Published on November 5th, 2012 | by Thompson3
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).
We’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…”