Tom Sutcliffe: A fine line between quirky and cutesy

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Independent Voices

I'm indebted to Midsomer Murders, of all things, for the concept of the sprechhund, a dumb interlocutor who will allow a solitary character to plausibly (or more plausibly, at least) voice his or her thoughts so an audience can hear. Neil Dudgeon, who'd taken over the arduous task of investigating the villages' suspicious deaths, was given one by the scriptwriters so that he could banter cheerfully even when standing alone in his kitchen. The dog, though, never answered back, a deficiency that has been put right in Mike Mills's film Beginners, in which Ewan McGregor plays a man lumbered with the dog that belonged to his recently deceased father. His character doesn't have elaborate conversations with the winsome Jack Russell he inherits, but on at least two occasions when he does, Mills supplies subtitles so that we can see how the dog replies. And this, I would have thought, is something of a crunch moment for the film's audience. You can't simply overlook it, in the way that you might try to pretend that someone hasn't passed wind in a lift (and in the way that you can pretend not to notice some artistic decisions). It's too attention-seeking and up-front for that. So some of the audience are going to be mentally making that melting mooing noise with which people acknowledge something cute, while the others are going to be mentally making the noise of a cat with a hair-ball stuck in its throat.

It isn't Mills's only excursion into whimsy. His meet-cute for McGregor's character and the gorgeous (and mysteriously accessible) actress with whom he falls in love takes place at a fancy-dress party. McGregor has gone as Sigmund Freud, a decision that involves an amount of make-up work that doesn't seem entirely consistent with the character's depressive mood, but which does allow for a scene in which Mélanie Laurent lies down on a nearby couch and demands an analysis. Enough to be going on with, you might have thought. But in addition, Mills has Laurent's character suffering from laryngitis, so that she has to communicate with notes scribbled in a reporter's notebook. Add such scenes to the tendency of the film to break its narrative with montaged slide-shows of the characters' past and it should be clear that Mills falls squarely into the territory of the quirky.

He's said in interviews that he doesn't like the term, which one can understand really when you think of how bad quirky can get, and what a licence for self-indulgence it can be. But he's also presumably aware of how fatal it can be to apply the term to yourself, or even publicly acknowledge that it might be applicable. Effortful quirkiness is deadly, because it always looks like the simulation of a character you suspect you don't really possess. So Mills's repudiation of the term is a way of saying, "Honestly. I didn't even think whether this would look odd or unconventional on screen. It's just my kooky way of doing things." Except that he wouldn't ever be foolish enough to describe himself as kooky either. Quirkiness as a quality is naive and unwitting or it is nothing.

Which is why it's so hard to bring off on screen, I suppose – one of the most premeditated and mediated forms of art there is. It's easy to have the fugitive thought that one's dog might respond in conversation (I don't suppose there's a dog owner that hasn't thought it at one time or another) but to fix that thought in a script, and to see it fixed there through every editing session, and grading and early screening would be to drain every fugitive and flighty element it once possessed. It becomes a calculated eccentricity, which isn't necessarily damaging to a comedy (think of all the gags Woody Allen plays with the conventions of film) but can drag terribly in a drama. The very thing that is supposed to flutter and fly free hangs there like a dead weight, not evidence of life but of an over-anxious desire to look lively. As it happens I quite liked Beginners, and I was in the end genuinely moved by Christopher Plummer's performance as a man who very belatedly comes out of the closet. But it was in the teeth of quirk, not because of it.

Grange's designs for life require wider context

It would be far too simplistic to say that good design always strives to be invisible. That would exclude designs that revel in their own obtrusiveness or in an ostentatious reference to some previous historical style. But as a truism it's a lot less inaccurate when applied to Seventies industrial design, much of which honoured ideas of modernity carved out by the Bauhaus some 50 years earlier. You can see these principles at work in the designs of Kenneth Grange, who worked on the Kenwood Chef and the Intercity 125 locomotive – both of them distinguished by a pleasing absence of the unnecessary. The Design Museum is running an exhibition of Grange's designs. But they have missed one important trick in showcasing his talent. One anecdotal account of his career in product design has it that it began after he had made some disobliging remarks about a Kodak camera design. He was invited to do better, did, and never looked back. Unfortunately, while the exhibition shows you the designs and mock-ups for the camera he produced, it doesn't show you the one thing which would really allow you to assess his modernity – the camera that he criticised. The same is true of the Kenwood Chef. Looking at his design, it is difficult to imagine it could have been any other way. But it was once – and the difference between the two objects is where Grange's talent is most visible. Pity they didn't include a before and after.

Surely a tipping point of sorts

I read some mightily strange books when judging for the Booker last year, including at least one text that united the judges in feeling that psychiatric intervention might be called for. Then again you expect a little oddity from the combination of an open-entry competition and the increasing ease with which one can self-publish. But I don't think I've ever read a stranger book from an established writer (and a mainstream publisher) than Nicholson Baker's latest, House of Holes. Fans of Baker (I've been one ever since The Mezzanine) will know that he's capable of eye-watering sexual candour and reckless self-exposure, but even they may be startled by an extended fantasy about a kind of sexual Disneyland, which includes the Hall of Penises, the Masturboats and the Porndecahedron. I think the book is probably best understood as an extended exercise in sexual language, with Baker defying the essentially repetitive nature of the actions with an apparently limitless string of new ways to describe them. And it contains the most unexpected euphemism for the male organ I've ever encountered: "Dave angled out his Malcolm Gladwell". I will never be able to look at the author of The Tipping Point in the same way again, and if you think about it a bit I'm guessing you won't either.