What is Pretentious?
You hear it all the time, both from critics and average movie-goers…”That film was so pretentious.” The pejorative has become something of a go-to for consumers of art-house fair, as if any film with the least bit of austerity must be saddled with pretense. It’s an overused, lazy, unfair adjective in criticism, and people often use it without explaining how they mean it. In my opinion, the films and filmmakers generally associated with the “pretentious” title are those least worthy of it, because their work is actually the opposite of what many purport it to be. When did anything creative, unconventional, and original become pretentious? When did anything that expands viewers’ cinematic vocabularies and provokes in them thought become pretentious? When did anything a little more challenging than a Michael Bay film become pretentious? I’m not saying that the adjective is always unwarranted or that every living movie-maker holds no pretense whatsoever. There’s ultimately no way to empirically judge. How do I know if Martin Scorsese is actually passionate about Christ’s dichotomy of sinless humanity? Maybe he’s just pretending to make an important film that people will call art. Since I don’t know him, I can’t say with certainty. All I can do is take an educated guess, and the impression I get from the majority of unconventional filmmakers is that claims of pretense can hardly be defended.
In my eyes, people like Terence Malick, Lars von Trier, Charlie Kaufman, Baz Luhrmann, and Gus Van Sant, to name a few, are decidedly not pretentious. They are not “trying” to be different for the sake of it. They are not “pretending” to be meaningful. In fact, some of them might tell you that their films are not “important.” When the trailers for The Tree of Life and Melancholia emerged last year, the blogosphere was running rampant with “pretentious” labels. Aside from the ludicrous practice of associating a piece of advertising with pretense (aren’t all trailers pretentious?), people made the matter worse by failing to describe what is pretentious about them. See, I don’t think that philosophical voice-over, the origin of the cosmos, a vague “afterlife” reconciliatory symbol, long stretches without dialogue, and impressionistic cinematography are examples of Malick pretending to be something he’s not. On the contrary, I think that his films unequivocally spring from who he is, and it doesn’t matter to him whether people find them artistic. Similarly, Melancholia is von Trier’s view of the universe. Why is personal expression conflated with pretense? Perhaps when Van Sant makes a movie about two guys getting lost and walking around, he’s trying to say something about friendship rather than trying to be “arty.” Perhaps when Luhrmann makes a movie about a love triangle circa 1899 and has his characters sing Elton John and Queen, we’re seeing something more akin to a dream-like diary than a striving to be different for the sake of it.
I really appreciate this quote from critic Nick Davis: “Like Luhrmann, Kaufman knows that his intensest emotions rhyme with pathetic clichés, so his strategies are to stretch them to a colossal scale and embed such creative nuance at every moment that the feelings reconnect.” This is a beautiful summation of Synecdoche, New York. Plays-within-plays-within-a-movie can be read as pretentious, but it says more about artistic ambition than almost anything could. Jumping time without signaling it or employing a dream-state logic can be read as pretentious, but it says more about how we experience our lives than almost anything could. You see a house perpetually burning and roll your eyes. I see it and feel my heart skip a beat—what a creative metaphor for life itself. Kaufman’s work is primarily about emotion, not intellectual wheel-spinning. He blends artifice and authenticity because that is how he experiences his life, and I must say that it’s pretty accurate for me. He blends art and life not in an attempt to be arty but because separating the two doesn’t make any emotional sense. Sometimes cliched feelings need to be creatively reformulated, and this means doing unconventional things, but the base emotion never leaves. Sometimes you have to risk appearing pretentious to actually express what is circling in your heart and mind.
I hope that people avoid the knee-jerk pejorative of “pretentious.” Or I at least hope that they explain what they mean by it. Because while you write-off untraditional filmmakers, they are meanwhile telling me something about my life that I always knew but never recognized—never saw on-screen in such an identifiable way. They are making me feel even if you think they’re only playing with my mind and trying my patience. Just at least take some time to reconsider—I don’t want you to miss out. Sometimes frogs falling from the sky is just what you need to see.