In defence of the word “pretentious”
Do you know how to best infuriate a film buff? Toss out the word “pretentious” about a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful movie and wait for the reaction. Nine out of ten will take the bite.
The word is a red flag to many cinephiles, so I’ve consciously tried to avoid it in order not to trigger any bar fights.
Another reason why I don’t use it is that it seems a bit tired and lazy to me to just slap on a single-word label.
Here’s what Mark Kermode wrote about Film Socialisme:
“Filmed in a digital splurge on (among other places) a Mediterranean ocean liner, and divided into three life-threateningly pompous sections (“Things Such As”; “Our Europe”; “Our Humanities”), this patience-testing drivel is the cinematic equivalent of being smacked repeatedly about the head and face with a heavily bound volume of Cahiers du cinéma. When it comes to new clothes, the emperor is not merely naked but running through the streets waving his artistic knackers at the audience and positively daring them to call his bluff. No wonderEurope is collapsing. Boo!”
Actually what he says here is “pretentious”, but since he elaborates a bit on it, it makes for a funnier read.
So what is my defence for this word that I don’t even use myself? Well, it’s got to do with what it represents. To me it’s an example of that there’s an element of healthy questioning in film critique, which you not necessarily see in other art forms.
And here I’m going to make a little detour, sharing a real life story from my time as a reporter. Just stay with me and I promise we’ll get back to the film theme again.
The story goes like this:
I had been sent out to write something about a big art event that was going to take place in a nearby city. A bunch of young artists had been selected to with public financial support do a number of “art installations” as a celebration of the big inland sea Mälaren. There were a number of different projects. For instance I remember that someone was going to row all way around with lights attached to the boat, documenting it with satellite images.
The project that really caught my attention though was that one artist had decided to dump a 1x1x1 meter box with table tennis balls into the sea from the top of a bridge. Every ball would have a stamp on it. And then the balls were supposed to spread out all over the sea, like bottle post, carrying a greeting to whoever would find them.
My first thought when I heard about it was that it didn’t’ sound too well from an environmental point of view. What of the birds? What of the grazing cattle? Those plastic balls wouldn’t break down for years, if ever.
The artist didn’t look to happy at my questions and referred to that he had a permission from the local police administration.
So I turned to the police and asked on what grounds they had allowed this event, which appeared to be a clear case of littering.
The policeman shrugged and smiled to me apologetically.
“How could I question that? It’s art! I don’t understand art. I had to say yes.”
I think it says something about how easily artists often get away nowadays. Regardless of how strange or even bad something is, we don’t think it’s our sake to question it if it’s presented as “art”.
No sacred territory
And this brings us back to the world of movies. There is something much more democratic in the way we regard and discuss films. They’re not sacred territory, there’s no senseless worshipping. Everyone has an opinion. There’s a climate that allows people to speak from their mind and question films that they just don’t understand without being ridiculed for being dumb or uneducated.
If a film is enjoyable only to the film maker and his or her closest friends, there might actually be an issue with the film and not with the viewer. If a film is pompous, taking itself too seriously, someone might stick the word “pretentious” into it as a needle and let out some air.
Of course there is a balance act here. There are movies out there that rightfully should be called out for how full of their own shit they are. But equally there are people who are way too trigger happy crying “pretentious” as soon as a movie requires them to pay a little bit of attention to the film rather than text messaging on their cell phones or chatting with their friends.
I don’t give a free card to anyone. Reviewers shouldn’t hesitate to use the word “pretentious” when they really think it’s warranted. And if others think they’re wrong and find qualities in those so called pretentious movies – well, then they should put up a good argument about it.
Question and be prepared to be questioned in return! Keep the discussions going – with or without the p-word!
Epilogue: So what happened to the balls?
There’s one more question hanging in the air. What happened to the table tennis balls? Were they ever dumped into the sea? They weren’t. After I had whispered in the ear of the local environmental inspector and they’d told the police about how bad idea this was, the “installation” was changed. Thousands of balls were replaced with only one. And this ball was picked up again after it had been dropped from the bridge.
I have no idea in which way this piece of art contributed to the wellbeing of mankind and I hope you’ll forgive me if I even dare to call it “pretentious.”