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Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image

Rosalind Galt
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Film culture often rejects visually rich images, treating simplicity, austerity, or even ugliness as the more provocative, political, and truly cinematic choice. Cinema may challenge traditional ideas of art, but its opposition to the decorative represents a long-standing Western aesthetic bias against feminine cosmetics, Oriental effeminacy, and primitive ornament. Inheriting this patriarchal, colonial perspective-which treats decorative style as foreign or sexually perverse-filmmakers, critics, and theorists have often denigrated colorful, picturesque, and richly patterned visions in cinema.

    Condemning the exclusion of the "pretty" from masculine film culture, Rosalind Galt reevaluates received ideas about the decorative impulse from early film criticism to classical and postclassical film theory. The pretty embodies lush visuality, dense mise-en-scène, painterly framing, and arabesque camera movements-styles increasingly central to world cinema. From European art cinema to the films of Wong Kar-wai and Santosh Sivan, from the experimental films of Derek Jarman to the popular pleasures of Moulin Rouge!, the pretty is a vital element of contemporary cinema, communicating distinct sexual and political identities. Inverting the logic of anti-pretty thought, Galt firmly establishes the decorative image as a queer aesthetic, uniquely able to figure cinema's perverse pleasures and cross-cultural encounters. Creating her own critical tapestry from perspectives in art theory, film theory, and philosophy, Galt reclaims prettiness as a radically transgressive style, shimmering with threads of political agency.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52695-1
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION The Pretty as Troublesome Image
    (pp. 1-37)

    Interspersed throughout the narrative of Catalan director Joachín Jordá’s avant-garde film Dante no es únicamente severo / Dante Is Not Only Severe (1967) are several explicit shots of a surgery performed on a beautiful woman’s eye. Jordá has described the film as a provocation of the audience and the surgery shots as an attempt to counter what he terms “aesthetic drowsiness.”¹ The shots are certainly arresting, but more striking is Jordá’s contention that a visually unpleasant or ugly image is necessary to fend off the seduction of the aesthetic. For him, the visually attractive image can only is necessary to...

    (pp. 38-74)

    Alongside the emergence of cinema, the turn of the twentieth century witnessed a proliferation of scholarship on art history and practical aesthetics. Art historians such as Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl began to exert a defining influence on the formation of art history as a discipline, and the rise of popular forms of modernism in European and American design created new audiences for domestic and everyday aesthetics in many public spheres.¹ In an analysis of the influence of aesthetics on film theory, it is useful to hold simultaneously an achronological (or, better, a very capaciously historical) view, in which key...

  7. TWO COLORS Derek Jarman and Queer Aesthetics
    (pp. 75-96)

    As David Batchelor’s wide-ranging investigation of chromophobia suggests,¹ the anticolor thinking of classical film theory remains a major force in more recent cinema. To explore the critical potentiality of color as a pretty technique, this chapter focuses on the experimental films of Derek Jarman, whose work offers a fascinating linkage of color theory and queer politics. Jarman was well aware of the chromophobic histories of Western art. In his theoretical meditation on color, Chroma, he writes, “As the Roman Empire collapsed, iconoclasts waged war against the graven image. Colour became the fount of impurity. A chasm opened up between the...

  8. THREE ORNAMENT AND MODERNITY From Decorative Art to Cultural Criticism
    (pp. 97-140)

    In conjuring a cinematic pretty, we imagine an image that is decorative rather than meaningful and in which the attractive surface of the screen focuses our attention to the detriment of its serious depths. One model for this mode of aesthetic production is ornament, in which the body of the artwork is adorned with surface detail. Ornament forms an important subcategory of the pretty, and ornament as an aesthetic term intersects closely with pretty discourse in cinema. The question of ornament is a contentious one in the history of aesthetics and one that has never been able to help speaking...

  9. FOUR OBJECTS Oriental Style and the Arabesques of Moulin Rouge!
    (pp. 141-176)

    Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge! (2001), set among the decadent and decorative interiors of turn-of-the-century Paris, seems precisely designed to appall Adolf Loos. Writing almost in the year that Luhrmann’s narrative is set, Loos warns, “And so the domination by the upholsterers began; it was a reign of terror that we can all still feel in our bones. Velvet and silk, silk and velvet, Makart bouquets, dust, suffocating air and lack of light, portières, carpets, and ‘arrangements’—thank God, we are done with all that now!”¹ But we are not done with all that, and a century later Moulin Rouge...

  10. FIVE AT THE CROSSROADS Iconoclasm and the Anti-aesthetic in Postwar Film and Theory
    (pp. 177-212)

    The post–World War II era solidified and expanded film culture’s suspicion of the pretty. In the wake of Italian neorealism’s assertion of uncomposed immediacy as the aesthetic mode ethically appropriate for the postwar world stage, its effects of artless visual contingency were increasingly adopted as signifiers of political radicality and communal self-determination.¹ The European and Asian new waves, Third Cinema, and later the new Hollywood put faith in an anti-aesthetic visual openness that required as a founding rhetorical gesture a negation of studio perfection, stultifying formalism, or bourgeois aesthetic pleasures. This gesture is repeated in postclassical film theory, which...

  11. SIX FORMS Soy Cuba and Revolutionary Beauty
    (pp. 213-235)

    The perceived incommensurability of prettiness and political radicality as well as the conflict of Latin American and European models of cinematic Marxism are given concrete shape in the difficult history of Soy Cubat / I Am Cuba (1964). The film was directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, cowritten by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and shot by iconic director of photography Sergei Urusevsky, all of whom traveled to Cuba in 1961 and spent the best part of three years researching and producing a poetic account of the cusp of revolution. In a portmanteau structure of four separate stories, Soy Cuba builds toward the moment...

  12. SEVEN PERVERSE PRETTINESS Sexuality, Gender, and Aesthetic Exclusion
    (pp. 236-278)

    Where the previous chapter examined the history of iconoclasm that underwrites postclassical leftist film theory, we turn now to the construction of a gendered and sexualized aesthetic that lies at the heart of this anti-pretty rhetoric. Gender is a defining quality of prettiness, and making visible its political nature is a strategy that recurs throughout this book: from the feminizing rhetoric of color and cosmetics to the secondary nature of the decorative and, indeed, the dangers of aesthetic seduction; making the pretty into a critical term is an unequivocally feminist move. But if feminism is always implicit in the proposition...

  13. EIGHT BODIES The Sumptuous Charms of Ulrike Ottinger
    (pp. 279-297)

    Ulrike Ottinger’s filmmaking presents another instance of how pretty films, even famous ones, tend to become unmoored from the safe harbors of canon formation. Ottinger is an undoubtedly important figure in various fields, including art cinema, feminist film, and New German Cinema, but her films have never fitted smoothly into any of these categories. In the 1970s, critics at the influential German feminist journal Frauen und Film found them a poor match for current views on film feminism, and her most famous films predate the queer cinema movements of the 1990s, missing that boat, too. Andrea Weiss considers them not...

  14. POSTSCRIPT Toward a Worldly Image
    (pp. 298-304)

    The development of the pretty as a space of exclusion in film studies has a long history, complexly imbricated in debates on cinematic specificity, realism, ideology, and film form. This study has attempted to bring the negative space of the pretty into view as an object of study and to define it moreover as a political object worth taking seriously. The polemic qualities of the term pretty demand that we look closely at that which we might otherwise regard with disdain. It asks why we assume so easily that certain kinds of aesthetic image are valueless, and it understands that...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 305-344)
    (pp. 345-350)
    (pp. 351-376)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 377-390)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 391-394)