The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue

Every Situation Calls for Its Own Language: Gilberto Perez′s The Eloquent Screen

I don’t remember anything that happened during the film’s 89-minute runtime. I don’t remember if I shared some stale popcorn with my brothers. I certainly don’t remember what was going on in the world at large or in my own smaller one as an elementary school student. And yet, I know that in 1997, when I was eight years old, whatever worlds were conjured on screen in the comic-book adaptation Spawn seemed fantastically marvelous. Though my memory of the movie is vacant—no actors, no scenes, no plotlines remain—I can recall that after arriving home from the multiplex, I ran around, mimicking the movements of the title character as I implored my mum to try and guess what movie I was referencing. Eager to relive, reinhabit, and recall the world of the film in my body, I identified with Spawn.

The process of identification is at the heart of Gilberto Perez’s posthumously published book The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film. Perez writes that audiences identify with more than characters, “we identify with an action, a situation, an emotion, a motive, an interest, a point of view, something the character represents.” My childhood play-acting was just one form of this complicated process: identification is always a partial and incomplete endeavor. It requires not only an understanding of similarities but also of critical differences—the distance that separates oneself from another. It is in that gap where we physically feel identification. We sense it when our body tenses up watching a character realize that they are in a dire situation or when the weight in your throat is torn open and tears fall from your eyes as a character breaks another’s heart.

We are moved, Perez argues, because of cinema’s rhetoric. Capacious but never free-floating, he describes rhetoric as a “performance” that communicates some kind of meaning to an addressed audience. The most successful rhetoric “speaks in the terms of a concrete social situation to the particular human beings living in that situation.” Every situation calls for its own language, and details matter.

This approach allows Perez to weave textured analysis across films, mixing old-fashioned auteurism with a kind of formalism informed by personal experience and cultural context. For example, the introduction (an extended reading of several John Ford films) makes clear that “westerns wouldn’t be so American if they weren’t racist” and that the genre instructs through “stories about the meaning and management of violence.”Perez is less interested in underlying ideologies, preferring to tarry with the world created on-screen and all of its nuance. The film is what it is. The job of the critic, as he sees it, is to understand that film’s world and its “conviction of fantasy” rather than right it.

Essential to this project is a taxonomy of literary tropes that Perez translates into a cinematic language. He explains the distinctions between metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and allegory, demonstrating the various ways tropes enable audiences to make sense of a film. The beauty of this analysis is in Perez’s ability to make the surface interesting, to take what seems so clearly apparent and draw out how such simplicity is diligently constructed.

Early on Perez uses the opening of Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941) to show one way rhetoric functions. In the sequence, we see a plaque on a building that reads: est. 1862 THE BULLETIN “a free press means a free people.” In a series of dissolves a man jackhammers the words away before replacing them with a bigger, sleeker plate for The New Bulletin. The building once belonging to a historic paper now houses a revamped organization whose slogan is: “a streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era.” We understand that one institution’s identity, predicated on integrity, has been replaced by another, predicated on commercial appeal.

There is no hidden agenda here. Still, in less than a minute we’ve learned a great deal through the use of a trope, in this case synecdoche. The plaque refers to the building housing the New Bulletin and the organization itself—the plaque is a part to the newspaper’s whole. Perez describes this sequence not only to illustrate how synecdoche works but also to clarify how film, as a medium, is distinct in its communication of meaning. Echoing Stanley Cavell and André Bazin, his clearest forebears, Perez writes that unlike a painting, which is rhetorically complete or “whole,” a film is made up of fragments: “every shot is a detail, a piece of a larger space that extends beyond the frame.” The shot is a part representing the whole of the film’s world. There are lives and stories that exists outside the frame. The shot is a synecdoche for it all.

One of Perez’s greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to invoke the plot and characters of a film so that even an unfamiliar work becomes the basis for fascinating philosophical wandering. This is crucial since he casts a wide net: across the four sections we learn about the vacillation between expressionism and realism in The Deer Hunter (1978), the relationship between memories and metonymies in Shoah (1985), and how John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950) orchestrates a community that embraces a democracy of tolerance rather than political equity. The splendor of Hollywood abounds.

If there are moments when it appears we’ve entered the interpretive weeds of yesteryear’s literary critics, with Northrop Frye and Roman Jakobson as our guides, there is also a sensitive leading hand. Perez frequently doubles back to ideas, arguments and films, as if he were checking in to see that the reader was still there, perhaps befuddled but not lost. Along the way, The Eloquent Screen is punctuated by sections dedicated to Terrence Malick (who uses jump cuts to communicate “not the actuality but the memory of love”), Michael Haneke (who like Buñuel “goes beyond the limits of permissible displeasure”) and Alfred Hitchcock (whose Shadow of a Doubt [1943] “depict[s] the passage of anxiety into the heart of everyday life.”) It is when Perez pushes us to rethink the relationship between what is so often taken to be common sense that he is most insightful. Cinematic rhetoric is not only about what is on screen but what it means to live in the world—enraptured by Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), Perez notes that “love thrives on details.” It is in the details that he so beautifully exhumes larger ideas.

These are enchanting moments. They also reflect a critical method from a bygone era. Perez is committed to a humanism that has become less and less popular, in part because it is indebted to a troubling understanding of just what the contours defining the human are. He renders films romantically and the viewer that Perez imagines is an idealized one, unlikely to disidentify or counter-identify with a film produced under exploitative conditions. There is a repeated “we” that’s conjured and it remains unclear who is a part of that “we.”

Further, the films that line The Eloquent Screen come predominately from canonized directors like Ford, Godard, Buñuel, Abbas Kiarostami, and Jean Vigo. When Perez turns to work outside of the pre-ordained things become fraught, a product of his idiosyncratic citational practice. Alongside more well-known critics like Robert Warshow and Pauline Kael are Perez’s favorites Andrew Pechter and Vernon Young. When in vague agreement, there is a wonderful sense of give and take. This is less the case when Perez cites academics and those he disagrees with. At times, it feels as though film criticism ceased decades ago. Staging a dialogue between Menace II Society (1993), melodrama, and the gangster film, he relies on Warshow and the conservative jazz critic Stanley Crouch to make an unwieldy argument about Black patriarchy and tragedy. For decades’ scholars and writers working within, around, and across Black studies and feminist theory have opened up radical ways to understand the vibrant complexities between representation, genre, and Black life. Those writers are missing here, an absence that rings all the more loudly because of Perez’s typical generosity.

Nearly twenty years ago Adrian Martin wrote that Perez’s first book, The Material Ghost “creates its own world, its own discourse, its own frame of reference, rather as a good film does.” This remains true of The Eloquent Screen. Perez’s criticism burrows itself deeply into the worlds constructed by film, extending a hand to the reader and offering a momentary escape from hot takes. By grasping that hand, we can begin to understand cinema’s ability to alter our ways of being.


Nicholas Forster

is a writer and Lecturer in African American Studies and Film & Media Studies at Yale University. He is currently writing a biography of the actor-director-writer Bill Gunn. He has has been published in outlets including The Village Voice, Film Quarterly, and Shadow and Act.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

All Issues