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The Set Piece

Flirting with Disaster


What is the set piece in film, and can we break it down into three main categories? If we think of the cinematic set piece, the pictorial set piece and the theatrical set piece, we can understand that different films move towards different things. Numerous works might be interested in the notion of the set piece, but the assumption that this is a scene based on cinematic action limits it to a certain type of film. By opening the term up to various manifestations, we can see how films with very distinct priorities nevertheless utilise a version of it. To help us here we’ll look at a handful of film and see how the set piece functions.


In Henri Verneuil’s Night Caller, Jean-Paul Belmondo plays police officer Letellier, a man who openly announces he is far more interested in muscle than mind, and when one of the two killers he is chasing sends info announcing that he is influenced by Dante’s Divine Comedy, he flicks through it and reckons the murderer should be given a reduced sentence for having read the damn thing. There is none of the library research we see in the serial killer film Seven: Letellier is a man only happy in the fresh air, especially if it happens to be on roof tops. Many an action sequence has taken place on the top of buildings, from Vertigo to The Italian Job, but in this very average thriller Verneuil manages to transcend the mediocrity of the material with the quality of a sequence that asks us questions about what film suspense happens to be. How much of it is in the story diegetically, and how much beyond the film: how much does the film ask us for example about the actor in the very sequence? Belmondo was famous for doing his own action sequences, however dangerous: even the Encyclopedia Britannica mentions it in their potted biography. “Known for performing his own stunts, Belmondo continued to star in entertaining action films and comedies that proved immensely popular with European audiences.” The sequence where he chases a killer over the Galeries Lafayette rooftops, with views of the Sacre Coeur on one side; the Eiffel Tower on the other, doesn’t so much leave us suspending our disbelief, but instead suspending our suspension of disbelief.

If for example a filmmaker used, in the past, back-projection to indicate that though in reality the actor was moving through a studio rooftop with an artificial backdrop, or, more recently, if we witness an actor working against blue screen computer generated imagery, we remain in the realm of suspension of disbelief. But when we see in the length of the take and in the background detail this is a real French film star running across roofs in a real Paris, it is as though the story about a cop trying to catch a killer is weak next to the documented reality of an actor taking risks. When at certain moments Letellier loses his footing we of course don’t assume this is the actor almost falling, but the character. Yet it is the actor who has to perform the act of almost falling and therein lies risk. No doubt there were various safety devices in place to minimise the likelihood of Belmondo falling off the roof, but risk there would seem to be. An audience watching the film gasps not so much in horror at the character’s bravery, but Belmondo’s, with the shock and laughter that of an audience who aren’t complacently assuming that this is digital work that leaves us inside the story, but live-action filmmaking creating a certain type of thespian concern. Though the action film can be the most gung-ho and apparently insensitive of genres diegetically, it can contain within it a concern that hovers over the story as we see a star doing his own stuntwork.

Night Caller is exactly this type of film. Early on Letellier and his side kick (played by Charles Denner) try to extract a confession out of a man they’ve shot in the chest. As they joke about him possessing a bleeding heart, we watch him lying on the ground desperately asking them to call an ambulance. Even after they get the confession they seem in no hurry to seek help, and the film itself has no interest in whether he survives or not. The film happily accepts this is no more than an actor with a bit of red goo trickling out of his chest and, whatever the likelihood of the character’s demise, it is of no great importance to us as viewers. It isn’t even as if the more sympathetic characters get sensitive deaths. At the beginning of the film Lea Massari’s cameo hysteric ends up shocked when the doorbell rings, thinking it’s the night caller, and grips her heart as she moves towards the window in her high rise apartment. Of course she ends up tumbling out of it and freefalls into some water on ground level. Later in the film a nurse Letellier guards gets strangled, but nothing much is made of it, and Letellier feels no guilt or loss, even if it looked like a relationship might have developed between them. Yet when Letellier is negotiating the rooftops, audiences seem dismayed at the risks the actor is taking. The film is never more serious than during this sequence which goes beyond its own narrative parameters to hint at the recklessness of the actor’s derring- do.

In Paul Auster’s The Art of Hunger, the writer talks about Philippe Petit, famous for crossing the twin towers on a tightrope, and says of Petit’s achievements: “it is automatically assigned marginal status. The circus, after all, is for children, and what do children know about art?” Equally, the set piece in which an actor does his own stunts is hardly likely to lead to thespian awards. There are obvious and understandable reasons for this; not the least of them the notion than an actor can have a stunt-double but is unlikely to have a stand-in who can cover the emotional scenes. Imagine a director saying to Brando that his double will cover the key scene with his brother in the back seat of the car in On the Waterfront. Brando is irreplaceable here; Belmondo on the rooftop replaceable, but admirable in that he chooses not to be. But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the real in filmmaking as a branch of the circus, as something based on derring-do. It is partly what we admire so much in silent cinema, with Harold Lloyd for example allowing us a special type of laugh not easily separated from anxiety in Safety Last. The feats of Petit far outweigh any cinematic achievement by Belmondo, Lloyd and others, but there is still the feeling that the scene by a double wouldn’t have the same frisson.

Our second example comes from Casino Royale, and shares with the scene from Night Caller the importance of the actor doing their own stunts. We are thinking here however less of Daniel Craig’s leading performance; more Sebastien Foucan’s cameo role as the villain chased by Bond near the beginning of the film. In some ways Foucan is more Philippe Petit than Jean-Paul Belmondo: someone whose skill lies outside cinema but whose grace was incorporated into the movie. Describing the difference between Parkour and free running, Ann R. Ferguson says the term Parkour (derived from the French word for obstacle) has been in use since the early 1980s, when it was used to describe an adventurous, expressive, and demanding way of jogging. “Parkour and free running were once used interchangeably, but when many of the traceurs (runners) became interested in aesthetics, the two terms came to represent different disciplines.” (‘Catch Me if You Can’) Foucan says: “Free running has no limitation. It’s about expressing yourself with environment. I started to do it just by child’s play and never stopped. I put it in place as a real discipline.” (‘Catch Me if You Can’)

In Casino Royale it gives the sequence a sense of play as well as purpose, a feeling that we are watching an act of virtuosity and not simply an act of escape. After all Bond is after his man, with Foucan playing a bomber chased by 007. But it also points up the idea that many a set piece is more than the sum of its action parts; it can sometimes be broken down into its discrete pleasures. Not everyone watching Casino Royale will know Foucan is a leading exponent of freerunning, but the different approaches Craig and Foucan take to the obstacles in their paths are telling. As Mollaka (Foucan) leaps over a fence we then watch Bond stumble over it. Often in the sequence it is as if Bond is the game creator rather than the game player: the person creating obstacles for Mollaka to leap over and through rather than Bond proving an equal participant. As Ferguson says “Foucan climbs incredible heights, jumps buildings, clears cranes, and swings with one fluid motion through a hole in a wall—all with stylish flair sans special effects…He accomplishes this while fending off a persistent, not-as-stylish Daniel Craig”. We may well be on Bond’s side, but that doesn’t mean we can’t admire the virtuosity of his opponent. Just as the villain often gets the best lines in a film, or the best clothes (the dandy villain) so there is no reason why they can’t posses the best movements as well. When we get point-of-view shots from Foucan’s perspective, from behind some unlaid pipes, we might expect Bond ingeniously to try and catch his man: instead he hurtles towards him in a plough truck. The innovation is all on Mollaka’s part as he leaps onto a platform, then onto a large box, and up onto the steel girders of a burgeoning building. Here Bond gets a bit more original: relentlessly making his way up a massive resting crane that is angled in a manner that allows Bond to meet Mollaka halfway up the construction. If Bond sometimes cheats in freerunning terms by using whatever is at his disposal like the truck, Mollaka in movie terms proves villainous by his refusal to see human life as sacrosanct. A human is another obstacle in his freerun towards escape, and the film uses cutaways both to construction workers looking on at his impressive feats (they’re like the photos we see of those stunned by Petit’s walk across the towers evident in stills from Petit’s book), but also the human consequences of such risk-taking when villainously pursued: one construction worker gets kicked in the chest by Mollaka and falls off the building before landing on his back. Bond is merely cavalier: at one moment releasing pipes supported by wires on the crane so that he can speedily rise to the top and join Mollaka who has pulled himself up along the self-same wire moments earlier, but doesn’t seem to possess Bond’s quick thinking process and uses pure physical prowess next to Bond’s mental machinations. Does anybody die as the pipes crash to the ground? It seems not, as an earlier shot of the workers looking scared is followed shortly after by one showing nobody in harm’s way.

When a minute later, after a brief tangle between Bond and Mollaka on the crane, with helicopter shots emphasising the immense height, Mollaka gracefully leaps off the crane, onto another shorter one and then over rooftops, we can see that from a freerunning perspective there is much for someone to learn. Bond on the other hand clumsily jumps from the first crane to the second, and then falls rather than jumps from one building to the next. Once again we are in a clash between the diegetic and the non-diegetic. Anyone watching the scene who knows Parkour or freerunning will be seeing Faucon given a multi-million budget playground. It is his ingenious prowess that the viewer will be watching; not the development of the plot. Thus, If we take into account David Bordwell’s remarks about the set piece, we can see how easy it is to extricate ourselves from the story and focus on the grandeur of the sequence. “As commonly understood in the arts, a set piece is a fairly self-contained portion of a larger work. It has a distinct beginning and end, and it’s understandable and impressive if extracted from its original.” (Observations on Film Art) In the instance of Belmondo in Night Caller and Faucon in Casino Royale, it can seem like a double extraction: not only can we remove the set piece from the rest of the film, we can separate the character from the role. We are witnessing a particular person’s risk-taking in the former instance and virtuosity in the latter: the character is potentially secondary to the person playing the part.

Our first two examples of the set piece have emphasised the actor playing the role, but what about the director playing with an audience? Numerous great set piece filmmakers, and none more so than Alfred Hitchcock, like to tease the audience with their own virtuosity, with the actor very much secondary to the formal brilliance. In Strangers on a Train Hitchcock maximises the suspense in a sequence that wouldn’t seem to the innate excitement so often vital to the action scene. This is a potentially modest thrill next to clambering over the rooftops of Paris or scrambling up a crane, with the Carousel usually a gentle entertainment for young children: one of the least challenging of fairground rides next to the rollercoaster or even the Big Wheel. In Strangers on a Train Hitchcock utilises it however so that much of the suspense resides in the dramatic tension he can extract by virtue of the devices he adopts. In Night Caller and Casino Royale the variables are minimal: there are no cuts to people looking on or even caring about what is going on in Night Caller, while in Casino Royale the builders on the site are given no dialogue and only the occasional reaction shot. In Strangers on a Train, though, not only do we have the film’s two main characters, Guy Haines and the villainous Bruno Anthony fighting it out on the Carousel, we also have the cops standing by, wondering how to stop the thing, a mother worried about her son caught on the fairground ride, and the old man who says he knows how to turn it off: he crawls through the narrow space below the floorboards of the Carousel. At one moment the boy falls off his horse and looks like he is going to roll off the machine only to grip a pole before being hauled in again by Guy. Moments later it is Guy hanging on to the pole as Bruno kicks at Guy’s hands as they grip the pole while he swings round the ever faster Carousel.  All the while we cut to the old man underneath determined to reach the levers.

Hitchcock leaves no room for the non-diegetic: we aren’t likely to be watching the scene thinking of the great bravery or virtuosity of the actors: only of the characters. It is the most cinematically dramatic of the three scenes from the authorial perspective: the director wants to take control of the material and uses a fairly mundane situation and manipulates it into excitement through the intensity of the drama and the skill of the editing. The irony is that the man under the Carousel actually risked his life doing the scene, with Hitchock saying in an interview with Francois Truffaut: “my hands still sweat when I think of that scene today. You know, that little man actually crawled under that spinning roundabout. If he’d raised his head by an inch, he’d have been killed.” (Hitchcock) We might watch the sequence in the wake of Hitchcock’s remark and be surprised at how little tension is garnered out of this fact; that most of it comes from the dramatic editing. This ‘little man’ who Hitchcock doesn’t even name, is but one part of the component structure, no more relevant finally than the little boy whose life is also endangered. In Night Caller and Casino Royale the dramatic variables are weak next to what we could call the heroic logistics: the degree to which we are impressed by the action heroics; and the director’s purpose is to frame the deed. It is as much showcase as set piece:  it is an opportunity for stars to shine. It is a point often addressed in the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible films, where any hint of the star doing his own stunt work is played up and talked about. Discussing the trailer for Cruise’s Mission Impossible 5, Matthew James in The Independent says: “In Mission Impossible 2, he and the film’s director had to bluff insurance companies so he could perform the opening climbing sequence. In the last Mission movie, he scaled the 130th floor of a tower in Dubai. Himself. This is a performer with an obsessive commitment to the audience experience, and so in this trailer, when I see the ground shrinking behind him as his hair is whipped by the plane’s velocity, I feel a kind of rush which is becoming more and more difficult for film makers to create. Because I know it’s really him.”

One doesn’t deny this is an important aspect of filmmaking, and one that seems less and less likely to be evident as filmmakers increasingly accept the CGI possibilities that mean using a real actor will seem like a needless risk. But while a CGI performer crawling under the Carousel in Strangers on a Train wouldn’t have taken very much away from Hitchcock’s film, a CGI Belmondo in Night Caller would leave the scene all but redundant. Night Caller’s sequence is of course impressive, but it is almost acrobatically so, and this is why we have invoked Philippe Petit as the ultimate example of this ontological ambition: the ultimate being at risk. Hitchcock’s sequence doesn’t incorporate this dimension of being at risk and remains perhaps all the more cinematic because of it. It is directorially cinematic rather than behaviourally cinematic: there is ingenuity in the direction rather than virtuosity in the performer. Nevertheless all three sequence are fine examples of the action set-piece, all cinematic, but not quite in the same way.


The pictorial set piece might incorporate a dimension of risk; might all but eschew it, but the risks involved have less to do with heroism than a certain aesthetic need for an aspect of the real. Whether it is Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, or Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. These are films interested in turning the reality of what is filmed into pictorial awe. In Fitzcarraldo the central character wishes to open an opera house in the middle of the jungle, and the director insisted on hauling an actual boat over an actual mountain to show something of the madness in the character’s ambitions matched by Herzog’s own. The high point in the film is the boat manually straining to get over the massive hill. In his desire to show the reality of what he was filming, Herzog admitted there was a chance of catastrophe. “I knew there was a danger, and everyone was left in no doubt that getting on the boat to film the sequence was most definitely a risk that could not be fully calculated. Yet it was one that had to be undertaken.” “And like him (Fitzcarraldo), we have all got to try to make our dreams come true, even if it is against all odds. An image like the ship moving across a mountain seems to give us all courage for our own dreams. This is a film that challenges the most basic law of nature.” (Herzog on Herzog) It wouldn’t be enough to fake the image because then we would be merely  be in the realm of the imagination. If film is to differentiate itself from painting, while acknowledging what we call the pictorial, then it must accept that it takes place both in the mind and in the world. If an early film theorist like Hugo Munsterberg can insist that “the photoplay obeys the laws of the mind rather than those of the outer world” (The Film: A Psychological Study), Herzog and other filmmakers would be inclined to differ. While for Munsterberg and other theorists of film, like Rudolf Arnheim, who believe in the made result over the filmic process, cinema is a psychological medium, closer to dream than reality. “The film must follow a purely mental world with mental relations”, Dudley Andrew notes, discussing Munsterberg in The Major Film Theories, adding, “the film differs from the dream mainly in completeness.” Yet for Herzog, if Fitzcarraldo is to work as a dream it must do so through defying reality: “story is the victory of the weightlessness of dreams over the heaviness of reality.” (Herzog on Herzog)

The pictorial set piece here is the cinematic acknowledgement of a world that exists and the difficulty of filming it to create an aesthetic object. If many a great painter’s difficulties reside in the imagination meeting perspective, in trying to find the means by which to capture both the sea and the image of the sea that they witness, the filmmaker often has that reality in front of their eyes with the camera, not craft, taking care of the ‘accuracy’ of that presentation. What the filmmaker must then do is find the means to turn that easily captured image of reality into a singular perception of it. This would appear to be the intention of the pictorial set piece. What Herzog offers is a scene that insists on the sublime awe of the art work but reconfigued through the profilmic image. When we see the boat pulled at a forty-five degree angle, as the music of Caruso plays on a primitive record player, it is as if we understand both the awe of mankind and the struggle to generate it simultaneously. When we see a great art work by the painters who have influenced Herzog we respond to the majesty of the image, but can less easily feel the presence of struggle in the art. If in paintings like The Stages of Life and Moonrise over the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich we view a tranquil beauty in the setting, we also miss the turmoil absent from the creation. Is this not what artists like Turner and Van Gogh brought to painting, but that is perhaps especially evident in a certain type of cinematic set piece? When at the beginning of Aguirre, Wrath of God, for example, we see the various characters winding their way round the Andes mountains, what the film achieves are images of great beauty, but also of an arduous kind. They incorporate within the beautiful the act of creation. As Herzog insists, “filmmaking is athletics over aesthetics”(Herzog on Herzog): process is vital to the result. We don’t just admire the beauty of the scene; we also unavoidably muse over how the very shots were achieved.

The pictorial set piece thus incorporates the beauty of painting but within it the risk of cinema. Where a great artist needs to carry no more than an easel, paint and a few personal belongings to capture a scene of majesty, the filmmaker often requires a cast and crew, a world unto itself that can’t easily be ignored in the diegetic experience. As we see the numerous people moving along the mountain as they explore the Amazonian jungle in Aguirre, so we also know that the filmmakers were doing the same. One of the dangers in special effects advancement in film is that this will no longer be the case: “this is the issue of truthfulness in today’s cinema. It is is not about realism or naturalism.” (Herzog on Herzog).

Our second example of the pictorial set-piece comes from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. At the film’s conclusion a house built into the rock gets blown up and is viewed from multiple angles. This desert located building is destroyed not by any action, but as if by an act of imagination. The young woman who has been wandering around the house  that belongs to her boss, exits it and, looking back, watches as the building explodes. Is it a moment of revolutionary desire as the film has explored student protest while at the same time exploring housing development as artificial living? As the film cuts to numerous shots of the exploding building and the objects within the house going up in flames and bursting into pieces, Antonioni plays Pink Floyd over the soundtrack. Now of course numerous action films have ostensibly similar sequences, with all those late nineties disaster movies like Independence Day, Armageddon and Volcano playing up cinematic spectacle to generate what Geoff King would call, in New Hollywood Cinema, an impact aesthetic. But Antonioni long before the event wants a properly impact aesthetics if we regard the set piece here as one divorced from narrative. The disaster film might often care little for the characters who are getting zapped, but they do at least insist that they are narratively involved. When for example Harvey Fierstein looks at the debris flying towards him in Independence Day, we are offered a brief moment of co-feeling with a character about to die. The film emphasises the spectacle but doesn’t completely play down the human factor. In Zabriskie Point the film divorces itself from the human. Common to a handful of Antonioni films, it is as though the director wants to eradicate the human not because he is insensitive to our needs and feelings, but to create a world in which the human is not central but peripheral. In The Eclipse, Blow-Up, The Passenger and here, Antonioni generates a world of absence within presence. At the end of Blow-Up, for example, a couple of students play tennis with an imaginary ball, while at the very end central character Thomas is shown to be small in an overhead long shot as we see the expanse of grass. The film then cuts so that we see the same image but Thomas is absent from it as the film’s end credit comes up. It is as though central to Antonioni’s approach to the pictorial set piece is to turn what is central to most cinema (the human body) into a felt absence. Man is never quite the centre of the universe in the director’s films, just as he isn’t finally central to Herzog’s either. But where Herzog works with far-flung locations to suggest man at the mercy of elements that he can’t control, in a  natural environment that mocks the smallness of his ambitions, Antonioni is an urban master, with architecture creating an equivalent dwarfing. Man, and woman, in Antonioni’s work, find themselves outstripped by their capacity to create worlds technologically that are beyond their ken ontologically. When we see Jeanne Moreau wandering around Milan in La notte, Monica Vitti looking out of the window at the beginning of the Eclipse, or David Hemmings moving through London by car in Blow-Up, Antonioni films them as slightly alien worlds. He seems to be saying: how have we created this world and not another, and is it a world that suits us? When asked, “how closely can this disease of our emotions be connected to the type of society that we live in today?”, Antonioni replied, “emotions are so fragile that they can become sick very easily, like human beings. It is not that you can easily say how they could get better. They would have perhaps to live in a “healthier” society.” (Interviews on Cinema)

Antonioni might wonder what that healthier society might be, but he films brilliantly what we may take to be the ill-health of the one in which we live, and frames the self as if often trying to fit into this modern social world. When we witness Moreau tiny on the left hand side of the frame in La notte while the building looms very large indeed, is this Antonioni’s way of saying that our minds might have been capable of creating great things technologically, but they can lead to making us feel small? If Zabriskie Point’s ending is so interesting it lies partly in trying to find the means by which to reverse this expectation. While in La notte Moreau is small in the frame; in Zabriskie Point Daria Halpern looks like she is the equal to it. Now of course she does not blow the building up in a telekinetic cause and effect we find in films like The Fury and Scanners, but there is a hint in this film, partly about youthful revolution, that the younger generation needn’t conform to the architectural and social demands of their elders. As Antonioni says of the US he found during the movie’s making: “in the midst of this chaos of products and goods, of waste and poverty, acceptance and revolt, flows a current of continuous, tumultuous change.” (Interviews with Antonioni)

While Antonioni is always a filmmaker approaching the future, and Herzog a director fascinated by the depth of being as manifest in layers of time that man can hardly fathom, Andrei Tarkovsky is one for whom a question of belief often hovers. In Stalker the three men approaching the Zone can only know it through what they believe: the mysteries this metaphysical entity offers is exclusive to each person’s own self. One man enters the zone and finds that it will give him all the earthly riches he could wish for only to kill himself not long afterwards: it reveals him to be not a good man but a greedy one. Who can really face themselves, Tarkovsky asks, with the zone the ultimate confrontation? In The Sacrifice again the question of subjectivity meeting faith arises when one evening Alexander (Erland Josephson) hears on the news that all-out war seems likely, and overhead he can hear the sound of low-flying military airplanes. What is he to do? Alexander decides he must sacrifice the important things in his life; the next morning setting fire to the family home in the Scandinavian countryside. The scene of course echoes the burning dacha in Mirror, but where in the earlier film Tarkovsky contained the sequence in a memory fragment which deliberately gave it no dramatic force, and where the set-piece dimension is minimal, in The Sacrifice it becomes the equivalent of the boat over the mountain in Fitzcarraldo. Despite cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s desire to use more than one camera, Tarkovsky went with his initial wish to film the sequence in one take and with the one instrument; only for the camera to jam as the model house they built went up in flames without the filmmakers getting the shot in the can. This could be seen as wasteful indulgence on Tarkovsky’s part, or a fundamental respect for the risk that is cinema as  pro-filmic moment. If we talked earlier of the heroic logistics evident in the actor doing his own stunts, then directors like Herzog and Tarkovsky offer a version of it as directorial ‘indulgence’: they insist in making the pro-filmic event as vital as it happens to be for Belmondo, but for rather different ends. If for Belmondo and others it is the chance for the actor to show their prowess and bravery in more modest form than a Philippe Petit, then for the filmmakers of the painterly set piece it is the opportunity to say something about the ontological nature of the medium. When Andre Bazin says the “realism of cinema follows directly from its photographic reality. Not only does some marvel or some fantastic thing on the screen undermine the reality of the image, on the contrary it is its most valid justification” the question then becomes how does one validate it. When Bazin adds that “all trick work must be perfect in all material respects. The “invisible man” must wear pajamas and smoke a pipe” (What is Cinema? Vol. 1), most films accept a perceptual verisimilitude: they demand no more from the film than we as viewers believe in the world they have created.

Yet Herzog and Tarkovsky go further: they insist that they can only expect us to believe in the world they create if that world acknowledges the pro-filmic dimension that insists this is a real boat or a single take showing us a house going up in flames. It involves a different type of risk than the thespian, but a risk nevertheless. Yet the aim is to achieve a pictorial set piece, images that aren’t only of the world but also a creation within it. This is why we invoke the pictorial. While the stunt work of a Belmondo or a Cruise lends itself to the circus, the images Herzog and Tarkovsky generate invoke the world of art. Like Theo Angelopoulos with The Weeping Meadow and Alexander Sokurov with Russian Ark, Herzog and Tarkovsky are filmmakers interested in taking from the world and then creating aesthetic images with this fidelity to the real. Angelopoulos for example talked about how he achieved the effect of a flooded village in the film. “For about three months during the winter the lake empties itself and becomes a steppe: I built a village while it was empty with a hundred houses made of materials taken from abandoned dwellings. Immediately afterwards I shot. Then I waited for the water to rise. At the beginning of March the whole thing was covered and I shot the flood scenes.” The director adds, “then I waited some more, until the next year, for the whole village to be absorbed and destroyed by the water in order to do the final scene in which only one house survives.”(Sight and Sound, Feb. 2005) Here we see aesthetic intent meets natural disaster as Angelopoulos creates the conditions for a flooded village, relying not on rain machines to convey the effect, but allows for the space to be naturally flooded. It is another fine example of the pictorial set-piece as Angelopoulos films the various villagers rowing away from their homes while the camera pulls back to show the nature of the crisis. There is no action here, however: the director films the people as if they have melancholically accepted their fate; this is not at all the action set piece fighting against it.


A third option available is the theatrical set piece, often practised by Mike Leigh, John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman, and evident in Secrets and Lies, Woman Under the Influence and Scenes from a Marriage respectively. Here the emphasis isn’t on action nor aesthetics but on behaviour. Some might insist the theatrical set piece is the least cinematic of sequences, and who can argue otherwise when we use the term theatrical to describe it? Yet cinema has a long tradition of theatrical filmmakers who have nevertheless contributed to what cinema happens to be as an art form: not only the directors just mentioned, but also Jean Renoir, Jacques Rivette and Max Ophuls, as well as Hans Jurgen Syberberg, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Schroeter. These are all filmmakers interested in utilising an aspect of stage craft for cinematic purpose, often creating a mannerist mise-en-scene that seems all the more artificial as it adopts theatrical tropes to create cinematic distanciation. Fassbinder and Schroeter, for example frequently give us theatrical tableaux which makes sense when you have actors having to look out at an audience in the theatre, but that takes on a specifically alienating quality in the cinema –  when of course there is no need for the actors to act frontally when the camera can move wherever it wishes.

Yet our three examples are chosen not for the manner in which they reinvigorate cinematic form, but chiefly because they allow for a certain type of set piece that is common to film but indebted to theatre. This is where many elements of the story come together in a set piece scene of immense emotional conflict. Near the end of Secrets and Lies, we have Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) coming round for a barbecue at her brother and his wife’s place with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. At one moment of tension the brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall) announces his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) has been trying for the last fifteen years to have kids with no success. As much of the film has shown Maurice trying to hold his family together, to play fair by his wife, care and help his sister and her daughter, so the strain finally proves too much as our heart melts as Maurice goes into meltdown. “Secrets and lies”, he says. “We are all in pain. Why can’t we share our pain? I’ve spent my entire life trying to make people happy, and the people I love most in the world hate each other’s guts. I’m in the middle. I can’t take it any more.” Also in attendance as he speaks is Hortense, Cynthia’s black daughter with whom she has only recently been reunited after not seeing Hortense since birth. The film brings together several narrative strands in a moment of heightened dramatic tension. Much of the film has focused on Hortense coming back into Cynthia’s life, Cynthia’s need to rely on Maurice, Cynthia white daughter’s disdain towards her mother, and the conflict between Cynthia and Monica.

Theatre criticism often talks about the obligatory scene which “usually denotes a scene, probably of fairly intense emotional content, which the audience anticipates and which the dramatist feels obliged to include.” (Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory) Here Maurice incorporates the film’s narrative in one fugue of pain as he also invokes the film’s title. As Leigh says in Leigh on Leigh, “Cynthia may think Monica is a snob who has taken all Maurice’s money, but it’s simply not the case: she discovers the truth at the end”, just as the viewer does. If in the action set piece we frequently have a climactic sequence that can bring the film to a head as we find in Hitchcock, in North by Northwest, The 39 Steps and Strangers on a Train, and in the pictorial set piece have a scene that allows for a certain visual epiphany, the theatrical set piece has its own equivalent. However, because the theatrical set piece is more closely affiliated with narrative and with character, it is more likely to come late in the film. There are numerous great action sequences that are not climactic: the example we give from Night Caller, the brilliant chase sequence in French Connection, Ryan O’Neal in The Driver showing his prowess behind the wheel early in the film, the opening sequence in Drive with Ryan Gosling doing likewise. The action set piece can frequently be surplus to the later requirements, as we sometimes find in a Bond film where the opening sequence does no more than illustrate that the film is a big-budget extravaganza. In pictorial set piece films like Aguirre, Wrath of God or Uzak it can be an opening scene as we see the conquistadors making their way along a mountain, in the former, or a sequence in the middle, in the latter, where the central character’s cousin goes looking for work. We watch him pass through Istanbul in the snow and towards a lop-sided boat at the harbour.

Yet even in the theatrical set piece the filmmaker might offer a major dramatic sequence very early on. Possibly one reason why people find Cassavetes’ films messy resides in their refusal to play by the dramatic rules even if they are indebted to theatrical style in acting and mise-en-scene. One early scene shows Mabel (Gena Rowlands) cooking pasta for her husband Nick (Peter Falk) and his buddies after they come off a night shift, and any oddness in the notion of pasta for breakfast is more than matched by Mabel’s behaviour after making it as one of the colleague’s understandably might think Mabel is coming onto him. Cassavetes had no grand plan in this early sequence. “When we rehearsed the breakfast scene with Mabel and Nick’s co-workers the first time, it was terrible, absolutely terrible. No one knew what to do. They thought they had to tell stories and be funny. I didn’t want to tell them what to do…The reason it seems improvised is that everything was ordinary, and there was no clever dialogue.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes) Where for Leigh the scene quoted must contain much of the film’s meaning and purpose, in the early one in Cassavetes’s film it is part of a loose, emotionally nuanced aesthetic that will leak into later moments. When Mabel and Nick talk about it afterwards, we get a very strong sense of Mabel’s vulnerability and her need to see her identity through Nick’s eyes. “I can be anything. You tell me Nicky” Mabel says to her husband, as though her identity has very little internal imperative; it is reliant on the love her husband is capable of giving to her. While Leigh’s film predicates itself on clear dramatic principles with big revelations early on (Hortense coming back into her mother’s life) and at the end (Monica’s inability to have a child), Cassavetes is interested in the intensity of drama but cares little for the structure of drama. The obligatory scene moves us towards certain expectations, yet Cassavetes is a director who often wants to defy these conventions and so we cannot expect a revelation as Leigh offers them.

However, we still believe his work contains a very strong element of the theatrical set piece. It resides, though, in being interested in behaviour, as if drawn to the actor and their capabilities more than the drama and its demands. “I don’t like to interrupt the action, I usually refilm the whole scene…I shoot for five or ten minutes at a time because it is important to let the situations take the time they need to run their course. The drama of this scene comes naturally from the real passage of time lived by the actors.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes) There is a passage from Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares that chimes with Cassavetes’ approach: the part and the play must not remain in fragments. A broken statue, or a slashed canvas, is not a work of art, no matter how beautiful its parts may be.” Cassavetes seems more than almost any director to pursue the question of acting, and so it made sense that A Woman Under the Influence shared similarities with R. D. Laing’s work and his interest in the fragile, divided self. “Such a basically ontologically secure person will encounter the hazards of life, social, ethical, spiritual, biological, from a centrally firm sense of his own and other people’s reality and identity.” Yet the ontologically insecure person does not share this security, and what fascinates Laing are “the issues involved when there is the partial or almost complete absence of the assurances derived from an existential position of what I shall call primary ontological security.” (The Divided Self) While Leigh can show clearly that Monica’s neuroses come out of the child she hasn’t had, allowing it to pass for a revelatory moment exposing the secrets and lies, Cassavetes sees the problem of self as much more porous and unstable so that no disclosure could explain the givens of the situation.

We can notice something of this complexity in Cassavetes’ remarks about women. “The real sexuality in woman comes in her ability to retain her own desire to be loved…All women have experiences where they can feel that they are truly sexually attractive.” The director adds: “But for satisfaction on a continuing basis, a woman must find a mate to share her fantasies with, to feel secure and safe, to feel protected and loved. It’s only at that point that she can stop closing her eyes while she pretends and open them and be herself.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes). Monica in Secrets and Lies isn’t a complex thespian creation: for all the improvisatory methods that go into the creation of a character in a Mike Leigh film (he works from the actors who improvise their way into creating characters which then becomes the script Leigh writes), often dramatic expectation proves vital. Whether it is the scene where the best friend is ostracized in Another Year after she is rude in the presence of the central couple’s son and his new girlfriend, or the scene where Aubrey’s (Timothy Spall) restaurant ends up with no customers on opening night in Life is Sweet, these moments are dramatically very controlled. If Leigh’s films have a predictable dimension we needn’t see this as a criticism; more an act of criticism: in other words Leigh wants to play much fairer to dramatic principles than Cassavetes. It is as though the results come out of very different approaches: Leigh allows the actors to improvise and then writes a script to which the actors adhere. Cassavetes works from a script and then allows the actors plenty space to perform within it. The American filmmaker thus seeks out the moment more than the obligatory scene. As he says: “The way we make pictures is, we make pictures for people that are interested in specifics. They’re not gonna be interested in everything. They’re gonna be interested in that scene: ‘I love that scene’. Somebody else says ‘I hate that scene’ – because it has something to do with their life.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes) It is as though what matters isn’t order but a certain type of chaos that produces feelings.

In Secrets and Lies, on the other hand, we understand easily the genealogy of Maurice’s plea: he categorically states why he is falling apart as he explains his wife’s inability to have a child and the inability of the three people to whom he is closest to to get on. Leigh films it with careful delineation of space and the editing always makes clear where we should be and what we should feel. This isn’t Leigh being manipulative, just acknowledging the coordinates required to let the drama unfold. While Maurice talks the film cuts from Maurice to Monica with Maurice entering the frame and saying that he loves her to bits but their childlessness is destroying their relationship, as he then talks of secrets and lies and the film then cuts first to Cynthia’s white daughter and then to Monica before Maurice goes over and says a few words to Hortense. Leigh here plays both by dramatic and cinematic rules – the sort of conventions Cassavetes refuses. Speaking of Husbands, the American director said: “the two English editors we had, they’re in the business where they look at something and then they cut it. They are so expert that they can make it look good. But that isn’t going to work on a picture like Husbands.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes) Cassavetes dismissed his editors and kept going back to the film. As Ben Gazzara said: “in editing, he went on a voyage of finding the film. You thought you knew what the film was already, but he saw things in it all the time, new and different things, and took the time to explore them.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes)

Ingmar Bergman was never as conventional as Leigh, never as reckless as Cassavetes. He was a director who believed in both craft and experimentation, in professional expertise and intuitive spiritual enquiry. “I think the choreography of the actors in relation to the camera is very important, because every good actor feels if he is good in the camera sense, he is in a bad position. And if he’s in a bad position, he feels stress and is very unhappy.” “We must feel we are taking care of them…he is nude; his soul is nude.” (Ingmar Bergman: Interviews) While Cassavetes would “rarely look through the camera, so the operator really has to get on with it” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes), Bergman was fascinated by its presence, as well as most aspects of film production. “I have learned everything about the laboratory, about mixing and sound, and lenses, and everything. Because if I didn’t, people would have to tell me things, and I’d be in the hands of those experts. And I don’t trust experts. I just trust [my cameraman] Sven Nykvist.” (Ingmar Bergman Interviews) Here is a filmmaker fascinated by the form but who was also always wise to the specifics of feeling and quite happy for the set piece to function theatrically. In a fine sequence in Scenes from a Marriage, made for TV and also for the cinema, Bergman offers a conversation between an estranged married couple with the maximum amount of variety within a deliberately constrained emotional range. This is one of the director’s many corrosive scenes where a couple allow the emotional rust of the past to turn flaky. and then start picking at the bits that are falling off. Experiences in the past become memories in the present, each owned in their own way by both the husband and wife. Johan (Erland Josephson) remembers how Marianne (Liv Ullmann) would clean herself at the bidet after “washing off the nasty stuff I’d deposited inside you.” She remembers that the sex didn’t work. “We’d console ourselves with the thought that sex wasn’t everything. That in other respects, we were happy. Talk about self-deception!” Is this the reality of their past lives, or the present acrimony turning the experiences bitter? Though Bergman isn’t averse to using flashback (Wild Strawberries, Autumn Sonata), here he stays in the present all the better to make us muse over the truth of the past. What is important is not the truth but the experiences that Johan and Marianne can find in the past to justify their position in the present. Instead of flashback Bergman makes great play of the variety in shot/counter shot. Initially working back and forth between Johan and Marianne as they talk, the director moves to two shot medium close-ups and then onto a long distance two shot before Johan attacks Marianne and the camera moves in close.

There is nothing ‘surprising’ in the form here, but Bergman offers great variety to allow a potentially static scene, which runs to almost thirteen minutes, cinematic dynamism. It is a set piece work of emotional interrogation, indebted to the theatre that Bergman would often work in, but also to cinema that he refused to take for granted. Working constantly in both theatre and film, Bergman’s work is thoroughly infused with the theatrical but generates the cinematic out of the collision between the two forms. When at one moment as Johan attacks her, Marianne is pushed against the wall, it is one of a number of Bergman films where the space suddenly becomes cinematic. This type of moment is difficult to do in the theatre because the mise-en-scene is essentially flimsy: a wall isn’t a wall it is a prop, and so the sort of fight Bergman shows here would be done differently in the theatre: more centrally placed on the stage and the bodies in conflict with each other but not so much in conflict with the mise-en-scene.

Bergman nevertheless respects dramatic construction: the scene is placed late in the film all the better to eschew flashbacks: we have to flash through our own mind to see how much validity is evident in the accusations the characters level at each other. We might recall an early sequence in the film where Johan and Marianne discuss their sex life, with Johan talking about how tired they often are, and at the end of the discussion Marianne feeling that certain things shouldn’t be talked about. If in the earlier discussion we sense a generally happy couple drifting into an area of discord; here they are the discordant couple trying to grope at their pasts to find justification for the acrimonious feelings they have towards each other in the present. These are bitter people looking into their memories to find reasons for the disdain.


Here we have done no more than map out the possibilities available in the cinematic set piece, Perhaps some may wonder why we haven’t covered the musical, a genre often given to punctuated sequences based on a series of numbers that can make the plot seem rather secondary to the spectacle. Yet many of our claims for the action scene might be pertinent to the musical too. When we see Fred Astaire in Top Hat or Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, we admire the dexterity of a job well done. There won’t generally be the risks involved as there are when an actor does his own stunts, but what the scene lacks in perilousness it often makes up for in grace. But we nevertheless feel that it would create more clutter to create a fourth category when we believe many of the tenets of the musical sequence can be seen similarly to the action one: they are both examples of a certain type of spectacle associated with the athleticism of the body.

Thus our purpose has been to map out the three main cinematic possibilities in the set piece, to examine how this type of cinematic sequence can be broken down into what we might call the action, the visualisation and the expression. In the action film (or for that matter the musical), the body manifests itself in an action, often choreographed by the filmmaker, but where risk or grace on the actor’s part is often present. In the type of art film we’ve investigated, it is the filmmaker who more obviously takes control of the material and demands a visualization: using the cinematic image as if it were a live canvas: the frame coming alive. In a theatrically-oriented piece of cinema we can see the importance of expression, with the actors given more expressive control of the performance than in the other areas, and hence no doubt why awards are often given to actors who perform in these roles. If theatre is  finally seen as an actor’s medium more than a director’s, then it would make sense that films which appear indebted to the theatre will find its actors awarded for the performances therein.

When Bergman attacked directors like Pasolini and Antonioni, he did so perhaps as a theatrical filmmaker, and couldn’t quite see their pictorial genius. “…awful, awful, Meaningless. Completely” he said of Pasolini. “I understand that everything is in his mind, in his point of view…” but that he “never comes in contact with his actors.” (Ingmar Bergman: Interviews) The only good performance in an Antonioni film, Bergman believes, is Jeanne Moreau in La notte. Bergman is describing the theatrical filmmaker he often happens to be, but ignoring the pictorial directors Pasolini and Antonioni are. By seeing that for example Pasolini’s search for fascinating landscapes in anything from Medea to Arabian Nights, we can notice a director far more concerned than Bergman in searching out the frame brought to life, in the need to search the world for images that he can take back to us. Bergman was always more inclined to stay close to the Scandinavian hearth and to search inside chilly souls for meaning. By insisting that Pasolini and Antonioni were interested in a very different notion of the set piece from Bergman, we can understand their differences without insisting with Bergman that their work is of a lesser value: it isn’t interested in the thespian expressive but the cinematically pictorial. As Antonioni said: “what interests me now is to put the characters in contact with things, because today what counts are things, objects, matter. I don’t believe that Red Desert is the last word; it is rather an ongoing piece of research.” (The Architecture of Vision). Let us say our own tentative work on the set piece is nothing like a last word either, but that we can nevertheless see it as opening up a space for argument over what we think the set piece happens to be.


©Tony McKibbin