A conceit of incurious criticism is the pat description of music or literature as “cinematic.” It is evident what is implied here. Cinematic music is predominantly instrumental music that unfolds the exhibition of a range of emotions—even something like Riz Ortolani’s soundtrack for Cannibal Holocaust moves through a spectrum of idyll, brooding horror, and disco—while being suitably deferent to the presumption of an attendant—yet absent—image. Cinematic literature is an earnest effort at not only depicting the necessary human activities necessary to propel the narrative which is the common presumption of cinema, but indulging just enough to be significant in the soft focus of setdressing and atmospherics.
Contrary to the claim that such works are cinematic is the fact that they are only embodying the realms of film that music and literature already occupied as the consulting agents of soundtracks and screenplays. These works are of the cinema. They are not analogous to movies. They have not really learned new things from existing with and after the cinematic era. They behave in a manner by which cultural mediums seek to superimpose themselves on film as gaunt echoes, rather than finding methods for transmigrating the “cinematic” into a never-coinciding location parallel to film, with all of the properties of their own mediums embodying a new form that is neither evocative of film or evocative of literature.
What do we call this thing? Is it new, or just unrecognizable in our contemporary understanding of literature? Such is the hematophagous aftertaste of Hunchback ‘88, the debut novel of Christopher Norris, published by Permanent Sleep Press in 2018, an exceptional work of literature—a new ilk of cinematic literature—that prompts this unpacking.
…your field of vision—or mine, or, really, your field of vision—what I tell you it is and could well match mine, you will never know—but, let us get it right, right now, right at the start: I own. Your eyes. This held sight, yours that is mine now… a box over your head… or rather a box with a rectangular opening in front, up front – your front – a thick-black framing all periphery. A horizontal rectangle. But, mind you, not a vista or panorama or ever granting an option for the warmth of a graceful berth. There is no comfort here. This moment, and those to come, are a trap, a cage, restriction: visual… otherwise, and the rectangle, such as it is, is closer to a square… with a bit of legroom… a cut of flesh given to the left and to the right. Just a bit. A fraction. But it’s not a square. It is a rectangle. Oblong. A tunnel. Corridor. A body fits. Possession has you paused at the far end. A distance. The walls are black. A flat white screen… out of reach… imagine a glow that is out of reach, thin, a needle.
I approach this consideration almost entirely through the foil Wayne Booth. I bought Booth’s encyclopedic book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, in 1999 while working on a research project to develop a primarily verbal methodology for preparing architectural construction documents. My concern was how to crack open the highly controlled pictorial visualization of buildings by capitalizing on the openness of text. This openness could become so unfettered as to be useless, and thus the interest in Booth. He explores the translation of rhetoric into a medium for which it was not originally conceived, that being late nineteenth and early twentieth century novels. And although the classical oratory model of rhetoric has held sway over the discursive structure of literature from the first linguistic constructions specific to the written word until the present, its functionality has changed to meet varying needs. The visibility of rhetoric as a featured mechanism of writing has fluctuated along the axis of time and across the axis of literary forms. It never fully disappears. However, as it moves from application to application, the devices of rhetoric evolve along with us. The project of Modernism rejects the editorial—rhetorically persuasive—voice. Booth asserts that in its stead, “all of the old-fashioned dramatic devices of pace and timing can be refurbished for the purposes of a dramatic, impersonal narration.”
As was my discovery of the intermedium movement in architecture, the absence of some authorial guidance results in something seemingly useless. Or, if not useless, more accurately, it would lack the generally intended effect of its artifice. Booth artfully establishes the variety of ways that rhetorical principles existed formally and insidiously, rather than transparently. “Patterns of imagery and symbol are as effective in The Hamlet as they are in Hamlet, as decisive in Ulysses as they are in The Odyssey.” This change is significant in the scaling outward of rhetorical effects from the tactical level to broader strategic application of the performance, from the isolation of the representational phrases to the sweeping blur of the presentation. This is an important characterization, a sort of phase change that continues to take place.
The phase changes of rhetoric are not just constrained to the medium of writing however. Transmigration of oratory rhetoric into text wasn’t an accident. Rhetoric is just a formalization of the way our cognition organizes and assimilates stimuli into our emotions or vice versa. It defines the way we use language to persuade. And language structures the manner in which we think. Thus, all expressive works undertaken by humans perform under some rhetorical structuring. And its evolution does not always follow an intramedium trajectory. One of the most significant transmigrations of rhetoric in human history involved the full bloom of movies as a communicative medium. In his Notes on the Cinematograph Robert Bresson says, “The cinema did not start from zero. Everything to be called into question.” The purely visual tactics of movies are developed atop the rhetoric of literature, atop the rhetoric of oration. These tactics can be analogized and in those analogies are fruitful clues as to how these phase changes take place. But let me first indulge in a brief digression to provide some historical context.
No matter its execution, the structures of rhetoric enable opportunities for tenuous persuasion (control) even in situations that are meant to seem free. My interest is not in the manner Hunchback ’88 skillfully juxtaposes Booth’s model of rhetoric with the visual rhetoric of film, but how it abandons the traditional rhetoric of literature for a visual rhetoric that would be impossible without movies, yet is only possible back in the form of literature. The movement back from the way images function to the way text functions is not unlike any other translatory action with its loss of fidelity. One must simply be thrilled about that loss rather than lament it, and one must find a way for this thing to come alive in its new skin. Perhaps the most reassuring thing about this notion of visual rhetoric is that, as literary conceit, it is not new. In fact it is much more indebted to the dawn of literature in the 1500s than the commonplace literature of our contemporary culture that is the seventh son of the seventh son of the first maggot on the corpse of Naturalism.
Decorative tine, once painted white – now chipped from cheap, rusted from time.
No bulb screws into a dump-mangled socket set awkward at the middle of repeating curves and embossed flowers and crusted rounds creased in nubs, rope expressions and dots and slashes.
Every corner – eight total – a tacked juncture of three flats where dust collects dust, mossy and dense; each pulled buckle a tried sum of dead ends and dead zones; death in general, probably.
So, what was happening 400 years ago? An indispensable resource in answering this question is Rosemond Tuve’s comprehensive book Elizabethan & Metaphysical Imagery. Renaissance poetry was noteworthy and distinct for its significant investment in images. This is different than the metaphorically thematic use of “imagery” we observe in the last 200 years of poetry (after Baudelaire). Tuve describes an image as “the transliteration of a sense impression”. The use of images in Renaissance poetry was a facet of the still-codified and entrenched mechanisms of oratory rhetoric. Images were understood to be aligned with rhetorical principles, “topographia” for instance, the description of a place… or “icon,” a picture cultivated through similitude… had particular gearlike roles in the machinery of rhetoric. Their organization and interaction was governed by the more syntactical aspects of rhetoric, but their contents were lush and indulgent. Tuve:
Modern readers are prone to think, for example, that either ineptitude in narrative or naive pleasure in merely decorative ornament must have produced a long, slow, rhetorically sumptuous description like that of Mortimer’s tower in Drayton’s Mortimeriados. But an artist’s images are not likely to assist the aims we set for swift and faithful narrative of happenings if his intention is that his images should go far beyond naturalistic fidelity in expressiveness and should be part of a design which by its formal beauty heightened the significance of this matter.
This heightening of significance is known as “amplification.” Amplification was the practice of excessive ornamentation in the composition of these images with the sole function of distinguishing them, making them noteworthy in the slosh of text. Tuve elaborates:
‘Why add the ornament characteristic of poetic discourse, when the idea can be more clearly and economically stated otherwise?’ The Elizabethan, I think, would have simply answered, ‘Because it would not be heard.’
Now, to return to Bresson’s point, “cinema did not start from zero.” As written literature for 300 years meandered on an evolutionary path from the rhetoric of oration, so too do movies build upon that evolution in the structuring of its images. Certainly, movies inherit the narrative rhetoric of literature, but they also undergo a more significant phase change with what I would describe as the in-camera rhetoric of their visual composition. These visually rhetorical tactics, although not new in intent, give us a new understanding of the underlying mechanisms inherent to those tactics—whether in speaking, the written word, or the image—and how those mechanisms more elementally articulate our cognition. In our “seeing” something like parataxis made flesh, we begin to understand the rhetorical function of language differently, less in terms of the logic of its argument, and more—in a return to the aspirations of poetry—for its sensory effect. The conclusion of Bresson’s thought, “everything to be called into question,” might seem antithetical to something that did not start from zero, something that has a terrain. But what is called into question is that the terrain cinema was erected upon was not its own, and that coordination of the new over the old will necessarily involve some clever trajectories.
Ecphonesis: The face—glabrous, white, feminine with the creasings of a perpetual scowl over rotten teeth and dead black eyelids—flashes on the screen for 1/8th of a second in The Exorcist. / A sentence consisting of a single word or short phrase ending with an exclamation point.
Ellipse: The camera in Taxi Driver is shifting away from Travis calling Betsy from a payphone to spare us the agony of watching his rejection, but it only heightens the agony. / The suppression of ancillary words to render an expression more lively or more forceful.
Parataxis: In the passenger seat of Michel’s car, the flickering camera of Breathless on Patricia through the streets of Paris, gestures interrupted, quality of light abruptly changing. / Using juxtaposition of short, simple sentences to connect ideas, as opposed to explicit conjunction.
Adjunction: The camera passes over a doffed tuxedo and evening gown strewn across the floor, past a fire in the fireplace, to Roger Moore as James Bond’s awkward post-coital kissing—was Sir Roger capable of anything but awkward kissing?—with Countess Lisl von Schlaf in For Your Eyes Only. / When a verb is placed at the beginning or the end of a sentence instead of in the middle.
Non sequitur: A femur is flying against a pale sky a satellite is drifting against the blackness of space in 2001: A Space Odyssey. / A statement bearing no relationship to the preceding context.
Paraprosdokian: Danny rides his bigwheel through the abandoned hotel corridors in The Shining, weaving, racing across different floor coverings, racing in great loops, into a dead end where young twin girls ominously stand waiting for him. / A sentence in which the latter half takes an unexpected turn.
Enjambment: In a shot of Meet the Parents Ben Stiller nervously leans against a white tile wall chewing nicotine gum, in the reverse shot a skimpy men’s bathing suit hangs from a clothes hanger over the back of a wooden chair. / The continuing of a syntactic unit over the end of a line.
Anadiplosis: Sergeant Nicholas Angel in Hot Fuzz is on the tube holding his Japanese peace lily, and holding his Japanese peace lily on the platform of a rural train station. / Repeating the last word of one clause or phrase to begin the next.
Epanalepsis: As the camera pans in It Follows, through a window a girl in a white shirt and jeans distance is innocuously walking toward its axis of rotation and it continues to pan, across the protagonists Jay and Greg, across a host of other extras, the interior of the building, and pans back out the window where the girl in the white shirt and jeans is even closer than before, still walking. / A figure of speech in which the same word or phrase appears both at the beginning and at the end of a clause.
Diction (Poetic): The nimble camera of Tenebre crawls across the facade of a house, slowly, uninterruptedly poring over every architectural detail, intermittently presenting useful framed views of its occupants. / “Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental, or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered.” -Aristotle
Ignoratio elenchi: Fixation on a childhood drawing in Deep Red seems to reveal that Carlo is the murderer, when in fact it is his mother. / A conclusion that is irrelevant.
Alliteration: Madeleine shimmering in a green silk dress in Ernie’s restaurant, Madeleine in a green Jaguar on the streets of San Francisco, emerald green boxes stacked in Podesta Baldocchi florists, Madeleine floating in the green water beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, Jane in a green sweater and skirt standing between two green Podesta Baldocchi delivery trucks, the vaporous green glow of the Empire Hotel sign washing over Jane/Madeleine emerging from the bathroom, the luminous green sheer curtains silhouetting her figure in Vertigo. / The conspicuous repetition of identical initial consonant sounds in successive or closely associated syllables within a group of words. (Or more generally, a way of creating rhythm that is independent of time.)
These examples are free of the greater structure of meaning they serve in their cinematic bodies. They are rhetorical tactics that function like simple machines on their own, as gifs let’s say, aphorisms of the moving image. This is visual rhetoric. The connection of this cinematic imagery to the momentum of narrative is not where its agency lies. The capacity of the image to communicate independently is the true evolutionary clade of rhetoric in movies. It often labors on a completely different suite of agenda items than the verbal aspects of the movie. And this is, on some level, at play in all movies. But so often film falls short of the power available in its visual language, desperately using images to “Chekhov” (verb: to visually foreshadow) later events–conspicuously framing the rifle on the wall above the fireplace, if not lingering on it for a moment–because it is an image necessary to the rhetoric of the tale, not functional independent of the tale as a pure turn-of-phrase.
Certain types of movies traffic more heavily in the primacy of visual rhetoric. Lucio Fulci calls these “absolute films.” And it so happens that many, if not most of them are horror movies. Fulci describes his movie The Beyond as:
A plotless film: a house, people, and dead men coming from the Beyond. There’s no logic to it, just a succession of images… People who blame The Beyond for its lack of story have not understood that it’s a film of images, which must be received without any reflection. They say it is very difficult to interpret such a film, but it is very easy to interpret a film with threads: any idiot can understand Molinaro’s La Cage aux Folles, or even Carpenter’s Escape from New York, while The Beyondor Argento’s Inferno are absolute films.
I am not asserting that narrative and the Boothian rhetoric of fiction have no role in film—many movies are quite comfortable and productive functioning as visual tales—but that it is beneficial for our understanding of where literature might head to look at examples in which that is not the primary agenda. This is similar to, for example, an astronomer masking out superfluous radiance with a background frame, leaving only the object under observation.
Small grey room. Small. No windows, no observation booth, no exits to be outlined for a mind-map or hiding in plain sight. Total minimalism: a trap. Feels like a trap… Dangling low on the world’s grossest wire from a ceiling of infinite shadow and mystery and plumbing: a bare bulb strikes below-barren light. Under that: a large Formica table. Under that: two wooden chairs tucked and parked across from each other… and those chairs appear to be melting? From the hall they do anyway; thick brown snot covering a lounging skeleton watching itself watch itself. Confidence mirror cracked. Across the room, the other side of the table, against the far wall, a smaller, also Formica-topped, table with one of those old VHS/TV combo units sitting dust, turned on; screen a dark wobbly looking magenta… slight sudden fuzz breaks across it during my short gaze—I blink once, space out, blink again, turn back into the hall and black, look back into the room and… Place my left palm on the red gloss, it is warm, maybe hot, yank away with a shake before the burn can really get tested. Steps start, slow, continue until I’m standing at the first table, between the two sweaty chairs, looking down at a mound of shredded paper cleanly sculpted and peaked in twists of wormy construct. A cone. A small head dunce cap. Next to it: a paperback-sized stack of yellowed papers. I flip the yoked top sheet, which is blank, the next page: The Creamiest Babysitter.
Horror movies are particularly suitable experimental mechanisms because of our low expectations for them. They possess freedom that derives from if not their unreality, then at least their foreignness. One hopes that very few of us know what it is like to awaken on an operating table with a severed head performing oral sex on us (see Re-Animator (or don’t see it)). Our frame of reference, our threshold of credulity, is not as rigorous. We open ourselves to the visual—the momentary—in the absence of a pertinent larger picture. In that freedom is the promotion of the rhetorical bit and a demotion of causality. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is much closer to the raw ideals of literature, the magic liberty of mere words, that Rosemond Tuve was discussing above. Horror movies are primarily visual in the way they relate information. They are visually rhetorical in the way the manipulate the viewer. They do not typically hinge on information revealed in dialogue, a practice that hinges much more on the traditional application of verbal rhetoric. Because these images are increasingly emptied of their propulsive capacity, they gather their own gravity and separate themselves from the whole. The fixation is on the tactical setpiece. In an interview with Dario Argento, the questioner suggested, “If you were forced to make the choice between an amazing visual effect and a plot point, I imagine you’d always go for the visual,” to which Argento replied, “You’re right.”