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.
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?
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 Lars von Trier 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) – Richard Kelly 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) – Harmony Korine 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) – Alejandro Jodorowsky, 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.