Is prettiness, the less-than-beautiful category of superficiality and surface, derided in film studies? Rosalind Galt’s Pretty teases out the political and aesthetic implications of classical film scholarship that tends to malign all things pretty. Prettiness may not lend itself to seriousness, but this book suggests that it can be more than mere frivolity. Pretty is a feminine category of seduction, perversion and ornamentation that, the book suggests, is inherent to the cinema. But rather than deceiving through its superficiality, Pretty contends that it can be both radical and polemical.
For Galt, prettiness is almost always met with hostility. A pretty image will usually be regarded as artificial, naïve and misleading. “How can one see the ugliness of political violence in a pretty image? And yet what reactionary heuristic believes that such a feminized image is incapable of serious meaning.” (p. 13) The argument for the possibility of prettiness is guided through colourful, well-known films such as City of God (Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund, 2002) Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet 2001), Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955), as well as relatively unknown works including Soy Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964). There is also discussion of filmmakers whose work could be described as pretty, including Derek Jarman, Wong Kar-wai and Pier Palo Pasolini. Pretty contends that images must be embraced for what occurs on their surface and suggests that this approach might allow for some renewed perception of the cinema.
Galt discusses theatre, art history and philosophy to map out some of the tautologies of prettiness that film studies has inherited. She launches her argument with a discussion of the Kantian classification of transhistorical beauty, where Beauty is aligned with Reason. (1) Here, prettiness – in opposition to Beauty – becomes a site of exclusion because it is based on passion and sensation “The true film artist reveals beauty, whereas the dilettante can only construct a pretty scene” (p. 60). Reason, in this way, is a masculine value and prettiness becomes a site for the oriental, the romantic, the hysterical and thus the feminine (p. 69).
To further emphasise her thesis of the pretty and its relationship to classical film studies, Galt argues that “bourgeois aesthetic pleasures” (p. 177) are regularly denigrated to be a problem of deceptive ideological constructions. A history of anti-visual scepticism in Western thought is traced back to Plato and his rejection of the image as a false phantom of the philosophical idea (p. 180). (2) Pretty rigorously guides the tension that this binary of pleasure and deception produces through a discussion of political writing on film, from the writing of Comolli and Narboni and their influential essay “Cinema, Ideology, Criticism” (3) through to critical approaches in art cinema via readings of the pretty in the film Le Vent d’Est (Godard 1970) and the Latin-American theorists of the Third cinema, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (4). It is suggested that many approaches to the cinema as a political weapon have largely overlooked the radical possibility that prettiness can produce.
In considering films from across the globe, Pretty poses both the cinema and the trouble of pretty as an international question, and it is pleasing to see that it circumvents the sometimes over-determined question of identity and culture without disregarding the need for historical and material specificity. For Galt, film culture, like notions of prettiness, is broadly global. She constructs both concepts in her study by way of a “Benjaminian constellation”; the first half of the book maps out the problems of exclusion and the second half provides for inclusion in order to “to amass into a single frame a hitherto unconsidered collection of ideas and objects … to see history differently” (p. 37). In this way, Pretty attempts to foster a dialectical approach to the cinema and film scholarship and tries to envision a new practice for aesthetic analysis. Linking art with the theatre, Galt applies her methodology in the final chapters – arguing that films such as Soy Cuba, Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (Ulrike Ottinger, 1989) and Ecstasy in Berlin 1926 (Maria Beatty, 2004) figure their radicalism through their prettiness.
Commenting on Soy Cuba, a film on the Cuban revolution largely unknown outside Latin American circles, which was rejected most likely because political possibility is expounded through the decorative and pleasurable, rather than through Brechtian effects of distanciation and alienation, Galt suggests that the prettiness of this film must be seen as the site of its radicalism: “Rather than [through] distance … the film engages closeness to conjure a revolutionary aesthetics formed from the materiality of the cinematic image” (p. 230).
This extends Galt’s suggestion of the cinema itself as an actively “intertwined regime of the sexual and the geopolitical” (p. 282). The cinema is suggested to be an apparatus that frames ideology as an aesthetic question. Thus affect and sensation become a method through which to connect, rather than disconnect. As she suggests of the revolutionary possibility figured in Soy Cuba “Blur, abstraction, graphic composition and camera movement visualize social processes, with the expressive potential of cinematography enabling the affective stakes of Cuban experience to come into view” (p. 233). This, for Galt, enables the affective process of revolution to be projected as a space of desire and need.
Perhaps most interestingly, Galt finds that the problem of the anti-visual and the anti-pretty similarly occurs in feminist film studies. Pretty is an admittedly feminist text, insofar as it locates the rejection of the pretty – the colourful and the seductive – as a rejection of the feminine. For Galt, the problem of feminist film studies is that it tends to reject the image outright as a site of excess, pleasure, perversion and masquerade. But for Galt, this is precisely what prettiness is and she astutely suggests that feminist film studies produces a double bind as it “depend[s] on the gendering of the icon” while attempting to “deploy the icon circularly in a critique of itself” (p. 250). Here, Galt suggests that the pretty can be feminist and embracing it as a value may work to push the boundaries of ideal representation to “open up the productive potential of the aesthetic as feminist form” (p. 36).
While Pretty opens up intellectual debate and reconsiders the ways in which the ornamental, the colourful and the decorative have been considered, so too does it raise the question of academic discourse itself. Pretty is an academic text; it is rigorous, well structured and, dare I say it, mapped out beautifully. While reading it, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we have space in academic discourse for ‘pretty’ thought – which is to say can our intellectual debates be picturesque, ornamental, creative and experiential?
Pretty is polemical but nonetheless seems limited by the very language it is trying to circumvent. In this age of hyper-professionalized academia, Pretty reminds me that in as much as scholarship should be earnest in its intellectual pursuits, so to must it remember its romantic roots. Indeed, one can find ‘pretty’ rhetoric in small but fascinating pockets of anglophile film studies and the humanities; we are particularly blessed in Australia to have the work of Bill Routt, Lesley Stern or Meaghan Morris – for example – but one could also turn to the writings of Manny Faber and Raymond Durgnat as sites where language operates as a play of surface and where radical posturing meets with pleasure. (5) The tendency toward seriousness and masculine conjecture of reason over sensation is not simply a problem of classical film theory; it is simply a product of academia in this new age. But, as Galt says in reference to Derek Jarman: “To imagine genuinely radical future one needs a decorative eye” (p. 80). Perhaps what Pretty reminds us is that the radical and revolutionary cannot be envisioned through Reason alone.
Rosalind Galt, Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image. Columbia University Press, New York, 2011.
- Kant. Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Translated by J.H. Bernard. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2000.
- Plato. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Translated by Lane Cooper and others. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961.
- Comolli, Jean-Luc and Jean Narboni. “Cinema, Ideology, Criticism.” Screen 12(1) pp27-38, 1971.
- Solanas, Fernando and Octavio Getino. “Towards a Third Cinema” in Movies and Methods, edited by Bill Nichols, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
- I am thinking here of pieces such as William D Routt, “Looking forward and backward at the same time: Maxim Gorky goes to the movies” (UTS review: cultural studies and new writing 2(1), May 1996); Lesley Stern’s Falling for You: Essays on Cinema and Performance (Illinois: University of Illinois Press 1999); Meaghan Morris’ “Indigestion: A Rhetoric of Reviewing” in The Pirates Fiance: Feminism Reading Postmodernism (New York & London: Verso 1988); Manny Faber’s “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” in Negative Space. (New York: Praeger, 1971); or Raymond Durgnat’s Film and Feelings (Boston: MIT Press, 1971). These seem to be to be evidence of scholarly writing on the cinema that is ornamental and colourful and where reason is not privileged over sensation.