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 Michel Gondry‘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?”
Now, 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 Crispin Glover‘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.