The cuteness surge

By SHARON STEEL  |  February 1, 2008

“Quirk has been defanged and embraced by the mainstream,” says Joshua Glenn, who writes “Brainiac,” a blog and weekly column for the Boston Globe’s Ideas section. Glenn cites Wes Anderson’s post–Bottle Rocket films, John Waters’s post-Polyester movies, and the acting styles of people like Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Jason Bateman, as examples of Mainstream Quirk. (A couple of years ago, the movement’s indie poster boy was the character of Seth Cohen, everyone’s favorite Death Cab for Cutie–listening, comic-book reading navel-gazer from the canceled Fox drama The O.C., although that honor seems to have been transferred onto Michael Cera of Arrested Development, Superbad, and Juno fame.) “It’s all been rendered palatable, ‘gettable,’ ” says Glenn.

A sophisticate’s taste for quatsch can be satiated in the critical ideology of McSweeney’s, David Eggers’s sprawling literary enterprise that publishes The Believer, literary journal Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly ConcernMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and a rotating catalogue of fiction titles. For all the good Eggers’s company and his non-profit work has done, there’s something tenaciously adorable about McSweeney’s that his audience finds simply delightful. Others don’t seem to find much pleasure in the whimsical, “Oh, the places you’ll go!” project-packaging; the universal “aggressive air of innocence,” as New York Times critic Judith Shulevitz called it, of their overall tone; or in what n+1 condemned as the “wide-eyed, juvenile, faux-naïf” tone of their editorial text. Why not just get it over with and call it “McTweeney’s?” McTweeney’s, then, is the next generation of quatschy publishing, and it’s no surprise that it’s often aligned itself with like-minded indie darlings — bands such as the Mates of State, comedians such as Flight of the Conchords’ Eugene Mirman, and no shortage of geek-chic fans.

At the other end of the spectrum is quatsch at its most artful and ingratiating. The chief example of this is Juno, a film recently nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Its competitors are four other movies, each sadder, more violent, and gloomier than the last. Juno, a film that some believe fits perfectly into the romantic-comedy genre while simultaneously breaking that mold, has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of its phony-humble beginnings as an off-center, idiosyncratic coming-of-age tale ever since it premiered in theatres this past December. Much like 2006’s supposed underdog arts sensation, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno was poised to utilize its apparent edginess as a launching pad for mainstream crossover victory. This unavoidable pattern combined with the calculated wave of pre-buzz and word-of-mouth endorsements until, suddenly, stripper-cum-blogger turned best-selling author and Juno screenplay writer Diablo Cody found herself pink-cheeked on Oprah’s couch alongside tour-de-force riot-grrrl (yet slated for an upcoming issue of Teen Vogue) actress Ellen Page.

Oprah isn’t a woman known for her restraint, and she loudly predicted — several times — that Cody would be walking home from the Oscars with a golden statue. Regardless of whether that actually happens, mass-culture has decorated Juno with the kind of beloved, precious status that even losing out on the official accolade couldn’t undo. Seen through the prism of palatable hipster irreverency, Juno is to film what Coldplay once was to pop music. And though it’s received its own fair share of backlash, Cody, director Reitman, the featured actors (especially Cera), and Kimya Dawson (half of the twee-folk duo the Moldy Peaches; she composed the majority of the film’s nursery-rhyme indie soundtrack) are the reigning sovereigns of the latest lucrative tribute to our culture’s insatiable desire for twee.

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