This article contends that film studies has consistently denigrated “pretty” images: those that emphasize detailed composition, excess color, or decorative style. While the term deliberately invokes the triviality of “pretty pictures,” the article questions this taken-for-granted rhetoric of value, proposing that the “pretty” as a recurrent taste category in film reveals an imbrication of gender, sexuality, and race in the construction of the cinematic image itself. Analysis of the pretty's antecedents in histories of art demonstrates how colonial and patriarchal modes of aesthetic judgment enter into film theory. Within the pretty, then, we might find unexpected potential to think aesthetics otherwise. Pretty is an invented term; that which it names is figured differently and often implicitly across film theories that have few similarities except for this strange commonality in what they reject. After outlining the conceptual potential of the pretty, this article traces a thread among diverse theoretical models, defining the category through its absences and exclusions. Thus André Bazin advocates for the contingent and the unposed, while post-1968 Marxism valorizes the antiaesthetic qualities of countercinema. These practices draw on disparate value systems, but both reject decorative composition. Likewise, while feminist and queer theories have often valued spectacle and surface, a structuring iconophobia can still underwrite even radical accounts of representation. By tracing and interrogating the theoretical history of the pretty and its exclusion, this article seeks to trouble the discursive field of aesthetics and politics in film theory.
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