Fuelled by metamodern philosophical and moral beliefs, the 1990s and 2000s saw a significant shift in contemporary American cinema. As a response to the suffocating excesses of the mainstream, many directors sought to examine the alienation imposed by modernity through fresh perspectives and unconventional methods. Although the creative consciousnesses of the artists vary to a great extent, their works have been collectively labelled as the ‘American Eccentric Cinema’ movement.
One of the most popular filmmakers of the American Eccentric Cinema club, Wes Anderson, once said: “I don’t want to have an invisible style, but I don’t care about having a trademark. My writing and my way of staging the scenes and shooting – people can tell it’s me, but that’s not by my choice. It naturally happens. It’s just my personality as a director… The kind of movies that I want to make draw probably equally on European and American movies and maybe some Japanese or Indian, too.”
He added: “But the biggest are European, American, and British traditions. I am more interested in a classical kind of moviemaking. I like to be dazzled in the movies and I don’t feel I am very reserved in the way I direct. But they come from a tradition of cinema. My favourite filmmakers are people like John Huston, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, Fellini, and Bergman – and that’s how I was formed as a filmmaker. Those are the biggest influences.”
As a part of our weekly feature on world cinema, we take a look at 10 essential films from the American Eccentric Cinema movement in order to get a better understanding of this unique body of films.
10 essential films from the ‘American Eccentric Cinema’ movement:
Slacker (Richard Linkalter – 1990)
Richard Linklater’s 1990 comedy-drama is one of the definitive films on the subject of the absurdity of youth. Structured in the form of non-linear digressions, the film explores the world of conspiracy theories and anarchic spirits while investigating the phenomenon of societal malaise.
“The idea of Slacker came to me at about two in the morning, on a long drive,” Linklater explained. “The narrative structure hit me in one shot — why can’t you tell a story moving from one character to the next? I was 23, in love with cinema, and its possibilities.”
Safe (Todd Haynes – 1995)
Todd Haynes’ 1995 psychological horror film stars Julianne Moore as a suburban housewife whose life is radically changed when she falls ill. Considered to be an example of feminist counter-cinema, the film explores disease and isolation – subjects that are very relevant today.
“I was looking at movies like Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman and eventually 2001 for some stylistic pointers, so I was looking at things that were extreme,” Haynes revealed. “For me [Safe] had to do with restraint and playing with narrative expectations in very subtle, controlled ways.”
Happiness (Todd Solondz – 1998)
This brilliant 1998 black comedy is a scathing critique of the performative nature of “respectable” society, laying bare the hypocrisies and the infinite perversions exhibited by its members. Despite being labelled as “controversial” when it first came out, Happiness has transformed into a true cult classic.
Solondz told Roger Ebert: “The thing that seems to unsettle people is that there are characters whose behaviour may be abhorrent, repellent, repugnant. And yet we can’t dismiss these characters. They can’t be reduced to the paedophile, the obscene phone caller, the lady who dismembers her what-have-you. They have hearts and minds and lives that are bleeding. I care and, in a certain sense, I am asking the audience to care for people who might be the last people in the world we want to care for.”
Fight Club (David Fincher – 1999)
One of the most popular entries in this list, the impact of David Fincher’s psychological thriller Fight Club on popular culture is undeniable. Exploring issues of masculinity and existentialism in the framework of modern capitalism, the film launches a memorable attack on the cubicle-enclosed lifestyles of corporate workers.
While speaking about the film’s initially poor box office performance, Edward Norton said, “It was an interesting experience because we all loved it and we were very confident about it. We were a little stung. You can never completely detach your ego to how does it do when it first opens, but then we all had the very special experience of realising that the relationship it formed with people was everything you dream of when you get into films.
“I think if you felt more like the guy who plays my boss in the film, then you tended to not like the film. But also, it just was a tough one to distil. It wasn’t financially successful at first, it never was even in conversation about awards and all that crap.”
Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze – 1999)
Written by Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich is a bizarre metaphysical journey that investigates the human condition and raises questions of personal identity in truly surreal ways. Like most of his work, Being John Malkovich is brimming with Kaufman’s originality and remains an important film to this day.
Kaufman reflected, “Malkovich just seemed right to me. He would be an interesting person to be that character. When I wrote it, I wasn’t working as a screenwriter, and I wasn’t thinking that he or anyone else would actually read it. I wasn’t thinking, can this be made? When I heard that [Malkovich] read it and thought it was funny, that was as big a thrill as I expected to have.”
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson – 2001)
Wes Anderson’s 2001 comedy-drama is one of the best examples of the American Eccentric Cinema movement. Told through Anderson’s unique visual style, The Royal Tenenbaums is an absurdist examination of a dysfunctional family which draws inspiration from the likes of Orson Welles and Louis Malle.
Anderson said: “In The Royal Tenenbaums I was trying to use some things that happened to me, but they are very changed when they become a movie. It’s some things from my memory where I thought, ‘This is something of my own that I can use here.’ But the father-son thing may at least have much to do with people that I have met.”
Adding, “For many years I have had a number of different friends who are in the same age range as my father and they have quite influenced me. Some of them are real characters. So that’s maybe as much where that comes from as anywhere else.”
Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly – 2001)
Donnie Darko is a famous ambiguous sci-fi film by Richard Kelly which continues to create a multiplicity of interpretations with its enigmatic symbolism. Structured as a suburban coming of age film, Donnie Darko ends up becoming a fascinating intersection of philosophy and science through which we look at human mortality and the fundamental nature of the universe.
The director revealed, “I think it was very much an expression of my internal anxieties as an adolescent, first and foremost. It’s probably much more of an autobiographical film than people realise, and I’ve pretty much been able to reconcile that now that I’m much older. But, at the same time, a piece of ice fell from the wing of the jet plane when I was a kid and smashed into my neighbour’s house. I don’t remember who the kid was but it was something I read about and it stuck with me.”
Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson – 2002)
The film that completely changed Adam Sandler’s legacy as an actor, Punch-Drunk Love stars Sandler as an anxious man who tries his best to navigate the labyrinths of love. Anderson won the coveted Best Director prize for his creative vision at the Cannes Film Festival.
Producer JoAnne Sellar said: “After Magnolia [Paul] wanted to make a really short movie. That was the first thing I remember him saying. But yeah, he wrote it for Sandler. He was a huge Sandler fan, and I was just befuddled. I just didn’t get the whole Adam Sandler thing at that stage. I mean, the Saturday Night Live stuff, yes, but the movies that Adam had done weren’t for me. As a British person I didn’t really get the humour. But Paul just kept saying, ‘Oh my God, he’s so great!’ And he completely made me change my mind about Adam.”
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola – 2003)
Sofia Coppola’s endearing romantic drama stars Bill Murray as an ageing actor who finds comfort in the presence of a young college graduate (played by Scarlett Johansson). Although it is supposed to be a tale of human connection, there is a strong sense of loneliness that underlines their adventures in Japan.
“I never expected people to connect with it so much,” Coppola admitted. “I was surprised because I thought it was this really self indulgent, personal project. It’s still fun if somebody comes up and tells me they connect to it because it was just what I was feeling at that time. It’s always scary to do something personal because you put yourself into. There’s something about being naive that allows you to jump into things in a freer way.”
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach – 2005)
Semi-autobiographical in nature, The Squid and the Whale is a moving examination of the lives of two brothers growing up in Brooklyn in the ’80s. The film explores the impact that their parent’s divorce has on their psyche, creating a memorable evaluation of the condition of the modern family.
Baumbach reflected, “Right before I started to write The Squid and the Whale, I kind of found myself at a position where I think like my career ambition had sort of exceeded my sense of self. So I sort of in some ways had to figure out who I was at a filmmaker after I had already become one.”