Essays (book reviews)

The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film
by Gilberto Perez
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 369 pages)


Reading the posthumous publication of The Eloquent Screen four years after its author’s death produces an overwhelming feeling of irony. Don’t be alarmed by my opening salvo; I don’t mean irony in the all-too-common sense of smug, gloating, knowing superiority. Irony is among the central topics of Gilberto Perez’s final book (only his second, after The Material Ghost in 1998), and he invests it with a profound meaning: irony in cinema, at its artistic height, is all about the existence of a multi-layered perspective that is constructed by films and inhabited, in a complex fashion, by viewers.

History and passing time are essential parts of this complexity; film melodrama, for instance, “often looks to the past for views and values on which people can agree, but that doesn’t rule out questioning the present or looking to the future”. That we now encounter, in the absence of the author himself, these reflections – as philosophical as they are political – on what lasts, what remains, what is difficult in the present and what must be imaginable for the future, gives this book its own special, poignant aura of irony.

The Eloquent Screen is an ambitious and remarkable book; it is also an eloquent testament to the work and legacy of an exceptionally gifted critic-theorist. Born in Cuba in 1943, and a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College for much of his adult life, Perez wrote for a range of publications (such as The Yale Review and the London Review of Books) with apparent ease, but took his sweet time formulating his major statements.

The earliest material in The Material Ghost dates back to a Sight and Sound article of 1967, while The Eloquent Screen, likewise, revisits and reworks his longstanding obsessions with filmmakers ranging from Alexander Dovzhenko and Charles Chaplin to Jean-Luc Godard and Abbas Kiarostami. It is far from being the typically lazy, borderline-incoherent collection of occasional writings that too many critics (in all the arts) bash together these days.

Its subtitle promises a rhetoric of film. Rhetoric, like irony, is not to be understood here in its often maligned, common meanings of cagey manipulation or mere bombast. For Perez, the rhetoric of a film lies in the ways it engages its audience, and (like a skilled orator) how it tries to persuade, to lead us toward a conclusion ­– or, at the very least, how it suggests we might weigh up the many sides of a problem.

Pursuing a rhetoric of film allows us, in Perez’s view, to join two sadly split-off strands of cinema scholarship: the formal study of poetics (how films are put together) on the one hand, and reception study (how actual people “process” movies) on the other. It’s an essential plank of Perez’s platform that reason and emotion, critical distance and intimate involvement, are (and should never be) separate in our engagement with cinema.

The three-part structure and organisation of the book is careful but also a little cryptic, laying traps for unwary souls expecting a perfectly logical development of its argument.

A 50-page introduction is devoted to John Ford, whose films Judge Priest (1934) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) set the stage with their elaborate scenes dramatising (both for thrills and fun) acts of public persuasion in various courts of law, or in the tribunals of public opinion. By the time this discussion winds around (in a leisurely, Fordian style) to The Searchers (1956) and Wagon Master (1950), we might wonder where rhetoric, as a guiding idea, has disappeared to. But Perez is, at every point, setting up ideas, themes and motifs that he will richly harvest later on.

Next up is an unexpected leap into an inventory of “Cinematic Tropes”, with names like synecdoche, metonymy, metaphor, allegory and irony (among others). Every reader should expect to feel a little pleasantly lost during their first reading of this section – not because these terms go undefined (on the contrary, Perez’s erudite explanations are always crystal clear), but because they invariably come in compound forms: a metonymy that is also a metaphor, an extended synecdoche that is really an allegory … and so on.

This is not a dry, abstract discussion (Christian Metz-style) with tidy, obvious examples: for Perez, what matters are those special moments in cinema (any kind of cinema: fiction, documentary, experimental) that give a twist, add a surplus level of meaning or emotion, to the typical, conventional procedures. His condensed analyses of an astounding range of films – from City Lights (1931) and By the Bluest of Seas (1936) to All My Life (1966) and Ceddo (1977) – are frequently breathtaking. Even the canonical classics, like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Citizen Kane (1941), come up fresh.

The book’s third part addresses a vast genre: melodrama (film genre in general is another, more or less unstated, key thread in this tapestry). As is usually the case in his work, Perez swiftly and astutely detonates every reductive bit of received wisdom we have about this form of cinema, and takes us, once again, far afield from the usual suspects: not only Douglas Sirk and Stella Dallas (1937), but also Terrence Malick and Mike Figgis. (Yes, the book exhibits a largely “male canon”, but is also very perceptive on the politics of gender and identity.) This is where the whole book really comes together.

For Perez, academic keywords words like representation or identification have yet to acquire their fullest and most productive meanings. Identification is about association (recognising and comparing things), and films represent not in a malign, illusion-pedalling sense, but like in a decently robust parliamentary discussion: film is the art of the minutely particular, but its particulars are also powerful generalities, collective and social metaphors. Perez’s ideal of cinema is as a richly communal experience, from whichever personal or social angle we enter its fray.

In her superb preface, Diane Stevenson movingly evokes the time shared with her husband: “It was a delight living with his delight”. With the publication of The Eloquent Screen, we can all gratefully share a little more in that delight.

Postscript: A lengthy discussion from 1999 of Gilberto Perez’s first book, The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium (1998) is included in the 100-page, Tier 5 Bonus PDF, On Critics and Criticism, of my Patreon Campaign: www.patreon.com/adrianmartin


© Adrian Martin June 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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