What is it about?

Frederick Wiseman's documentaries are paradigmatic of the Direct Cinema variety of documentary. This means that the director tries to be a "fly on the wall" and not to interfere in any manner with what happens in front of the camera. So: no interviews, no voice-over, no re-enactments, no added music. But the dozens or hundreds of hours of shooting still need to be structured into a film that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The only cinematic tool available to the Direct Cinema director is: editing. In this paper we claim that Wiseman imposes structure on his seemingly random material by making use of what we call "antithesis": he lays bare paradoxical situations by systematically contrasting how things are presented to be and how they actually are. Whereas antithesis has hitherto been almost exclusively theorized in its verbal forms, we analyze visual and multimodal instances.

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Why is it important?

Tropes have, since Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian been considered figures of speech. Lakoff and Johnson, in Metaphors We Live By (1980), have demonstrated that metaphor is primarily a figure of thought. In my own work, I have explored the consequence of this idea: namely that metaphor should also occur in visual, musical, sonic, and multimodal discourse. In this paper Assimakis Tseronis and myself do something similar for antithesis, showing how this trope could assume visual or multimodal form. We also hope thereby to contribute to insights into a (the?) evaluative slant that Frederick Wiseman systematically deploys in his documentaries.


In a world in which visual information becomes an ever more important way to communicate, it is vital that we understand in what ways visuals and multimodal discourses can make use of tropes to persuade their public of a certain evaluative point of view. To achieve this goal, it is imperative that scholars of multimodality and rhetoric cooperate.

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

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This page is a summary of: Chapter 6. The argumentative relevance of visual and multimodal antithesis in Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries, December 2017, John Benjamins, DOI: 10.1075/aic.14.07tse.
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