Why the word "film" doesn't have to be pretentious

When you talk about movies, which term do you use the most to describe the medium? A “movie”, a “film”, a “piece of cinema”? Maybe you like the word “flick” better. I’ve noticed over the past few years that people often fall into two large camps: those who call motion pictures “movies” and those who prefer the term “film”. Somehow, the latter word connotes a more artistic piece of work, something to be admired and analyzed, while the former has come to mean a noisy summer blockbuster that makes lots of money but is ultimately forgettable.

It's spurred me to take a closer look at why these words have come to mean what they do in the context in of film criticism. I want to prove why terms like “movie”, “film”, even “flick” should be used interchangeably to combat the ever-present push to make the enjoyment of “films” into an exclusive club.

Like any good journalist, I decided to do a wee bit of research before continuing with this post. I wanted to find out when popular terms for movies were first used. It turns out that most of the words we use today have been around since the very first motion pictures – it’s not as though informal terms like “movie” or “flick” came along after.

Eva Green plays a pretentious film buff type in the 2003 movie "The Dreamers"

“Film” originally referred to the physical medium the pictures were recorded on: strips of celluloid film which were run through cameras and projectors.  “Movie” descends from “motion picture show” and “flick” came from the flicker produced by films with lower frame rates and early projectors.

It seems that as the methods of showing films changed, the word “film” became associated with older movies presented on celluloid, and was held to a higher standard by critics and connoisseurs. Because the older pictures had become classics (partly due to filmmaking quality, but also due to being around so long), and were only available on film, all “films” were better. Meanwhile, popular “movies” were being seen regularly on TV, and distributed on VHS, DVD and online. The divide between the terms has grown to the point where some people feel that “film” is a pretentious word, used by snobs to sound literate and elite.

The acting in "The Petrified Forest" is more of an attraction than the fact it was shot in 1936

I disagree with this. After all, “films” and “movies” are the exact same thing: a series of images flashed at high speed, providing the illusion of movement. Sure, some movies are better than others, but “films” are not inherently better because they are called “films”. Even though older, classic flicks used to only be available on film, more and more are being released on DVD, Blu-ray or online (I happen to be building a collection of old movies on DVD). What's more, it’s getting harder and harder to call a motion picture a “film” when the old strips of film are crumbling away and being transferred to more stable formats (celluloid is actually a naturally-derived substance and prone to decomposition).

Why are “films” on celluloid seen as better? For one, some people are nostalgic for the deteriorated state of old movie prints. I once attended a screening of a poor-quality print of Italian director Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, about life in a small town in Italy. I enjoyed the movie, but there were so many scratches on the print, along with pops and crackle in the audio, that the flick was barely understandable at points.

I guess that some people came out of the theatre with a sense that they had seen art, because it was old and in bad condition. I would also guess that some of those people couldn’t pick out evidence from the film, i.e. acting, directing or cinematography, to prove why the film was good, and so relied on the obvious physical condition as proof they’d seen a “great” motion picture.

"Amarcord" (left) and "Revenge of the Sith" (right). Is "Amarcord" better by default?

Even that attitude might be acceptable, but if someone asserts that a poor print of Amarcord is better than, say, Star Wars: Episode III only because Amarcord is on film, then they are wrong - and they deserve the label of “pretentious film snobs”. Statements about movie quality should always be based on elements like visuals, writing or editing. If a film is on a junky print and you happen to like that retro feel, more power to you. I prefer to see and hear everything that the artists responsible put into the film, but that’s just me. Just don’t go around proclaiming “My 'film' is better than yours because it’s on celluloid”.

So, where to go from here? Do we let the film snobs make us feel inferior? No, I think there’s something we can do to oppose them. It’s actually very simple, too: take back the word “film” from the snobs. Use the word “film” in reference to even the most crass big-budget summer movies. Try other words on for size, like “flick” or even Martin Scorcese’s favourite, “picture”. Don’t bow to those who would make film watching an egotistical, pseudo-intelligent (and ultimately lonely) experience.

Let’s start talking about movies the way people did when the medium was first invented: when everyone shared a common fascination with the fact that there are moving pictures on the screen; when words like “movie”, “film” and others were used interchangeably to describe the great new way to be entertained and educated.

What do you think about this topic? Should the word “film” be taken back from snobs who misuse it? Do movies on celluloid have an inherent quality because they’re on film? Should the word “film” be reserved for “better” motion pictures? Let me know in the comments, and share this article with your friends! Once you’ve done that, check out my other articles on film:

-“Underrated” Films: What are they?-

-The case for enjoying film adaptations-

-In defense of Fast Five-