MAY 29, 2020
THE FIRST THING to know about my impression of Gilberto Perez’s The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film is that I’m not a film scholar, I’m a rhetorician.
And the first thing to know about rhetoricians is that, while our field of study is well over 2,000 years old, an alarming percentage of our disciplinary conversations revolve around what rhetoric actually is. Put 50 rhetorical scholars in a room together and you’ll have 50 slightly (or radically) different interpretations about what constitutes rhetoric. Even the basic definition of the term can be cause for contention. Aristotle’s definition circa 350 BCE is still a time-tested favorite, if a touch simplistic: rhetoric is the art of discovering all available means of persuasion in any given situation. Fast forward to 1969 and bohemian scholar Kenneth Burke offered this version: rhetoric is “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or induce actions in other human agents.”
I could — and do, when teaching — offer 25 more conflicting definitions, but these two are enough to begin to grasp the complexity behind the task Perez set for himself in The Eloquent Screen. This posthumous manuscript (Perez died in 2015) is organized into two primary sections. After an introduction that contextualizes cinema within the origins of persuasion using scenes selected from John Ford’s filmography, the first section, “Cinematic Tropes,” systematically explores examples of rhetorical figures such as synecdoche, metonymy, metaphor, and allegory throughout a wide body of films, ranging from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) to Luis Buñuel’s Nazarín (1959), to Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994). Highlighting such a wide swath of nationalities, genres, and decades allows Perez to make a structural argument about how filmmakers encourage certain reactions and impressions from viewers. Next, “Melodrama and Film Technique” employs the same concept-application format to discuss how narrative and directorial decisions affect audiences: what techniques like jump cuts and split screens make viewers feel, how following character gazes and varied perspectives make viewers behave, and what impact all these aggregated choices have on an audience’s relationships to film and characters. But while Perez’s project is indeed ambitious, it is not unprecedented. The Eloquent Screen opens with the declaration that “we have not had any sustained attempt at a rhetoric of film,” but rhetoricians have been publishing on film since at least the 1970s. Today, there are flourishing subgenres on the rhetoric of horror cinema, documentaries, post-feminist films, and more. Failing to engage with this contemporary body of work appropriates the language of rhetorical study without understanding that the discipline of rhetoric has continued to evolve and thrive long beyond the fall of the Roman Empire.
One ongoing debate among modern rhetoricians concerns whether rhetoric is an object of study or a methodology; a major consequence of Perez’s failure to engage with contemporary rhetorical thought is that his rhetoric of film doesn’t fall clearly on either side of that divide. To elaborate, if rhetoric describes the object of study, then how do we define which artifacts are worthy of being considered rhetorical? Should the field limit itself to significant oratories within the public sphere? Is everything rhetorical? Alternatively, if rhetoric is defined as a methodology, new questions arise regarding which frameworks are appropriate for analysis. Methodology is never neutral; understanding who created those frameworks always reveals underlying motivations or biases. Most rhetoricians deductively apply rhetorical methods to film to draw conclusions — rhetoric as methodology. By claiming to define a “rhetoric of film,” Perez ostensibly takes the other path, attempting to define film as a rhetorical object. But because “film” is not a monolith, his attempt to conceptualize a singular rhetoric of film involves sweeping assertions that gloss over the cultural and historical distinctions instituted by both filmmakers and audiences.
In a passage describing the titular character in John Ford’s 1934 Judge Priest, Perez writes that “[h]is is the kind of rhetoric that pretends not to be rhetoric, the kind that is all the more persuasive for seeming not to be trying to persuade.” The idea of persuasion that tries not to persuade reflects the misunderstanding perpetuated throughout popular culture that rhetoric is villainous or, worse, vacuous. Rhetoric is not manipulative, which is to say that it is not inherently negative, but it is (if you recall your Aristotle) based in persuasion. The art of persuasion lies in the persuader’s ability to evoke change. We all constantly engage in persuasive efforts, from pedestrian efforts like coaxing a toddler to wear a winter coat to heated discussions over policy or pitching one’s skills to a prospective employer. Listening to a perspective that mimics an opinion you already hold might be pleasant, but, by definition, it is not persuasive. Film is always engaged in persuasion; it “seems not to be trying to persuade” when it exceeds or subverts our expectations for entertainment.
The nature of persuasion is a crucial component behind one of Perez’s central themes: identification. The Eloquent Screen revolves largely around how filmmakers create desired effects on their audience, and this requires an understanding of why audiences feel connected to movies and characters in the first place. Drawing on Kenneth Burke, Perez explains that we “never simply identify with a character; we identify with an action, a situation, a motive, an interest, a point of view, something the character represents.” Perez uses Hitchcock’s Psycho as an example. For the first 40 minutes of the film, audiences are driven to identify with Marion Crane; we share her scope of knowledge and see from her perspective, so we empathize with her limited choices and decisions. Yet Hitchcock frames the narrative with just enough distance so that when Marion meets her untimely demise our perspective shifts to that of the director: “we imagine [Hitchcock] smiling while the character and the viewer suffer.” With whom we identify, and how deep that identification goes, acts as a basis for how effectively we might be persuaded by a film’s rhetoric.
Identification can come from significant political, social, or historical discourses, but it can be built just as powerfully via mundane revelations of similarity. Without external provocation, we tend to naturally fixate on our own needs and interests; discovering shared areas of interest with others, whether that be a favorite film, a coffee order, or religious beliefs, bonds us to other people and reminds us of our role in a community, beyond the boundaries of our individual self. These bonds combine to create a powerful foundation for catharsis; identification, then, is the process of joining our awareness of our own individuality with our awareness of community to provide motivation for certain behaviors or actions. In film, identification provides viewers with the space and permission to experience uncomfortable emotions like fear or anxiety within a bounded, safe context. When we watch a horror movie like the aforementioned Psycho, we know, when we sit in a theater and watch an icy blonde get stabbed to death, that we ourselves are not immediately in danger. But for women navigating the reality of violence in their daily lives, watching extreme acts on a screen can provide a certain measure of control and space to process their experiences. By identifying with a character like Marion, audiences without traumatic experiences are still encouraged to sit within their discomfort (or, worse, their pleasure) and interrogate how such violence continues to function in their communities. But by the same mechanism, identification can reify problematic behavior, reinforcing oppressive beliefs in those who hold them. Racist and sexist aggressions portrayed on screen — rape jokes or blackface, for example — allow individuals who hold problematic beliefs to feel validated, even if the negative behaviors themselves are not explicitly supported on screen. A skilled director, Perez explains, can leverage audience identification with a character to inspire social critique. John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) provides the material for his explanation. The Searchers features John Wayne, who by this time was already well established in American cinema as a cowboy hero, but here Wayne’s protagonist is an unrepentant ex-Confederate described by Perez as “racist to an astonishing degree.” When Ford introduces viewers to a protagonist with a beloved face, who seems at first to demonstrate the familiar characteristics of an avuncular family man, identification with that figure is immediate and comfortable; both the reveal of his racist attitudes and the ensuing violence he commits against Native Americans urge white viewers to consider what uncomfortable truths are foundational to their own lives.
Beyond his focus on identification, Perez catalogs a series of rhetorical devices that shape film narratives. Rhetorically, the structure of an argument establishes its own form of credibility: the internal consistency of the message, the forms of argument a speaker employs, the strength of each rebuttal, and the variety and type of evidence deployed. So when Perez discusses narrative in the rhetoric of film, he refers not to which stories are told or why, but to how various technical and structural elements come together to create a story. Perez describes the component parts of his film rhetoric as figures of arrangement, a term borrowed from Cicero. Arrangement is one of Cicero’s five canons of rhetoric, adjacent to invention, style, memory, and delivery. In short, every rhetorical object, from a billboard to an inaugural address, must be judged according to where the rhetor found their ideas, how the ideas are organized, the ways in which the ideas are written and delivered, and how well the rhetor understands his own content.
Every rhetor seeks to create the most compelling story out of the available evidence, and, to that end, film is an ideal lens for understanding that persuasion is always narrative. Perez clearly and efficiently breaks down tropes such as metaphor, metonymy, allegory, and synecdoche to illustrate how these structural building blocks remind viewers of the intentional relationship between themselves and the filmmaker: “A trope exhibits artifice in which we discern an artificer; it bespeaks someone speaking to us […] coming forward to our notice instead of remaining hidden behind the actors and the story.” A film’s structural choices can shape our degree of identification with its characters: this, in turn, drives both our overall reception of the art and how we behave after its viewing. Perez explains that these degrees of identification are a major component of genre. Tragedy, for example, “calls for our identification with the hero, our pity and fear, but it also calls for a larger perspective […] we must take a certain distance from the protagonist.” Filmmakers cue their audiences to laugh, to cry, to be afraid, to fall in love.
From our current standpoint in film history, however, structural cues for identification seem like something of an ouroboros. Do we understand a character as villainous because of how they are shot, or do we shoot them in a way that film has already taught us to portray villains? And in an increasingly globalized era of film, can we assume that structural cues carry across contexts? Perez uses film examples that are mostly European or Western in origin. With Parasite becoming the first foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, there has never been a better time to question when and how identification crosses cultural boundaries. Perez provides a compelling account of how identification and narrative function within a film to direct thoughts and feelings in viewers, and The Eloquent Screen offers readers a rich vocabulary for critically analyzing their reactions to cinema.
Lanie Presswood is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Media at West Chester University. Her first book, Food Blogs, Postfeminism, and the Communication of Expertise: Digital Domestics, was released in December 2019 by Lexington Books.