Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Synecdoche, New York 2: On Pretension

I was interested in Circus Monkey's comment on Synecdoche, New York - 'Sounds like a load of pretentious rubbish to me. Does Private Eye still publish its Pseuds' Corner?' As I responded, I used to appear in PC all the time, but no longer. O tempora! O mores! Sorry, bit pretentious that. But what is pretension? Unearned intellectual display, I'd say, just as sentimentality is, according to Joyce, unearned emotion. Well, I reckon Charlie Kaufman earned his emotion and intellectual display, others may differ but I think they would miss the point of the film. It is incontinent and self-indulgent because that's what it's about. The wider point is: who decides what is or is not earned? Private Eye, obviously and quite often accurately. But the danger is that any intellectual display attracts the charge of pseudery. Then nobody can say anything serious about anything for fear of being called pretentious. This may be seen as a desirable outcome but, on the whole, I don't think so. There is, in fact, a kind of pretension in seeking out and lampooning pretension since it implies the seeker is claiming a more competent level of intellectual judgment that his target. How, otherwise, would he know the display was truly unearned? A false accusation of pretension can be a serious thing; in the case of Kaufman it defames a real artist. And what, anyway, does it mean to say he is pretentious - that he doesn't deliver cinema's predictable cheap thrills and low optimism? Yet jeering at pretension is often a necessary thing. Fake intellectual displays debase the coinage for us all. I could give you a hundred examples from an hour or so's output on the web. But, personally, I'm in favour of pretension. It lifts the spirits and is a valuable source of the fibre of irony.


  1. philip wallingMay 26, 2009 6:10 pm

    Quod erat demonstrandum.

    It all depends whether you're seeking truth or trying to make it.

  2. There is, in fact, a kind of pretension in seeking out and lampooning pretension since it implies the seeker is claiming a more competent level of intellectual judgment that his target.Well, it's certainly true that lampooning pretension implies the seeker is claiming a more competent level of intellectual judgment than his target, but it doesn't follow that lampooning pretension is necessarily a form of pretension. Maybe the person doing the lampooning really does have a better level of intellectual judgment.

    This post reminded me of a line I once came across "All modesty is false modesty, otherwise it wouldn't be modesty."

  3. In other words, can something be pretentious but good?

    I would say occasionally yes (The Thin Red Line, Dark Side of the Moon), usually no (The Matrix sequels, The Wall) and sometimes it's a very fine line (practically all French cinema, David Bowie).

  4. 'Pretentious' usually just means "I can't appreciate or understand this, and I feel threatened by the idea that there is something beyond my world, something I can't understand." It's also too general a term, too subjective - it's better to attack defects of technique.

    Some projects will inevitably take you near to that dread fluffiness, pretentiousness - it is hard to do a film like Kieslowski's Rouge, or the other red, The Thin Red Line, without that danger. It is, as you say, about whether it is earned or not; it's good for an artist to distrust himself, to have an astringent nature - so the occasional warmth has to fight to come through.

    Technique is a discipline, a means of earning that illumination. Fakers will usually have no technique - they can be torn apart not with accusations of pretension but with technical criticism.

    A true master will have good technique, though it may be idiosyncratic.

  5. ''I could give you a hundred examples from an hour or so's output on the web. But, personally, I'm in favour of pretension. It lifts the spirits...''

    well, put like that, how can it?

  6. A prime example of pretension was Fiona Shaw and Simon Schama discussing John Donne on BBC2 last night. How to turn anybody off one of the greatest poets of all time: take one precious actorly actress and add an historian trying very hard to emote. Then make sure no one actually reads any of the poems from start to finish.

    John Carey made a valiant contribution but couldn't save it.

  7. There is a distinction to be made between pretentious and preposterous. With 'pretentious' there has to be an element of faking it.

    For example, Tom Paulin's views on Newsnight Review would be considered extremely pretentious if expressed by anyone else, but because he genuinely believes the tosh he spouts it is merely preposterous.

    Germaine Greer is an interesting case: she combines the preposterous (her opinions) with the pretentious (her insistence on pronouncing all foreign words 'correctly') in a seamless blend of highly entertaining drivel.

  8. I came across a small, fancy, upmarket ladies clothing boutique in a small West Country market town the other week. It was called 'Moi'. And, yes, it was.

  9. Oh well, Recusant's "valiant contribution" would make a good name for a greyhound. Is that pretentious? And I like Germaine Greer, Brit: I suppose anyone who doesn't mind being thought a little different runs the risk of being called pretentious. From another angle, it's called trying to think for yourself. Better to try, anyway, which is more important than the result.

    I like that story, probably apocryphal for all I know, about Swinburne. On listening to some piano music he didn't know, he opined that it expressed all the "cruel beauty of the Medicis". The tune was Three Blind Mice. Pretentious, preposterous and pseud all in one, I'd guess.

    These days it's more a question of post-pretensionism and post-post-preposterism. With characters like that North Korean nutter and the banksters around, and of course with Malty around to comment on them, you cannot beat reality.

  10. I have to confess that I saw Fiona Shaw running along that beach, all sweaty and breathy, and I had some not very pretentious thoughts.

    However, for me, pretension is when somebody chooses a difficult way of saying something that could have said much more simply. There remain many difficult things that have to be said in a difficult way.

  11. "Rouge" was my favorite of that trilogy, Elberry! And Brit, I agree that most French cinema is pretentious, but when it can avoid stepping over the line, it's brilliant.

    I spent five years of my life steeped in pretension while getting a Ph.D. at an ivy league school. Everyone tried to say things in the most incomprehensible manner possible (as you say, Gaw, and as you -- and Erasmus -- deplore, 'cause there's always a clear way). The height of it was that idiot Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson, saying that clear writing led to the oppression of the readers b/c if it wasn't difficult enough to make them parse and scratch their heads, they tended to just believe it.

    Myself, I love to read prose I can just sink into and believe --at least while I'm reading it. My critical faculties aren't gone, I've just turned them off temporarily in order to savor what I'm reading (or seeing, or hearing). The time to critique is later.

    Wow...another caffeinated screed. Sorry kids.

  12. Maybe a good delineator would be to suggest people who were learned but never pretentious. Isaiah Berlin anyone?

  13. Ian Hislop always strikes me as the sort who cannot see that people are often aware of their own imperfections even as they display them. As Joanna Lumley said of her paintings, "Don't need to tell me, I KNOW..."

  14. Brit points us in the direction of the queen of pretension, "knickerless in Warwick" Greer, who proves that not all Aussies are down to earth Joe Blunts, wheeled out occasionally by the BBC when they can't think of anyone else to ask.

    She really goes well with the king of pretension, AA Gill, they should become an item.

    Good hobby, pretension spotting, beats military modeling hands down.

  15. I think you're all being very unfair on Germaine Greer who lives in Essex and keeps chickens, I believe. Surely one cannot do either and be pretentious. I shall support her. But not, I think, AA Gill who may well emerge as a bit of a prat, or not, when he grows out of short trousers.

    Richard's point suggests that the golden age of not being pretentious at all may have been the 1950s when some great scholars, writers and correspondents communicated ideas intended for everyone and without a trace of an agenda. Folks like AGP Taylor, Norman Lewis and maybe Charles Wheeler and James Cameron (though I've only read one of his books). Perhaps the emergence of the metropolitan elite come new political class since the 1960s has introduced pretension because it has introduced an agenda of 'we know better than you'. I'd guess just about the only person left from this school is David Attenborough.

  16. On the subject of learned public men & women, a friend told me of an academic who omitted his own book from the course reading list, even though it was the classic of its field. The man explained, "Oh, I couldn't put my own book on. It wouldn't be right."

    i think that would have been in the 60s or 70s - when i was there (same uni) in the late 90s one tutor decorated her office with the duskjackets of her dull publications.

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