“pretentious: claiming great importance; ostentatious” – Webster’s Universal Dictionary
Something which really annoys me these days is when people label a film pretentious without good reason. Numerous times have I had people call a film or a filmmaker pretentious, without having seen much or even any of their work. I’ve endured hours of hearing people make these claims without any reason to back them up. Just because it’s an “art” film, or an indie film, or even just a foreign one, that does not mean it is pretentious.
I have seen a lot of movies that have been labelled this term. Very few of them have I felt deserved it. Take for example one of my all time favourite directors (we’re talking Top 5 here) Lars von Trier; he has copped a lot of hate from both critics and moviegoers alike.
Now, I’m not going to be biased here, I’m going to be fair and equal, but I must get it out in the open: whether a film is pretentious is a matter of opinion. Some might seem overly self-important, and it doesn’t help that von Trier once claimed he was ‘the greatest film director in the world’ (which I’ll get to in a second), but pretentious is a strong word.
When Von Trier said he was the ‘greatest film director in the world,’ he was not being arrogant or narcicisstic. A journalist at the press conference he was at was heavily criticising his film Antichrist; von Trier’s subsequent statement was nothing more than a comeback, and I applaud him for it. He certainly shut the annoying journalist up. He was not being pretentious; sure he has some pretty strong opinions, but don’t we all? Von Trier should be applauded for sharing his opinions so honestly. A lot of people give his movies Dogville and Manderlay crap because they say they’re condemning America when von Trier hasn’t even been there himself. I contradict that by saying that those films are nothing more than von Trier’s angry statement about how hundreds of directors make films about overseas countries without going there, so why can’t he make one about America, a place he has never visited?
But enough of von Trier; this is a post about people’s prejudice towards films just by looking at them, and I use von Trier because it happens with him a lot. He’s a perfect example. Another one is Vincent Gallo. Take The Brown Bunny: it’s got a lot of shots of his face, and at the end he gets a blowjob. So. So what? Just because of that it’s pretentious? You don’t even take a few seconds to think about why they’re included in the film? I assure you Gallo is not a narcissist; in fact, he strikes me as the sort of man who hates himself. That’s what his two main films have been about; not people obsessed with their own image, but rather fractured souls full of nasty secrets and unconfronted issues.
I could list more examples of misjudged directors, but let’s think on a more general scale; what makes a film pretentious? How can we look at it and immediately identify pretention? There is no way. Pretention is a matter of opinion, so how can a film automatically be pretentious? Even ones that to me seem blatantly pretentious (*cough, Crash, *cough) could be argued by others to be the opposite. So there really is no win.
Or is there? What defines pretentiousness in the eye of the viewer? Is it too many shots of an actor’s face? Over-acting? Pushing a blatantly obvious point into the viewer’s face? Perhaps. Or is it just that the viewer doesn’t understand? That would be calling them stupid and I don’t want to do that at all, but the problem may be that some films are just too educated for their own good. If a person sees a film that’s got a lot of positive critical acclaim and hates it, calling it pretentious or whatever, then that’s a sign they shouldn’t be watching it.
Films like that… well, genres like that, should be eased into. I would not recommend a person who loved Michael Bay movies to check out The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, now would I? And you shouldn’t. I’m always telling people to check out this arthouse film, or that foreign movie, and I’m going to continue to do it, but people need to keep more of an open mind about things.
So… what was the purpose of this rant? Is it directed at you? Yes and no. You strike me as the sort of person who doesn’t prejudge movies, or watch something they don’t think they’ll understand. You’re smart, I know that. No, the purpose of this rant was not to tell you you’re doing something wrong, just to highlight the use of the word pretentious, and how it can often be a misunderstood and overused term. If I’ve wasted your time, I’m sorry, but this is just something I felt I had to get out. Thanks for bearing with me.
So what do you think of the usage of the term “pretentious”? Are there any movies you’ve thought fully embodied that term? How about movies you think were labelled that term but didn’t deserve it? Leave comments below!