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August 17, 2011

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Michael Adams

BB does something similar to your example in Seven Men from Now. Gail Russell is torn between ineffectual husband Walter Reed and manly Randy Scott. BB has the couple drive away in their wagon with Scott, standing in the background, framed between them to underscore their emotional distance. Take that, Jean-Luc.

This excellent column is also a wonderful example of the distinction between you and Wells, who would have a hissy fit about the sound problem.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Boetticher is a master of -- can we just call it blocking for the camera? Because that's what I always thought mise-en-scene meant -- the positioning of actors in the frame in a way that communicates their relationships to one another, with camera moves or changes in distance indicating a shift in those relationships.

Mastery of blocking for the camera -- especially the moving camera -- is to my mind a pretty quick way of separating the artists from the hacks.

Especially today. Few contemporary filmmakers block shots in a meaningful way. I look at studio pictures from the pre-war era, ones directed by filmmakers that most cinephiles now consider undistinguished if they have an opinion on them at all, and there's a crackle to the staging, and a sense of purpose to how and when the camera moves, and how and when the people move in conjunction with the camera. Where did they get this talent? Is it a byproduct of having a bit of experience in theater? Most film directors from an earlier era did at least some work in theater before going to film -- do you think that's what's gone missing now, Glenn? Or might there be some other explanation(s)?

I got into BB's use of screen space a little bit in this 2009 video esssay:

http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/straight-shooting-20081204

Glenn Kenny

Well, Matt, not NECESSARILY theater experience/training...but I don't think Hitchcock was whistling "Dixie" when he told Truffaut, almost fifty years ago, as it happens, "The danger is that young people, and even adults, all too often believe that one can become a director without knowing how to sketch a decor, or how to edit."

Jon Hastings

Matt asked: "can we just call it blocking for the camera?"

I used to think something along these lines - my preferred mise-en-scene replacement was "composing and staging" - but I think "mise-en-scene" should be held on to and fought for.

One of my film teachers said English speakers should never use the word "montage", because it just means "editing", but I think that's wrong, or, at least, it's a mistaken way of thinking about language. "Montage" might translate as "editing", but, in use, it really means "editing with an expressive purpose". Likewise, "mise-en-scene" is "blocking, staging, and composing with an expressive purpose". To my ear, it certainly sounds a lot better to talk about a director's "mise-en-scene" than to talk about his "blocking, staging, and composing with an expressive purpose".

And I'm not sure anyone should run away from these phrases because they're not always used clearly or they sometimes take on a mystical character. That's part of our heritage, too, and while I respect the clarifying gestures of scholars like David Bordwell, I find an absence of poetry in his poetics as a result.

Griff

Glenn, this is simply one of the finest and most thoughtful pieces you've ever posted. I almost wish you could introduce a screening of that damaged HORIZONS WEST print! I'd show up.

Jaime

Yes, mise-en-scene also concerns the transition between one frame and the next, whether the shot remains the same, or cuts to another.

And the decor, from junkyards to dead space to luxurious parlors. If you stripped Minnelli's films of their sets and dressed everyone in sackcloth, well, they'd probably still be kind of great, but they wouldn't be, ya know, boss.

There's more to camerawork than by-the-numbers decryption of how the characters relate to one another based on where they're standing.

When Sirk created the famous "Jane Wyman trapped in a television screen" image for ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, it's not great simply because future cinema studies majors could fawn over their own ability to recognize the shot's "meaning." Every other aspect of the scene matters - including its place in the context of the rest of the movie, which certainly concerns itself with more cosmic emotions and energies than just "break free of your suburban prison."

Or, bringing it all back to Hitch (hat tip to you, Glenn), the "reflection" moment in UNDER CAPRICORN wouldn't have had nearly the same power if you handed the same scene over to, say, Fred F. Sears.

Christian

" The lack of sound compelled, maybe even forced, us to watch the film with a different sort of concentration; to focus on what the visuals were telling us, shot by shot."

This is a great way to watch a movie, as I've discovered this year while running on a treadmill in my basement. The treadmill is noisy, and I run early, while everyone is still in bed. The treadmill doesn't wake them, but if I were to put on a movie, with the sound on loud enough to hear over the treadmill, all four kids and my wife would soon be downstairs, glaring at me and asking me turn down the stereo.

So I've put movies on without the sound, just to provide something to stare at while I work out. The results are startling. I won't list all the films that I've "seen" in a different way by watching them with the sound off, but I'll cite the most recent: David Cronenberg's "Spider," which I'd never seen before watching it with the sound off. I was fascinated by the mise-en-scene, and then sat down several days later to watch it one evening with the regular film soundtrack turned on, etc. Turns out I liked the movie less with the sound on (although I still kinda dig it).

Jaime

Some of the greatest examples of '50s mise-en-scene: the empty, mayonnaise-colored walls in Fritz Lang's American films. The poetry of cinema (hat tip to you, Jon H.) sometimes results in the confounding of our ability to manage what we are seeing/feeling, let alone transcribe our experience into words. One reason why Lang is one of my very favorite directors is his uncanny ability to take ordinary genre material and turn it into something like a panic attack.

This is not to say such things aren't worth studying and discussing and unpacking, but there's more to it - if I wasn't already clear - than whose head is at what angle to whose elbow, and such.

jbryant

Matt: Point well taken about supposedly "undistinguished" directors of yore. I'm currently partway through a rewatch of Arthur Lubin's IMPACT (1949 -- not pre-war, but still apt), and shot after shot is filled with interesting framing, staging, blocking and camera movement. I doubt this had an 'A' budget, but the sets are quite impressive, as is the mix of studio and location work.

The Siren

Oh Glenn, this is wonderful to read, and as clear and unfussy an explanation of mise-en-scene as I have encountered.

But I confess some sympathy with Tom Shone's contention that mise-en-scene is (mis?)used in so many different ways that it can be terribly hard to know what's meant. You can read him arguing with Nick Davis about it here: http://tomshone.blogspot.com/2010/07/state-of-web-film-criticism-part-2.html. That's why I avoid it in my own writing; it isn't a term I can anchor to my own experiences watching movies. Unless I maybe go with you to see The Bullfighter and the Lady and they turn the sound off.

Amen to @Matt. One **could** move from that observation, to a much less stringent form of auteurism than the one that currently prevails, were one so inclined...

Jason Haggstrom

I learned the term in an academic setting where I learned Bordwell & Thompson's definition. They define it as being all the elements in the shot, but not having to do with the camera or the editing. Specifically, they define the aspects of mise-en-scene as setting, costume and makeup, lighting, and staging (movement and performance). To quote from their book, FILM ART (8th ed., pg 112):

"In the original French, mise-en-scene means 'putting into the scene,' and it was first applied to the practice of directing plays. Film scholars, extending the term to film direction, use the term to signify the director's control over what appears in the film frame[...] In controlling the mise-en-scene, the director stages the event for the camera."

Mr. Milich

Mise-en-scene = what's in the frame.

Evian = naive spelled backwards.

And so on.

Casey Tourangeau

Glenn, this is why I read you and always will. Fucking outstanding.

preston

A professor of mine at CCNY in the early '90s insisted that we watch films (or at least scenes) MOS. (For the life of me I can not remember which prof or I'd gladly give the credit with gusto.) Anyhow, I travel a good deal and see a lot of stuff on airplanes. I almost never engage the audio and just watch over the corner of my magazine. You really can tell the difference between TV and films through the visual editing (even the crap films.) The 'mise-en-scene' as it were, is apparent in all these ways defined previously, from background setting to camera movement and use of space with the actors. Sure its mysterious, but watching without sound you know if you can follow the story or not simply on visual information (if that matters to you.) Its a facinating exercise actually, and I apply that test to the films that I make just to see if it makes sense on visual terms or if I'm depending on specific dialogue/audio devices to tell that part of the story. Fantastic post as always.

Hauser Tann

From Jason Haggstrom's quote of Bordwell & Thompson's Film Art: "In the original French, mise-en-scene means 'putting into the scene,' and it was first applied to the practice of directing plays. Film scholars, extending the term to film direction, use the term to signify the director's control over what appears in the film frame[...] In controlling the mise-en-scene, the director stages the event for the camera."

The above is certainly not incorrect. (Save for the spelling of the term [if one is going to go to the trouble of using the French term, I'd be so bold as to suggest that one spell it correctly...]. The correct spelling is "mise en scène"—grave accent on the 'e', no hyphenation.)

I would add that "mise en scène" is sometimes used simply as a synonym to "direction" (or "réalisation" in French) as understood in its broadest acception. In this usage, the term would certainly encompass the film's soundtrack, a dimension that is excluded even in Bordwell & Thompson's explanation of their "extended" definition.

The Cannes Film Festival's "Prix de la mise en scène" would be a prominent example of an usage of the term in its broadest acception. (Note: the official English translation appears to be "Best Director Award".)

Glenn Kenny

"If one is going to go to the trouble of using the French term, I'd be so bold as to suggest one spell it correctly." Yeah, sure thing, Percy Dovetonsils. Except I can't make the accent grave work on this particular keyboard. As for the hyphenation thing, yeah, my bad, think I'll go cut my wrists now. Ciao.

David Ehrenstein

Mise en scene is the je ne sais quoi du cinema.

"The script was awful, the actors stunk."

"Ah, mais quelle mise en scene!"

Jason Haggstrom (haggie)

I left the book at the office, but I do believe B&T used the accent. Blame me on that for being too lazy to look up how to type it.

I'd also like to give a "here, here" to MZS's remark that "Few contemporary filmmakers block shots in a meaningful way." Too many are obsessed with simply cutting from one medium or close-up shot to another, and moving the camera around for no apparent reason. On the flip side of that, I'm blown away by how tasty Spielberg's camera movements are in talky scenes. Rather than cut, he does exactly what you describe and often moves the camera in time with characters and stops it when everybody has repositioned themselves (a la Kurosawa, who was masterful at this style of blocking + camera movement). I also seem to remember reading that he doesn't typically storyboard these scenes, but composes them on set.

On a side note, I'm kinda horrified to see my mug up there among all the pretty shapes that I'm so used to seeing around these parts. It just doesn't seem right. Note to all, don't ever sign in here with Facebook...

Peter Nellhaus

On a somewhat related note, I saw a movie with the aforementioned Mr. Ric Menello in which the sound went out for a few minutes at a critics' screening. I supplied a bit of dialogue not approved by John Huston for "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean". It was a briefly amusing moment for those in the immediate vicinity.

Gordon Cameron

>Mastery of blocking for the camera -- especially the moving camera -- is to my mind a pretty quick way of separating the artists from the hacks.

Totally agree. The more I study narrative movies, the more important blocking seems to me. When I was a young film student, camera movement in a vacuum was what interested me most (so many unmotivated dolly-ins in our student flicks!), but now I'm more impressed with the coordination of camera movement and actor movement in a narrative context.

Jaime

Wow, people are really impressed by MZS's "ideas," i.e. that cinema is about where actors are standing in relation to each other and the camera. Okay then.

Matt Zoller Seitz

No, Jaime, I don't think that's the "only" thing cinema is about. But it's good to try to establish an order of importance when we're talking about the different elements. Otherwise the term becomes an elegant but meaningless synonym for style. Color coordination and hairstyles are part of it too, but not as important as composition, camera movement, blocking and cutting.

Gordon Cameron

>Wow, people are really impressed by MZS's "ideas," i.e. that cinema is about where actors are standing in relation to each other and the camera. Okay then.

I don't know where he said that, nor where I indicated being impressed by it. My response, at any rate, is confined to the context of directorial technique in narrative cinema -- how to use camera movement to enhance and underscore the story, etc. Obviously "cinema" in a grand sense can encompass a great deal more than that. Probably my thoughts are to no small degree contaminated by my film school training, which was very Hollywoood-focused, production-focused, and narrative-focused.

jbryant

Well, it's not as if directors DON'T have to concern themselves with where the actors are in relation to each other and the camera - generally speaking, of course.

As for "camera movement in a vacuum," I still shudder when I recall wasting a couple of hours on a set in film school by using a mini-crane to execute a shot that really only required a slight tilt and dolly back or zoom out. My production professor popped in during this, and just gave a wry smile, knowing we crazy kids had to get it out of our system.

Jason Haggstrom (haggie)

@Jaime: I'd say that the interpolation that MZS made from Glenn's observations--that greater attention was paid to designing shots around blocking for the camera in the early decades of filmmaking than is today--is a subject worth discussing.

Simon Abrams

The way I've understood mise-en-scene was the way a director fills a frame and how it fills it. It's the relation of objects with people, with the camera to the objects in the frame, with blocking, with set design, costumes, lighting, etc. It's the over-all effect of how one presents information in any given scene. But I readily admit that this is a reductive view of the phrase, which apparently encompasses multitudes of interpretations.

Jaime

Matt, I'm not really in favor of establishing any such thing. As a 96.9%-pure auteurist I tend to do a few things strangely:

1) I try to remain open to how a director directs instead of imposing an "established" set of ideas. Lang isn't Boetticher isn't Kurosawa isn't Antonioni isn't Anger and so on.
2) Use what I find as a "lead" as opposed to a "criterion."
3) I try to listen as well as I see - cinema is affected by sound as much as image. "We didn't come here for the dialogue," ho ho. Funny, but I hope that doesn't indicate any moviegoer's actual philosophy.
4) People standing here and there, in relation to each other and the camera, that might be of paramount importance to one director, but not another. Maybe it's also the easiest thing for people to latch onto. To me it's just one thing. I'm about to head into RED DESERT. Blocking for the camera will rank anywhere from 1st to 29th and is likely to change from shot to shot, even frame to frame.

If that isn't rigorous enough, oh well.

Jaime

I agree with Simon's take most of all.

jim emerson

I think there are some pretty good definitions of "mise en scène" above (hey, just because we don't have a pithy equivalent for the term in English doesn't mean it doesn't mean anything!) -- blocking of the actors and the camera is part of it, but it's more comprehensively the arrangement of all elements within the frame in the course of each shot, which may or may not involve camera movement. (It also involves deciding when and where to cut into the next shot.) That's a useful concept to keep in mind (and I'm with MZS that it's the essence of moviemaking), even if (as Siren says) I find using the term "mise en scène" myself to be a little awkward outside of a classroom context.

Simon Abrams

Holy shit, Jaime Christley agreed with me!

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