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On Being A Pretentious Film Critic

Paul Thomas Anderson's THE MASTER
Paul Thomas Anderson's THE MASTER
Weinstein Company

Pre·ten·tious: /pri’tenCHəs/. adj. characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, especially when exaggerated or undeserved: a pretentious, self- important artist or critic.

Pretentious. As a film critic, this adjective has been hurled in my direction more than I care to admit. Admittedly, I am quite discriminating, in the sense that I avoid a good bit of the mainstream fare that comes out these days. Ticket prices are high. If I am going to pay ten or twelve dollars on a film ticket, I want the experience to be worthwhile. I want substance. I want to view something that is going to haunt me long afterwards, causing me to ponder its meaning over and over again. I want to view something that is going to pull me out of my comfort zone, something that is going to offend me, something that is going to anger me, something true, something that is not “safe” – something that is going to enlighten me.

One of the last films that had this effect on me was Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. The first time that I saw the film, I didn’t know what to make of it. Anderson had blown away my expectations. I was a little perturbed. The film left me cold. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It kept me up at night. I started to pick apart the film in my head over the next few days. Those days added up to weeks. The themes and the seemingly abstract moments hidden beneath the surface were slowly revealed. I’ve seen the film five times since it’s release, and I now consider it one of my favorites. I had to work for that experience.

I am an avid fan of the films of David Lynch and Lars Von Trier. A few of my friends dismiss these films as nothing more than trash, spewed forth from the minds of two “pretentious” hacks with delusions of profundity."“There is no plot,” they say. “Art should say something. It should provide clear answers. We shouldn’t be expected to draw our own conclusions. There should be a formula. Anything less than this is shallow, pretentious trash.”

I disagree with all of these claims. Wholeheartedly disagree.

Some of us critics don’t require resolution. We don’t want clear answers. We like to think our way through a film, to feel our way through, until we interpret the film in a way that makes sense to us and meets us where we are at. The films of more avant-garde artists allow for this sort of approach. These films are not for the casual audience. They are challenging. They require a certain amount of intellectual effort on the part of the viewer. I see this as incredibly positive and beautiful at the same time. Film is capable of taking us places – mentally and emotionally – that we would otherwise never experience. Why should art have boundaries? Why should we be expected to settle for less?

All artists – whether you are a mainstream Michael Bay or an art-house Akira Kurosawa – are “pretentious” to some degree. We all believe that our little masterpiece is going to change the world in some way. And yet, we always have our doubts. We’re always terrified to bare our soul to an audience. A true artist is always terrified. To me, this is the exact opposite of pretension.

I loathe the school of thought that says, “If I don’t understand this work of art, if it doesn’t have a “plot”, if it doesn’t fit within a certain formula, if it doesn’t contain at least five thousand explosions and endless special effects, if it is difficult, if it is different, then it must be shit.”

If this makes me a pretentious film critic, then so be it.