Determining Mise en Scene
One way of looking at style in film is to differentiate it from narrative and from editing. If narration is the story that is told, and editing the choices made in the editing suite in how you choose to tell it, style, or mise en scene, is what takes place before the camera. It is the set or the location, the movements of the actors, the clothes they wear, the objects they use, the cars they drive. James Monaco in How to Read a Film describes mise en scene thus: "the term usually used to denote that part of the cinematic process that takes place on the set, as opposed to montage, which takes place afterwards. Literally, the 'putting-in-the-scene': the direction of actors, placement of cameras, choice of lenses et cetera."
Classic Hollywood cinema usually saw itself as a medium of pragmatic choices. Where editing was vital to the philosophy behind many of the films coming out of Russia in the twenties, and mise en scene was much more pronounced in German Expressionist cinema of the same period, American film saw no hierarchy between editing and mise en sene. Indeed the French created a term for the sort of shot often utilised in American cinema; plan Americain: the American shot. This was where a number of characters would be seen in the same shot, usually from above the knee. There was no system behind this choice: it just seemed the most useful way to show several characters in the frame at the same time. If a cut could usefully give us more information in close up then the cut would be made, but if it made sense to hold the shot that was okay too. "The usual arrangement is for the actors to stand in an irregular line from one side of the screen to the other, with the actors at the end coming forward a little and standing more in profile than the others. The purpose of the composition is to allow complex dialogue scenes to be played out without changes in camera position." (Wikipedia) It can imitate theatrical convention without requiring a cut, but if the approach would be likely to become pronounced, the filmmaker will cut accordingly. This hint at the theatrical has nothing to do with the painterly tableaux sometimes utilised by filmmakers like Werner Schroeter or Peter Greenaway, where the image resembles a canvas. It retains its pragmatic aspect; indebted to theatre perhaps, but not at all there to emulate the theatrical and draw attention to itself. It was not especially seen as a stylistic device.
However, critics did see in American cinema stylistic features that indicated an interest in mise en scene over editing. The very significant French critic Andre Bazin would often defend the long take without interruption over constant cutting. He saw it in French cinema on occasion, but especially in American films, commenting on William Wyler and Orson Welles. For Bazin, Welles "restored to cinematographic illusion a fundamental quality of reality - its continuity. Classical editing, deriving from Griffith, separated into successive shots which were just a series of either logical or subjective points of view on an event." (What is Cinema? Vol.2) Welles in certain sequences would not cut but hold the shot; evident for example in a famous sequence from Citizen Kanewhere there are three characters discussing the boy's future in the foreground while the boy plays in the background. Welles adopts deep focus so that both the boy and the foregrounded figures are equally present in the frame.
After Bazin's work in the forties and fifties, British critics in the sixties became very interested in mise en scene criticism and gathered around the magazine Movie. V. F. Perkins would see in numerous directors, from Hitchcock to Hawks, from Welles to Nicholas Ray, a very attentive approach to mise en scene. Perkins was less militantly defending mise en scene over editing, but he was very attuned to film as a medium of visual expression, and the fact that the elements within the frame were vital to this. "InMoulin Rouge, John Huston established (and exploited with, for the most part, enthralling results) a system of colour based on the palettes of the Impressionists and therefore owing nothing to naturalism." (Film as Film) This is partly again where Bazin and Perkins would part company. Bazin was much more interested in seeing long, uninterrupted shots serving reality. Perkins was more concerned with mise en scene as an expressive space, often artificially constructed. Bazin believed much more in film serving the real. He would admire the widescreen format of a film like Rebel without a Cause, but would be less inclined than Perkins to play up the exaggerations in its colour scheme. As in other Ray films like Bigger than Life, red plays an important part in the work. Yet we should remember, as Raymond Durgnat notes, "Bazin's distinction between "the spectator in the first degree" (who concentrates on the illusory reality) and the "spectator in the second degree" (who concentrates on the aesthetic spectacle and the artist's thought." (Jean Renoir) Bazin was never a nave realist.
If Hollywood was pragmatic in its approach to mise en scene, despite moments of parti pris that critics would point out, European cinema in France was consistent with it. Poetic Realism, practised by Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carne, Jean Gremillon and Jean Renoir, in films often focusing on a certain fatalism of character and situation, was filmed in a manner not unlike Hollywood cinema of the time. Nevertheless, if Renoir was sometimes accused of being less adept than others, it resided in being more innovative, not less skilled: in moving away from mainstream convention. Discussing Bazin on Renoir's work, Durgnat quotes the great critic saying: "editing doesn't proceed from the habitual anatomy which disassociates the space and duration of a scene on the basis of an a priori dramatic hierarchy. It is that of an informed and mobile eye." (Jean Renoir) In The Rules of the Game, Renoir often saturates the frame with information and movement, with the film playing up the societal hubbub at a country mansion. When Noel Burch talks about the six ways in which a character can enter and exit a frame (front, back, left, right, top, bottom), few directors utilise this possibility more than Renoir. We can think of the scene just before the aviator's arrival in the film. Here everyone is going up and down stairs, moving from one room to another, with Renoir refusing to cut and instead emphasising the social interactions. In Marcel Carne's Hotel du Nord, the scene around the dinner table at the beginning of the film is a social event with a large group of people, but Carne cuts regularly, and moves the camera for emphasis. The scene appears much more 'controlled'.
In many European films from the sixties onwards, Bazin's interest in the longer take, that he saw exemplified in Renoir and practised by Wyler and Welles, became an aesthetic approach very far removed from classic Hollywood. Andrei Tarkovsky was both practitioner and occasional theorist. In Sculpting in Time he talks about the correct rhythm of a film. "Although the assembly of the shots is responsible for the structure of a film, it does not, as is generally assumed, create its rhythm. The distinctive time running through the shots makes the rhythm of the picture." We can think of the lengthy sequence where the central character crosses an ancient empty pool trying to keep a candle from going out in Nostalgia; the scene in Stalker when the characters arrive at the Zone.
Numerous filmmakers since have focused on the film's inner rhythm rather than its informational structure: on its meditative pace over its emphasis on action and purpose. In Bela Tarr's Damnation, a character sits at a window looking out at some coal buckets, but the grammar of the film offers the information quite differently. We see something in the distance that we come to realise are coal buckets, then notice that they are being seen through a window, and then note that they are being watched by the character Kerrar. In Theo Angelopoulos's The Weeping Meadow, villagers are forced to vacate their homes after major rains leave the village flooded. There is no rush to escape here; only a melancholic acceptance by the characters of their fate as Angelopoulos shows the boats leaving in a series of long takes.
We have talked here a lot about the camera and the frame, but it might be useful to add a few words about colour and design. We may notice that colour became a prominent feature of expressive meaning in Hollywood films of the fifties, as V. F. Perkins noted inFilm as Film, evident not only in Rebel without a Cause, Bigger than Life and Moulin Rouge, but also in Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life and Lust for Life. As Scott Higgins says in an essay in Todd Haynes: All that Heaven Allows: "in the context ofImitation of Life colour motif and punctuation serve direct emotionally-expressive functions..." In the opening sequence both the bright yellow sports car and the red headboard suggest danger that the film plays up. The brother is getting recklessly drunk while driving. His wife sinks her head down as she struggles to get out of bed as if in despair.
We could think of both colour and design as underdetermined, determined or overdetermined. The more realistic the film appears, the more underdetermined the mise en scene would seem to be, but this doesn't mean its realism hasn't been sought. In Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, the director explains that when it came to shooting Naked: "the colour control was obsessive...to the extent that in Brian's office block you see a fire bell that is dark grey, because she'd (designer Alison Chitty) had it painted." This is underdetermined colour coding but only because it is invisible. At the other extreme we have Wes Anderson, someone who expects the viewer very much to notice the design. Even though he insisted on using a real house rather than a set for The Royal Tenenbaums, few go to Wes Anderson looking for verisimilitude. What they look for is the caricatural dimension of design: the matching track suits of father and sons in The Royal Tenenbaums; the matching pale blue costumes and red beanies in The Life Aquatic, the bathroom on the train in Darjeeling Limited. "You could compare Wes Anderson to an interior decorator. I always say that a picture of someone's home tells you a lot more about that person than any portrait possibly can," says the editor in chief of the magazine Apartamento, Marco Velardi. "I imagine in a movie the time you have to describe a character is limited, so using the interiors to do so probably becomes something of a necessity. Ultimately, if you look at his work there are a lot of interiors, with very peculiar and very precise work on the spaces and what people wear. Wes is passionate about every single detail, and that's why it's fascinating for us."
This notion of style reflecting character depends on the nature of what we expect character in film to be. Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing on The Darjeeling Limited, reckons "what this movie has going for itself in spite of its cloying pleas for indulgence is a playful and interesting narrative structure that precludes much development and comes to the fore only toward the end." (JR) For Velardi the design generates character; for Rosenbaum it would seem to stifle it. One of the problems perhaps of an overdetermined design is that it can reflect character but do so in a narrow-minded rather than a broad-minded way. In other words where a determined mise en scene can be subtle enough to suggest the world in which a character lives, an overdetermined mise en scene often indicates who they are. Now of course partly what Velardi proposes is that we are all reflecting our personality in the choices we make when we put on clothes and decorate our apartments. But in Wes Anderson films it is as though the characters aren't wearing clothes they are wearing production design; they aren't decorating their apartments, they are generating art direction. This is a question filmmakers presumably often ask themselves: do we want a character to seem in charge of their own sartorial destiny, or do want through the clothes and interior design to suggest much more that they are in the hands of a filmmaker, someone utilising mise en scene as symbolic appropriation?
It is a point V. F. Perkins addresses when he discusses Nicholas Ray films includingRebel without a Cause and Bigger than Life. Here we can say Ray insists on determined, yet not overdetermined, production design. Perkins talks about the hero in the latter film who struggles to earn a decent living as a teacher. "As he walks away from the school building with its background of respectable greys and browns, the image dissolves into a general view of the cab-park photographed so that the screen is virtually covered with the garish yellow of the taxi-ranks." Perkins says: "the colour here is 'natural'. It comes from an apparently objective recording of phenomena which we would expect to find in the settings presented..." (Film as Film) Perkins contrasts this with Michelangelo Antonioni's The Red Desert, which he believes uses red in such a way that "we are so busy noticing that we respond rather to our awareness of the device than to the state of mind it sets out to evoke." Our point here isn't to say that Ray is a subtler filmmaker than Antonioni; more that Perkins would see Ray working with determined design and Antonioni with overdetermined design, just as we've noted that Mike Leigh in Nakedunderdetermines it. Now of course there is a world of a difference between Anderson and Antonioni, even if we accept both are overdetermining: Anderson does so to make his world familiar, comforting and pleasing. Antonioni does so to generate unease, indeterminacy and a certain felt strangeness. Where Perkins offers the value judgement based on the type of design offered (where he favours the implicit over the explicit), we are more inclined to reserve judgement not for the type of production design adopted, but for how it is used when it is adopted. If we find Antonioni's usage much more adventurous than Anderson's, this is because we find a troubling dimension to it that withholds meaning rather than readily offers it. With Anderson's work we notice how it lends itself well to instant summation: that the sartorial, for example, puts the characters into a caricatural strait-jacket out of which they cannot easily escape.
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson describe mise en scene as "all the elements placed in front of the camera to be photographed: the settings and props, lighting, costumes and make-up and figure behaviour." (Film Art: An Introduction) This is a fair summation of what mise en scene is about, but if we withhold figure behaviour we do so chiefly because we might usefully put it under acting and stardom. Obviously, though, film terms are not absolute, and often both quite instinctive and dependent on specific analysis. It would be understandable if we were to insist on talking about the performances in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films under mise en scene rather than acting or stardom, partly due to the degree to which the performances are unnaturalistic and constrained by costume, design and framing. As Adrian Martin says of a scene in Fassbinder's Martha: "all 15 characters are strung out, absurdly along the line of a long, decoratively dressed table, most of them looking blankly ahead throughout...The table itself, apart from the baroque folds of its cloth, is overstuffed with goodies: assorted candles, candelabras and flowers spotted everywhere, of various shapes and in diverse arrangements." (Mise en Scene and Film Style) There are certainly performances in Fassbinder's films, but often the acting suggests little of the thespian freedom we find in Ken Loach, John Cassavetes or Maurice Pialat's work. It feels much more integratedinto the mise en scene as opposed to disintegrating the mise en scene. Fassbinder, like Wes Anderson, like Tim Burton, like on occasion Pedro Almodovar and Pedro Costa, utilise the actor as model. We use the term here not especially to invoke Robert Bresson who always preferred the word to actor, and who disliked the fact that anyone he cast might go on and make other films and thus remove their exclusive presence in a Bresson film, but more to suggest how an artist might work with a life model as they would utilise a vase in a still life. After all, the five directors we have invoked - Anderson, Burton, Fassbinder, Almodovar and Costa - use the same actors over and over again, be it Bill Murray, Johnny Depp, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Carmen Maura and Ventura.
It might even be useful to differentiate here between agents and models, with the agent one feels capable of transforming the mise en scene, while the model is constrained by or reflects it. We don't expect agency from an artist's model of course: the image is fixed, and the model an aspect of that constraint. The purpose of the model is to remain as inactive as possible within the canvas that is being painted: any movement is detrimental to the aesthetic intention rather than a necessary aspect of it. Usually in film we assume the opposite, but there are numerous moments in cinema where the mise en scene demands stillness closer to the model than to that of the agent. While the films of Cassavetes, Loach and Pialat, and even more so the work of the Dardennes, late nineties von Trier and Wong kar-wai, suggest very strong thespian agency, some of the other directors we have invoked seek an approach closer to the statuary.
We might think for example of scenes from Edwards Scissorhands, The Royal Tenenbaums and Colossal Youth, without at all making assumptions about the quality of the films themselves. In Edwards Scissorhands, we have the scene where Edward makes himself at home in the host family's house and we watch him testing out the bed and trying on some clothes. His scissored hands leave him thoroughly constrained and hopelessly clumsy as he pierces the water bed and accidentally snips the braces. When the daughter comes in and screams seeing him sleeping, he reacts by accidentally poking multiple holes in the waterbed as water gushes everywhere. Burton's is a typical scene of comedic incompetence, but much of the humour comes from the constraint that accompanies this ineptitude. The humour isn't only constructed as a comic set-piece, it is also a mise en scene of art direction. When Johnny Depp says in CineMovie "there's always some form of torture" working with Burton, it lies in the idea that there will be sartorial restraint bordering on the imprisoning. Yet this is not quite the same thing as Anderson's caricatural straitjacketing: Burton wants to show in Depp's Scissorhands nuanced emotion out of extreme costume design. It is as though he wanted to find in design an exploration of a feeling. When talking of high school in Burton on Burton the director noted that many of the people perceived as normal at school became the opposite later in life, and the strange ones turned out to be much more well-adjusted as they got older. ""I went back to a high school reunion and it was true...these people ended up being the most well-adjusted, really attractive (not just physically but attractive as people) and were doing really well. And the other people had faded." What Scissorhands represents is the gawky, awkward figure who never knows what to do with his body - adolescence as malformation. In another context he would be a Frankenstein of hormonal imbalances, but here becomes a product of specific production design.
In The Royal Tenenbaums for most of the film Ben Stiller's character and his two kids wear identical red and white Adidas tracks suits, but near the end of it, at a funeral, we see them again identically dressed but this time wearing black and white ones: a gesture of mourning that doesn't tamper with the preconceived aesthetic. It is a gag of course on the consistency of their attire meeting a moment of respect, but it is also what so often creates in Anderson's work a facetious tone that means we mustn't take anything too seriously. The design in Anderson's film is like an ontological underpinning; a variation on Descartes: I dress therefore I am. Like Burton's work it gives the films an immediate imprint, a sense that we know the film even before we have watched it.
This could seem like a criticism, but watching a trailer for Pedro Costa's Horse Moneywould allow the viewer to feel similarly if they know Costa's work at all. Often in his films, pools of light in sparse settings bring out a character's individuality, and this is never more so than in the figure of Ventura in Colossal Youth. A non-professional actor described by Jonathan Rosenbaum in Art Forum as "Costa's slightly older principal protagonist in practically all of his other recent films a Cape Verdean immigrant and construction worker, always playing himself and scripting his own dialogue", we can think of the moment when Ventura sits in a museum on the edge of a couch with a pool of light illuminating the couch area, and also an object on the wall, but where everything else is in darkness. The museum is the sort of place Ventura would have built but might not readily have visited, and here Costa frames him as a figure worthy of the utmost respect and dignity. If Ken Loach would claim that respect lies in a realist aesthetic that keeps the camera far away and where the actor moves easily within the frame, for Costa it is often the opposite. Ventura is usually presented as properly statuesque, and it isn't just the lighting that gives Ventura this quality: it is frequently present in the stillness of his body and also the low-angles adopted. Even if in Horse Money Costa plays up the shot nerves of Ventura as he can't keep his hands still, the overall body still suggests the statuesque: that there is a quality of silence and fundamental immobility in Ventura's being. We might be reminded of a passage from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men: "there's two kinds of people that don't ask a lot of questions. One is too dumb to and the others don't need to." Ventura's silence contains immensity and density. The pools of light around him that Costa often adopts indicate a metaphorical sense of isolation: someone exiled from home, with numerous memories not easily confronted, and a body that contains its own dignity in stillness rather than movement.
In all three instances - in Edward Scissorhands, The Royal Tenenbaums and Colossal Youth - the actor is less the agent Loach and others insist upon, than the model contained by the directorial vision. When the performance invokes the model, the still life or the statue, we feel that the directorial control can seem closer to an artist's vision: the image is no longer about free movement of character within a frame contained by the camera's mobility, but often the un-free containment of characters transfixed by the camera's immobility. To talk of the actor here is to indicate an agency often missing from the person playing the part, and it stands in direct opposition to the sort of freedoms we see evident in films like Chungking Express, The Idiots and Rosetta, where the directors are much more following rather than restricting movement. As Jean Luc Dardenne said in IndieWire, discussing Rosetta: "The documentaries that we used to make, you go to film a reality that exists outside of you and you don't have control over it - it resists your camera. You have to take it as it is. So we try to keep that aspect of documentary in our fiction, to film something that resists us."
Our purpose here has been to discuss mise en scene in terms of possibilities rather than trying to define what it happens to be, to see how filmmakers use it in a myriad of ways, for very different ends. When in How to Read a Film, Monaco suggests that "mise en scene is more important to realists, montage to expressionists", we would be inclined to disagree, or rather to see such a definition as too narrow. As we have noticed, long take filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos would seem to be as expressionist as they are realist, and many American filmmakers in the classic period used relatively long takes (hence the Plan Americain) without being interested in the sort of realism practised by the Italian neo-realists of the forties and fifties. Also, more recently, filmmakers have played up montage to generate a rougher, apparently realistic style in the combination of editing and rapid camera movement. Bordwell notes that "the cutting in Bourne Ultimatum is indeed very fast; there are about 3,200 shots in 105 minutes, yielding an average of about 2 seconds per shot." (Minding Movies) Yet this doesn't mean that we cannot talk of mise en scene at all, as if shifts in filmmaking style leaves us bereft of a coherent vocabulary. We can find ourselves talking about a mise en scene oriented performance (Colossal Youth), how mise en scene inflects a film's use of space by colour emphasis (Bigger than Life), for example, or how the film will announce its mise en scene subtly and slowly, giving us new information without a cut (Damnation). Of course all films possess a mise en scene, even if the film happens to have been drawn as in an animated feature, even if we can say not all films have editing (the fine Russian Ark for example possesses no cuts) and numerous experimental films have no narrative. This suggests it is one of the most fundamental aspects of cinema, yet not every film isequally mise en scene driven. As we've suggested, Loach and the Dardennes would appear much less so than Burton and Anderson. Yet this doesn't at all mean the more inclined a film happens to be in utilising an aspect of what usually falls under the rubric mise en scene is in anyway superior to one more interested in montage, or which seeks a filmmaking style without over expressive use of colour and camera movement. As Godard once suggested: "Criticism taught us to admire both Rouch and Eisenstein. From it we learned not to deny one aspect of the cinema in favour of another." (Godard on Godard)
© Tony McKibbin