Why So Pretentious?

Satantango.jpg
Sátántangó (Bela Tarr, 1994) – another classic punching-bag of a “pretentious film”

What is the point of a movie that is 3 or 4 or more hours long and is really slowly, methodically paced? Don’t these people know we have lives? Don’t they know that the point of a movie is to keep people’s attention? Where do they get this self-indulgent mentality to act like they deserve our viewership for that long? Every time a movie is made up of slow meandering camera movements, features minimal dialogue, completely immerses itself in its own unhurried aesthetic, or concentrates on an object, landscape, or character which seemingly has nothing surface-level going for it, I can hear the thousands of people who go to the movies for their supposed money’s-worth entertainment say to themselves “what pretentious garbage”.

But what does pretentious even mean? It’s a word that gets thrown around at the drop of a hat lately. The direct easy-access, low-hanging fruit of a pickup for the lay film-goer to act like his/her inferiority complex is completely justified because the cinema they don’t have the patience to give a chance is there for no other purpose than as a high-brow exercise in showing off artistic ambiguity. Films beyond easily digestible fast-food drive-thru offerings of Michael Bay and Colin Trevverow exist solely to make us feel inferior, right? Like if we don’t “get” them, then automatically we’re deemed as lesser people. That’s clearly got to be the filmmaker’s motive right?

You don’t understand the point of Terrence Malick forgoing much of the blood and carnage and “war is hell” obviousness of Oliver Stone’s Platoon and instead trying to toggle with less obvious themes regarding soldiers in war, not as a collective, but as individuals with their own personal thoughts  in The Thin Red Line. It’s pretentious, you say, because it doesn’t play to the tunes of what we know or expect, it doesn’t give it to us straight. Instead of displaying soldiers as a singular entity or “one hero” each character has a wildly different view of their place in war. Nothing in Malick’s film is offered as an answer. If you notice, the voice-overs of the soldiers in the film are not statements, but questions.

Questions? Why are we asking questions about war, when we should be giving people answers. Because Oliver Stone’s cute little tagline on the DVD cover of Platoon, “The first casualty of war… is innocence” looks so good on a poster. It looks so good as a singular black-white umbrella term for his anti-war cinematic movement (furthered by Born on the 4th of July) that can be shared across social media by millions without anyone really thinking about it. It’s a one track mind, which is perfect because it means we have now formed an identity against war, from this one simple banner phrase. But this is true pretentiousness is it not? Applying grave importance and merit to a single sentence, an overarching term which really doesn’t mean anything but sounds like a totally solid slogan: “The first casualty of war is innocence.” Put that on a baseball cap or T-shirt and parade it around, man. You’re gonna look so insightful and provocative!

But really… The Thin Red Line is the classic example of  what the internet would deem “pretentious cinema” though, because it lasts 3 hours long and is comprised of extended sequences of soldiers questioning their own participation in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Blood is at a minimum, we don’t have scenes of a soldier screaming for his mother trying to stuff his intestines back in his lower abdomen like in Saving Private Ryan. Malick isn’t milking anything here, because he doesn’t have to. Doesn’t the opposite of pretentious mean that the filmmaker has enough trust invested in his audience that he knows, and he can be sure that we’re smart enough to get that war sucks? Do we really need to be told that through exploding organs, blood-drenched battle-fields and cutely worded taglines that people in war… y’know… die… and… uh… experience grief and loss? Are we going to call Malick’s film pretentious because presents the idea that soldiers may actually doubt themselves once in a while? That they’re not all like-minded courageous heroes who overcome all odds? They have their own personal views of war and not everyone is on the same page as each other? That when they’re actually in battle, there may be an inkling of them that isn’t sure whether what they’re doing? Is The Thin Red Line pretentious because it takes too long to watch, and doesn’t fill every sequence with some snappy, easily digestible dialogue that makes us feel like we totally have a grip on this whole “war” thing, or a rocking battle-sequence where we root for a side and hope they “win”? Are we going to point and yell “pretentious” at a movie that doesn’t treat us like children waiting to be lectured on war, but instead treats us like individuals who have our own questions to ask?

Pretentious is being used by people the same way the word “theory” was hijacked to mean “guess”. Pretentious no longer applies to just things which attach more importance to themselves than they are worth… Pretentious is now the spitball we throw at anything that may take more time to understand than we are willing to give it.

Ironically, the so-called mainstream Hollywood movies that have been coming out seem to embody every level of pretense. I just watched Captain America : Civil War and asked myself, what the hell about this movie even justifies the title Civil War? The film lasts about 2.5 hours, and maybe an hour of it is back-and-forth conversations between the Avengers making the most hollow, tumblr-post level arguments about whether their power needs to be kept in check because everywhere they went they saved people, but also inadvertently murdered a bunch as well (ATTENTION: war is hell guys… war is hell. In case you couldn’t figure that out for yourself). Not to mention that this giant epic battle of choosing sides between TeamCap and TeamIron takes place on… and airport. No, seriously, the whole thing happens on a deserted airport terminal, and lasts roughly 5 to 10 minutes . It is only in maybe the last 7 minutes of the movie where Captain America and Iron Man show any level of real, tangible animosity towards each other, where for a split second, Captain America raises his shield to slam it on Iron Man’s face, then catches himself. In 2.5 hours, this 6 second moment is the only time where I felt Tony Stark’s fear and grief over the killing of his parents, and Captain’s very-American level of nationalistic arrogance shielded as “a fight for justice”. Of course, this is erased right after when the movie cuts to the “future” and Captain America sends Iron Man a voice-mail saying “sorry”, and we’re all just supposed to act like he didn’t almost just bash the man’s face in with a metal shield… okay.

The word pretentious is closer associated to the title of this movie, Civil War (more like Civil Argument) than anything that goes on in Yorgos Lanthimos’s also recently released dystopian love story, The Lobster*… a movie that no doubt people will call pretentious because it completely subverts our idea of love and marriage into a bizarre ritual of “find a soul-mate or effectively die” that the movie gives no background for. The characters speak and behave in awkward pauses and robotic monotone dialogues on purpose, and its so hard for us to understand this level of non-conformity in our love stories that we automatically slap the PRETENTIOUS tag on it because its beyond our trying to figure out. Never-mind that the entire agenda of Lanthimos is to evade any sense of importance to his story, other than have it exist and just say “here… you deal with it”. Meanwhile a middle school locker-room argument between Iron Man and Captain America is a CIVIL WAR. Yeesh.

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