Mise-en-scèneELEMENTS OF MISE-EN-SCÈNE
FILMMAKERS AND MISE-EN-SCÈNE
MOVING CAMERAS AND LONG TAKES
LATER USES OF MISE-EN-SCÈ NE
Mise-en-scène is what we see in a film; editing is what we do not. These are simplified definitions, but they emphasize two essential things: the basic building blocks of a film—the shot and the cut—and the complexities of each that allow a film to achieve its texture and resonance. Mise-en-scène concerns the shot, though we need to keep in the back of our minds that editing—putting two shots together—affects not only how a film's narrative is structured but how the shots are subsequently understood by viewers.
The term "mise-en-scène" developed in the theater, where it literally meant "put into the scene" and referred to the design and direction of the entire production, or, as "metteur-en-scène," to the director's work. The term was brought into film by a group of French film critics in the 1950s, many of whom would become directors and constitute the French New Wave in the 1960s. One of these critics-turned-directors, François Truffaut, used the term negatively to describe the directors of the French "Tradition of Quality," the rather stodgy French films that appeared after World War II. New Wave theorists felt that these films merely translated novels into movies. André Bazin, perhaps the most influential film critic since Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) (the revolutionary Russian filmmaker who, despite his theoretical focus on a particular form of editing called montage, was a master of mise-en-scène), was much more positive in his use of the phrase, and the discussion of mise-en-scène here flows from his observations.
ELEMENTS OF MISE-EN-SCÈNE
Mise-en-scène is generated by the construction of shots and the ways that they lead to visual coherence, across the edits from shot to shot. It includes all the elements in front of the camera that compose a shot: lighting; use of black and white or color; placement of characters in the scene; design of elements within the shot (part of the process of production design); placement of camera vis-àvis characters in the set; movement of camera and/or actors; composition of the shot as a whole—how it is framed and what is in the frame. Even music may be considered part of mise-en-scène. While not seen, at its best music enhances the visual and narrative construction of the shot.
Cinematic mise-en-scène refers to how directors, working in concert with their cinematographers and production designers, articulate—indeed, create—the spatial elements and coordinates in the shot and succeed in composing well-defined, coherent, fictional worlds. Composition and the articulation of space within a film carry as much narrative power and meaning as its characters' dialogue. Mise-en-scène is thus part of a film's narrative, but it can tell a larger story, indicating things about the events and characters that go beyond any words they utter.
Mise-en-scène can also be an evaluative term. Critics may claim a film does or does not possess mise-en-scène. For example, if a film depends entirely on dialogue to tell its story, if its visual structure is made up primarily of a static camera held at eye level on characters who are speaking in any given scene, if its lighting is bright, even, and shadowless, it lacks mise-en-scène. On a more subjective level, if a viewer's eyes drift away from the screen because there isn't much of interest to look at, the film lacks mise-en-scène. Such a film may succeed on other levels, but not visually; it is constructed not in the camera but in the editing room, where the process is much cheaper because actors are absent. Films with good dialogue, well-constructed narrative, and scant mise-enscène can still be quite effective. But these are rare—as rare as well-written films.
Journalistic reviewers may care little about mise-eène. They are rarely concerned with the look of films and focus mostly on whether or not the story or characters seem "real." They may term visually centered works "arty" or say they have interesting "camera angles." Filmgoers may simply want to be entertained and not care about how a film is constructed. But dedicated filmmakers and filmgoers, like talented novelists and readers, want complete, self-contained, detailed cinematic worlds that are at the time open to the viewers' own worlds and experiences. Such people will find satisfaction in the visual complexity of mise-en-scène.
FILMMAKERS AND MISE-EN-SCÈNE
Mise-en-scène has preoccupied filmmakers in several countries and periods. German expressionism developed immediately following World War I. In painting, writing, and filmmaking, expressionism was a mise-en-scène cinema, expressing the psychological turmoil of the characters in terms of the space inhabited by its characters. Major representatives of German expressionism in film include Robert Wiene's Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) and F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, the first Dracula movie (1922). These and many others created a dark and anxious visual field, uneasy and frightening. German expressionism had enormous influence when its practitioners moved to the United States: Murnau's Sunrise (1927); Universal Studio's horror films of the early 1930s such as Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), and their sequels; Citizen Kane (1941); the film noir genre of the 1940s; Psycho (1960); and Taxi Driver (1976). These, among others, borrowed their idea of mise-en-scène from German expressionism, though it was not the only influence on these films.
Later directors developed highly individualized mise-en-scènes. Michelangelo Antonioni (b. 1912), for example, created an extremely intricate and eloquent mise-en-scène in films such as Il Grido (The Cry, 1957), L'Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961), L'eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964), Blow-Up (1966), and Professione: reporter (The Passenger, 1975). As Rosalind Krauss has noted in The Optical Unconscious, Antonioni, like the American abstract expressionist painters of the time (Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, for example) reversed the usual conventions of foregrounding the human figure against a background (pp. 2–27). Antonioni believed that the background—or, in his case, the character's environment—should be foregrounded, the characters constituting only one part of the mise-en-scène, which defined them by where they were, what was around them, and how they were observed by the camera.
Architecture is Antonioni's essential point of reference; the themes of his films were not reducible to plot but rather explore how the spaces inhabited by his characters explain their predicaments—something they themselves cannot adequately do in words. Antonioni framed characters in windows and often composed them among buildings that loomed strangely over them. In his color films, color itself defined situations. The belching yellow smoke from factories in Red Desert, the camera that unexpectedly drifts away from a character to follow a blue line running along the ceiling in the same film, create moods that allow viewers to understand the characters visually in ways that they don't understand themselves. Like an abstract expressionist painter, Antonioni worked to rid his work of the individual human figure. At the end of The Eclipse, the two central characters promise to meet at a certain location. They do not, and the last ten minutes of the film are composed of a collage of almost abstract cityscapes peopled, when at all, by anonymous faces. The camera's attention, however, focuses on things: water dripping from a drain; sprinklers watering a field; a horse-drawn sulky carrying a man across the street; a building wrapped completely in mats. This is an abstract vision of unexplained, anxiety-producing images. A hint is offered in a newspaper headline that reads "Atomic Bomb." Free-floating anxieties of the post-atomic world diminish the human figure in light of events not under the control of individuals.
Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) was a master of suspense achieved through mise-en-scène. In his best films, the actors were part of a greater visual plan. Psycho (1960) is a perfect example. It holds an almost involuntary, hypnotic grip on viewers because it touches on a primal fear of unknown terror and seemingly unstoppable madness. It works profoundly and economically because Hitchcock makes a convincing visual case for a claustrophobic world of fear and psychosis communicated not merely through action but through the visual construction of that world.
Hitchcock built his mise-en-scène with abstract visual pattern of verticals and horizontals—like Antonioni, he drew upon modern techniques of painting. The pattern is prefigured in the credit sequence and provides a blueprint for almost every shot that follows, culminating in the horizontal presence of the motel against the verticality of the old dark house. This rigid pattern is partly responsible for the shock that occurs when the pattern is broken, as in the arcing thrusting of the knife, or Marion Crane's blood flowing in circles down the drain in the shower. Visual rhymes abound throughout the film: movements up and down the stairs; the famous parlor scene where Norman Bates and his stuffed birds silently expose the "surprise" of the film's climax. The entire film is shot within a tightly controlled gray scale—a dull, oppressive world in which the normal, "outside" world barely existed. Sequences like the opening one in the hotel room, Marion's office, and her road trip to the Bates motel were composed to make Marion seem entrapped. When Hitchcock's camera creeps up the steps or tracks from Marion's dead eye to the money on the table, it does not open out space but further closed it down. Everything is of a visual piece; the film's puzzle gets pulled together before our eyes.
In Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock, like many mise-eǹne filmmakers, created a careful color scheme and sce situated characters in the frame so that viewers knew what was happening to them by the way they were seen. The characters were part of the larger, carefully articulated spatial configurations that Hitchcock developed in order to indicate to the audience what was not said outright. The main character of the film, James Stewart's Scottie, reacts during the first half of the film under the influence of a lie and his infatuation based on that lie; in the second half, he responds through a kind of psychosis caused partly by having being fooled. This crucial narrative information is presented to us through spatial placement: the way he is seen in the frame, what he looks at, who looks at him. He is not an actor as much as he is part of the mise-en-scène.
The moving camera is a major factor in the creation of mise-en-scène, because it opens up space, traversing and redefining it. The camera can pursue characters or precede them, show them as powerful, or reduce their power. The moving camera does what cutting cannot do: make space whole. Orson Welles (1915–1985) and Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) were masters of the moving camera. Welles's Touch of Evil (1958) and his adaptation of Kafka's The Trial (in the film Le procès [The Trial, 1962]) created dark, nightmarish worlds through which his camera snaked and insinuated itself, allowing nothing to escape the viewer's gaze, while at the same time creating confusing spaces that seemed to be unconnected. Both Welles and Kubrick created labyrinthine spaces—literally: in Kubrick's The Shining (1980), the camera snakes its way through the hedge maze, where Jack becomes trapped and freezes; figuratively, in The Trial, Joseph K. wanders through the dark maze of the Law. Movement in both of these directors' films creates a mise-en-scène of ultimate entrapment; their characters are swallowed up in the world the camera creates for them.
Along with the moving camera, another important element of mise-en-scène is the long take. Nowhere is the opposition between shot and cut more apparent than when a filmmaker allows a scene to continue unedited, actors acting, viewers observing. The long take can be used for sheer technical brilliance, as in the over-four-minute take in the Copacabana sequence of Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas (1990), where the camera moves with the characters down the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the club, all kinds of action and dialogue occurring along the way. It can be deadly serious, as in the tracks through the trenches in Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) or the extraordinary movement with the jogging astronaut in the centrifugal hall of the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Neither of these sequences is especially long, though the track through the trenches is persistent, intercutting shots of Col. Dax's intent face moving through the line of soldiers with his view of them. But these and all moving-camera long takes are marked by intensity and energy—visual signs of their character's purpose and ultimate failure, not to mention their director's creativity.
LATER USES OF MISE-EN-SCÈ NE
Mise-en-scène remains somewhat rare in Hollywood filmmaking, because it is expensive, and worst of all (in the studio's eyes), it calls attention to itself rather than allowing the screen to become a transparent space in which a story gets told. But some contemporary directors are emerging with a recognizable visual style that is all but synonymous with mise-en-scène. David Fincher (b. 1962) is one. Se7en (Seven, 1995), The Game (1997), and Fight Club (1999) set up consistent visual palettes and compositional structures for their fictional worlds. Seven was filmed in color, but Fincher and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, manipulated it so that almost every shot is washed with a yellow-green tint—an unpleasant look that, along with the darkness and unending rain, express the grimness of the film's universe. Fincher also used a pattern to control his mise-en-scène: here and in other of his films, he constructed his shots along a horizontal line to complement the wide-screen format he used. As in Psycho, everything was bound: composition and camera movements occur along the line that set boundaries for an otherwise unlocalized world. Seven is set in an unnamed city, gray and always raining. At the end of the film, after a relatively short drive, the characters find themselves in a desert strung with power lines. Like an expressionist film, Seven creates a state of mind, but not an individual one. Instead, like Psycho, its mood is one of universal anxiety.
The most important reason to emphasize mise-eǹne was and remains a director's sense of opposition to the largely anonymous style of Hollywood filmmaking and its rapid, invisible editing. The creation of a coherent and articulate mise-en-scène is a means to personal expression. From the quiet domestic spaces of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (1903–1963), who defines his characters by what surrounds them, to the vertiginous, shadowy spaces of the worlds created by Orson Welles, to the abstract cityscapes of Antonioni and the imprisoning interiors of the German filmmaker Werner Rainer Fassbinder (1945–1982), to the expresscesive compositions and camera movements created by Martin Scorsese (who uses Fassbinder's cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus), creative filmmakers have developed alternatives to Hollywood's illusory realism through mise-en-scène. The technique, like other modernist ones, foregrounds rather than hides the medium's processes. Choosing angles, moving a camera, deciding how the camera should be positioned and the scene dressed and lighted are among the things that cinema, and no other single art, can do. These cumulative aesthetic decisions are the marks of great filmmakers as they create complete and coherent fictional worlds.
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