August 8, 2006

Down With Quirk


Last Saturday, Cinecultist perused the lists of films playing at our local theaters in search of an afternoon movie. However, we'd already seen about 85 percent of the releases. This is the good and bad thing about seeing movies for work -- many times we get to see them for free, but then what the heck are we to do for leisure? (Besides try to eat at all 101 New York mag cheap eats?) Fortunately, we'd not gotten around to catching Wordplay, the crossword puzzle documentary, so after a pleasant walk across town, we found ourselves at the IFC Center.

Wordplay is one of those difficult movies to write about because it's so sort of middling. It's perfectly entertaining while it's playing, and it's not really doing anything horribly awful or particularly groundbreaking. This seems to be a surprisingly prevalent trend amongst documentaries these days. They follow a familiar story arc, usually involving a competition and a rag tag bunch of quirky real life characters. But while these folks are cute and mildly engaging, they're not captured in a substantive way. Unlike a fictional character in a narrative film, it's not really possible to argue that they're not believable, because they're already actual human beings. Instead they remain a sum of their quirky attributes, cobbled together with a few anecdotes or odd pronouncements to the camera. We don't see anything on screen that we haven't seen a version of, in some form or another, a zillion times before.

With some help from our friends Adriane and John, two very fine documentary filmmakers that Cinecultist happened to have dinner with later on Saturday, we decided the problem is Quirk. Quirk becomes an easy short-hand for moviemakers which provides likable characters. However, these figures have no substance, their odd characteristics become a convenient checklist. One crossword puzzler is interviewed in front of an oil portrait of an ancestor. Another one lives near Columbia University and juggles batons. Yet another hangs out with his frat buddies between bouts of competitive crosswording. Blah, blah, blah. Rather than constructing unusual stories which happen to have odd characters in them who could potentially be unsympathetic, these movies seem to start from the checklist and grow from there.

That may sound overly harsh on a flick that we did enjoy well enough while we were watching it, but it's not something we'd honestly feel we should recommend. Especially when we know it could be so much more than merely quirky.

Posted by karen at August 8, 2006 4:25 PM