The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

In defence of the word “pretentious”

with 33 comments

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.

Short disruption
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.”

Written by Jessica

June 1, 2012 at 5:37 pm

33 Responses

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  1. It’s really great that you approach it from both angles.


    June 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    • Thanks! I’m glad that came across. I wanted to be as balanced as I could.


      June 1, 2012 at 10:41 pm

  2. I think you have a typo – I assume “one artist had decided to dumb a 1x1x1 meter box with table tennis balls” was meant to be “dump”?

    That aside, I think you are absolutely right that the world pretentious is over-used. Even as a relative non-film buff I tend to encounter it too often. Also, often there are far more … expressive ways of dleivering the sentiment (see Kermode of course 🙂 ).

    I do think though that modern “art” has become the work of the con-artist though – I rather liked your story 🙂


    June 1, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    • Thanks for pointing out the typo! I’ve corrected it now.

      Kermode actually does use “pretentious” once in a while. But only when it’s warrented and usually he spices it up with a lot of decoration.


      June 1, 2012 at 10:40 pm

  3. I’m very hesitant of calling anything pretentious because I’m aware of its blatant misuse amongst critics and viewers. I think I’ve only used it once in all of my reviews and that was an indirect use. Its meaning has become diluted by people who lazily throw it out there all the time. So anyone who wants to use it should be wary of being seen as a lazy reviewer, unless they can back it up like your example above.

    Bonjour Tristesse

    June 1, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    • Yeah, I did a search for it to see if it had sneaked its way into my reviews anyway, but I’ve stayed away from it pretty well. I’ve said a couple of times that it’s “as close as I’ve ever been to call something pretentious” or something along those lines. But I’ve never slapped the label onto something.

      This said: I think the phobia film critics and fans have for it is a bit exaggerated.


      June 1, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    • Yes, I haven’t changed my position on it either. But I’m not as totally against it as I think some other film bloggers are.


      June 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm

  4. This is a complex issue for me. I’ve put a LOT of thought into it over the years, getting in various discussions/arguments over it. When I see “pretentious” most of the time what I’m reading is “I don’t get it” and blaming the filmmaker. In some cases that may be right and in some cases that may be wrong. I’m too tired of the discussion to get deep into it, however. The crux of it is this: to label anything “pretentious,” one has to know the intentions of the filmmaker or it’s a meaningless criticism. And most of the time, we are not equipped with that information. It’s better to comment on the meanings we can and do find, rather than try to guess at the ones we’re “meant” to find.

    And I don’t really see what’s “pretentious” about dumping a bunch of balls with greetings on them into the sea. Seems like a pretty straightforward, if trite and ill-conceived, gesture of goodwill. There may be some pretense in calling that “art”, but that’s a whole other can of worms (or box of balls).


    June 1, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    • (P.S. can’t help but wonder if you had me in mind when you wrote this post)


      June 1, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    • Hehe, I didn’t direct this post against you. It was just something that popped into my mind. It’s as you say a topic that keeps coming up over and over again and I’m a bit on the fence if the p-word should be banned or not from reviews.

      As about the use of the word pretentious related to the story about the balls – yes, I’m probably stretching the word a bit. My point here was to say something about how we relate to art and how I think “ordinary” people sometimes have an exaggerated big respect, hesitating to question it because they feel too uneducated. It might be a good thing that people are respectful, but sometimes I think it’s pulled too far. You ARE entitled to quesiton art – or movies – even if you don’t have a university exam in arts.


      June 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm

  5. I feel like I may have somewhat inspired this. Last year I wrote a passionate rant about my absolute loathing of the word though now I’ve come to accept it can be used appropriately in certain situations when referring to certain films. But, like the word “masterpiece” I still consider using it to be thoughtless and just plain bad film etiquette, though I’ll often stay quiet and not speak up about it. It’s one of those words that will obviously be constantly debated and I just don’t want to be a fence-sitter. I hate it. But great post though Jessica, you definitely inspired me to think more carefully.


    June 2, 2012 at 12:39 am

    • Yeah, I’ve written another blog post about masterpiece. It’s a word I never, never use. It infuriates me more than pretentious. Bt all those lables are risky to use. It’s better to say the same thing but in many and variated words, to expand your argumentation a bit beyond one word imo.


      June 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm

  6. As you know, Jessica, I am one of the firm haters of the word in reviews. To observe a work of art and to call it “pretentious” denies humility in the viewer, because it assumes the intentions of the artist. If someone had read extensive interviews of a director, one might call the director “pretentious”, but the film in general? Is every actor pretentious as well? The cinematographer? And if a person had not read anything by a director, like in the case of Terrance Malick, whose films are often called “pretentious”, then it is a simple guess that even the director has a hyper-artistic intention and not simply a personal vision. The word is so often abused, it turns me off right away.

    I excuse Kermode’s use of the term, or him lightly skirting it, because his reviews, especially his rants, are all about entertainment, and a huge part of that is hyperbole. In the quote above he says “No wonder Europe is collapsing.” That is one of those wonderful non sequitors that makes Kermode so fun. So if he uses the term “pretentious” (which would be rather dull of him), then I can chalk it up to simple hyperbole and ignore it all together.

    As far as your example with the artist who attempted to fling tennis balls into the sea, I think this is a poor example of pretentiousness. That “artist” was ignorant and possibly stupid, but not pretentious. Dictionary definition: “Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.” I don’t know that the artist was attempting to impress their importance or culture upon the police. I think they sincerely thought they were doing art and so did the police. In obtaining permission, and claiming they were doing art, were they pretentious, or just ignorant of the consequences of their action? Maybe a little of both, but the adjective I’d prefer to use is “stupid”.

    Unless we really understand a person’s motivation, which is difficult in the best of circumstances, I feel that it is a poor word to use.

    Steve Kimes

    June 2, 2012 at 2:27 am

    • Either we use the word pretentious or not, I think it’s more or less unavoidable that we have to make assumptions about the intentions of a film. You don’t go and make a full investigation about the intentions of a film maker when you watch a comedy that is un-funny to make sure the film was intended to be funny. You make guesses of intentions all the time and sometimes you compare what you believe the intentions were to the result. However I think it’s good to develop your thoughts about this more than just using one label word: pretentious.

      As if the balls were pretentious or not – as I said above perhaps they aren’t; I just wanted to bring in that story since I still see it as a good example of how we sometimes are overly respectful of art (sometimes I think with a class perspective). The policeman didn’t have confidence enough to start asking questions. The “I’m an artist” claim was all that was needed to make him accept just about anything.


      June 3, 2012 at 5:56 pm

  7. Loved the story about the artistic tennis balls. Also, I definitely agree with your point. I also, don’t like to use the word pretentious, but I definitely call it out when I see it.

    Dave Enkosky

    June 2, 2012 at 2:42 am

    • Thanks. 🙂 It was a story I wanted to share at some point and I come to think of that and the p-word and suddenly realized I could knit them together.


      June 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm

  8. Interesting discussion. The word is a hard one, best used when soemthing tries very hard to be a lot deeper than it really is. When it is pretending to be someething it’s not. Still, at least sometimes this is linked with some sort of ambition to be deep or meaningful or whatever. Perhaps that should be more rewarded than just cynically shot down, in favour of a product that does not pretend but at the same time does not stretch itself the least.


    June 3, 2012 at 10:54 am

    • I think it’s a balance act. Sometimes I think we’re too quick to judge this kind of efforts, laughing them away. But sometimes people are just too respectful. Again: of course it depends on where I stand. I’m always right. 😉


      June 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm

      • But of course you are! You are the yard stick against which all movies and movie experiences are mesured 😀


        June 5, 2012 at 12:49 pm

  9. I’ll have to start using the term pretentious masterpiece to get on your nerves 🙂

    Someones masterpiece can be a pretentious wannabe to someone else. Film Socialisme seems to be a love it or hate it movie.


    June 3, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    • Hehe, you remembered. 🙂 I was also considering writing about the words “underrated” and “overrated”, which are a bit problematic. Perhaps another time.


      June 3, 2012 at 5:35 pm

  10. Another great post 🙂 Very insightful and a situation that rings true and that we as film buffs and film critics can relate to. I have slapped the word “pretentious” in a movie review before but I don’t do it that often.


    June 3, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    • Thank you Fernando! I think it’s best to only use it in special cases, and preferrably with some more explanations to strenghten your case.


      June 3, 2012 at 11:05 pm

  11. I do think pretentious is a useful term to describe a particular type of film, generally but not always problematic. As I explained on my blog, I have an informal equation that helps define what I consider pretension to be in very specific terms based on how it compares to movie conventions and what level of message it conveys. In this way I try to de-emotionalize the term.


    June 4, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    • Oh I remember your equation! I should have thought of it and linked it in my post. Don’t feel shy of throwing up a link here!


      June 4, 2012 at 8:20 pm

  12. I wrote a piece a while back tangentially about why I don’t think pretentious is a good word to use and also defending a number of films that get called that.

    I think Kermode is talking about something a bit different. I disagree with his opinion, but I get where he’s coming from. Also, calling any Godard film pretentious is just grabbing low-hanging fruit. It’s practically expected in almost every negative Godard review. On that level, I find it annoying as a writing crutch.

    • That’s a lovely piece you wrote, though I’m not sure that I agree on the interpretation of the word “pretentious” as equalling to boring or slow. Again: I’m not English speaking, so maybe I’m the one reading it wrong.

      Slowness would probably be the topic for another post. To me it represents a sincere problem since I easily fall asleep at movies. Perhaps I don’t have the right to complain about it, but at least I think I need to point it out when it happens so that others who have this issue know what they’re in for and can load themselves with coffee and tools for self torture to stay awake.


      June 6, 2012 at 8:59 am

  13. I actually have a bit of a weakness for pretentious films. what I can’t stand is the combination of pretentious and terrible in a film.


    June 7, 2012 at 7:41 am

    • “Pretentious” films can sometimes be daring and challenging. They aim high. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, the fall will be long and hard.


      June 7, 2012 at 7:55 am

  14. […] and touched briefly on the drastically different views that two groups have of that film. Recently, Jessica at the Velvet Café tackled the different (and divisive) ways that movie-goers use the word “pretentious”. […]

  15. I have no problem with a film-maker being pretentious so long as it’s visually pretentious. There are plenty of films which are basically full of shit but look incredible and so contribute something to cinema. What I can’t abide is pretentious dialogue as it feels like a hijacking of the medium by someone who would be better served working in the theatre or writing novels.


    June 25, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    • I think that’s a good way to approach “difficult” movies. Even if you don’t “get it” you can at least enjoy the beauty of them. That’s pretty much what I did with The double life of Veronique for instance. While I couldn’t crack the movie I enjoyed the look of it and the music.


      June 25, 2012 at 9:09 pm

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