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Terministic Screen : Rhetorical Perspectives on Film

Terministic Screen : Rhetorical Perspectives on Film

by David Blakesley

The Terministic Screen: Rhetorical Perspectives on Film examines the importance of rhetoric in the study of film and film theory. Rhetorical approaches to film studies have been widely practiced, but rarely discussed until now. Taking on such issues as Hollywood blacklisting, fascistic aesthetics, and postmodern dialogics, editor David Blakesley presents


The Terministic Screen: Rhetorical Perspectives on Film examines the importance of rhetoric in the study of film and film theory. Rhetorical approaches to film studies have been widely practiced, but rarely discussed until now. Taking on such issues as Hollywood blacklisting, fascistic aesthetics, and postmodern dialogics, editor David Blakesley presents fifteen critical essays that examine rhetoric’s role in such popular films as The Fifth Element, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Usual Suspects, Deliverance, The English Patient, Pulp Fiction, The Music Man, Copycat, Hoop Dreams and A Time to Kill.

This unique volume is about seeing and interpreting, about visual rhetoric and making meaning, about film as a symbolic form of expression. The essayists convey an approach to film as a set of well-grounded theoretical perspectives including psychoanalytic, semiotic, hermeneutic, phenomenological, and cultural discourses. Aided by sixteen illustrations, these insightful essays consider films rhetorically, as ways of seeing and not seeing, as acts that dramatize how people use language and images to tell stories and foster identification. Collectively, these essays examine society through a rhetorical lens, inviting the readers to judge for themselves the significant role rhetoric plays in the arena of film.

Contributors include David Blakesley, Alan Nadel, Ann Chisholm, Martin J. Medhurst, Byron Hawk, Ekaterina V. Haskins, James Roberts, Thomas W. Benson, Philip L. Simpson, Davis W. Houck, Caroline J.S. Picart, Friedemann Weidauer, Bruce Krajewski, Harriet Malinowitz, Granetta L. Richardson, and Kelly Ritter.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

The Terministic Screen: Rhetorical Perspectives on Film offers readers who have interests or specialities in rhetorical analysis a point of entry into contemporary cinema as it frames issues of style, representation, history, and culture. Although the literature on cinema is vast, relatively few books have adopted an explicitly rhetorical emphasis. Thus, this volume fills a long-neglected gap in the scholarly literature on film.”—Stephen Prince, author of Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film

Product Details

Southern Illinois University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Terministic Screen

Rhetorical Perspectives on Film

Southern Illinois University Press

Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8093-2829-1

Chapter One

Mapping the Other: The English Patient, Colonial Rhetoric, and Cinematic Representation

Alan Nadel

One cannot colonize without a map, a gaze, and a narrative.

Since colonization is a symbolic action-albeit with innumerable material consequences-it requires a symbology. To say that Columbus discovered America, for example, is to say that he participated in a symbolic relationship in which his European sponsor was, a priori, superior and his "America" was, a posteriori, subordinate. According to the understanding of space encoded by European maps, in other words, if Columbus landed on an "unmapped" place, whatever he discovered there, by definition, would be subordinate, for maps make initial distinctions, distinctions that organize a gaze. And these distinctions, Michel de Certeau makes clear, are of a historiographic nature. They divide the nations with written "history" from those nations with unwritten history, so that the mapping of the new space is the writing of the colonizer's history. Because the discovery of "America" extends the map of Spain, it becomes part of the history of Spanish-or more genericallyEuropean-exploration and conquest. The mapping of the New World-and by extension the bodies of those others who inhabit it-organizes the historiographic gaze just as the nominal rubric, "The Age of Exploration," thematizes it.

The narrative of colonization thus consists of innumerable acts, for example, of definition, redefinition, assimilation, appropriation, and exclusion, that facilitate the creation and definition of mapped space, so that to map is to participate in the rhetoric of colonialism, in that mapping extends and represents the gaze of the colonizer in the name of objectivity, neutrality, science. Maps project a representation as though the referents existed in nature, as though the matrix of measurement and gridwork simply reflected what was there-what was discovered to be there-rather than that they create the space on which the narrative of discovery can unfold by virtue of representing the other.

Just as the codes of mapping are thus rhetorical devices providing colonial narratives with a scientific ethos, so the codes of cinematic representation, especially in mainstream Hollywood-style cinema, are rhetorical devices providing the illusion of omniscience or, to state it differently, the ethos of objectivity to narratives that subordinate the deigesis to the desires of the spectator. Mainstream cinematic narrative, in other words, evokes the same ethos as mapping, in that both forms of representation create symbolic spaces that mask the arbitrary authority ceded, a priori, to the place whence the (geographic, historiographic, or cinematographic) discourse emanates. The spectator, as visitor to the symbolic space, is invited to share the privileged gaze of the colonizer.

In this light, The English Patient presents an extended rhetorical argument about the dimensions of colonial discourse in such a way as to connect that discourse to the codes of cinematic representation, thus revealing the seductive quality of colonial discourse as a form of cinematic romance from which the rhetorical tenets of mainstream cinema allow no escape. Since mapping is the literal act of turning the other into a representation, it is a rhetorical process, one that is requisite to traditional narrative cinema. That cinema constructs its narrative by means of plotting coordinates between a vast and unviewable world and a manageable, contained temporal and physical space. This coordination only becomes legible by virtue of its compliance with elaborate semantic and syntactic conventions. Since filmmaking, in this regard, is identical to mapmaking, the fact that the central characters in The English Patient are engaged as mapmakers thus underscores the ways that filmmaking and mapmaking participate in colonial rhetorical practices.

If mapmaking is the quintessential colonialist activity-the construction of a gridwork and taxonomy aimed at naming the other, at turning the other into the same-then the International Sand Club, as Almasy's pre-World War II, North African exploration group euphemistically names itself, is, despite its claims of apolitical internationalism, devoted in the most abstract and concrete ways to colonialism. This devotion is so transparent as to render itself invisible in the same way that cinematic rhetoric (at least in mainstream cinema) renders its privileged gaze invisible in order to make it one with the diegesis it presumes to render. That presumption, of course, is merely rhetorical; mainstream narrative cinema constructs a world through a series of rhetorical conventions so that that world may appear to be "captured." The same is true of the cartographer whose symbolic representations name and delimit a site that then may be claimed, transgressed, acquired, owned, exchanged, exploited, or renounced; cartography creates the external perspective from which the indigenous people can be distinguished and in whose name the concept of the primitive and/or role of the subaltern can be created.

The film interweaves two stories, one of Almasy, a Hungarian who in the 1930s worked as part of an international team exploring and mapping North Africa, and the other of Hana, a Canadian nurse who served in an Allied medical corps in Europe during World War II. In the final weeks of the war in Europe, distraught by the fact that, as the English patient states, "anybody she ever loves tends to die on her," Hana opts out of the war, taking refuge in an abandoned Italian monastery. There she plans to tend, in his final days, to the nameless "English patient," suffering from profound and extensive burns incurred in a plane crash in North Africa six years earlier. That English patient is Almasy, who had had an affair, just prior to the outbreak of the war, with a married British woman, Katherine Clifton. Through a complex interplay first of crosscutting and then of flashbacks, the film interweaves the events in North Africa in the late 1930s and in the Italian monastery at the end of World War II.

The North African events start with Almasy's plane crash in the desert (he's shot down by German troops), which causes his burns. Next he is rescued by ostensibly nomadic people who treat the burns with nonwestern ointments and transport him out of the desert via camel. These segments are crosscut with segments of Hana's treating wounded soldiers in Europe. The use of crosscutting, according to standard cinematic rhetoric, would suggest that the two events are simultaneous, separated by space but not by time. Only when Hana and the English patient occupy the same place-"Italy 1944," a title tells us-can we discern that their events took place in different times, simultaneous only from the privileged perspective of the cinematic spectator.

As a rhetorical device, in other words, the initial crosscutting simultaneously establishes and diminishes difference. The contrasts between Almasy's adventures and Hana's are underscored by their apparent simultaneity, so that we are encouraged to construct an allegorical equation: her suffering equals his. This allegorical move-the act of making the other the same-of course, is requisite to colonizing. In revealing the rhetorical convention as misleading, the "1944" subtitle does not remove the illusory construction of similarity/difference; instead it reorients its axis, such that the two sequences, in sharing the same cinematic space, are united in their separation from the spectator. The spectator's position thus becomes historical, since the writing of history necessarily creates temporal distinctions within the unity of the historical text that allows history to exist qua history.

The viewer thus replicates, in relation to Almasy's story (and to Hana's), Almasy's own relationship to his book of Herodotus, who, he tells Hana, is "the father of history." This is especially so because Herodotus provides the allegorical scaffold for Almasy's romance with Katharine. When, around the campfire in the desert, the members of the International Sand Club entertain each other, Katharine does so by telling a story of adultery and death recorded by Herodotus: In order to demonstrate the beauty of his wife to Gyges, Candeles, the king of Lydia, arranges to hide Gyges in his wife's bedroom while she is undressing. When the queen beholds Gyges observing her naked body, she tells him, in Katharine's words: "either you must submit to death for gazing on what you should not or else kill my husband, who has shamed me, and become king in his place. So Gyges kills the king, marries the queen, and becomes ruler of Lydia for twenty-eight years. End of the story." Through crosscutting and sound bridges, the film links Hana's reading the story from Herodotus in the monastery and Katharine's telling it in the desert, thus creating an ostensive parallel between Hana's love for the English patient and Katharine's love for Almasy. This odd triangulation of Herodotus, Hana, and Katharine, moreover, situates the English patient/Almasy in the peculiar position of being both the auditor and the projector of the scene of the storytelling, in other words, as both the site of the cinematic apparatus and the site of the cinematic spectator. Because, moreover, the matrix that unifies the sites of the two narratives is his identity-in other words, the connection between "Almasy" and "the English patient"-the cinematic devices foreground how as spectator Almasy occupies the role of the Lacanian split subject, which, many argue, is endemic to the experience of the cinematic spectatorship. The story that Almasy heard becomes the memory the English patient projects, into which he inserts Almasy-himself and not himself, as he claims no memory of his name-as the spectator. That story is about the relationship of death and power to the act of "gazing upon what you should not." It is thus a template for the circulation of lack that, in the Lacanian model, binds death and pleasure through the mechanism of desire, and it is also a metonymic moment in the film's rhetoric for the specific circulation of desire that will consume Katharine and Almasy.

This metonymic moment, contextualized by the symbolic order under the name of "the father of history," Herodotus, situates Almasy not only as the psychological subject of the events to which he was spectator but also as the historical subject of them, in that he has interleaved his life into Herodotus's text. Between the pages of his edition of Herodotus, Almasy has put letters, notes, and pictures that comprise his personal history prior to becoming the English patient. Just as the book of Herodotus becomes the text that integrates truth, fable, allegory, personal history, and public history for the English patient, the film becomes the same synchronic text for the viewer. Like the characters, we are put in the position of ceding authority to a text, so that it may allow us to construct from it a fictive history. Constructing the history of the English patient, furthermore, becomes a theme in the film, such that most of the significant characters are engaged in the same enterprise, from the English officer who is interviewing the English patient in Italy, to Hana, Caravaggio, and Kip. One could even argue that the English patient himself is reconstructing his history through years of scorched denial; that he too is filling in the blank spaces and giving a name and a meaning to the events. Since Almasy is not English, to discover how he came to be called the English patient is to understand the rhetoric of colonialism-the process of discovering, of claiming, and of naming that authorized his activity in North Africa and organizes colonialism in general. That is the same activity, rhetorically, that the viewer must go through to understand why the film is named The English Patient. The film guides its viewers, in other words, to an understanding of the same arbitrary acts of nominalism that the plot guides its characters toward. Those acts involve the rhetorical power to name and to claim, and the rhetorical implications of being named and being claimed.

Since the film is so extensively engaged in the rhetoric of naming and claiming, the opening credits become very significant. While the credits appear, we see a close-up of a brush drawing with black (India?) ink on a rough tan parchment. The sequence is compelling because of the vividly contrasting textures, so that as the wet ink touches the parched, tan surface, we watch not just an inscription but a conversion; the ink makes the light, dry, rough, heterogeneous surface dark, smooth, wet, and homogeneous. It performs this act of conversion, moreover, through an unseen agency, as only the tip of the brush is visible and we do not know who marks the surface or when or why. The marks themselves are also cryptic. We cannot tell at first if they resemble figures, designs, or letters in some alphabetic or pictographic language. Only as the drawing is completed is it possible to discern-although one certainly might have guessed-that the black inscription resembles a human figure lying horizontally, arms extended above his/her head. Although later in the film, similar figures will be found decorating the walls of a cave, named by the European explorers "The Cave of Swimmers," we have no way of knowing what the figure represents. It could be a human swimming or screaming or dead. It might not represent a human at all but rather some anthropomorphic god or demon in the history or religion of the people who drew the figures in the cave. At the outset, however, even this questionable naming and claiming is withheld. We simply have a black figure superimposed on a light surface, a foreign substance with an unseen and unnamed agent occupying and symbolically reorganizing an alien space.

This act of inscription, furthermore, stands in sharp contrast to a simultaneous but very different act of naming and claiming: the presentation of the film's credits. This takes place within a recognizable symbology-standard letters of an English alphabet, arranged to present comprehensible messages in a recognizable order: stars, film title, featured players, chief production personnel in ascending order of importance, culminating with the name of the director. The letters, unlike the ink figure, moreover, seem detached from the surface on which they appear and absent of the sign of the agent that produced them. In the symbology of film rhetoric they are the a priori owners of the space that is being claimed, a posteriori, by the brush and black ink. In these opening credits, therefore, the nondeigetic world is artificially made simultaneous with the deigetic in the same way that the crosscutting that follows will artificially make the 1930s Africa and the 1940s Europe simultaneous. The opening credits thus demonstrate the authority of cinematic rhetoric to subordinate time and space to the ends of its symbolic representation, in other words, to demonstrate the way in which mainstream cinema replicates the act of mapping endemic to the rhetoric of colonialism.

When the credits are finished, the parchment with the black image dissolves into another space, similar in hue but different in texture, smooth but full of curves, highlighted by dark shadows. The scene at first seems to be the close-up of a naked and hairless (hence, probably female) body. In a gesture of visual chiasmus, in other words, the imagery of the black body on the tan parchment seems inverted, such that the tan surface now represents the body while the black highlighting indicates its parameters. The shadow of the drawn body lingers, moreover, after the parchment has dissolved, such that it becomes a large shadow floating across the new surface. While the camera pans back, it becomes clear that the surface is not the body of a woman but of a continent, the rippled sands of the Sahara, which appear smooth when viewed from adequate distance, in this case the height of an airplane. Rhetorically, this inversion turns the making of the black inscription into an act of mapping, in other words, a symbolic representation of a place. It suggests, in addition, that in both the version and the inversion, the informing metaphor for the mapped site is the female (or at least feminized) body. In presenting the drawn (i.e., symbolic) version of the body as black and the land itself as light, the film also puns visually on the nominal representation of Africa, in colonial discourse, as "the dark continent." Finally, the visual chiasmus suggests the gesture of the entire film, to create an alternative imagery that inverts traditional colonialist rhetorical assumptions and, through them, inverts colonialism's seductive hegemonic argument.


Excerpted from The Terministic Screen Copyright © 2003 by Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

David Blakesley is an associate professor of English and director of professional writing at Purdue University. He is the author of The Elements of Dramatism, the coeditor of The Writing Instructor, the founder and moderator of the Kenneth Burke Discussion List and the Virtual Burkeian Parlor, and the editor of the Southern Illinois University Press series Rhetorical Philosophy and Theory.

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