get to make movies because “funny” is a pretty easy concept to define. If people laugh, it’s funny. If they don’t, it isn’t. Period. Now, weirdness, on the other hand… It’s a bit like camp – a quality which can be undeniably present in a movie without that necessarily being a good thing.

    I live in Edinburgh (Scotland), and every year we have a fairly major film festival. There used to be a splendid offer – now sadly discontinued – whereby for a modest sum, you could get a ticket to absolutely everything showing in the morning and early afternoon, this being the marginal stuff that stood no chance of selling out anyway. So you could just walk in and see something utterly obscure on the offchance that it would be good. And sometimes it was. But all too often, it was “weird for the sake of being weird”, as in “I’m just out of film-school and pretentious as all hell, therefore you’re going to watch 90 minutes of my incomprehensible faffing about and like it, and if you don’t, you’re stupid!”

    It’s something which may be hard to neatly define, but you definitely know it when you see it. I can’t off the top of my head give you a good example, because the worst offenders are like one of your less interesting dreams – they’re a bunch of random nonsense that makes no impression at all, and is soon forgotten. Surely this has to be the worst sin a film-maker can possibly commit?

    So “weirdness”, or any other adjective whatsoever, “for its own sake” is a bad thing. If you don’t believe me, go to a public showing at your nearest film-school. By the way, I’ll give you odds of ten to one on any money you like that you’ll end up seeing at least one film somehow involving dolls, almost certainly dismembered. Because if you’re still at film school and you can’t afford to hire a dwarf, that’s how you do Weird.

    1. Orloff, I actually don’t think we disagree. It’s a question of terminology.

      To take your film festival example: I’ve screened stuff for film festivals and I’ve seen plenty of the kind of movies you mention. However, it’s not that the amateur weird films are uniquely awful. I saw plenty of terrible attempts at horror, comedy, drama—every genre that exists.

      My point is, it would never occur to anyone to simply dismiss a bad drama because it was a case of the director indulging in “drama for drama’s sake.” A critic would say it was a bad drama, or get more specific and explain that it was awkwardly acted, featured banal dialogue, or whatever the complaint was.

      The festival films you describe are bad weird films, but they’re not bad because they are “weird for weirdnesses sake.” They’re bad for specific reasons, because they’re uninspired, boring, irritating, or whatever the particular issue with the work may be.

      In fact, these movies are most likely to be bad because they’re not weird enough, because they’re clichéd and derivative, because they fail to set off the brain’s weirdness receptor. It’s like the guy you complain of who tells the bad jokes—he’s not a pain because he’s trying to be “funny for funniness’ sake,” he’s insufferable because he’s not funny. Were he a talented comedian who was actually making you laugh you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) complain, despite the fact that he’s only being funny for funniness’ sake.

      To use “weird for weirdnesses sake” as a criticism is to say that weirdness is inherently bad—that it’s nothing more than shock value—and that a work needs some sort of rationale to compensate the viewer for enduring it. None of the critics who use “weird” as an insult bother to explore what they mean as clearly as I did. They simply assume the viewer will agree that weirdness is an undesirable quality. The existence of this site, and the healthy niche market for movies that explore the surreal and absurd, should demonstrate that is not a safe assumption.

  4. I do hope I haven’t offended anyone, but I strongly feel that “weird for the sake of being weird” is a major problem in this genre. For example, not so long ago I saw a neo-spaghetti western, the name of which entirely escapes me, in which the title character died in the first two minutes and then the bad guy spent the whole film trying to get hold of his corpse for some obviously idiotic beyond-the-grave revenge purpose which I don’t think they even bothered to clearly explain.

    The main character was a ridiculously anachronistic gun-toting goth pirate girl, and a secondary hero had an Oedipal gunfight with his own father. Oh, and just to prove how very weird it all was, there was a dwarf. Other very odd things happened, yet it was ultimately very pretentious and very dull, and deservedly sank without trace. My brain can’t even be bothered to remember what it was called – something needlessly long and complex, I think.

    Weird? Yes. Fun? No. Witness also the recent career of David Lynch. He’s obviously both very intelligent and very gifted, and yet… Am I the only person to think that The Straight Story only exists because somebody used the phrase “David Lynch can’t tell a straight story” one time too many? And as for The Inland Empire – it’s debatable whether it topples into an abyss of bloated pretension of merely teeters on the brink (personally I give it thumbs down), but it isn’t debatable that if David Lynch was even slightly less talented, it would just be a tedious failure.

    And you know what? Consider this, It’s an off-the-wall point, but I’m perfectly serious. Imagine David Lynch sitting brooding in his Lynchcave thinking the following thoughts: “I’m supposed to be The King Of Weird, but everyone’s saying that some piece of crap called Donnie Darko is the weirdest movie ever, because it’s non-sequential and it messes with time and space and the nature of reality and there’s some dude in a rabbit costume – oh boy, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” See what I mean?

    (THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS!)

    Or what about Adaptation? That’s generally supposed to be weird. Unfortunately, it revolves around a man trying to write a screenplay based on a very dull book about two people in a swamp looking for a flower they never find. By the time he figures out that the real story is rather more interesting, we’ve been watching him be painfully shy and nothing much else for about an hour. Also, the central gimmick is that, by blatantly manipulating cinematic conventions in an incredibly contrived way, we are led to believe that the hero’s identical twin with the exact opposite personality is a figment of his imagination. Hey, how weird is it to remake Fight Club in such a way that the imaginary guy is blatantly imaginary from the start, but he ultimately turns out to be real after all? Still, if you watch it on DVD, the extras include footage of the director being sick, so there’s that.

    Of course, it’s all extremely subjective. A lot of people find Jim Carrey funny, whereas I consider his best movie to be The Cable Guy, which makes it absolutely clear that if you meet somebody who behaves like that in real life, he may briefly be amusing, but he’ll become annoying very quickly, and may actually be so mentally ill that he’s dangerous. But I reiterate that “weird” is a more deceptive quality than most, since comedy at which nobody laughs is not comedy, yet weirdness can be no fun at all but still be weird.

    Consider films like Santa Claus Conquers The Martians or Surf Nazis Must Die. They’re worthless heaps of dreck, yet they constantly feature in various media promoting “cult movies”. even though absolutely nobody ever suggests that they are in any way enjoyable, so their “cult” presumably has zero members. The half-witted Medved brothers did a lot of damage by making it fashionable to watch films for no reason other than that they’re terrible. Thus we ended up with Snakes On A Plane, or the even worse Iron Sky, both of which assumed that if the central premise was sufficiently “cult movie”, nobody would mind if the script was dreadful. And Iron Sky may yet get away with it just because Moon Nazis!, even though it’s painfully bad.

    Oh, and about “drama for drama’s sake”? Yes, that’s a legitimate criticism. The British soap opera Brookside, which was entirely about one small street in a supposedly normal housing estate, ultimately became laughable as the situations faced by the inhabitants escalated from murder through insane religious cults to being hit by an airliner. Sadly nobody ever jumped the shark. Really, any adjective at all could qualify for this criticism.

    But what I object to is films being celebrated for their weirdness alone. I think this is a valid criticism, because, especially when it comes to very obscure films, it may take quite a lot of time and money to obtain the thing, and then you find yourself sitting in front of something which is no fun at all on any level whatsoever. For example, Trash Humpers. I haven’t seen this, and I never will, because although it’s discussed on numerous websites in terms of “Oh wow, this film is SO WEIRD!”, I have yet to see a single review claiming that the reviewer actually liked it, or thinks anybody else will – it’s just “Sit yourself down and watch an hour and a half of incomprehensible, pretentious, repellent nonsense because then you’ll have seen something most people haven’t, and that makes you cool.”

    Why should I, or anybody, bother to do that? Especially if I have to pay for the privilege. The idiot Medved brothers got it hideously wrong when they said that Plan Nine From Outer Space was the worst movie ever made, because, as many more astute critics than myself have already said, it’s a lot of fun! I’m reminded of that short-lived and utterly moronic craze whereby you were supposed to evaluate movies solely on the basis of how many chickens they contained, and if you saw one, shout “Cluck!”, thereby quite possibly getting yourself thrown out of the cinema.

    Any movie which provokes the response: “Yes, it’s weird all right, but I can’t imagine anybody halfway sane actually enjoying this” has no place on this list (or any other list) because there’s simply no point in talking about it at all, except to warn people off it. As in: “Surf Nazis Must Die – you’ve heard the title so now you know everything good about the film. Moving on…” The distinction between “weird” and “just plain bad” is a hazy one, and all too often ignored. That’s how I ended up being suckered into watching Hell Comes To Frogtown, because with a title like that, there are people who are prepared to kid themselves that they liked it, and try to persuade others to share the experience.

    1. Well, I’m certainly not offended, but I do continue to disagree about characterizing stuff you don’t respond to as “weird for weirdness’ sake” rather than just bad craftsmanship. I do like that you’re thinking independently and not just following my lead, however.

  5. I found this to be a very interesting, well argued essay. However, Orloff raises some very good points as well. To find out which side I am on myself. I will try to formulate what I understand to be the essence of Orloff’s argument and then see whether or not I can find a way to counter it.

    7. What weirdophiles enjoy about a good weird movie is not simply that it has a large amount of weirdness, but that weirdness is being used in a good way to produce some kind of desirable weird aesthetic. Weird for weirdness’ sake is when a director does not have any idea of how to achieve any such weird aesthetic but instead throws in a lot of weird stuff at random, hoping this will appeal to weirdophiles.

    If “weird for weirdness’ sake” is defined like this I will not deny that it is a bad thing. The problem I have with this definition however is that it it too narrow. It excludes all cases where weird stuff is being used to good effect yet still not for any other purpose than making the movie more weird. What makes things a bit confusing, I think, is that making a movie more weird does not always improve it, for example because the weirdness clashes with some other quality of the movie or because the weird stuff that is added is not only weird but also cliché. However, this does not mean that when it does, the director is (necessarily) doing something other than being “weird for weirdness’ sake”. Succefully achieving the good weird aesthetic does not have to amount to anything else than making your movie weird without also making it clichéd (the dwarf or doll), jarring, too chaotic or any other bad thing that may result from novice attempts at creating something weird.

    Hmm, not sure whether or not I added anything to the debate, but at least my own thoughts on the matter are clearer now.

  6. I have made the same complaint about weirdness for weirdness sake and I think my issue with it is that the filmmakers, when doing it often mistake what they are doing for creating something “deep”. Too often filmmakers or other artists, in an attempt to appear to be creating depth, simply grasp at the weird and think it is the same thing.

    That is the frustrating bit. When you read interviews with them and they think they are channeling Fellini, or worse, their fans are rabidly trying to explain why the film is deep and nuanced because they don’t know the difference. Then, rather than taking a discerning look at the piece, they excuse anything and everything as part of the artists vision, and excuse poor craftsmanship.

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