Gilberto Perez’s The Eloquent Screen has less a thesis than a theme. It doesn’t argue for the importance of rhetoric in film; more it muses over how it can allow us to see films in a particular way with the aid of it. A more argumentative work would be keener to differentiate itself from semiotic criticism, keener to say why its sympathies are more Bazinian than Metzian. Instead, Perez allows film after film to do a lot of the talking, with detailed analyses of Nazarín (Luis Buñuel, 1959), Saikaku ichidai onna (The Life of Oharu, Mizoguchi Kenji, 1952), Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924), Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937), Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), Fa yeung nin wa (In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-wai, 2000), Caché (Hidden, Michael Haneke, 2005) and others we will hog on to discuss. James Harvey says in his foreword that “never mind the intermittent theory” in Perez’s earlier The Material Ghost, “none of that mattered in the end to my love of the book itself” (p. xi). You can get by in both volumes skipping the theory and concentrating on the analysis, but if Perez (who died in 2015) is one of the most engaging of contemporary thinkers on film, it rests on Perez acknowledging theory without finding himself beholden to it. There have been other fine contemporary essayistic thinkers on cinema (David Thomson, Adam Mars-Jones and Phillip Lopate), just as there have been philosophers musing over film from a philosophical perspective who haven’t been beholden to the theory that preceded them (Stanley Cavell and Slavoj Žižek). But if sometimes Perez seems closer to the latter than the former, it is because his thinking engages with problems of film theory all the better to escape from feeling obliged to attend to it beyond his own immediate interests. It is probably why Harvey can tolerate this aspect of Perez’s work despite his resistance to theory generally.

Perez believes he was drawn to film theory just as when he studied the sciences as an undergraduate he was “drawn to theoretical physics” (p. xi), as Harvey notes. Perez is a man happy in the lab but not resistant to the abstract. It gives to his work a gentle sense of inquiry, an interest in film as a problem in front of him but where the positivistic meets the phenomenological, where the image demands a perspective. It isn’t enough for Perez to tell us what he thinks a film is doing; he also attends to what he is thinking and feeling in the given sequence under discussion. Rhetoric helps him understand the complexity of the medium without relying on the theoretical sludge that has built up over many years of academic argument. By chiefly going back to ancient literary and theatrical terms, he muses over their application to cinema. Discussing Satyajit Ray’s Pather panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955), Perez describes the plot: the central character Apu’s sister Durgas is accused of stealing a necklace, denies it, later dies and where, as the family is about to move, Apu discovers the necklace and realises his sister did steal it. He protects the sister’s memory and discards the necklace, throwing it in a nearby pool, and we watch it slowly disappear. Perez sees this as both synecdoche and metaphor: “the necklace is a synecdoche, or metonymy, for Durgas, for her endearing delinquency, which her loving little brother is covering up in homage to her memory. But, ultimately, as the necklace sinks out of sight and the circular hole it makes diminishes into nothing, this image is a metaphor for her death.” (p. 68). Shot choices here matter less than the affect rhetoric produces.

There is pathos to Perez’s work, and this might be an underestimated aspect of film theory, even of film criticism – which might be more inclined than theory to try and note the passions a work invokes in the process of writing about it. When he describes films we recall well, half remember or have never seen, Perez seems determined to make us feel the experience he is describing, as if Perez has a rhetoric of his own. As he says, “rhetoric as such is not to be judged by principles but only by effects.” (p. 4). Aristotle divided rhetoric into logos, ethos and pathos, and perhaps one reason why Perez has always had reservations about various aspects of film theory (from positivism to psychoanalysis) is that pathos was subordinate to the others. Some might question the reasoning in many an elevated piece on film, and of the ethics behind it that might appear too narrowly Marxist, but few would claim that pathos was vital to the prose. Many of the great pieces in Cahiers du cinéma during the early seventies, like the name-checked Young Mr Lincoln (John Ford, 1939), had their own type of rigour, but they were usually works of logos meeting ethos, with the critics often taking cinema to task for film’s ability to move us with false consciousness and bad faith: by making us accept values that weren’t in our best interests to support, and in making us care about situations and predicaments so much easier to emote over when shown on screen rather than dealing with trying to do something about them in our lives. Theirs was a political project and a very important one, but if anything it wanted to resist pathos – and why not if there was more than enough of it in most of cinema and causing so many problems?

Perez’s interest in modulating carefully the pathetic, the ethical and the logical gives his work a constant critical vigilance, as if he knows that criticism can lend itself to the polemical and theory to the abstruse. His purpose is to see if he can extract from a film a meaning that can be conclusive without at all being categorical. Speaking of A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956), he starts by saying we know from the film’s beginning that the leading character Fontaine will escape: it is there in the title and contains a biblical aspect in its full original French: Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut: the wind bloweth where it listeth. As Perez says, this “suggests the workings of divine grace. If Fontaine embodies free will, the steadfast will to freedom, Bresson’s style of narrative represents inexorable predestination, and his film reconciles the philosophical opposition between the two as only a work of art can” (p. 77). People can read the film differently but few will doubt that Perez has read it well. One may wonder if in the process of watching many of the films under discussion, Perez was himself in states of doubt that the artwork itself assuaged. To extend Perez’s claim, a work of art isn’t there to serve a purpose but meets a need, which makes it pertinent without making it purposive. We might yearn for a better society than the one we have but part of that yearning is contained by the affectivity a work allows us to explore.

We can see in Charlie Chaplin’s work Hollywood’s skill at making us feel false emotion all the better for things to remain socio-politically the same, as we sympathise over the character’s poverty but do nothing about it but watch the film. But we can also in watching the film have a relationship with poverty that might be utterly absent without it. We can understand poverty indirectly but at least empathically. This is where pathos comes in. Perez details the plot of City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931) as he says that a blind flower girl mistakes Chaplin for a rich man, and Chaplin tries to retain the pretence that he is indeed this rich man. Perez adds: “this comically exaggerates a common situation: haven’t we all tried to impress others, to gain their approval or win their affection, by pretending in some way to be something we are not?” (p. 54). Maybe we have; maybe we haven’t – but it is clear Perez has and there he sees a similar scenario given comedic, poignant form. At one moment, Chaplin has the blind girl hold a skein of wool for her to ball, but instead she grabs a loose thread from his underwear and we watch as he looks towards the audience unsure what to do about this impending intimacy. Perez says, “the way the girl touches him intimately goes deeper than sexual titillation. More than his skin, she touches his heart. This is a joke on the pretender who doesn’t want to be seen for what he really is yet finds himself affected in his innermost being” (p. 55). Perez notes that “if the heart is a metonymy for the emotions, then here the unravelled underwear is metonymy for the inside – not just the sexual but the sentimental inside” (p. 55). Perez in this passage starts by proposing the trickery he sees as common but doesn’t conclude on a common response. Such subterfuge might often rest in trying to get someone into bed, but Perez sees it more about how someone gets into Chaplin’s heart as he insists on finding in a great director of burlesque the pathos over the snigger. The poverty is manifest and we comprehend it through co-feeling.

Writing on Perez in The New Yorker, Richard Brody says “the modesty with which Perez develops his powerful ideas has that duality built into it; the book’s arguments appear both sincere and ironic, and that combination of traits itself comes off not as a contradiction but as the very essence of the theory itself.”1 That seems a large claim for theory but an appropriate way of describing Perez’s. He often seems a quiet dialectician, someone who knows how to turn a thesis and an antithesis into a synthesis, yet without strong-arming the work into serving an argument the film itself wouldn’t wish to make. 

When The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) came out, various critics wished to see it as a strenuous work of troublesome patriotism. Jonathan Rosenbaum (an admirer of Perez’s), noted: the film “…even winds up bleating a mournful rendition of “God Bless America” in your ear, hoping that you’ll join in or at least have sympathy for its plight.”2 Pauline Kael may have more respect for Cimino’s craft than Rosenbaum but she reckoned it was “steeped in boys’ adventure classics, with their emphasis on self-reliance and will power, and their exaltation of purity of thought – of a physical-spiritual love between men which is higher than the love between man and woman…”3 In answering Kael, but perhaps also Rosenbaum and others, Perez says “the rhetorical reality effect is not the same as the truthful representation of reality. Realism in the sense of truthfulness may be opposed to idealization, which is what Kael sees in Cimino’s picture of the Pennsylvanian home town…” (p. 153). Kael notes both idealization (of the community) and demonization (evident in Cimino’s “xenophobic yellow-peril imagination”) but that isn’t how Perez sees it. He views the film as offering a perspective, one that stays close to the mindset of small-town sensibilities thrust into geo-political situations. This “may not be a way to understand the war but [it] puts us in touch with their sentiments in its midst. Soldiers at war tend to see the enemy as brutal and vicious – and modern nations enlisting soldiers from the common people tend to demonise the enemy in order to promote the willingness to fight it” (p. 157).

The Deer Hunter

While Rosenbaum, Kael, political journalist John Pilger and others see Cimino as a right-wing apologist, Perez sees a film trying to play fair by the feelings of men from a Pennsylvanian steel town. “The nightmarish subjectivity of the Russian roulette allegory represents the subjective experience of soldiers thrown into the maelstrom of Vietnam” (p. 157). When Pilger reckoned, “The Deer Hunter and its apologists insult the memory of every American who died in Vietnam”,4 we can perhaps understand his lack of interest in the form; he is preoccupied with the political. Perez’s rest on the rhetorical function of drama and he isn’t oblivious to the implications of the narrow identification the film offers. He understands well that this was imperial overreach but that doesn’t mean only Vietnamese suffered as a consequence of it. Perez proposes that “the workers from Clairton sent overseas as combatants represent the unprivileged Americans who because underprivileged, bore the brunt of war in Vietnam” (p. 158). He reckons as many others have (including Cimino and the film’s star, Robert De Niro), the Russian roulette is a metaphor. “They are indeed war victims and can rightly step into the picture with a gun to their heads” (p. 158).

To say the roulette is a metaphor can be an easy way of saying the film has no responsibility towards reality, but Perez would argue that film’s obligation towards verisimilitude is complicated and this is why he can talk of the film also as a “viscerally gripping allegory” (p. 157). The film doesn’t have to be true to a narrow notion of the real but that doesn’t mean it ought to neglect truth either. Perez sees the film as being true to its truth, which concerns capturing the thoughts and feelings of mill workers thrown into a war they seem little to understand. By viewing The Deer Hunter through the rhetorical rather than the political, Perez can acknowledge the arguments made against the film without accepting that these claims are the best way to understand it.

 When earlier in the book he speaks of Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), his interest in the rhetorical can bring out the incipient blood-lust of the former, just as The Deer Hunter can be seen as a film about its rejection, even if many a liberal would be more sympathetic to Spielberg’s film than to Cimino’s. He again mentions allegory, saying of Saving Private Ryan, “surely the intellectual [played by Jeremy Davies] is unfairly singled out for blame in this historical allegory: if there were intellectuals who stood by and did nothing while Nazis killed Jews, there were also politicians and officials, industrialists and financiers, military and religious leaders, newspaper publishers and movie producers, others who did nothing and had more power to do something” (p. 104). By reading the film as allegory, after carefully showing how Spielberg’s film extends its use of synecdoche into something broader, Perez notes how the film positions the intellectual figure and greenhorn with a typewriter (Davies) as someone who thinks you needn’t mete out the toughest of justice. Davies insists they should let a German soldier go and the soldier later returns, killing a member of the greenhorn’s combat team while the cowardly intellectual looks on. When the German is again captured, Davies doesn’t give him another chance and kills him. We could say Davies proves his manhood rather more forcefully and Fascistically than Robert De Niro’s character The Deer Hunter. In Cimino’s film, before going to Vietnam Michael kills a deer with a single shot. Later, on his return, he goes hunting again but refrains from killing another deer, aiming at the sky instead of at the animal’s head. These deer are hardly just deer; they carry a strong rhetorical import – offering a complex play on the symbolic, the metaphorical and the allegorical. If Perez sees in Saving Private Ryan Spielberg’s anti-intellectualism that shows Davies forced to realise his grand ideas are all very well but he needs to learn about harsher realities, Cimino instead proposes that the harsher realities De Niro has seen leads him to see the fragility of things. War teaches Davies to kill; The Deer Hunter teaches Michael that he needn’t do so.

Saving Private Ryan

Though The Deer Hunter’s reputation rests negatively on its apparent right-wing politics, from a certain perspective it is much more pacifist than Spielberg’s. Perez doesn’t quite read the two films through this prism (he makes no direct comparison between them), but through reading Perez’s interest in rhetoric he can help us use analytic tools to tease out a meaning that the images construct, even if the message might ostensibly seem different. Perez notes that the German is a synecdoche, a part that signifies the broader whole of the worthless enemy, but extends it into allegory by using the intellectual as someone who doesn’t intervene, as if intellectuals were to blame for the worthless enemy’s continuation. In The Deer Hunter, we could see that the symbolic deer becomes a metaphor for peace. We don’t have to read it this way but the film wants us to read it more than literally: Michael doesn’t just miss the deer he actively avoids killing it, and the film’s title suggests his relationship with hunting is significant. If someone insists on viewing the film politically without attending to the images it generates, it becomes a pro-war film. But if we read it more metaphorically than that, it becomes far more an anti-war film than Spielberg’s.

Again, retreating a little from Perez’s appreciation of the two films all the better to understand the sort of analysis that concerns the writer, both Spielberg and Cimino’s works end on an apparently patriotic note. Saving Private Ryan gives us bugles and the American flag; The Deer Hunter the characters singing God Bless America. Yet while Spielberg’s film has rhetorically supported a war most find just, Cimino’s has rhetorically offered ambivalence towards a war many found unjust. Spielberg however has contained his characters within an action film that never doubts the war, while Cimino has wondered instead what his characters might be feeling in having fought one. As Perez says, “nothing is more important to the rhetoric of a work, to the way it affects its audience, than our sense of an author’s attitude toward the characters” (p. 158), adding that Cimino “identifies with their disconcerted subjectivity, which informs his whole picture of the war” (p. 158). It is the war that matters in Saving Private Ryan and feelings get in the way; as we find with Davies’s character. When Spielberg ends his film on a patriotic feeling it is a general one, while Cimino’s film cannot end on so categorical a claim because he is concerned with the individuals who have fought in the war or been affected by it. They all sing the same song but do so it would seem in their own way. Rhetorically, the flag in Saving Private Ryan symbolises bravery and heroism, while in The Deer Hunter it emphasises loss and tragedy, perhaps a way of coping. “We can’t doubt the sincerity of their patriotism, and in their tragedy they seem to cling to the feeling that America is their home sweet home. Who are we to tell them they’re wrong to cling to that feeling? What makes the scene so moving is that we may think they’re wrong but we still feel with them – feel with them all the more because we think they are wrong” (p. 158).

We can see in such analysis the importance of Perez’s position: that he doesn’t only insist on recognising the form but also how it produces feelings, and thus sees that a film is a work of rhetorical manoeuvres rather than a given set of techniques. By speaking of rhetoric rather than form or technique, Perez insists contrary to Plato that rhetoric is not deception but a type of recognition: “just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the test of rhetoric is in the audience” (p. 4). We needn’t pretend Perez doesn’t beg many questions in such a claim, but he proposes the answer rests on being one such viewer and trying to understand how the given works affect him. This isn’t necessarily subjectivism or impressionism, however, because he wants to test these responses against rhetorical devices the filmmaker uses and that he can thus comprehend. When Perez says that the ending of The Deer Hunter can be seen as ironic, he notes that there is the risk that the author (and the audience) possess knowledge the characters lack but doesn’t believe Cimino makes us superior to them. “Irony often undercuts sentiment but this is irony that increases sentiment” (p. 159). It plays one rhetorical device against another, with the sentimentality the film arrives at contained by the irony it must acknowledge. But if irony wins out, the characters become fools; if sentimentality we become fools too. How to balance this complexity of feeling is partly what rhetoric is there to navigate, and Perez, more than any other writer on film, has proposed, without insistence, its theoretical validity.

 Gilberto Perez, The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).


  1. Richard Brody, “A Tribute to My Teacher Gilberto Perez and His Eloquent Philosphpy of Cinema,” The New Yorker, 17 January, 2020.
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Deer Hunter: Flabby Beyond Belief,” Take One, Volume 7, Issue 4 (March 1979).
  3. Pauline Kael, When the Lights Go Down (New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1980), p. 512.
  4. John Pilger, “The Gook Hunter,” The New York Times, 26 April 1979, Section A, Page 23.