Monday, 10 January 2011

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Blowing up slowly. I put the word "slow" in the title of the course with the unsatisfactory title because it's defining feature of menace: if something is stationary, it's unthreatening; if something is celeritous, it's frightening. For something to be menacing requires pacing. Tension does not "build" in films: it must be built. Moreover, like all well-built things, its construction must be deliberate and methodical, and those qualities translate in film as a slow pace. I'm employing "building" as a metaphor here because 1) everyone knows about Rome, but more importantly, 2) it allows me segue neatly into a conversation about the relationship of space to pace (about which more shortly). All of which is only to say that because I'm claiming slowness to be an essential quality of a mode of horror, I need to quantify it; that is, I need to define what it means, mechanically, for a film to be slow. Where better to turn for such a definition than to a filmmaker universally acclaimed for that quality? So then, why is Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup considered such a slow film? One element of slowness is going to be shot length—or "average shot length," to be more precise. Generally speaking, a film comprised of a single long take will feel longer to an audience because it is not being provided with new and novel visual information, whereas a film comprised of countless rapid cuts will provide so much new and novel information that the audience feels it lacks the time required to process it, thereby making the experience of the film seem shorter in duration. According to Yuri Tsivian's cinemetric database, the average shot length in Blowup is between 10.7 and 11 seconds long; however, that number is neither representative of Antonioni's larger corpus (e.g. La Signora Senza Camelie clocks in at 55.6 seconds) nor the film itself (many of the quick shots responsible for that time are between different photographs being compared). I would quantify that mathematically, but my doctorate is in English and the bylaws prohibit me from doing so. Another element of filmic slowness is the use of multiple establishing shots, which in aggregate have the same effect on pacing as aspect-to-aspect panel transitions in comics; that is, by presenting multiple perspectives on the same very large tableau, the audience can't simply assume that the establishing shot is establishing a location, and must perforce start to think that the sequence is attempting to define a mood. In Blowup, these shots are tied, albeit loosely at first, to the plot. So we have this building: Which is about to be invaded by mimes: The mimes tool around the plaza, then exit their vehicle and run around like mad: In short, the establishing shot, which is meant to show "the spatial relations among the important figures, objects, and setting in a scene," is instead invaded for a moment and then exited. It establishes, then, not the scene but the ambivalent attitude of the characters to the "important figures, objects, and...
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What is "violent rhetoric"? As someone who teaches rhetoric, I can only say that I've been profoundly disappointed in the quality of the conversation about the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords. Despite all the condemnation of everyone else's "violent rhetoric," I've yet to see one post in which the term itself is defined. It seems to mean, in the current political vernacular, anything said by someone else that involves anything even remotely violent. Katrina Trinko's attempt to tu quoque Keith Olbermann is particularly enlightening, as it describes a number of angry statements by Olbermann that are neither violent nor rhetorical, e.g. In 2007, Olbermann called rival network Fox News “worse than al-Qaeda ... for our society” and said the channel was “as dangerous as the Ku Klux Klan ever was.” Neither of those statements are rhetorical because neither of them attempts to call its audience to action. For them to be rhetorical, as per Aristotle in On Rhetoric, they would need to be intended to persuade. Moreover, they would need to be intended to persuade a particular audience to undertake a particular action. This is the rhetorical triangle: Note the interconnectedness of the speaker and audience. The general problem with discussing rhetoric in the current media environment is that the particularity of the audience is absent. Anyone can read or watch or listen to anything without regard for their relation to the intended audience and without reference to the action whose commission the rhetor intends. In such a situation, it is not surprising when the mode of persuasion favored by speakers is the one that is most effectively general. To quote Aristotle again: The first [mode of persuasion] depends on the personal character of the speaker [ethos]; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind [pathos]; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself [logos]. Though pathos is typically translated as an "appeal to emotion," it is better understood as an "appeal to imagination." Anything that stokes the imagination, be it an image or a narrative, fits the bill. It goes without saying that the majority of political rhetoric in America is, in this technical sense, pathetic. This is simply because most politicians have questionable ethos and very few have speechwriters sufficiently talented to produce persuasive logos. But it is also because most Americans are too suspicious of political motives to allow politicians to establish an ethos and too untrained in the literary arts to understand an appeal to logos. Typically, then, we are left in a situation in which politicians, as rhetors, design speeches whose pathos is general enough to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. It stands to reason that if we want to understand what "violent rhetoric" entails, we must focus on whose images and stories are stoking whose imaginations and to what effect. Pointing out that Keith Olbermann associated Fox News with terrorist organizations foreign and domestic does nothing of the sort because the audience and...

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