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In a Weird Way: A Brief History

An article in The Guardian from early 2014 quotes members of the Canadian electro-industrial band Skinny Puppy discussing the invoice for $666,000 in royalties they billed the U.S. government for use of the band’s music in torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Keyboardist cEvin Key (yes, he spells it that way) explains that the band was dismayed, but not entirely surprised, that their music was employed in this manner. “We thought this would end up happening, in a weird way,” Key said. “Because we make unsettling music, we can see it being used in a weird way. But it doesn’t sit right with us.”

Key’s comments made me curious about the phrase he used twice (in slightly different ways), one that I have often noticed in conversations with friends and colleagues: “in a weird way.” Google’s Ngram Viewer reveals that the phrase is a modern one: its first recorded uses are in the 1870s, and from that point, its usage continues in a more or less flat line (rising a bit in the noir 1940s, dipping in the 1950s) until about 1979, when its usage begins to angle sharply upward to the present day. A Google or LexisNexis search for the phrase turns up countless 21st-century examples.

What does “in a weird way” mean, and why did it become so much more prevalent in the late-20th century? The first uses of “weird” in English refer to “weird sisters,” as made famous by Macbeth (though the usage precedes the play), and in its earliest 19-century citations, “in a weird way” invariably means in an uncanny, creepy, or supernatural way. Some of the things that most often occur “in a weird way:” trees or leaves rustling in the wind, fires blazing up, and people muttering, singing, or murmuring. From an 1888 collection of sermons, describing the prophet David: “The demon was cast out, and the dark powers of the creation were mightily stirred up by it, and David, on his way home that night, felt them all about him in a weird way.” From an 1897 article in The American Archaeologist called “Notes on Delaware Indian Village Sites:” “The stone cists once occupying the eastern side of the burial place have been destroyed by the plow; the white oaks whose leaves rustled in the fall winds in a weird way have been cut down by the avaricious lumber man.” From “Catching the Wild Horse in South America,” in the Report of the Rugby School Natural History Society for the Year 1879: “A couple of the fattest mares captured are slaughtered, and without troubling themselves to skin them, the men cut up the carcases in huge joints, ribs, loins, back, etc., and pile them on the fires, which blaze high up in a weird way, owing to the quantities of fat and grease burning.” From the Wide World Magazine of 1898: “the native divers had tumbled out of their boats, and were swimming in a weird way down to the bottom of the translucent sea.” From a 1910 female traveler’s Journal of Japan: “I saw a most interesting method of laying a foundation of a native building — two dozen women pulling on a fan of ropes, and singing in a weird way, half drawing and twisting between each pull.”

Notice a common denominator? These are all travellers’ tales, quasi-ethnographic (or in one case, Biblical) accounts of strange people doing surprising things, usually in exotic, non-Western lands. The weird and its ways, it is implied, are threatened, or at least displaced, by the modern. This example from an 1887 Recollections of a Country Doctor, a description of a man sleepwalking, may seem to offer an exception to the rule of otherness, since it describes the non-exotic locale of Halstead, in Essex, England:

He not only muttered to himself uneasily and in a weird way, but he went through a sort of tragic pantomime at the very edge of the cliff, hanging over it in the dark, and seeming to be looking into the dimness as if he saw something.”

Yet this turns out to be a exception that proves the general rule, after all, when one considers the way the author sets the scene:

“it was one of those sad days when the cold and damp seem to penetrate to your very bones, and when the scenery round Halstead had a way of looking like Ultima Thule, with the haggard moorland and gaunt cliffs fraternising with the sea and sky.

When Halstead feels like Greenland, then an ordinary Englishman named Reginald can mutter “in a weird way,” like a Biblical prophet or a native priest (or like the witches in Scotland in Macbeth).

In the early 20th century, however, “in a weird way” begins to loosen its meaning, allowing for new possibilities: not only to describe an externally observed “weird” occurrence or action (someone muttering, wind blowing, fire surging), but to convey a particular kind of internal subjective state of questioning uncertainty. The earliest example of this new kind of usage I found is in John Galsworthy’s novel The Patricians, serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1910: “Mrs. Noel did not answer, but looked straight at Lady Casterley, to whom it seemed suddenly as if this was another woman. What was it about that face, staring at her! In a weird way it reminded her of a child that one had hurt.” This usage can be interpreted as another instance of the familiar sense; like Reginald the sleepwalker, or the prophet David, Mrs Noel has, perhaps, tapped into the non-rational “weird.” Yet there is something in Galsworthy’s usage that sounds more contemporary: the phrase “in a weird way,” opening the sentence, narrates Lady Casterley trying to make sense of her own impression, seeking to find the right language to communicate a fleeting or unresolved — and perhaps painful– feeling or insight.

Here we see, I think, for the first time, an emergent usage for “in a weird way” operating as what linguists call a filler phrase (like “sort of” or “kind of”) that allows the speaker a mental and syntactical pause to begin to try to convey an inchoate feeling. When we say “in a weird way” now, we often are letting you know: I recognize that what I am about to say may seem unclear, impressionistic, or strange; I haven’t completely sorted it out — and I am trying to figure it out as I speak. In the comments from the keyboardist of Skinny Puppy, his first usage (“We thought this would end up happening, in a weird way”), but not his second (“we can see it being used in a weird way”), fall into this category.

“In a weird way” continues to be used in its earlier senses throughout the early decades of the 20th century to describe uncanny effects, generally produced by non-Western others: “Not noticing Jack or his companion and holding her sides, the squaw began to moan in a weird way, rocking back and forth, and at the same time removing the greater part of her covering” (from a 1914 novel, The Forge of Destiny). But increasingly, we see more examples of usages resembling Galsworthy’s, in which “in a weird way” signifies an affectual vagueness or uncertainty. H.P. Lovecraft began writing about what he called “weird fiction” in the 1920s, and the pulp magazine Weird Tales was founded in 1923. The emergence of “weird fiction” as a category distinct from the Gothic seems to partake of both strands of meaning: drawing, of course, on conventions from supernatural and Gothic fiction, but also, crucially, on this new “weirdness” of affect.

The “weirdness” of “in a weird way” seems to begin to seep into discourse more generally as the 20th century progresses. In a 1973 novel, The Liberated, by David Slavitt, a man named Peter “got into the elevator…In a weird way, he had the feeling that he should be coming up the service elevator, that his news about Amy and their state of bereavement were a double gaffe.” “In a weird way” could be seen as entirely expendable in this sentence; cut it, and the meaning is conveyed. But the phrase crucially imparts a sense of Peter’s indeterminate “feeling.” The phrase “weirds” his affect, we could say, tells us that the thought that is about to be expressed is a hazy, perhaps only half-possessed one.

“In a weird way,” increasingly presented as its own grammatically independent clause, offers a hint of apology for its own imprecision; the phrase rose to prominence in the last few decades of the 20th century, we might speculate, because it proved useful for an era in which precision and rationality had been demoted as verbal desiderata. To preface a claim or observation with “in a weird way” is to undermine it, slightly, to confess that it may not convey a clear thought, but instead an inchoate feeling or perception; to note a possible contradiction or opposition, and to acknowledge that you, the listener, may see it differently; to communicate a feeling of vagueness that is not a mere prelude to a later state of desirable precision, but may be rather a final, somewhat undecided resting spot. The phrase offers us a way to acknowledge internal motives, desires, and impulses that we might otherwise disavow, or that we cannot rationally explain. A gay man quoted in The Advocate in 1998: “In a weird way I feel more connected to straight people.” A student at McGill University, cited in the Calgary Herald in 2000: “Sometimes, I’d make horizontal cuts across my entire forearm. It stung incredibly. It was so painful that, in a weird way, it felt good.”

A 2002 New York Times article about David Lynch’s hauntingly uncanny film Mulholland Drive is titled “In a Weird Way, David Lynch Makes Sense.” “In a weird way” had become ubiquitous by the turn of the last century perhaps for the same reason that a filmmaker like David Lynch could now be part of the mainstream, rather than relegated to the world of “underground” or B-pictures. We have lost some of our confidence in our ability to distinguish sharply — or of the value of so distinguishing — between the non-rational, often non-Western or non-modern “weird,” and our own selves and words; between the eerie or unheimlich outside of us, and the Heimlich rationality we used to believe was inside. Genres and aesthetic modes that were once, by virtue of their “weirdness,” relegated to the margins, are now closer to the center. The mainsteaming of so-called “weird fiction,” often indebted to Lovecraft – China Miéville and Kelly Link, whose new collection Get In Trouble is just out, are two prominent current flag-bearers — is one symptom of this shift.

In a weird way, we now tend to prefer to see ourselves less as the rational ethnographer or doctor taking notes on the “weird,” than as resembling the muttering sleep-walker, “at the very edge of the cliff, hanging over it in the dark, and seeming to be looking into the dimness as if he saw something;” or those divers, “tumbled out of their boats…swimming in a weird way down to the bottom of the translucent sea:” seeking not precision or exactitude of expression, but rather a hazy pearl of emotional and verbal uncertainty. We now all travel the weird way.

Image Credit: Alexandra Zakharova

Paul Schrader + Bret Easton Ellis + Lindsay Lohan = One Excellent Misadventure

Bad movies, like all bad art, have an important job to do. Without them we wouldn’t be able to identify, appreciate, and differentiate the great, the good, and the merely passable. It’s not that bad is the new good. It’s that bad is vital and timeless because without it there could be no good.

And make no mistake about it, The Canyons, the new movie directed by Paul Schrader, written by Bret Easton Ellis, and starring Lindsay Lohan, is very bad. You sense this from the first frames when, to droning synthesizer moans, the credits play over washed-out still photos of abandoned movie theaters. Bummer! People have stopped going out to see movies!

Says who? Says Paul Schrader. In an interview with the Tribeca Film Festival, the writer of some classic movies (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and the director of some pedigreed dogs (Hardcore, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper) explained that this credit sequence was his way of lamenting the fact that technology is killing the communal experience of going to a theater to sit in the dark with strangers and watch large pictures move on a screen. “The two-hour format is under siege,” Schrader said. “But the whole concept of visual entertainment is expanding… This myth that people will always want to go out to the movies, they’ll always want a communal experience – I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.”

This sounds like those doomsayers who worried that television was going to kill the movies half a century ago, but whatever. The Canyons opens with a long, rudderless scene in a restaurant where we meet the main characters, a reptilian crew who are all involved in the making of some kind of B movie. The king lizard on this reptile farm is Christian, played by James Deen (get it?), a veteran of some 4,000 porn movies but a newcomer to a serious dramatic role. It shows. Deen has a hard time giving a convincing line reading, and yet after a while I started to see him as an inspired casting choice. Christian is a trust fund kid (he refers to his father as “The Asshole”) and he wears his sense of entitlement effortlessly and convincingly, on his face and in his body language, in his car and his clothes and his promiscuous sex life and, especially, in his preposterous house perched above the Pacific. He’s a character only Bret Easton Ellis could love.

His girlfriend is Tara (Lohan), who looks puffy and wears Kabuki eye makeup and sounds like she’s back on the Xanax. As a pampered party girl who doesn’t do much of anything but have sex, drink, and go to the gym, Lohan is another inspired casting choice. It’s impossible to separate her tabloid meltdowns from what’s on the screen here, and in an unsettling way, it works. Christian and Tara are celebrating the fact that Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), a pretty-boy hick just off the bus from Michigan, has won the lead role in Christian’s new movie, with a boost from Tara. Ryan’s girlfriend Gina (Amanda Brooks) is Christian’s assistant. Neither Christian nor Gina is aware that Ryan and Tara are having an affair. Welcome to the reptile farm.

Throughout this scene, Christian and Tara gaze into their smartphones as if they’ve been hypnotized by the things. Eventually we learn why: Christian likes to take videos of the hookups he and Tara make with a revolving cast of men and women. Who needs movie theaters when you can make porno in the comfort of your own home?

And that’s pretty much what The Canyons is about. It seems to want to join the venerable company of movies about the making of movies, from Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive, The Player, and Hugo. But there isn’t any actual movie-making in this movie. Instead, these people do drugs, they do lunch, they do each other. They drive around and walk through malls and shop. The sex scenes are graphic without being even slightly erotic, which could be the whole point. The dialogue is often dreadful (“Nobody has a private life anymore” and “Who’s really happy?” and this line of inspired sexual foreplay: “Get to work. Put it in your fucking mouth”). In the end it’s hard to care about any of these people, with the possible exception of Tara because Lohan, our distaff Charlie Sheen, brings a raspy vulnerability to the part. Again, that might be the whole point. After all, we’re deep in Bret Easton Ellis country, southern California zip code. Which means there will be sex and there will be blood and anything goes and nothing matters.

Much has been written about how Schrader made this movie on the cheap after raising $170,000 on Kickstarter. His goal was to get out from under the thumb of studio suits. As someone who has written magazine articles that got carved up by committees of editors, I can appreciate Schrader’s yearning for creative control. But if this mess is what creative control produces, I say bring back the suits.

On paper, the pairing of Schrader and Ellis looks like a natural. Both have had long, if uneven, careers working society’s margins, exploring the lives of misfits, the privileged, the kinky, the benumbed. I’ve long admired Ellis for having the courage to create mercilessly repellent characters, especially given today’s tyranny of likability. I think the anomie-soaked Less Than Zero is his best book. But he has given up novel writing in favor of screenwriting, a sensible career move given the way moving images continue to overwhelm and marginalize the writing of serious fiction in America. Based on what’s on the screen here, though, maybe he should consider returning to his fictional roots. I haven’t read The Canyons script, but I saw what’s on the screen. At one point Christian, who is about as deep as a mud puddle, offers this bit of gravitas: “We’re all just actors.” And when Tara takes control of a four-way sex scene, Christian moans to his shrink the next morning, “I felt objectified.” Everyone in the theater burst out laughing.

Ellis was unhappy with the finished product. “The film is so languorous,” he told the New York Times. “It’s an hour 30, and it seems like it’s three hours long. I saw this as a pranky noirish thriller, but Schrader just turned it into, well, a Schrader film.”

Indeed he did. When this Schrader film’s final scene ended, everyone in the theater burst out laughing again. This was not amused or delighted laughter. It was derisive, and it indicates just how very bad this movie is, how far apart its intention is from its achieved effect. Which is why it is such an excellent misadventure, and very much worth seeing.

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