The New Twee Extremity

Earlier this year, there were a couple low-budget, high-ambition throwbacks to the handcrafted twee fantasies Michel Gondry was making when I was in high school & college in the aughts.  There’s a proto-Etsy craftiness to the visual effects & heart-on-sleeve sentimentality of both Strawberry Mansion & Everything Everywhere All at Once that sent me time-traveling back to the twee era. In their wake, I even revisited Gondry’s divisive dreamscape drama The Science of Sleep to confront what an emotionally inept dipshit I was at the time.  It was an era when film festival titans like Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Wes Anderson ruled the land . . . at least in my mildewed apartment where Belle & Sebastian blared while half-formed semi-adults got stoned and doodled in coloring books.  I didn’t even know the term “twee” was a pejorative.  That label was slapped on so much art I loved in my formative years that it registered as the name of a movement rather than a critical insult.  So, I’ve been heartened to see Gondry’s influence creep up in recent films like Sorry to Bother You, Girl Asleep, and Dave Made a Maze.  I’m even more heartened to see a new generation of college-age weirdos embrace the small crafts & big emotions of Everything Everywhere the same way I did when twee was the go-to alt aesthetic.  I imagine Strawberry Mansion would also be a hit with that crowd, if it had a big enough marketing push for them to know it exists.  I’m getting to the age now when my generation is old enough to make mass-distributed art, and there’s apparently still a lot of affection for twee whimsy out there, despite early critical rejection of the (loosely defined) genre’s cutesy sentimentality.  I’m also encouraged to see directors like the Daniels, Kentucker Audley, and Albert Birney pushing twee aesthetics to new, modern extremes. Both Strawberry Mansion & Everything Everywhere recall vintage twee cinema, but neither could not be mistaken for being made in the aughts.

One of the signs that twee aesthetics are back in vogue is the wealth of recent stop-motion animation.  The dreamworld stop-motion effects of Strawberry Mansion account for a lot of that film’s Gondry-throwback appeal; the film-nerd celebration of Phil Tippett’s Mad God hints at a culture-wide appreciation for handcrafted art; and the heavily textured surfaces of the horror anthology The House feel like they were lifted directly from a Wes Anderson moodboard.  None of these recent stop-motion novelties could claim to be quite as twee as the Marcel the Shell with Shoes On movie, though, which is so aggressively cutesy it’s outright daring cynics to call it cloying & twee.  The titular Marcel is a thimble-sized seashell with a googly eye (speaking of Everything Everywhere) and a titular pair of sneakers.  Voiced by Jenny Slate in the creakiest, Joanna Newsomiest voice she can manage, Marcel’s entire existence is a celebration of how cute things are in miniature.  I remember the original series of Marcel the Shell shorts functioning as a rapidfire joke delivery system where every punchline is “So small!”, as Marcel shows off what he uses as a hat (a lentil), a hang glider (a Dorito), and skis (toenails from a man), etc.  That relentless setup/punchline rhythm carries over to the movie brilliantly, but Slate & director Dean Fleisher-Camp triple down on the twee whimsy of the shorts by expanding them into a feature film about loneliness, community, and loss.  Whenever cynics decry twee art for being overly cutesy on its fussy, manicured surface, I always feel like they’re deliberately overlooking how much deeply felt hurt & sadness is lurking just beyond that aesthetic armor.  With the Marcel the Shell movie, Slate & Fleisher-Camp are a real-life divorced couple collaborating on a heartfelt story about loss of community and the difficulties of friendship by revisiting a long-dead project they created when there were still together.  There’s some sincere love & heartbreak to be found in this stop-motion fantasy adventure, as long as you can get over your initial, cynical reaction to its overdose of tiny-things cuteness.

There’s a similar morbid-cute balance at play in the recent nature documentary Fire of Love, with even higher stakes in its real-life story of a doomed romance.  Fire of Love is essentially a twee revision of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, a connection made even more explicit by Herzog’s competing documentary on the same subject – The Fire Within.  Katia & Maurice Krafft were world-famous volcanologists, a married couple who studied volcanic eruptions up-close for decades until they were killed by one in the early 1990s.  In a way, the twee-ification of their volcanic nature footage is unavoidable.  Fire of Love is the story of two talented filmmakers just as much as it’s the story of two doomed scientists; the Kraffts were seemingly just as inspired by the French New Wave as they were by the immense power of Nature.  They dress like Steve Zissou’s crew members in The Life Aquatic, and they shoot quirky, fussed-over self-portraits in front of volcanic eruptions as if they were Wes Anderson’s college film professors.  Even so, the choice to hire Miranda July as the film’s narrator amplifies the twee undertones of the Kraffts’ film archives to an explosive extreme.  July records her vocal track as if she’s hiding in the back of a bedroom closet, shaking with the same cracked-glass vulnerability she brought to early projects like Me and You and Everyone We Know and her spoken-word records for Kill Rock Stars in the pre-twee 90s.  Anyone who already struggles to get onboard with Slate’s pipsqueak voice in Marcel the Shell is far too weak for the twee-poetry monologues July delivers in Fire of Love. Honestly, I love how alienating that choice is; it would’ve been an over-the-plate pop doc without her.  The Kraffts’ romantic fearlessness in the face of exploding lava, combined with their keen eye for vivid cinematic framing, calls for twee filmmaking conventions like no other documentary subject I can name.  Anyone too cynical for Miranda July’s trembling anxiety & wide-eyed awe will certainly have a much easier go with Herzog’s take on the same couple’s life, but that’s a shame.  Distaste for twee art is often just distaste for full-hearted sincerity.

I’ve seen enough darksided tweets about stomping on Marcel the Shell or shooting Paddington Bear dead to know that anti-twee cynicism is still alive and well out there.  I like to think that there’s a genuine, growing appreciation for aughts-era twee among the moviegoing public, though.  Audiences who don’t get their dopamine hits by dunking on overly earnest art on Twitter have more twee-throwback movies influenced by Gondry & Anderson to choose from than ever before; some of those films are even pushing that vintage aesthetic to new extremes.  And hey, there’s nothing cynics love to do more than complain on the internet so, in a way, everyone wins.

-Brandon Ledet

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