There’s a debate that shows up every now and then about elitism and snobbery, particularly regarding the arts. There’s a vague hostility many people hold towards art that is more sophisticated, or perhaps only appears to be more sophisticated, than your typical book, movie or album. I remember when I first picked up James Joyce, my dad dismissed it, saying that the only people who read James Joyce are people who want to say that they’ve read James Joyce, the implicit assumption being that there’s no intrinsic value to Joyce’s work, or that if there is most people are too dumb to actually understand it. This vague hostility to more complex works (and the people who engage with them) was a recent topic for me with Phil Christman, who had some rather interesting thoughts on literary elitism and middlebrow culture.1 While discussing these topics together, I neglected to mention the large stack of books on my desk which included a number of (unfinished, unread) books; some Fredric Jameson, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, of course, James Joyce. Above my desk were volumes of Joan Didion, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Soren Kierkegaard and the complete blu-ray collection of Mad Men. Browsing around the room, you’d find similar things on the numerous shelves, some pulpy sci-fi and video-games occasionally breaking up the litany of ‘sophisticated’ works. Works that, like me, have often received the accusation of ‘pretentiousness’. It was for this reason that I particularly identified with Christman’s thoughts on the topic, that the accusation is usually a veiled political frustration at material conditions that has been misdirected over the last few decades, away from the people actually ruining our lives (a handful of CEO’s grinding us as hard as they can at work while paying as little as they can in both money and benefits while charging as much as they can for essential services) and towards a group perceived to be ruining our lives (grad students in the humanities who have pronouns and talk about rhizomes).
The accusation of pretentiousness is troubling because of it’s political baggage, but it wouldn’t have been politically effective if it didn’t have some sort of philosophical content, albeit well concealed and poorly articulated. The accusation of pretentiousness cannot be made to disappear by politicizing it; politics are just the path it has followed, the question is still live. What is being suggested when we accuse something of pretentiousness? YouTuber Kyle Kallgren has pointed out that the word pretentious can be traced back to the Latin praetensus, which unsurprisingly is a root for pretending, but also refers to stretching out. So pretentiousness is pretending to stretch out, or going further than you can (or just pretending to). Kyle argues that all artists are pretentious, which is a bold claim, but he doesn’t mean it in the same way most might assume. We’ll return to it in a bit.
I recently watched Terrence Malick’s 2017 Song to Song, and if anything can be called pretentious it’s any film of Malick’s. I’d also watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror the day before, a similarly vague film with little in terms of a concrete plot, but lots of shots that I might call cinematic but someone smarter than me would have a better word for. Tactile? Sensual? Impressionistic? I’m stretching beyond my own knowledge here, but the key point is that Song to Song has been accused of being pretentious. What is meant here? The immediate answer would be that it’s a film about nothing, or that it’s not about anything. This is patently false, especially if you’ve seen anything by Malick, a director obsessed with themes of guilt, grace, love and redemption. Rooney Mara’s character Faye is stuck in a loop of getting involved with bad guys, believing that love and sex should be painful, that she’s undeserving of real love. As time goes on, she learns to love herself and be loved by others, most notably Ryan Gosling’s character BV. Freedom is also a clear theme, with imagery of birds in and out of cages showing up throughout, paralleling the characters, often staged in boxed-in spaces, sometimes with lots of glass to give the appearance of freedom when really they’re trapped in self-destructive habits. So the film is about something; there are themes, tensions, an arc that by the end reaches a sort of completion as Faye and BV cuddle and kiss on top of a mountain. So what? I can hear my dad saying. Just because there’s technically a story doesn’t mean it’s not pretentious? But now we have to ask what’s being pretended, what’s being stretched beyond it’s capacities? The answer might be that the plot, while there, is kept too thin and vague, mostly told in ambiguous voiceovers presented over long handheld shots of people awkwardly walking around, awkwardly glancing at each other. The choreography is unique, and framed in unique ways. The settings are rich, full of nature and architecture that I want to explore. The music choices are diverse; the usual classical pieces are mixed with contemporary rock, pop and hip-hop (I never thought I’d hear Die Antwoord used in a Terrence Malick film, but it happened). But are these things, complex choreography framed in unique ways, natural settings, a story told indirectly, are these things enough to warrant the accusation of pretentiousness? In themselves, no, but I think there’s something to these accusations, moreso than in previous works of Malick’s, such as The Tree of Life, which had a similar feeling but directed towards somewhat different ends, although there’s a lot of thematic overlap. In that film, there are scenes where the characters actually get to heaven, actually have epiphanies delivered by angels, the universe is created, etc. Song to Song carries the same style but without the same epic narrative. The content hasn’t kept up with the form. If the accusations of pretentiousness have something to them regarding Song to Song, it’s that the form was stretched to pretend there’s something more to the content, the narrative arc, than is actually there. And perhaps there’s something to this. Faye’s story about accepting abusive forms of love due to a lack of self-love has been done with less dramatic flair before. Norah in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist had a similar issue. So did Emily in Adventureland. But these are teen-comedies, not ambitious pieces of arthouse cinema. This leaves us with a different question; what does Malick’s form tease out of the content that can’t be found in a more traditional film?
A potential answer might be a sense of weight is given to the everyday. Malick teases out a dramatic seriousness of the everyday, and without at any point relieving the tension. There are no jokes, no ironic moments of self-awareness that might permit us distance. Instead we get long shots of Faye processing her trauma and are forced to process with her. If you haven’t been where she is, you might not understand the difficulty here, and if you have been where she is, you might be uncomfortable with where the film is forcing you to go and remain for a time. But stillness is sometimes where the most profound drama happens, moments where everything fades into the background and something essential is allowed to come forward, and with sparse dialogue, quiet music, slow and dramatic shots and no jokes, there are no off-ramps for the viewer. Faye is going through something profound, and Malick is determined to drag us through it.
There are other potential answers one could put forward. The filming style could potentially be described as spiritual, and carries through in every moment. Not just church services or funerals, but mosh pits and music festivals, sexual escapades with prostitutes, lunch with a family member, being at a party. This raises further questions. In framing things in the way he does, does Malick elevate the everyday in a way, illuminate a spiritual thread running through activities we might not immediately associate as spiritual? Is this a way to bringing the religious out of the service and back into existence, life as it is lived? In bringing together spiritual themes and a lush visual presentation, is the film tying together the material and spiritual, showing how the spiritual is embodied?
One could answer these questions in a number of ways, argue that the film fails to properly tie it’s form and content together, that the form asks too much of the content, or that the content doesn’t really fit with the form, that the story doesn’t benefit from being subjected to Malick’s style. One could argue a lot of these things, but in order to really develop the argument, one might need to start picking at particular scenes, lines of dialogue, musical samples, directorial choices, and so on. At this point, it’s worth taking stock of where we are; where the initial claim that Song to Song is pretentious might’ve been the beginning and ending of the conversation, we’re now discussing what the film aimed to express, how it tried to do so, if it was successful and if such an aim was worth having in the first place, and that’s a far more interesting discussion to be having, regardless of your final answer to any specific question.
To return to the aforementioned Kyle Kallgren, his point that all artists are pretentious, pretending, was not intended as an insult, but an invitation. All artists are pretending, testing methods of expression out, seeing what can be said with various tools and how those tools can be reshaped towards new ends. And they’re inviting us to play along, to believe in them, to believe in ourselves, to believe that while all games are just games, some games are worth playing. This is not intended as a defense of Song to Song itself (personally I liked parts of it, but felt it was one of Malick’s weaker entries), but a plea that we do better when critically wrestling with works like it, works that are often unsuccessful in various respects, but nonetheless tried (and failed) at something unique, because asking what was attempted and the degrees to which it succeeded will leave us far more enriched than smug and curt dismissals of failure.
1Christman, Phil. “How to be Cultured (II): Middlebrow.” In How to be Normal, 103-128. Cleveland, Belt Publishing 2022.