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Published on November 5th, 2012 | by Thompson


Don’t Be a Square: The Cinematic Rhetoric of Cool

In last week’s class, Doug mentioned how Pulp Fiction serves as an example of non-linear narrative, and now that I’ve been introduced to Jeff Rice’s The Rhetoric of Cool, I’d like to think the film also serves as a cinematic rhetoric of cool.  “The rhetoric of cool is meant as a first step toward inventing a new media rhetoric by recognizing that the terms that shape writing differ significantly within new media than they have within print” (9).  Pulp Fiction, in the rhetorical sense, is cooler than the other side of the pillow…or a cucumber…or toilet water.  Frankly, it’s ice cold.

The rhetorical decisions made by Quentin Tarantino in writing, directing, but mostly editing, Pulp Fiction are perfect examples of the “push” Wysocki is looking for out of her students, and I think it’s also a precursor to Rice’s “cool writer” using “specific rhetorical practices to make meaning in electronic environments” (6).  Though Tarantino wasn’t the first to take liberties with the traditional cinematic frame, nor was he the first to edit film non-linearly, he has been known to do it often, and that’s him just being cool.  His “cut-up,” as Rice would call it, of the Pulp Fiction narrative is the same rhetorical method used by Burroughs.  For Deathproof, Tarantino literally used only “cut-up” leftover film stock to give the film a B-movie feel (and because he wanted to spend all his money on car crashes and chase scenes).  Rice proposes that “[i]n discrepancy…is where the possibility of an alternative is most prominent and most promising.  For out of difference, we invent.  For out of ‘missed moments,’ we find completely new possibilities” (9).  Tarantino is notorious for using title text and other rhetorical tactics to draw attention to the frame and filmmaking.  It’s not that he doesn’t care about the traditional cinematic frame, absent of text and featuring only moving images.  I just think he finds it boring and is doing his damndest to “push” the medium to new heights.

“[T]he content of media, like video games and television, does not affect us so much as the form and rhetoric of media do” (7).  Anne Wysocki makes similar inferences regarding the importance of form upon beauty in “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty.”  “There is no question that there is a certain necessity to effective visual composition because a design must fit a viewer’s expectations if it is to make sense…but if design is to have any sense of possibility – of freedom – to it, then it must also push against the conventions, the horizons, of those expectations” (172).  Tarantino’s rhetorical methods in Pulp Fiction would most certainly qualify as quite the “push” on limitations of the medium Wysocki is looking for in her classroom.

Speaking of limitations, James E. Porter’s “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community” discusses how we are all limited by our audience, but he also mentions:

“Writing is an attempt to exercise the will, to identify the self within the constraints of some discourse community.  We are constrained insofar as we must inevitably borrow the traces, codes, and signs which we inherit and which our discourse community imposes.  We are free insofar as we do what we can to encounter and learn codes, to intertwine codes in new ways, and to expand our semiotic potential – with our goal being to effect change and establish our identities with the discourse communities we choose to enter” (41).

In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino is intertwining codes in new ways to create a new and different cinema.  Though he is governed by the comprehension of his discourse community (i.e. moviegoers, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, etc.), Tarantino was able to produce a composition that was familiar enough to traditionalists and still conveyed meaning despite a lack of linear narrative and somewhat unfamiliar cinematic moves.  These “rhetorical moves” are what Rice describes as “belonging to the rhetoric of cool” and “are possible only because of digital culture; they challenge and disrupt print-oriented conventions and structural logic” (21).  It was obviously effective, as Tarantino won an Oscar for writing Pulp Fiction, and since “readers, not writers, create discourse,” the Academy and moviegoers everywhere changed cinematic discourse and the status quo by accepting Pulp Fiction (38).

If we are thoroughly investigating the effect of Pulp Fiction on cinema’s evolving rhetoric of cool, we have to not only investigate rhetorical use of the frame, but of sound as well.  Every Tarantino soundtrack (especially Reservoir Dogs) serves a rhetorical purpose.  When Rice refers to American Graffiti’s soundtrack all I could think about was K. Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s, but staying with the Pulp Fiction kick, Tarantino chose surf music for the basic score of the Pulp Fiction because, “it just seems like…rock ‘n’ roll spaghetti Western music.”  Much like Rice’s discussion of music from the ‘60s, Tarantino also chose music that has a “James Dean” kind of feel to it, and Tarantino’s musical choices are indicative of the influence of media he came in contact with while working at a video rental shop, and an example of Rice’s notion of appropriation.  “Our daily interactions with such media shape, implicitly or explicitly, our understandings of rhetorical production.  We appropriate from such interactions in order to gather ideas and insight from a variety of issues and situations, and in order to reflect those gatherings in writing” (47).  The use of songs by the likes of Kool and the Gang and Dusty Springfield are indicative of Tarantino’s experience with all forms of popular culture and reinforce the characters’ badassness – or coolness rather.

It is worth noting Pulp Fiction’s release date of 1994, just as the web was growing out of infancy and into a mouthy teenager, seemingly overnight.  I hardly find this to be a coincidence.  Computers finally allowed for this alteration of the frame at a price even Tarantino could afford.  (Budgets on his films were generally low and almost always fronted by the actors, including Danny DeVito and Harvey Keitel.)  These rhetorical moves made by Tarantino are becoming more popular, of course, but I think they were a precursor to what we have already seen and what we can expect of the web – non-linear narratives or “cut-ups” and manipulation of the frame, or screen, to better present information or entertainment (hopefully more of former and less of the latter).

Dont be a SquareWe’re already experimenting with the spatiality of the web, just as Tarantino experimented with the spatiality of the film frame and narrative in Pulp Fiction.  Tarantino was pushing the envelope, and it was and still is pretty cool, so “don’t be a…”

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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

3 Responses to Don’t Be a Square: The Cinematic Rhetoric of Cool

  1. Deb B. says:

    “We’re goin’ to be cool”…I haven’t seen Pulp Fiction in ages – cool clip ;) I liked your discussion about intertextuality and the music in Pulp Fiction, and it made me think of something (not entirely related, but this is how my brain works) that I’m going to try to articulate. However, I put this caveat in the forefront – I’m thinking a little abstractly about this stuff.

    I don’t know a ton about how music is mixed (Rice talks about it a little bit when he discusses DJs), but the way “new” music is mixed with bits and pieces taken from other, older, songs reminds me of what you are talking about in your idea that pop culture informs and “reinforce[s] the characters’ badassness – or coolness rather.” I’m reminded of the first time I heard the Flo Rida song using Etta James’s “Good Feeling” as part of the mix. I wish I could say that I liked it, but honestly, appropriating the oldies to infuse the new stuff in a more complex and complicated manner so that it can reach the pinnacle of “cool,” doesn’t work for me – I love Etta James the old way (7). So, even though film and music is moving toward this digital era, I wonder what we may lose out on from moving away from the old ways of doing things. I’m sure we’ll manage and adapt, but there is a wisp of nostalgia for what came before.

  2. ARRIVES says:

    Admittedly I’m on shaky ground entering into a conversation with you here, as I do not have the same level of expertise about Tarantino films, but in reading your discussion of Deathproof, I was reminded of Johnson-Eilola’s response to observing a music session. In “The Database and the Essay,” he writes, “In these transcripts, we begin to see evidence of a new sort of writing—composing processes (the phrase arcing over both music and text) supporting work as experimentation, arrangement, filtering, movement, rehearsal and reversal” (224). The idea of using “cut-up” leftover film stock is similar to the idea of using bits and pieces of sound and arranging them to make new meaning. Johson-Eilola also notes that “These terms will be familiar to writing teachers—they’re what we often struggle to push students towards in their own composing process, with varying levels of success” (224). I’m thinking specifically of “rehearsal and reversal” here, which is really about revision. Students, in general, resist the idea of revising. It means recognizing that what they wrote the first time might not be perfect. I know that I struggle to get students to see the value of revising and not just editing.

    I also think Johnson-Eilola’s idea of “writing the database” would connect to the deliberate rhetorical choices Tarantino is making. As Johnson-Eilola explains, “if we value this as a form of writing, then we can begin to argue that the sorts of choices one makes in writing the database—for example, what categories to include, what to exclude; which category to put first; etc.—we can start to argue that these choices involve responsibilities to the reader and to society, just as we now do in other, more traditional forms of writing” (220). It’s interesting to think about searches as writing, even if I don’t buy the argument all the way. What I do like about this idea, compared to just clicking links, is that I have control and I have to make deliberate decisions. Or “responsibilities” as Johnson-Eilola explains. Tarantino did not randomly throw together “cut-up” pieces from leftover footage, I’m assuming. Even if the images were not shot in sequence or even intended to be sequenced together, as the writer he made choices about how to organize them. It’s an example of a moment of “chora,” for Rice. He writes, chora “teaches me how to make connections” (35). In much the same way as Johson-Eilola he explains, “The best demonstration of choral moves on the Web can be seen…in the hypertextual link that allows writers the capability of developing threads around single words or ideas, and that requires readers to navigate these threads in various ways. The link is indicative of a new media push to reorganize space in terms of meaning construction” (35). It seems this is what Tarantino has done. He has “reorganized space” to make meaning. By selecting and making deliberate choices about arrangement, he has written a text that may seem out of order but that requires engagement on the part of the reader. Porter writes, “Thus the intertext exerts its influence partly in the form of audience expectation. We might then say that the audience of each of these texts is as responsible for its production as the writer. That, in essence, readers, not writers, create discourse” (38). While it might be true that Tarantino had an idea for how the films you’ve discussed might be interpreted, it is really the viewers, the readers, who create the text and they do this by making connections between the “disorganized” ideas presented to them. It’s an interesting way to think about all of this, even if I’m not totally wrapping my head around it all yet.

    • Thompson says:

      To be honest, I didn’t read Johnson-Eilola before writing the blog because I forgot we had bumped that up to this week’s class. I’m glad you reminded me, though, so I’ll touch on a few of the things that may be relevant to my argument. Firstly, Tarantino was using film that had been used (B-roll from B-movies) as well as unused snippets of film. There are moments in Deathproof where the film used is in no way related to the film Tarantino is making, so while your assumption is incorrect, your still right on the money when it comes to his “responsibilities.” He’s still making choices that the reader is required to decipher by using these previously printed film rolls, and he’s using iconic popular culture (actually cult film culture, really) images to do his “message sending.” As Johnson-Eilola says, “If we start to understand connection as a form of writing, then articulation theory can offer us a way to understand the ‘mere’ uncreative act of selection and connection as very active and creative. Perhaps as importantly, it moves the idea of database construction – or any sort of connective writing, like hypertext – away from technical/functional skill only and toward the sense that making decisions about how to arrange ‘facts’ is a very important process, one that involves ethical responsibilities on the part of the writer/designer” (226).

      Of course, in writing a screenplay, Tarantino had a plan for Pulp Fiction. There was nothing really random about it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t cool. I think Tarantino’s arrangement of the screenplay is the essence of cool. It’s unfamiliar…much like his dialogue. Not many people talk like Tarantino writes, but it’s cool, so it’s forgiven. Tarantino kind of takes the “write like speech” aspect of Elbow and collides it with Rice’s appropriation aspect of the rhetoric of cool. I would not commit to saying that filmmaking is simply database writing, but I could see how we could make that connection. Screenwriters tend to write in genres, utilizing tactics and plot that are familiar to audiences, but not all of them do. Christopher Nolan’s Memento is a perfect example of breaking from that norm. Tarantino used Pulp Fiction as an opportunity to introduce audiences to another unfamiliar genre, and created his own, new film genre.

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