The shimmering streets
After I watched Jessica Dunn Rovinelli’s second feature-length film, “So Pretty,” I found myself bringing it up to my trans friends. “It’s hard to describe,” I would say. “But you should really see it.”
Part of its appeal is that “So Pretty” is a film that treats transness only incidentally, and largely doesn’t make a big deal out of it. The trans people in Rovinelli’s film exist within the milieu of people who, as McKenzie Wark put it, exist in “incidental capacities in the information economy, but would rather make their own art.” The film is more of a portrait of a particular time and place within which transness exists on its own, presented not as a mystery to be solved but a simple fact of life. The film’s gaze doesn’t take on the role of an overcurious voyeur, doesn’t pry into our existence to seek some “truth.” It lets us live.
I’m getting ahead of myself. The film is an adaptation of “so schön,” a 1982 novella by the German writer Ronald M. Schernikau, whose work combined radical politics with clear-eyed documentation of gay life in Germany before and during the AIDS crisis. Schernikau himself died of AIDS in 1991, leaving behind a small, but significant, body of formally adventurous fiction and criticism. Very little of it has been translated into English, but even the small snippets of his work that have given a sense of the unusual intimacy and gentleness of his style. “so schön” follows four characters, Erika, Paul, Tonio and Franz, whose lives intersect romantically and politically as they work, fall in love and participate in organizing efforts. At the beginning, Paul is with Erika and Tonio is with Franz, and by the end the couples have dissolved and swapped around.
Rovinelli’s film is not a straightforward adaptation of Schernikau’s novel, but rather takes it as a point of departure. For one thing, her film interprets Schernikau’s milieu of mostly gay men with a cast that includes several queer women and trans people. Tonio (Tonia in the film) and Erika are both played by trans women, and later on, we meet Helmut, a trans man who helps with political organizing and hangs out in the apartment Franz and Paul share. In part, this modification has to do with the setting Rovinelli chose — she transposes Schernikau’s novel from ‘80s Berlin to contemporary New York, a deliberate move in the direction of her own life. She writes in a director’s note that Schernikau’s novel became “a lynchpin I oriented myself around as I came to rearticulate my approach to both my body and politics as both became increasingly unbearable for me.” The film she set out to make, she writes, is a documentation of her own “life and loves and politics,” much like what Schernikau did for his gay Berlin in the 1980s.
One can sense this rearticulation at play in the film itself, written on the surface of it. In the second scene, two yet-unnamed lovers, a trans woman and her partner, lie in bed reading the description of Franz and Tonio from a copy of “so schön.” The two start playfully comparing themselves to the two characters, one countering with “I’m also not a ‘Tonio,’” I’m a “Tonia … Are you my ‘Franz’?” The other says “If that’s what you want.” From then on, the characters are referred to as Tonia and Franz, the relationship of those names to their real identities an open question. As they entwine in bed, the camera pans slowly across the room, finding the lovers again in a mirror a moment later.
The next scene takes place in the kitchen of Franz’s apartment, where people are already congregated for breakfast. Erika and Paul are seated at the table nearby Paul’s mother Gera, and several other people are around as well. Introductions are made, and everyone settles into conversations. The camera doesn’t fix itself on one conversation or another, but rather just stays zoomed out to the level of the room. You can overhear bits and pieces of conversation, but for the most part the conversations are unintelligible — three or more people are talking at once, and the sound seems to have been recorded such that no one thread sticks out. In the absence of any one thing to pay attention to, one starts to notice body language more. Rovinelli as Tonia is gangly and kind of awkward, reaching her long arms across the kitchen table and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Franz is more confident, standing with his legs apart and with a hand on his hip. Erika sits at the table with one leg pulled up to her chest, a stance both confident and defensive. Someone sits cross-legged on a counter, talking to Franz. “I’m great up here,” they say. Tonia accepts coffee; in a moment she hands Erika water in a wine glass.
The gaze of the film remains like this: gentle and unobtrusive, more of a presence in the room than a method of telling the story. The languid movement of the camera creates a uniquely non-hierarchical feeling, a sense in which the overlapping storylines are placed within a context rather than narrated with edits, such that they stop resembling storylines at all and start resembling life. In many of the scenes, there are several things you can choose to focus on at any given point, and the camera doesn’t direct your eye. The camera pans slowly across crowded rooms or fixes itself on a central spot and lets the actors move about inside the frame.
McKenzie Wark, in her essay on the film, notes that the kind of gaze has implications for the film’s presentation of trans characters. “Trans films still tend to be fascinated with transition itself. That’s not of much interest here. The trans characters simply are.” Returning to my earlier observation, this film is an antidote to the countless works that exercise an undignified curiosity about trans people’s lives.
This style of shooting also works well because much of the film consists of the characters in groups — preparing to attend a protest, playing games and socializing, conversing on their way to go dancing. When characters are on their own, they’re doing mundane things, like showering or putting on a shirt or making a bed. It’s in their communities that the characters’ personalities really come out. The film doesn’t seek out storylines and development on the scale of single characters, but rather considers the group as a unit.
The intensely communal lifestyle is related to the characters’ politics, but it’s an uneasy relationship. Early on in the film, Tonia, Franz and Helmut attend a protest, and when asked whether Erika is coming, Helmut simply says that she doesn’t come to them anymore. Later on, we get a glimpse of an earlier protest that might have occasioned this decision, upon which Erika is arrested and Paul is injured. Paul and Erika, being POC, experience this political world quite differently than the white queers that surround them.
Aside from these moments, the film mostly deemphasizes confrontational politics. It doesn’t turn polemical against police violence, it simply renders it as an element of the landscape that these characters live in. This violence is also countered by the community these characters live in. When Paul is injured, Franz cares for him, care that turns into affection and then attraction, and they become lovers.
Rovinelli writes in the director’s note that her goal was to “locate the utopian in diverse ways of being bodies and moving bodies.” The film’s gaze, in its gentle allowance of freedom and movement, creates a space apart from the world while still being continuous with it. She’s created a utopia of the here-and-now — a world that isn’t without conflict, isn’t without miscommunication and violence, but one that offers dignity through solidarity and care. This world could be our world, already is our world in fits and starts. In the end, the film almost feels like a provocation to live up to this vision.