IN DEFENSE OF PRETENSE: THE JOYS OF PRETENTIOUS MOVIES

As a teenager coming of age in the 1980s, I became briefly obsessed with progressive space-art-rock band Pink Floyd in general, and their album “The Wall” in particular. The record was mopey, morbid, and self-absorbed, presenting even the simplest personal problems (an absent father, overprotective mother, trouble relating to women) as agents of an acute psychic apocalypse that could be casually compared to the Nazi bombing of London or the summary execution of minorities and misfits at a fascist rally. When I soon discovered there was a feature film version—one that added startling drawings spotlighting grotesque and frightening animated vaginas to the already overwrought mix—my fate was sealed; I rented the VHS tape whenever I could—several times a month, at the peak of my addiction—and forced it on all my friends.

Pretentious still from Pink Floyd the Wall (1982)
Typically subtle symbolism from Pink Floyd: The Wall

Now, my sixteen-year old self recognized that with The Wall I had stumbled across a masterpiece on the order of the collected works of Shakespeare, or even the Beatles. Its emotional impact on me blew away the stuffy literature crammed down our throats in English class: the narrative was more relevant than Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” the poetry more stirring than John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the insights pithier than “Pride and Prejudice.”

I was pleasantly disillusioned to discover that most of my Top Gun-quoting, Pac Man-playing peers weren’t enlightened enough to grasp the profundity of The Wall. Their beer-chugging, party-hearty shallowness threw my depth of feeling into sharp relief. Unlike them, I had insight about the bleak nature of reality, as demonstrated by my appreciation of true art, which is depressing.

The Wall-hating yahoos were easy to dismiss.  But another school chum of mine had a more maddening tack on the film. A natty dresser (I’ve forgotten his name, but I can still see his skinny frame in his white sports coat and narrow piano-keyboard tie), he dismissed the whole of Pink Floyd (and The Wall in particular) as “pretentious.” At the time,  I dismissed his dismissal by assuming, based on his musical tastes—Depeche Mode and other contemporary New Wave bands of the day—that he considered anything not danceable to be “pretentious.” But something in his assessment nagged at me.  Could The Wall really be pretentious? And if it were, what would that say about me for adopting it as my lodestar?

Pretentious? Moi?

The older I got, the more I came to realize that my sartorially stylish compatriot was dead on—The Wall is pretentious. The more adult problems I faced—paying bills, romantic heartbreak, the death of loved ones—the less sympathetic I became to The Wall’s whiny rock star narrator. As a teenager, it was easy to identify with protagonist Pink’s free-floating depression, tendency to blame others for his failings, and inchoate rage. The album became a mega-hit precisely because it appeals to the melancholy romantic inside the adolescents who make up the record-buying public. But in the cold light of adulthood, Pink’s complaints in the film can be summed up as: “I didn’t know my dad, my mom was overprotective, I had mean teachers, and my wife and I cheat on each other. Oh, and war and totalitarianism bum me out, too. And trust me, all the adulation, groupies, drugs, money, cars and luxury suites only underscore how empty my life really is.” To which most adults say: boo-hoo, quit your complaining. I’ve got my own problems.

So, I went through a period where my earlier adoration of the film became an embarrassment to me. But, if my mistake as a teenager was to uncritically accept The Wall as a masterpiece of melancholia merely because it flattered my bleak adolescent worldview, my error as a young adult was the same one my dapper teen friend made so many years ago: to dismiss it as “pretentious.” It took me many years away from the film for nostalgia for The Wall to replace my embarrassment over my mawkish fawning for the film (I still can’t listen to the album, however). Watching the movie again after a twenty year hiatus, I confirmed something I’d been slowly growing to suspect: The Wall’s pretentiousness—its schoolchildren falling into a meat grinder, its women who turn into praying mantises, its demagogues born from maggot-ridden cadavers—these things are strengths, not weaknesses.

The world needs pretentious movies. They are a joy all their own, providing unique pleasures that no other types of movies can. (I call this the “Ken Russell Principle”). To say a movie is “pretentious” is simultaneously to say it’s “ambitious.” Unpretentious movies are self-limiting. If, as a director, you set out to make the best formulaic romantic comedy or sci-fi action movie you can, and succeed, you’ve been unpretentious.  But the only thing you’ve succeeded at is creating a ninety-minute diversion for the masses; a valuable contribution, but not a lasting one. On the other hand, if you fail to hit your low mark, you’ll be responsible for inflicting another Maid in Manhattan or Transformers on the world. Does anyone want that on their conscience? If, on the other hand, you start out intending to make something artistically or intellectually important, and succeed, you create a masterpiece. But even if you fail, like The Wall, there’s often enough interesting residue left over to salvage an unforgettable, invigorating, pretentious film.

There’s something especially lovable about a great pretentious movie; we admire the passion that led the filmmaker to take those artistic gambles, and treasure the film for its flaws. We become devoted to a pretentious film the way we love a sweet-natured but ugly dog, or an obnoxious but loyal friend.

Not every weird film is pretentious, but a remarkable number of them are. Besides The Wall, just take a look at a few of our favorite outrageously pretentious films from the Certified Weird list:

  • Altered States (1980)Ken Russell makes a trip movie, so obviously William Hurt has to hallucinate the Book of Revelations, meet God in a maelstrom, and overcome the whole existential ordeal through the power of love.
  • Antichrist (2009) – Chaos reigns when abandons any lingering notions of hope and good taste to explore the depths own despair, bringing us the world’s first metaphysical torture porn movie.
  • Donnie Darko (2001) writes the world’s most convoluted plot involving time-traveling demonic bunnies, and has enough energy left over to channel J.D. Salinger, add Tarintino-esque pop-savvy dialogue, and parody 1980s teen films.
  • Gummo (1997) gives us bunny boys, cat-killing glue-sniffers, and spaghetti in the bathtub in a grotesque white trash freakshow that appears to be saying something important about something or other.
  • El Topo (1970), perhaps the most pretentious man alive, remakes the Bible as a Zen Western. He casts himself as both God and Jesus.

You may notice the descriptions above all have one thing in common: they all begin with the name of the director (who, 80% of the time, is also the writer). That’s because every pretentious movie starts with an individual with a pretentious idea. Pretentious movies are never corporate. They’re always intensely subjective and individualistic: the author has a passionate sentiment, something that surpasses his own ability to communicate, something that he struggles to translate into narrative and image. In a great pretentious movie, the author’s fervor intoxicates us. We root for him to make it, even as we watch the noble ideas he’s reaching for slip out of his grasp. A great pretentious movie is human, all too human. A great pretentious movie is so pretentious it’s profound.

90% of the time, when someone tells you a movie (or book, or painting) is “pretentious,” it means they either a) didn’t understand it, or b) didn’t like it, but are too lazy to lay out the reasons why. 10% of the time, they’re right: it’s pretentious. But they err in blithely accepting the premise “pretentious = bad.” A cinematic universe without pretentious movies would be a universe without The Wall‘s amorous flowers devouring each other, one without a giant demonic bunny rabbit named Frank asking Donnie “Why are you wearing that man suit?,” one where the fox in Antichrist stares silently at Willem Dafoe and keeps its vulpine mouth shut. I, for one, wouldn’t want to live in a world where the most grandiose mistakes inspired by the maddest muses were left on the cutting room floor.

So the next time someone dismissed one of your beloved weird movies as “pretentious,” don’t doubt yourself like I did, lo those many years ago, when a skinny boy with a ridiculous tie dared question my choice in favorite movies. You look the accuser straight in the eye and tell them, “Damn straight it’s pretentious, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Because out here in the darkened audience, we’re starving for big, wiggy ideas, fearlessly grandiose visions, and filmmakers who aren’t afraid to put their balls to the wall with no fear of looking foolish. The world needs more pretentious movies, not less.

But, the world does not need more pretentious film critics. We’re flush on those right now, thanks anyway. I have job security to consider.

13 thoughts on “IN DEFENSE OF PRETENSE: THE JOYS OF PRETENTIOUS MOVIES”

  1. Quite frankly, maybe the best thing I’ve read on this website. Only for the fact that it hits home. I’ve always been a bit of an outcast. The “art” that I feel encapsulates life has always been off the beaten, left of center, path. In other words pretentious. People tend to like me and gravitate towards my personality once they get to know me, but it has always been difficult to express my feelings about outsider-type entertainment. I have engulfed my life in learning about obscure film and music and eventually it becomes too overwhelming for me. I, myself, get disgusted at the pretentiousness of it all. Before my current obsession with cult/weird/art/pretentious films I was absorbed by music. My knowledge of obscure indie bands is honestly remarkable. But you know what, who cares? I’m older now and have a family and music has become irratating, backgrond noise fodder that I can barely tolerate anymore. But still, occasionally the self-indulgent and fully pretentious song will come along and totally aborb me again in the inescapable web that it spins. No, I won’t name drop as I’m so accustomed to do (that in itself is pretentious, right)? My point is, when something is meaningful and speaks to a person on a level they think only they can understand, what else to call it except for pretentious? It’s funny, but I sensed your reluctance and aversion to the Pink Floyd movie when I corresponded with you about reviewing the film. Nostalgia is a funny thing. After years of obsession, you almost become disloyal and feel disillusioned to what it was that you loved in the first place, when all along you were right in feeling what you did originally. OK, I feel I’m rambling now and I’m rather drunk, but thank you for this article and sparking my interest in films off the cuff. Ultimately weird films are going to be pretentious, but in my opinion more interesting even with their flaws. You’re providing an outlet for many pretentious people out there and if you’re ever in doubt that it is all worth it…just look at that Suggest a weird movie queue. You’re pretentiousness has paid off my friend. Oh, and Pink Floyd: The Wall is a damn fine movie. And a damn fine album as well. The next time you’re self-loathing takes ahold of you put it on. Even if it makes you feel like shit you can think to yourself; “I’ve been there” (even when you really haven’t). That is pretentious.

  2. I agree with you whole-heartedly.

    The appellation of “pretentious” has always struck me as being aimed at works of art that shoot for the stars but for various reasons (budget, ego, sheer incompetence) don’t manage to hit the marks they were aiming for. The fact that this quality is so easy to spot does not help these works at all.

    But here’s the thing. If you are creating a work of art, it behooves you to put all of yourself into it. It doesn’t matter what you are making. It could be a heart-felt exploration of your religious beliefs, or a cheapie zombie bloodbath, but if you don’t believe that what you are creating is an important work, why should anybody else?

    God help you if you’re a bit intellectually inclined, and God forbid you actually want to say something. Thinking takes actual work, and almost everybody would rather not have to do that (yes, that still includes you and I). When somebody else makes something that demands that, or tries to, it’s a total crapshoot. There are a couple of works that make it, but most don’t. And that’s when “pretentious,” the laziest of appellations rears its ugly head.

    But you gotta’ try. And every once in a while, not often, something will resonate with the public at large. Even your philistine friends will be discussing it as something “you really have to think about.” Now you have a cultural milestone.

    Most of it will still be crap, though. (I like “The Wall.”)

  3. I’m with you 100%. In fact, as much as I agree with this defense, I feel it’s even a bit too qualified — you sort of apologize for pretentious movies, even as you defend them. I do the same on my own blog, but in my case, it’s an apology/defense of pop culture and popcorn movies, not pretentious ones.

    Me, I think cries of “pretentious” warrant an even stronger critique. I think that the criticism “pretentious” is inherently disingenuous, a way of obscuring one’s own disinterest in engaging or relating to the work. In fact, the people who use the word “pretentious” the most are people who are most wrapped up in their own interests, and who probably qualify as “pretentious” in the eyes of their peers. A friend of mine once said Malick’s Tree of Life was pretentious. I wanted to be like, “What? This coming from you — a guy who writes a blog on international politics, zionism, and classical music?”

    The banal criticism that a movie is “pretentious” always loses credibility as soon as you try to give the director/creator even the slightest bit of credit, and attempt to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to say. The fact that it’s used so often these days is the result of postmodern anti-intellectualism, where even the high-brows and eccentrics have to fake populism in order to feel validated.

    So anyway, thanks for writing this. I’ll be the first guy on the pretentious train, when it pulls into the station.

    1. And I am with you Jesse, although not a 100 percent. You lost me when taking a somewhat unfortunate route equating “classical music” with absolute pretension (I am not interested enough about international politics and Zionism to make an adequate defense there). However, “classical music” and “jazz” are simply fine art music. The classifications for art music are both misleading and substandard. Those ingrained so heavily in popular culture and popular music are easily and predictably dismissive of art music, so much so, that it has become a stereotypical fallback to equate the music with pretentiousness. Even in those arenas, there is, alas, much of the same. Those who cling to the traditional forms, styles, staging, and interpretations will Speedy Gonzalas their way to making a claim of pretension toward the modern, avant-gardists. At the opposite extreme are the totalitarian modernists who dismiss anything traditional as stifling. Still, considering how quickly popular music has lost its real impact, I would venture to say that art music will long outlive watered down popular art forms.

    2. Alfred, I agree — I think you misread my comment on classical music, albiet only slightly. I wasn’t saying classical music is pretentious, per se… I was saying that the same people who call fine art cinema pretentious are just as likely to call classical music pretentious. In general, I think it’s ALWAYS a mistake to dismiss something as “pretentious,” which is, as I said, just a way of avoiding having to give it any further thought. So I totally agree with your assessment that classical shouldn’t be casually dismissed or disparaged. The same thing I think about all serious artistic endeavors.

  4. Spam filters can be a mixed blessing. Someone dropped by to comment on this post, but the filter quarantined it as possible spam. I skimmed the comment and decided that it was legitimate. I thought I had approved it, but it’s not showing up, so I must have accidentally deleted it when I emptied out the garbage.

    I only skimmed the comment so I missed most of the substance, but the author started out defining the word “gasconade” (which means “extravagant boasting.”) I also recall a comment about animator Gerald Scarfe not being the first person to recognize the flower/vagina symbolism. Other than that, I don’t remember the substance of the comment.

    I apologize to the commenter whose response was lost and invite him/her to repost it.

  5. Quite good and apt article. It goes without saying that, more often than not, the first charge leveled against anything “seemingly artsy” is an impassioned charge of pretentiousness. That type of offensives/defensive accusation is in itself a sickening form of pretension and reveals more about the hostility (and limitations) of the accuser.

  6. Most of the best of anything seems to be on the margins, out of sight & under acknowledged. There’s more life in a line up of cult films, good or bad, than years and years of Tinseltown product, seems. The charge of ‘pretentious’ just spurs me on most times, because i already know people don’t want to be challenged by their entertainment. Keep it simple for stupid.

    Of course the challenge here is to hold some sort of balance in the long run & not become a complete hipster douche, where any song under twenty mintues failing to adress the vageuries of free market capitalism in an obscure evlish dialect or any motion picture with a copious amount of explosions & plymood matinee idol(s) makes you turn up your well-bred nose in haughty contempt.

  7. Before I even read this. I had grown tired of the pretentious label, and constantly wouldn’t let people off the hook for slapping it on things they didn’t like. I’d ask them why, and wouldn’t let them change the subject until they at least made an attempt to use their brain to explain their less thought out opinions. I forced them to think. Lord how many people don’t like that…. That’s one way to get people to stop dismissing things carelessly or without objective consideration. Use their laziness against them.

    I do like how you made the clarification that in order for a person to make anything pretentious, they have to care about what they’re doing as well as take risks. I’ve always said I’d much rather someone take a risk and fail miserably than to make something really safe and well done. Different is often deemed as weird. It’s also more memorable. Failing is not the objective, but good ole Sir Ken Robinson’s motto is, “if you aren’t prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” Divergent thinking is the key. Failing teaches you something. Being safe doesn’t.

  8. It’s more “pretentious” to say there is no other level to whatever genre product a hack is trying to construct than a visionary realizing the manifold meaning behind an often shocking, bizarre, metaphoric idea. The implications of our actions are mostly unconscious but vigorously present in our dreams and their inscrutibility truer to the mystery of existence than a consciously contrived narrative could ever be. I’ve never understood why a self-limiting attitude is less pretentious than a striving ambitious imagination. I’m so grateful that, on rare occasions, films of supreme oddness actually get produced (some with a large enough budget to realize the vision). These should be celebrated.

  9. I actually wanted to develop a brief remark to say thanks to you for some of the great secrets you are giving out at this website. My time consuming internet research has at the end of the day been paid with reputable know-how to write about with my classmates and friends. I ‘d tell you that many of us site visitors actually are truly blessed to live in a good site with very many brilliant professionals with insightful solutions. I feel truly privileged to have come across your webpage and look forward to many more enjoyable times reading here. Thank you once more for everything.

  10. I appreciate everyone who has defended pretentious films. I’ve been told so often that I have pretentious tastes that I openly admit it. I love saying to people, “Just because someone’s too stupid or thoughtless to appreciate a film / book / album / picture / play / dance piece doesn’t mean it’s bad.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *