Reviewed by Jonathan A. Cannon, Oklahoma State University
Containing a rich sundry of filmic analyses channeling scrupulous rhetorical acumen, The Terministic Screen: Rhetorical Perspectives on Film (2003), edited by David Blakesley, functions as a much-needed collection of articles that underscore en masse the nexus between rhetoric and the area of film studies. In his introduction titled “The Rhetoric of Film and Film Studies,” Blakesley establishes a solid theoretical foundation for the rest of the critical anthology to unfold, and argues for a greater presence and conscientious reexamination of cinema for rhetoric and composition studies. Through an eclectic array of rhetorical lenses, The Terministic Screen initiates a critical understanding of the medium of film. Moreover, the book – as the title clearly articulates – points to new and more interdisciplinary perspectives on the Burkeian term “terministic screens.” Indeed, scholars of rhetoric, composition studies, and professional writing should be familiar with this seminal concept, which is found in Kenneth Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action (1966).
The Terministic Screen is divided into three distinct sections: “Perspectives on Film and Film Theory as Rhetoric,” “Rhetorical Perspectives on Film and Culture,” and “Perspectives on Films about Rhetoric.” Part One emphasizes the relationship between rhetoric and film theory. The first section presents essays ranging from colonial rhetoric in The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996) to bodily rhetoric in Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994). Part Two examines film that concern themselves with rhetoric, film, and culture more broadly. The second section contains articles spanning collective memory and the (in)famous Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s to anti-plutocratic rhetoric found in German cinema. Finally, Part Three focuses on articles that point to films about rhetoric. These articles in the third section span from notions of rhetorical conditioning in The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1966) to postmodern dialogics in Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994).
Blakesley’s introduction is the fundamental backbone for the entire book and its assembly of authors, granting the reader the opportunity to rethink what they know about rhetoric in terms of its possible filmic associations and applications. He points to film theory being a common starting point for comprehending film on a host of levels in the field of film studies. Blakesley’s overall agenda is to wed rhetorical theory, and the specific Burkeian term “terministic screen” to the interpretation and analysis of film and film criticism. Symbolic gestures, for Blakesley, lie at the heart of a clear, coherent, and nuanced approach to a rhetorical perspective of film and film criticism in the communication between screen and viewer, and vice versa. Burke defines “terministic screens” as a metaphorical “screen” made up of terms through that humans perceive the world, and which directs attention away from some interpretations and toward other ones. For Blakesley and the collection’s authors, the purpose of film highlights both an act and manner of address that showcases a variety of means for a particular purpose in an isolated context and/or situation. Indeed, when applied to cinema, evidence of terministic screens spans from the diegesis of the “film world” to the extradeigesis of the “outside world” for both the film spectator and critic alike.
Blakesley, channeling Burke, underscores the notion that rhetoric functions metaphorically as either/both “a filter or screen” (2) that acts as a fluid gatekeeper, filter, and/or barrier. Again, Blakesley makes clear that the scaffolding of the entire book rests and is acutely influenced by the phrase “terministic screens.” With a critical eye toward a reapplication of Burke’s concept of symbolic action to suit rhetorical analyses of films, Blakesley defines a certain kind of cinematic communication as “film rhetoric,” which elucidates both the visual and verbal signs and strategies that shape a particular film experience and screen identification – the latter, in the Burkeian sense of the term. Blakesley peppers the critical prelude with a fresh take on the overall objective of film theory, which he interprets as a way to tap into an at times overlooked language system – that of film. Indeed, film provides the modern rhetorician with both a language and approach au courant to narrative, ideology, corporeality, politics, economics, and cultural connotations of cinema around the world and across the yesteryears of motion picture ontogeny.
Specific articles in the anthology demonstrate the robust caliber of the authors gathered here in an effort to push for new film rhetoric(s), or the rhetoric of film(s). For example, Alan Nadel’s article “Mapping the Other: The English Patient, Colonial Rhetoric, and Cinematic Representation,” deals primarily with the rhetorical narrativization of colonialism through the Hollywood film The English Patient. Nadel situates the film alongside colonial and postcolonial theory, which has been a growing branch of film theory since the 1990s. He ties colonizer/colonized binary within the film to narratological and rhetorical cues and conventions, to recast The English Patient as a problematic text within the romance film genre that makes commonplace the ignorance of the foreign(er), the other, and the tension between home and exile. For Nadel, the only way to understand the prejudice characterizations of men and women in the film’s diegesis is to marry film theory with both rhetorical theory and postcolonial theory and, in turn, create a three-pronged approach to the popular film in question. Another noteworthy piece in the collection is penned by James Roberts, which concerns itself with the rhetoric of cinematic subjects and bodies in the documentary Hoop Dreams. Roberts recognizes the fluid exchange between rhetorical analysis and film criticism and, as such, wants to reinvigorate such a critical relationship through attention to subjects and bodies as evidence of how spectators engage with and interpret films such as Hoop Dreams on the basis of corporeal rhetoric – that is, issues such as race, age, masculinity, and paternity. All in all, Roberts provides a sober, enriching, and highly balanced analysis of Hoop Dreams using both film terminology (apparatus) with rhetorical jargon (rhetoric and discourse)
In sum, The Terministic Screen acts as a crucial stepping stone toward rhetoricians, compositionists, and professional writers welcoming the medium of film into the rhetoric and composition/writing studies fold. Bridging the gap between this and the field of film studies requires one to take such a risk, and usher forth an interdisciplinary endeavor, in both scope and execution. Indeed, with the recent push towards visual rhetoric, such a reassessment of Blakesley’s edited text is necessary in order to see where the initial seeds were sown for critical film rhetoric, and determine where the relationship between film and rhetoric is going in the future. With Blakesley at the helm of this rather ambitious yet completely necessary project, the underlying point of the well-established collection is to encourage and foster a heightened interest in thinking, researching, and writing about the rhetorical booty found within the treasure chest of history, cultures, and politics of the seventh art.