This paper was presented at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference 2000 at the Congress Plaza Hotel, Chicago on March 11, 2000, as part of the panel H6: Towards a Rhetoric of Film

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Most of the important commentaries on film and rhetoric are indebted to the neo-Aristotelian school of literary criticism once practiced at the University of Chicago – particularly to Wayne Booth’s highly influential The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), which is less preoccupied with overt argument or eloquence than with problems of ethical clarity and “the art of communicating.” (1) Again and again, Booth emphasizes the artist’s effort, through techniques of narration and characterization, “to help the reader grasp the work” and to “impose” a fictional or illusory world upon an audience. In a similar though more overtly ideological fashion, writing on the rhetoric of film has tended to deal with issues of point of view, focalization, and enunciation, and especially with debates over what Avrom Fleishman describes as the “narrator-effect” of fiction cinema. (2)

Granting the importance of such matters, I plan to say relatively little about them. I want to define rhetoric more broadly and theatrically, as an art of suasion and seduction that secures our belief in claims of truth and our pleasure in representation. The rhetorical event in this sense is only secondarily concerned with the clarity or veracity of its evidence (as in the “realism” of documentary photographs); before anything, it is intended to move us by means of verbal skill, bodily eloquence, spectacle, color, performance, and all the well-known elements of cosmetics, stagecraft, and mise en scène. Explicitly aimed at arousing the passions, it proves its worth or lack of worth through the emotional effects it creates on auditors or spectators at specific occasions.

As Jacquline Lichtenstein has shown in her important book, The Color of Eloquence (1993), this broad conception of rhetoric, which is quite old, has long been connected to acting, painting, and the visual arts in general. In ancient Greece, it was a techne that controlled the entire empire of communication, and at a later, more specialized, moment in its history, it became one of the three crucial disciplines of the Roman trivium, which eventually shaped the curriculum in European schools. Even so, as John Bender and David Wellbery have pointed out in a recent anthology, The Ends of Rhetoric (1990), rhetorical art was never without critics, who usually accused it of fostering luxurious excess, irrational power, and demagogic manipulation. Plato, in his quarrel with the sophists, distinguished between the language of rhetoric, which deals in mere adornment and emotional affect, and the language of philosophy, which deals in truth. Francis Bacon and every major scientist from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment denigrated rhetoric in contrast to the neutral, transparent discourse of scientific discovery. Immanuel Kant described the major part of rhetoric as “the art of deceiving by a beautiful show” and attacked its use in both the law court and the pulpit on the grounds that it was designed “to win minds to the side of the orator before they have formed a judgement and to deprive them of their freedom.” (3) Not long afterward, the romantic poets forsook what M.H. Abrams has called the “mirror” of neo-classical art with the “lamp” of individual expression, thus asserting the primacy of the literary artist’s Imagination over the need to communicate with an audience.

From the time of Plato and Aristotle until the 19th century, rhetoric was usually subordinated to philosophy and devoted to the study of inventio, dispositio, and elecutio in verbal language. By the mid 19th century, it had narrowed to a tedious and relatively mechanical typology of figures of speech, all of them labeled with Latin names, and to a genteel, highly controlled application of these figures and their appropriate gestures to the arts of acting and public address. The printed word had long since gained ascendency over oral communication, and verbal and visual rhetoric of the more flamboyant kind began to take on negative connotations associated with bourgeois pretentiousness, populist politics and the newly emerging mass-communication and advertising industries. At this point, artistic modernism attempted to administer a deathblow to rhetoric. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, and particularly in the years immediately after World War I, there was a wholesale artistic revolt against the very term, which was seen as a discredited technique of an imperial establishment whose representatives usually spoke in the elevated tones of moral preachment.

What was at stake during these years was not so much an abandonment of suasion, which would have been virtually impossible, as a new and heterodox contempt for certain audiences – an anti-rhetorical rhetoric that almost defined the modernist ethos. The keynote of modernist architecture was the rejection of classical ornament in favor of less decorative forms derived from industry or landscape; modernist painting divested itself of the sentimental, representational imagery of the 19th century, becoming increasingly abstract; art photography favored the austere, intellectual qualities of disegno over the emotional qualities of colore; and “modern dance” was predicated on a rejection of the rhetorical hierarchies in ballet in favor of what was sometimes called “task performance”. This suspicion of elevated tone and direct appeals to emotion was particularly apparent in modernist poetry, whose readers, according to T.S. Eliot, were never to be addressed “as if [they] were at a public meeting.” (4) Eliot himself went further, stripping poetry even of the social conventions of communication. The Waste Land (1922) was an ironic, deliberately anti-rhetorical poem addressed to a hypocrite lecteur and based on an art of verbal collage, or on what Hugh Kenner called “juxtaposition without copula” (5); despite the many academic commentators who tried to make it seem coherent, it steered very close to surrealism, providing eloquence, rhetorical flourish, and a sense of luxury only through quotations.

Something roughly similar was happening in the novel, and this development, particularly in the hands of writers such as Joyce and Nabokov, later provoked Wayne Booth’s criticism in The Rhetoric of Fiction, on the grounds that it left readers with no moral and ethical guideposts. Whether or not one agrees with Booth, it is certainly true that the whole tendency of 20th-century fiction was to become more ambiguous and “cinematic,” less explicitly “rhetorical.” In the English language, modernist fiction began with the attempts by Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Ford Maddox Ford to elevate “showing” over “telling,” and it culminated with James Joyce’s “invisible” narration and pastiche of literary convention in Ulysses (1922). Significantly, the seventh or “Aeolus” chapter of that book is devoted to the art of rhetoric, which it treats satirically. It shows us a group of Dublin windbags, most of them journalists and small-time politicians, lolling about a newspaper office, quoting speeches and news reports from the good old days. The conversation of this group contains almost a hundred examples of rhetorical forms (chiasmus, diasyrm, asyndeton, enthymeme, apostrophe, epigram, etc.), but the two most sympathetic characters in the chapter, the adman Leopold Bloom and the poet Stephen Dedalus, are markedly plain, sometimes even cryptic in their speech; in different ways, both are estranged from Dublin’s charmingly seductive but ultimately empty world of masculine palaver and antiquated eloquence.

An analogous development occurred in the theater. The word “actor” in English was originally meant to suggest the “action” of orators, and early textbooks on acting were designed to teach the artful employment of gestures and tones of voice to move, persuade, and embody traits of character. The connection between acting and speechmaking began to disappear around 1890, with the debates surrounding William Archer’s Masks or Faces? (1888), which prepared the way for what I have elsewhere described as a “”shift from a semiotic to a psychological conception of performance.” (6). On the stage, actors sometimes stood in corners or turned their backs to the audience, and the writings of Konstantin Stanislavsky led to a complete rejection of a centuries-old tradition of codified pantomime. The Stanilavskian revolution didn’t completely eliminate rhetoric, any more than novels or poems eliminated communication, but like most forms of modern art it was less openly solicitous or directly aimed toward the audience; it often relied on indirection, requiring viewers or readers to work at the discovery of meaning.

What, you may be asking, has all this to do with movies? The answer is that Hollywood has a paradoxical relation to the modernist movements, at once participating in the general reaction against flamboyant rhetoric and fostering a full-scale return to bodily eloquence and visual suasion. D. W. Griffith is especially interesting in this regard because he is both a modern aesthete and a Victorian ideologue. The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915) helps to create a new form of intimate, vernacular acting and an “invisible” style of continuity editing, but at the same time it’s a definitive example of the cinema as argument – an emotionally-charged, propagandistic melodrama, filled with spectacle and preachment, punctuated with title cards that aspire to old-fashioned oratory. When Griffith said that he was trying to make us “see,” he was declaring his affinity not with Joseph Conrad but with the ancient orators – who, as Jacqueline Lichtenstein demonstrates, were trained to paint pictures with words, and who sometimes unveiled paintings before their audiences as a way of achieving emotional assent to their arguments. Lichtenstein points out that ancient philosophy usually tried to control the powers of this visual rhetoric because of its dangerous emotional effects. Plato and Aristotle were alike, she notes, “in their determination to grant the spectacle only a secondary function…they suggest that the greatest danger for the poet’s and the orator’s arts resides in the performances of acting and staging…and that a constant threat to the [priority of philosophy over] poetics and rhetoric lurks in the conditions of a spectacle whose presentation is, however, necessary.” (7) If we follow this reasoning, then Griffith can be seen as the philosopher’s worst nightmare – a powerful rhetorician who never eliminates language or undervalues plot, but who foregrounds the emotional power of the actor’s body, the eloquence of camera placement, and the mute spectacle of staged conflict.

Gilberto Perez has recently described motion picture direction as an art of “dramatized showing,” a phrase that nicely captures the fundamentally rhetorical nature of decoupage and mise en scène, and that enables us to see point of view shots and other camera positions as theatrical, not merely narrational. (8) But in the history of American cinema, directors have approached this art differently, and they can be categorized in terms of the degree to which they employ grandiloquent images in the service of an overt rhetoric. John Ford, for example, was a disciple of Griffith who claimed to have played a klansman in The Birth of a Nation and whose films overflow with populist sentiment, patriotic symbols, and painterly images of military horsemen seen against spectacular landscapes. Ford’s particular sort of masculine nationalism was memorably embodied by Will Rogers and Henry Fonda – plain-spoken, folksy heroes, quite unlike the grandiose orators of the 19th century Eastern establishment, who were nevertheless visualized in monumental style and posed in a way that invited us to see them as emblems of American history. Ford was also the director who propounded the notion that when the facts become legend, we should print the legend – in other words, the idea that rhetoric can be more important than truth. Thus in pictures such as My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946), the emotions seem authentic and the vistas breathtaking, even when the history is a lie.

At an apparently opposite extreme is a director such as Vincente Minnelli, whose musicals and melodramas create a luxurious excess of movement, light, fabric, and decor. Seen in relation to the ancient debates about rhetoric, Minnelli was a sophist rather than a Platonist, because his pictures are so unabashedly about the flattery of the senses – the pleasures of dance, costume design, cosmetics, and above all color. Even in a small-town, domestic melodrama such as Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958), he indulges in a virtual orgy of sentimental emotion, swirling action, and gaudy hues. To quote Lichtenstein again, “Flattery, cosmetics, artifice, appearance…all the terms of this metaphorical chain…qualify the effects of color as effects of seduction; they are the effects of illusion and pleasure. Essentially sophistic, color is also rhetorical, from the point of view of its effects: it is the figure of ornamentation and the ornament of figures.” (9) Thus Ford and Minnelli, for all their differences, are on opposite sides of the same coin: if the potential critique of Ford rests on a relatively recent notion of rhetoric as an instrument of phallic, masculine hierarchy, then the potential critique of Minnelli rests on an even older notion of rhetoric as a “feminine” and perverse practice of deception, an art of surfaces rather than essences.

In a different category altogether are the modernist directors, who employ an ironic rhetoric that questions its own validity. Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer, for example, exhibit varying degrees of detachment from their audiences and require viewers to reject the dominant ethos – as in Buñuel’s Land Without Bread (1932), which uses Brahms’ music and a travelogue-style narration to create a bottomless, Swiftian irony. Orson Welles is another obvious example, particularly in Citizen Kane (1941), a film that sets out to expose the manipulative bombast of a media tycoon and that treats every instance of public address – such as “News on the March” or Kane’s stem-winding campaign speech – as a hollow deception. The film’s claims to truth reside in the whispered “Rosebud” and in the spectacular but ambiguous conclusion, which places the audience in the position of trespassers and tells them that a word can’t sum up a man’s life. Consider also The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which superbly adapts the rhetorical conventions of Booth Tarkington’s old-fashioned, omniscient novel while at the same time evoking pathos in relatively unorthodox ways. What seems unusual here, as in Kane and several of Welles’s other films, is the way in which the audience is invited to sympathize with characters who are also treated critically. “I believe it is necessary to give all the characters their best arguments,” Welles once told a group of Spanish interviewers, “including those I disagree with…I do not want to resemble the majority of Americans, who are demagogues and rhetoricians.” (10)

Welles has something in common with Jean Renoir, whose characters all have reasons for what they do. But Renoir’s camera style, with its remarkable openness to the world beyond the frame, is more consistent with a liberal or perhaps a democratically socialist disposition. A similar uneasiness about rhetoric can be seen in some of the Italian neo-realists, particularly as they were viewed by Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s. Again and again, French writers in the period of the Cold War argued on behalf of an anti-rhetorical cinema based on what one of their company, the Catholic priest Amedee Ayfre, called “phenomenological realism.” The greatest danger, even for a religious director, according to Ayfre, would be “to want to take greater care of God’s interests than he does himself by trying to direct events by force and constrain the audience to read in them a meaning which is only accessible to those who discover it freely.” (11) With this argument, which was articulated in more secular terms by André Bazin, we reach the extreme end of an idealism that does not completely foreclose the possibility of rhetoric, but that resembles Plato in its keen suspicion of manipulated imagery.

By contrast, Jean-Luc Godard in his Maoist phase is an openly rhetorical director, but one who (like Brecht) disavows rhetoric’s love of illusion. For sheer illusionism, we go to Hollywood, which, despite its ostensible distaste for “messages,” has always been a fundamentally rhetorical cinema, devoted to melodramatic emotion. Even so, the celebration of old-fashioned verbal eloquence is comparatively rare in latter-day Hollywood movies, and the depiction of rhetorical events is usually ironic. See, for example, Patton (Franklin J Schaffner, 1970), in which George C. Scott, dressed in full military regalia and standing before a gigantic American flag, delivers a profane battle speech; despite the color, the theatrical costume, and the grain of Scott’s voice, the effect is ambiguous. See also Robert Duvall’s performance in The Apostle (Robert Duvall, 1998), which allows us to experience a charismatic preacher while also viewing his flawed private life.

We might ask if there is any point at which film can move beyond the domain of rhetoric. I would answer with a qualified yes, at least on the theoretical level, and especially where the non-narrative cinema is concerned. Bazin and some of his contemporaries came close to advocating a cinema of pure automatism, based on a principle of photogenie that operates outside human control. Roland Barthes’ essay on the “third meaning” of photographic images seems to be describing something of this sort, and in one of his last interviews, Gilles Deleuze claimed that true art lies outside the world of communication, which is totally subsumed by politics and power. (12) Filmmakers such as Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr, and the “structural materialists” have little concern for “communication” in the everyday sense of that term; and in earlier times, the radical modernists and the historical avant-garde were interested in the purely aleatory effects of images and signs because they were trying to locate an expressive realm beyond the reach of the dominant society. Certain experiments of the surrealist avant-garde were designed to tap into this realm, short-circuiting the normal communicative network and exposing a kind of social unconscious. But if, as Lacan argued, the unconscious is structured like a language, even it might be governed by a kind of rhetoric, in which case we are back where we began.

What seems clear is that the forces of modernity, which led to the disparagement and ostensible death of rhetoric in the intellectual and artistic sphere, have now swung in the opposite direction. Many people no longer believe in metaphysical truths, Enlightenment models of communication, romantic subjectivity, or scientific objectivity. Photographic reproduction and televisuality have replaced print as the dominant mode of receiving information, CGI techniques are turning the movies into a more painterly medium, and a couple of generations of post- structuralism and cultural studies in the academy have taught us to see language as politics and truth as situated. We have therefore entered a new era, not so much of rhetoric as of what Bender and Wellbury call “rhetoricality.” Thus at the end of his influential 1983 volume, Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton called for a rebirth of rhetoric, to the point where it would become the center of the humanities curriculum:

Rhetoric, which was the received form of critical analysis all the way from ancient society to the eighteenth century, examined the way discourses are constructed in order to achieve certain effects…its horizon was nothing less than the field of discursive practices in the society as a whole, and its particular interest lay in grasping such practices as forms of power and performance…It saw speaking and writing not merely as textual objects, to be aesthetically contemplated or endlessly deconstructed, but as forms of activity inseparable from the wider social relations between writers and readers, orators and audiences, and as largely unintelligible outside the social conditions in which they were imbedded.(13)

More recently, at an Society of Cinema Studies conference in San Diego, Bill Nichols suggested that we ought “to put rhetoric back on the agenda,” particularly as it is performed in what he called the “middle voice” of engaged documentary filmmakers such as Marlon Riggs, Errol Morris, Deborah Hoffman, Jill Godmilow, Isaac Julien, and Marlon Fuentes. In addition to studying rhetoric in relation to specific films, Nichols observed, we need to validate its worth, because philosophy alone “only possesses analytic concepts to represent what rhetoric, in all its eloquence of affect and voice, silence and gesture, figure and grain, can, in fact, achieve.” (14) Whether or not philosophy and rhetoric can work in harmony, some kind of rhetoricality always underlies our words and representational arts; rhetoric is in fact the name for any technique that transforms poetics and philosophy into ideology. We are therefore at a propitious moment for the development of a broader, more detailed theory of rhetoric in the cinema, one that would embrace all the persuasive, sensual, and emotional devices of the medium.


  1. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961), p. i.
  2. Avrom Fleishman, Narrated Films: Storytelling Situations in Cinema History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1992). See also Nick Browne, The Rhetoric of Filmic Narration (Ann Arbor: UMI, n.d.); David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge: Harvard, 1989); Seymour Chatman, Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell, 1990); Sara Kosloff, Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Film (Berkeley: University of California, 1988); and George M. Wilson, Narration in Light: Studies of Cinematic Point of View (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1986).
  3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Barnard (New York: Harper, 1951), p. 171. For a more detailed discussion of the issues discussed in this paragraph, see John Bender and David E. Wellbery, “Rhetoricality: On the Modernist Return of Rhetoric,” in Bender and Wellbery, eds., The Ends of Rhetoric:History, Theory, Practice (Stanford: Stanford University, 1990), pp. 3-39.
  4. Quoted in C. K. Stead, Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement (New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 1986), p. 9.
  5. Qutoted in Stead, ibid., p. 169.
  6. James Naremore, Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley: University of California, 1998), p. 52.
  7. Jacqueline Lichtenstein, The Eloquence of Color, trans. Emily McVarish (Berkeley: University of California, 1993), p. 71.
  8. Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Movies and Their Medium (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1999), p 62.
  9. Lichtenstein, opcit., p.53
  10. “A Trip to Don Quixoteland,” interview with Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, and J.A. Preuneda, in Focus on Citizen Kane, ed Ronald Gottesman (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971), p 16.
  11. “Neo-Realism and Phenomenology,” in Jim Hillier, ed. Cahiers du Cinema: the 1950s (Cambridge: Harvard, 1985), p. 190.
  12. “Qu’est-ce que l’acte de creation,” Trafic, No. 27 (Autumn 1998): 141.
  13. Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1983), p. 205.
  14. “Film and the Uses of Rhetoric,” Society for Cinema Studies Conference, San Diego, CA, 1998.

About The Author

James Naremore, Indiana University, is the author of several books on film, including More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998).

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