Friday, 20 March 2015

Mise en scène

The world is filled with film terms that are vague, ambiguous and over-used and mise en scène is most certainly such a term. Since it is a vague term, and is used differently in different contexts, it will never be definitively defined, and certainly not by me. Of course many have written about it, including some of the sharpest critics writing now such as Glenn Kenny and Adrian Martin. Kenny, when writing about Horizons West (Budd Boetticher 1952) in this post, focuses on the "clarity and momentum and the necessary information placed in the correct space with little sense of fuss or strain. Which could, in a sense, be mise-en-scene." Martin has written a whole new book on the subject, Mise en Scène and Film Style (2014). He there highlights the fact that mise en scène means different things to different people in different countries at different times, and he distinguishes between two aspects.
"There is mise en scène as the global history - still to be fully, comprehensible written - of how film-makers made their films, what structures and effects of style they created in their work; this could be called a history of forms in cinema. Then there is mise en scène as the history (again, global) of what critics, theorists and commentators have said, written and thought in their quest to define and use tools to understand the films they see, study, analyse and transmit to others." (Martin 2014: xviii)
The term comes from the theatre and it is not obvious that it should be something to argue about since it would seem to refer to whatever is within the frame (including the angle of the frame), and nothing else. So the actors, lighting, set, décor, depth of field and so on. But since it is a theatre term there is friction when applied to the cinema. Two obvious things is that 1) you have editing in films but not in the theatre and 2) in the theatre the stage is fixed and space is restricted whereas in film space is limitless, and the camera can move. When what is in the frame is constantly changing, the camera moving from one location to another, what becomes of mise en scène? When a film is shot outdoors is it still relevant to use the term? Is it Manhattan which is the mise en scène in the opening sequence of Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979)? Some argue that it is. In The Film Experience: An Introduction, Patricia White and Timothy Corrigan talks about the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean 1962) as mise en scène. They also argue that "architecture of a town might be described as a public mise-en-scène" (2012: 64), but now we are getting to the point where everything is mise en scène...

In Film Art: An Introduction, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell provide four elements of mise en scène, setting, costumes and make-up, lighting and staging, and among their many examples they use a scene from Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) as an example, a lightning storm over the prairie. Likewise, in "Afterword: the Auteur Theory Revisited" (to be found in later editions of The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968), Andrew Sarris defines mise en scène as "all the means available to a director to express his attitude towards his subject. This takes in cutting, camera movement, pacing, the direction of players and their placement in the decor, the angle and distance of the camera, an even the content of a shot". But I find all this unsatisfying, and too broad. If mise en scène is simply what is seen in a film, what distinguish it from cinematography? Jacques Rivette had another answer. “Here's a good definition of mise en scène - it's what's lacking in the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz.” (Incidentally, I think Laura Mulvey claimed that melodrama was “the genre of mise en scène”.)

If mise en scène is to be used I feel it should be used to refer to something more specific; something deliberately, artificially created, staged, for the purpose of the shooting of a scene, to return the term to its theatrical roots. But I would also include sound and colour grading as being part of it. What is required is unity, coherence and spatial awareness (space being integrated in the scene, with the actors and their movements). Some seem to connect it especially with "classical cinema", and some conflate it with long takes and elaborate camera movements, but I see no reason to do that. Editing can be a part of it when it is done within the context of the specific scene, such as from a medium shot to a close-up, or from a high angle shot to a low angle shot. But a tracking shot through a real city street would not count as mise en scène whereas this shot from Henry Hathaway's Niagara (1953) would.


But outdoor tracking shots are not excluded wholesale of course. In Weekend (1967), Jean-Luc Godard does a very long tracking shot alongside a country road which is filled with cars, people, animals and various activities and set-pieces, staged by Godard for the film, and that might very well be regarded as a striking example of mise en scène. Instead of forcing the term into the straitjacket of a definition, I will leave it somewhat open, but I still want it to refer to something specific, the coherent, spatially aware scene I mentioned above. Its occurrences are all around us, in films, in video games, in art installations, in paintings. Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas, from 1656, is an excellent example.


In films the term is for me especially connected to F.W. Murnau, Henry King and Douglas Sirk, because their mise en scène is frequently so striking, meticulous, sometimes overwhelming, and complete (or integrated), it is where they put the most emphasise and tenderly cared for. But this is more of a personal hang-up; there is no objective reason for emphasising those three and not, say, David Lean, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Akira Kurosawa, Wong Kar-Wai, or Carol Reed, among many others. Unlike Rivette in his comment quoted above, for me mise en scène is not related to quality, it is a neutral element of a film, and it might be good or bad. Whereas somebody like V.F. Perkins prefers unity and coherence and compare it unfavourably to fragmentation and disparity, I do not favour one over the other. It is not a contest but different ways of filmmaking, and to each his own.

Chinese Roulette (Fassbinder 1976)

The scene below, from Michael Bay's second Transformers film, Revenge of the Fallen (2009), is a favourite of mine, especially the part when all the marbles (tiny transformers) fall down the ventilation shaft and then come together to form a much bigger transformer, a large copy of all the small individual ones. It is both ingenious and beautiful, in its idea as well as in its execution. But Bay pays almost no attention to space here, or the surroundings, so this is not what I would characterise as great mise en scène. Or is it perhaps after all in line with my own view of mise en scène, narrow and vague as it is? But it does not matter for in any event the sequence is excellent.




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For those who want to read more about Adrian Martin's thoughts on mise en scène but have neither the time nor the money to invest in his book, try this piece. In his book he also suggests that should we want "a decent English translation for mise en scène, staging is not bad". (2014: 15) Yet he seems to think that there is a lot more to it than that.

Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman 1975)

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