83 min, 2020, dir. Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli
A visiting German artist, an American academic, a millennial polyamorous enclave in New York City; director-actor Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s So Pretty is an excursion into actually-existing utopia, a document (if not quite a documentary) of a loving, precarious community. Dunn Rovinelli’s sophomore feature, following the tender Empathy (2016), observes a tight-knit group of trans and genderqueer artists, writers, activists, living interwoven lives in a Brooklyn apartment, and in the electrified city streets.
A loose literary adaptation (based on an eponymous novel by German author Ronald M. Schernikau), So Pretty transposes the story from West Berlin to the metropolitan Unites States, from 1982 to the present. Dunn Rovinelli retains the sparseness of Schernikau’s cozy prose, yet adds an element of visual polish. Glorious 16-millimeter lensing, delicate camera maneuvers, and a pounding electro score work towards an atmosphere of affect, of warmth, familiarity, devotion. Passion is paired with quietude, vitality with absolute restraint; Chantal Akerman and Straub-Huillet are immediate touchstones, as is the underground cinema pioneer Jack Smith. So Pretty reminds us that liberation is the only way to go.
“Inventing the queer gaze in front of our eyes.”
When I discovered Ronald M. Schernikau’s novella from which this film is adapted, it slipped into subconscious, quietly becoming a lynchpin I oriented myself around me as I came to rearticulate my approach to both my body and politics as both became increasingly unbearable for me. Years later, it became clear that the way to repay this debt to the work was to continue this dialogue through a film, as a way of attempting to speak to an important figure I would never be able to meet due to his untimely death.
I chose to make a work that was a translation and a transposition rather than a traditional adaptation, both maintaining his written text and inserting my interventions into it. If the novel documents, roughly, the author’s life and loves and politics, I’ve done roughly the same, making a fiction that moves towards documentary, in a sort of opposite move to my last film, a documentary that moved towards fiction, taking the social and artistic practices of Schernikau and my actors as a site for continued investigation. I’ve tried to maintain the tensions of contemporary US millieu and the tensions inherent in the novel and the process of adapting it, but the overwhelming approach was one that tried to maintain its stunning gentleness, prettiness, it’s attention to gesture and presentation, and its ability to locate these as a site of utopian practice in the here-and-now. Over the years, this has come to seem a fragile path forward.
And so I’ve made a deliberately “superficial” film that stakes a claim to the capacity of sensuous community contained in that term, that takes that superficiality as an important, real, and powerful aspect of a project of building new social relations written off by a dominant capitalist understanding of “depth.” I’ve attempted to make something open and inviting, taking the rhythmic looping patterns of dance music as my structure and the everyday choreography of bodies as my material, with the hopes of making a film that through a certain “prettiness” can render possible a desire for new ways of being, to see the contours of new bodies and selves and relations.
In the end it is, of course, a love letter, one I hope other can share in. It is also, of course, a coming-out film for me as a transgender woman, but I hope it can be more than that, that it can locate the utopian in diverse ways of being bodies and moving bodies, despite or within in the horror of the here-and-now that Schernikau so radically posits, that it can open for others the political and personal doors that were opened for me.
~ Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli