Pretention: A Rant

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!

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Posted on September 1, 2011, in Movies, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. I don’t think I ever use that word when talking movies. I know that while I might watch more films (and more diverse films) than all my friends, I’m still a novice in the grand scheme of things. If I don’t understand a movie, I try not to blame it. Prime example would be The Double Life of Veronique, a film I really failed to comprehend or read something out of. Sitting through it turned into a chore. But while I certainly didn’t like it, I don’t blame the movie for it. It was just above me, is all. It’s certainly well-regarded by others more knowledgeable than me. That’s not to say that critics or the majority are always right, but I am fully willing to concede this one.

    Pretentious has really become a go-to word for people to toss around when they don’t like a film (especially in online discussions), to the point where it’s starting to lose all meaning. I’ve seen Punch-Drunk Love called pretentious. Adaptation. The Descent. No Country For Old Men. It’s more a sign of people being unable to properly articulate what they don’t like about a film than anything.

  2. brilliant. i read the title of the post and assumed it was going in a completely different direction.

    a few points on pretention from me if you’ll allow a fellow to rant back?

    i think a lot of times the label ‘pretentious’ is in fact used to define a reviewers opinion of the people who enjoy it. the same can be said for the word ‘hip’ when used as a negative. these people are frowned upon, their points of view discounted because they are of the artistic persuasion or the overly educated for that matter and so the pieces of art that they enjoy are automatically discounted as being for pretentious hipsters for example and as such the film is labelled pretentious.

    in other instances you may point to the movie being misunderstood by the person coining the phrase ‘pretentious garbage’ to describe it and you may be right. but i would possibly go further and gamble that a lot of the time when a movie is labelled pretentious it is a deeply personal work from the film maker. which if you go back to your definition at the top of your post may actually be an accurate description of those works. BUT i do not think that this should be used in a negative way.

    that is another question about the way the word is used, a culture has cropped up which thinks that being pretentious is a bad thing. of course i am biased on this subject as in the past 5 years i have regularly been called pretentious by people who can’t even spell the word simply for having belief in myself and my abilities and having opinions that differ from the accepted norm.

    • Very good point you make.

      While I agree pretentious is not always a bad word, it seems to have lost all its meaning because of its use in society. It seems to be the go-to-word for things we don’t understand, and that makes me really angry.

  3. I can’t help but think this post is aimed at me somewhat….

    • No, Scott. No no no. This isn’t aimed at you. I was worried you might say that but this definitely isn’t aimed at you. Well, not directly, anyway.

  4. Definitely nice to see someone else argue on behalf of the indie/art house films that get incorrectly labeled “pretentious”. I like to think that overindulgence could be considered pretentious, if a director oversaturates a film with deep, brooding moments just to embed an “artsy” feel to his or her film. But that can definitely be argued against as well. The problem is most people consider slower-paced character pieces or films that delve into depressing subject matter to be pretentious, because God forbid a film doesn’t have a cookie-cutter ending that spells out the meaning of the film, answers all your questions and wraps it all up in a bag of sunshine and rainbows. I’ve grown to not mind if a film is called pretentious, I just assume that means it was not made for the masses and that kind of excites me.

    That was my abridged rant. Good post!

    • That’s it exactly. People are so carefree with that word and we get so mad. I’ve read it in dozens of film reviews. It can’t apply for every single one of them!

  5. I don’t mind when people use the word pretentious as long as they can provide a sound argument to back it up.

  6. A search of my site reveals I’ve used the word three times, which is probably one too many. I stand by two of ’em, though 🙂

  7. Confession time. I do tend to throw the word around from time to time. I think it very much has to do with taste but I do find myself using it extra often on filmmakers that seem to be more about making a film/films for themselves or to a very small target audience.

    Way to many recent Swedish directors think like that instead of film as a mass medium. My belief in general is that film is a massmedium rather than a piece of art.

    • That’s an interesting perspective, and I can’t say I disagree. But there are certain films I find myself defending from the P-word when in reality the only reason people use that word is because they don’t understand it, and that’s hardly their fault. If a director is making a film for a certain audience, he should be specific about exactly which audience it is directed toward, rather than just freely making it and releasing it to a public perhaps not equipped to understand what they’re trying to achieve. It can be a rather ominous, obvious flaw, and I don’t exactly think there is anyone at fault, but people’s tastes can have a huge effect, and it’s hard for a director to cater to all tastes within one single movie.

  8. The phrase I most often hear applied in a similar way is “self-indulgent.” But I think every great artist has to “indulge” himself in order to fully realize his/her vision. (Think, for example, of Kubrick’s legendary multiple takes, or the chaotic production of Heaven’s Gate, which I think is a masterpiece, if a flawed one; others surely disagree.) If we have to wait five or more years between films by Terrence Malick, than so be it. (Though he’s definitely picked up the pace in the last decade!) If that’s what he needs, I say, give it to him. I guess the difference is that lesser lights simply fail to make the most of their “indulgences,” or simply use them as a smokescreen for a lack of instinct and/or talent as a filmmaker.

    Perhaps the most common example of negative “indulgence,” I would say, is films with a ridiculously inflated budget. Nearly any movie with, say, a $100 million budget is almost, by definition, indulgent in a clearly pejorative sense. Does it really take an effectively unlimited amount of cash to make a good, or even profitable, movie? I don’t think so. (The documentary Hoop Dreams, for example, which Roger Ebert chose as the greatest film of the 1990s, cost $700,000, and made plenty of money; even the lavish, complicated period drama There Will Be Blood,—my choice for the greatest film of the 21st century so far—with an Oscar-winning A-lister in the lead, cost $25 million. Not an inconsiderable amount of money, but quite unexceptional by contemporary Hollywood standards.) Think of any ten great, indisputable classics, of all time, and then of ten movies budgeted at the $100 million-plus level. (Go ahead and even adjust for inflation, if you really want. I’ll wait.) Is there any movie common to both lists? Probably not. Now, take that $100 million and divide it evenly among ten talented young filmmakers. My guess is that at least several of those films are going to prove of more immediate, and lasting, interest than the latest Michael Bay spectacle or mere superstar vehicle.

    • Haha, too right!

      I happen to be one of the people who hated AVATAR. I’m sorry, but I do. In fact, there are very few action movies I consider to be great, and only one or two that might be timeless. I much prefer independent movies. They’re just, in general, so much better and easier to watch. $100,000,000 is a ridiculous amount to spend on a movie, definitely. Just take Kevin Smith’s CLERKS, for example. That was made on a shoestring budget, and Smith maxed out his credit cards and borrowed money to get it made, but it was a success, and its comedy has me in stitches every time I watch it. When I was around 19 or 20 I used to make short “arty” films with a DV camera and a couple of friends (or, in one or two cases, no one at all but myself). This was largely inspired by Luis Bunuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU. I don’t make films anymore but I look back on that period of experimentation as a great experience. Also, the short films were made on a budget of virtually nothing.

      • one of my guilty pleasures is the film 13 going on 30 (suddenly 30 depending on your market) made by the sadly deceased Gary Winick (director of the enjoyable indie flick TADPOLE) who states in his directors commentary that he could have made 30 Tadpoles for what it had cost to make the Jen Garner movie. i know which one was the better movie and i can safely say that i would prefer 30 movies like Tadpole than one BRIDE WARS.

        you should keeping making films tyler, i see no reason why anyone would stop being creative even if its just for fun.

        • I frickin hate that Garner movie, but I’ll look into TADPOLE.

          I don’t really have much time to make short films as I did when I was fresh out of high school. Plus, most of them are artsy piles of trash that no one would really be interested in anyway. But the creativity thing does make it fun.

  9. Going off on a tangent, I scream a little inside every time I read the word ‘compelling’ in a review.

  10. haha that’s why it’s a guilty pleasure.

    perhaps people in your town don’t want to see experimental cinema but there’s definitely a market for it. galleries and such. even online. my film school had an entire module on experimental cinema, DVD’s and museum shows are curated, some people go out of their way to see stuff like that. not me but some people.

    • I’m just digging out some of my old short films and they’re making me nostalgic. They were very experimental; most of them didn’t really have a plot, it was basically just me experimenting with different allegorical imagery and cinematography techniques.

    • I am actually planning to make a short film soon. Although i am not planning it to be a “experimental” film…like it is going to have a plot and such

      • Oh, yeah you’re more likely to attract an audience if you have a plot. I’m one of those art-obsessed geeks, though. Let me know more about it once you firm up the details.

      • Right now i am trying to flesh out the main character, but the basic idea of the story is that the man character becomes a zombie, but instead of feeding of the flesh of random people, she tries to limit herself to eating criminals and other such riff raff

      • Wow, sounds interesting, you’ve certainly caught my attention. Will it be a Dexter-style black comedy or a darker thriller?

      • I plan for it to be a darker thriller. And i’ve never actually seen Dexter, although its been one of those shows i’ve wanted to marathon for a while.

  11. Nice post, Tyler. You make a lot of great points about the overuse of this term. I can’t say that I’ve never used it in a review, but I do try to avoid the many “film review cliches” that seem to pop up constantly. I think that’s the big issue that you’re getting at really well in this post. It’s easy to just say “that film sucked” or “that director is pretentious”, but trying to clearly explain why you’ve made that statement isn’t so easy. It’s a struggle for anyone who tries to analyze a movie or other piece of art. It’s easy to make a broad statement and dismiss (or even love) a film. Digging into the themes, issues, and overall approach is a lot harder.

    • Thanks, Dan. I am a strong believer in the cliches to be avoided, but I’ve dealt with one too many Lars Von Trier haters, so I just had to write this.

  12. Thank you for writing this! I was going to write something like this myself but some Googling led me here so I’ll just comment instead…

    I’m always irritated when people describe a film as pretentious because (to me anyway) it seems like in order to do that you have to (rather arrogantly) presume things about the mindset of the filmmaker.

    The idea that a particular film is pretentious means the filmmaker is “putting on airs,” i.e. They’re not making whatever movie they want to make. Instead they’re so concerned with people’s perceptions of them that they’ll spend months (or perhaps years) of their time crafting something that they believe people will find “artistic” or “important.”

    There may be some filmmakers like that out there, but I’d like to think that most directors (including guys like Von Trier) just tell the stories they want to tell, not the stories they think will make them art-house darlings.

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