Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Can we ban the word “pretentious” from the dictionary?

My friend John Luke Retard e-mailed me and a mutual Critic friend the Toronto Film Festival best of the decade list. John Luke confessed he had fallen asleep during Syndromes and a Century and the Critic sent a brief reply dismissing the list as pretentious. I expect that kind of shallow reaction from an intimidated and insecure mainstream moviegoer, but coming from a critic it really bothered me. Especially after he had already said the same thing about The Hollywood Reporter’s list, pointing out that, even though he had not seen The White Ribbon, any list with that much Michael Haneke had to be pretentious. I don’t know if it was his use of one of my most hated words, his disdain for one of my favorite directors or the chile relleno I had for lunch, but my gut started to burn. I took a Zantac, meditated for a bit and proceeded to grill him on his definition of “pretentious.” He sent back this lovely definition: “long, slow films that most audiences will not care about or enjoy.” I popped a Paxil.

“Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike.”—Margot Fonteyn

I abhor the word “pretentious” because it’s thrown around willy-nilly, as if it’s supposed to be a grandiose and meaningful statement in of itself. It’s quite the opposite. I have used the word before in a film review. But to me, pretentiousness is the antithesis of honesty; it lies within the context of the artist’s intent. The Critic was using it to judge the TIFF list-maker’s intent, as if his/her choices had no relevance because it was unlikely they would appeal to a wide audience. As a member of a smaller audience that seeks out more original and artistic films, I am offended that someone would suggest that what I want to see doesn’t matter. It was as if the Critic was saying, “your hunger for these obscure arthouse films is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. If you refuse to be part of the herd, then risk being called a pretentious twit."

I started to review movies out of a need to, not just write, but to promote worthy films outside the mainstream radar. Voltaire said that “no statue has ever been erected for a critic.” While it’s true, the profession doesn’t have to be without merit. It is certainly a noble pursuit to support and promote worthwhile efforts outside the mainstream. I wrote the Critic, that where he saw pretentiousness and the list-maker’s selfish self-aggrandizing, I perceived advocacy. As a filmmaker, I hope one day my work will be championed by a critic. Anyone, actually.

I am sure The Dark Knight and Up will be on many lists, but really, do they need it? Christopher Nolan and Pixar are doing all right. Better than all right. The same can’t be said for dozens of brilliant filmmakers that cannot get financing off the ground and distribution for their films. They’re calling it the Indie Bloodbath.

I thank and applaud those who bring attention to lesser known movies. Making discoveries would be difficult without those generous, caring souls. Someone is going to read the TIFF list and discover a filmmaker they have never heard of before and maybe love her movie. (I’ve added Distant, Platform and Colossal Youth to my bulging Netflix queue.)The hope is always that someone, somewhere, will notice your work and give it some attention so that you can find your audience.

I am working my way through the decade’s movies trying to figure out what I think are the best. I can tell you right now that ranking my picks will be downright impossible. I don’t watch that many Hollywood movies because it’s a waste of my time. However, I hope you don’t see me and/or my list as pretentious. I don’t have an agenda. I like what I like and I champion what I think should be championed. It’s as simple as that. Stay tuned.


Tarkovsky and Hutch said...

Something is "pretentious" when it claims importance it doesn't deserve or when it is needlessly artsy.

Whenever one attempts to be special or even just different, they risk the label of being "pretentious."

David Lawrence said...

I totally agree. It's unfair stigma placed upon those who do not settle for the conventional. Preferring fine cuisine to fast food is not pretentious.

Having said that, the TIFF list is pretentious because it purposely excludes all conventional Hollywood movies. Something like Up is infinitely better than Syndromes and a Century, which felt a century long.

dizzydent said...

That's your opinion, for your list. Everyone has a right to make their own choices based on what they like. And maybe the list maker prefers to see humans on screen than drawn figures. Doesn't matter. Using the word pretentious says more about who is saying it than who it's said about.

Anonymous said...

I am in a clogged industry... clogged by average, University funded fools.

I act pretentious, at least, for marketing purposes. But it's a bad word.

Let's try this: to gather authority and to have a voice, one must start by speaking up. And when the big, well-funded, foolish dogs fail to respond to the needs of people, we can.

By speaking up...by not settling for fast food... by insisting on real, gritty meals of every kind, from film and food, to movies and martial arts, we can gather rapport of the people who matter. We want the people who matter personally to us. From their rapport, we may gather authority.

I think you're all pretentious. And I like it.

Nevertheless, Dizzy, I'm with you...let's ban pretentious and say: classy, real, artistic, existential, or whatever you like most. We can get together with those folks and push aside the average offenders.