Visual Rhetoric at the Movies

Sarah Paterson – ENG PWR ‘15

Welcome to Wednesday of visual rhetoric week! Today’s topic: movies.

Unless you’re a cinema major or a photographer, cinematography isn’t likely something you think much about. You might watch a movie and think that it looks pretty, or that something about it looked interesting, but didn’t know enough to put a finger on it. Never fear! Rhetoric is here – and can help you understand how directors do what they do.

The canons of rhetoric – invention, memory, style, arrangement, and delivery – aren’t just for Aristotle anymore. In today’s contemporary, media-rich context, the canons can still be applied. For the purposes of this blog post, we’ll talk mainly about arrangement and style. These canons together are sometimes referred to as mise-en-scene in the film world – the design or distinctive “look” of a film.

While in a speaking or writing context, arrangement considers the logical order or phrasing of words. In a visual context, arrangement can include the editing or placement of shots, or the composition of each individual frame. Because composition could easily take up a whole post by itself, here’s a great place to learn about the basics of composition. Visual rhetoric is still trying to make an argument in the same way that oral or written rhetoric might be, and so directors use different compositions to get their points across. Things like close-ups or high contrast indicate to a viewer that a scene is likely to be dramatic or dangerous. Silhouettes provide mystery. Even the way the camera zooms in and out or pans across can suggest humor or conflict to a savvy viewer. We don’t think consciously about these things when we watch a film – these are symbols and cues that we have learned to understand by growing up in a visual culture.

Filmmakers, just like any other rhetors, have their own distinct language and know how to use it effectively to move their audience. Many famous directors have their own personal aesthetic, or style, that makes their movies stand out from all others. Sometimes this means that the director includes a lot of similar types of shots, or sticks to a specific color palette, or uses the same types of music in every film. Sometimes it means they stick to similar genres or subject matter. This allows a director to gain a devoted fan base and develop a personal brand. (You never thought personal branding would sneak into your weekend movie date, huh? Now it has. PWR is everywhere. You’re welcome.)

One prominent example of a director who has an easily identifiable style is Wes Anderson. Anderson movies are usually funny or “quirky” and upbeat, despite occasionally dark subject matter. His films all use the same general color palette – lots of saturated yellows, oranges, pinks, and greens – and sans-serif typeface throughout. He even casts the same actors in his movies to play different parts: Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Edward Norton.

Such a clear style makes an artist easy to parody, as seen in this Saturday Night Live sketch:

Anderson’s typical style seems out of place in a horror film, because his color schemes, music, and quirky attitude don’t line up with the typical conventions of the genre. All of the decisions (or rhetorical choices!) that a director makes are important to get the audience to understand – and hopefully enjoy – a film.

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 9, 2014 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I love how different this post is – I think we all judge movies in our own way, but it is interesting to see you connect it to the guidelines of what we would usually consider written or image-related rhetoric, and instead applying it to moving visuals. Cool post Sarah!