Why are We So Quick to Label Art Films “Pretentious?”


As a genre film fan, there are few things more frustrating than running headlong into a defense of a movie like site-favorite Dredd with someone who simply dismisses those sorts of movies out of hand. Unlike this anecdotal person, genre fans understand  that those sorts of movies work in their own way, to their own ends, and once you get on their wavelength there’s just no telling the kinds of stuff you’ll find to love.

And then a lot of those genre fans turn around and crap on Terrence Malick’s latest because of its alleged “pretension.”

Heck, I used to pull that word out a lot myself. It’s an easy way to dismiss something that seems preoccupied with delivering a meaningful experience over an enjoyable experience. But after a while, I started to wonder if the whole “pretentious” thing was, well… a little pretentious.

Let’s get the definition out of the way. Pretension indicates an unsubstantiated claim to significance. That’s it. Though lots of people use the word to mean everything from “boring” to “slow” to “introspective” to “shot in black & white,” it’s really not limited to things that are difficult to sit through. An action movie with delusions of grandeur may well qualify for the label better than a BBC drama about a struggling painter.


Sure, I get that one of the appeals of cinema is its visceral quality. The way a good movie gets down in your bones. More so than any other medium — except, perhaps, music — film can make us FEEL something almost immediately.

This is why people cry at commercials; combining a few images with an appropriate music selection creates a crazy powerful effect. It’s why people get psyched over a cool trailer every time, despite each of us having been burned by enough trailers to never trust them again. And I suspect it’s partially what incurs the divide between “pretentious” movies and… whatever the opposite would be.


Oh, right.

See, introspective or contemplative movies have a tendency to shy away from this sort of visceral effect. Oh, they use the tools the medium gives them; it’s not like “art films” lack compelling imagery. Take 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s sci-fi opus is stacked with memorable images and famous sequences, but rarely does it ever grab the audience by the gut. It sort of keeps us at arms length, actually. The thrill of 2001 is the kind of thoughts it can provoke.*

If you’re not in the mood for a movie like that, then that’s fine! It really is. I never want to watch comedies. But I also don’t look at the next Adam McKay movie and roll my eyes because he’s obsessed with making people laugh. Nor would I heckle Justin Lin for making an action-first summer movie. Neither should we bag on Bergman for wanting us to think after the credits roll.

Having preferences for one kind of movie doesn’t negate the value of the other. In the end, an action movie and an art film are simply different kinds of movies. One’s more focused on getting an immediate reaction than the other, but really, the poles of this spectrum aren’t as far apart as some people would have you believe. There’s even a lot of cross-pollination if you know where to look.

Heck, look at this trailer for Man of Steel.


Despite being the sort of thing that gets geeks up in arms overnight, they basically function the same way as a Malick movie. Look at the complete lack of character or story on display. The Man of Steel trailer was, essentially, a string of gorgeous, evocative images strung together over music and thematic narration.

How is that any different than Tree of Life or Wings of Desire?

The dirty little secret of art films is… they’re still just films.


*And it is meant to be a thrill. Occasionally people take this weird attitude that artistically-minded films don’t care about their audience. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most people who make art films absolutely think of them as movies for people to, you know, watch. Maybe learn from or be challenged by. And the ones who are purely following their own whimsy are barely different from the guy who makes an action short on youtube that’s clearly based on his own fantasies of what constitutes a cool action scene.

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  1. I feel like “pretentious” is one of those words that is being caught up in our cultural trend towards Newspeak where words stop meaning what they actually mean and instead become expressions we use to indicate kneejerk feelings. In this case, “pretentious” now simply means “bad” when people use it. People on the whole don’t really like artsy fartsy films. If asked to describe why, “because I’m too dumb to appreciate anything less subtle than a shotgun blast to the face” isn’t really a personally satisfying answer so “pretentious” becomes the word of the day for people who want to express dislike for something artistic, but don’t want to admit they’d just prefer something a little more lowbrow.

  2. I label movies as pretentious when it’s clear they’re more interested in preaching a message than telling a story. I can’t stand 2001: A Space Odyssey now. It’s too slow, it’s full of mixed metaphors.

    The other kind is movies that are so in love with themselves and their “art”, like “Tree of Life” or “The Cell” or “I Heart Huckabees”. Those are the films that have decided they are precious before their first review. They don’t care if the plot makes sense, or their allegories and symbols mean. They favor style over substance.

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