Miseenscne method

From the above 'theory' of mise en scène, we can begin to extract a method of analysis. David Bordwell has already begun to formalize the strategies of mise-en-scène criticism (1989, Ch. 8), although here we shall go much further. Bordwell identifies in mise-en-scène criticism an implicit use of the 'bull's-eye schema' and two 'heuristics': the expressivist heuristic and the commentative heuristic. (The term 'heuristic' refers to an informal strategy of reasoning that assists us in discovering ideas. It is therefore similar to Aristotle's topics, outlined in Chapter 1. A mise-en-scène heuristic enables the film critic to identify patterns of coherence in a film.) When critics draw correlations between different layers of a film - specifically, characters, settings, and elements of film discourse (such as camera movement and editing) - they are using the bull's-eye schema. Bordwell calls this a bull's-eye schema because, for mise-en-scène critics, characters are central to narrative films (the centre or bull's-eye of a 'target'), followed by the setting (the second ring of a target), and then film discourse (the outer ring of a target). There is a hierarchy between the all-important centre (the characters) and the less important periphery (film discourse), although the periphery is more encompassing than the setting, which is in turn more encompassing than the characters.

The primary purpose of the bull's-eye schema is to enable critics to ascribe coherence to a film by linking up these three levels. Bordwell identifies two ways critics have used this schema: the levels of a film are linked either from the core to the periphery, or from the periphery to the core. Critics who begin from the core and link it to the periphery are using the expressivist heuristic, while those who work in the other direction are using the commentative heuristic.

In the expressivist heuristic, 'Meaning is taken to flow from the core to the periphery, from the characters to manifestations in the diegetic world or the nondiegetic representation' (Bordwell 1989: 181). In other words, the setting or filmic discourse should carry the meaning the critic locates in characters' actions. The significance of the settings and of film discourse are justified by referring them to character traits. Bordwell quotes John Russell Taylor's claim that, in Fellini's films, the mental and spiritual state of characters is manifest and reflected in his films' landscapes.

The term 'commentative heuristic' 'suggests that something - narration, presentation, narrator, camera, author, filmmaker, or whatever - stands "outside" the diegetic realm and produces meaning in relation to it' (Bordwell

1989: 183). The critic who uses the commentative heuristic begins with film discourse (or sometimes the setting) and notes how it qualifies or frames the characters' actions. A clichéd example includes unbalanced framing, in which the skewed positioning of the frame in relation to a character suggests that the character is unbalanced. Framing and composition therefore comment on the character's state of mind. In an early essay on Hitchcock's Notorious, Bordwell uses the commentative heuristic to show how the setting comments on the relationship between Devlin and Alicia: 'The romantic balloon is deflated in a fine scene in their hotel. Alicia has burned the roast for their dinner; on the terrace, as the tension between them grows, they become more and more distant, until Alicia, saying, "It's cold out here," goes in to desperately down a drink; the transition from hot to cold mirrors the movement of their relationship' (Bordwell 1969: 7). The transition from hot to cold in the film's diegesis not only functions of a literal level, but on a symbolic level as well - as a symbol that comments on the relationship between the two characters.

A more general sign of commentary in the cinema is to be found in the way film discourse foreshadows future events, as when the camera is placed so as to capture the future unfolding of events. The camera (or other agent external to the events) 'knows' in advance how the events are going to unfold. Of course, such a technique can be overplayed, as Ian Cameron argues: 'In The Wolf Trap, a highly respected movie, the camera is placed more or less behind a character so that it will produce a "dramatic" effect when she turns away from the table and faces the camera. On the other hand the only reason for her to turn away from the table at the big moment is so that she can face the camera and produce the effect. Because it has all been rigged so that the action has been falsified, the effect is pointless' (Cameron, in Perkins et al. 1963: 34). In this example, style dictates the content rather than serving it. Other forms of commentary critics try to identify include irony and distancing.

The expressivist heuristic is suitable for making sense of films dominated by classical mise en scène, in which characters' actions and the settings motivate film discourse. Meaning arises from within the film's action, rather than being imposed from the outside by the director. By contrast, films dominated by a mannerist mise en scène are more suited for the commentative heuristic, because the work of an external agent such as a director is more evident in mannerist films, in which film discourse is not motivated by characters or settings, but is motivated from outside the film.

Referring back to the previous discussion, we shall now identify additional mise en scène heuristics, and then examine examples of mise-en-scène criticism that employ these heuristics.

1. Critics implicitly or, more rarely, explicitly, identify the type of mise en scène by which the film has been constructed. Adrian Martin's threefold distinction between classical, expressionist, and mannerist mise en scène has heuristic value:

la. In classical mise en scène the film style is unobtrusive, for it is motivated by the film's themes and dramatic developments. These films maintain a balance between showing and narrating, since style is linked to function rather than being autonomous; the mise en scène functions as unobtrusive symbolism that confers upon the film heightened significance. The expressivist heuristic is used to praise classical mise en scène. Perkins uses the concepts of credibility and coherence to praise classical mise en scène.

lb. In expressionist mise en scène (not to be confused with the expressivist heuristic), there is a broad fit between style and theme.

lc. In mannerist mise en scène, style is autonomous, for it is not linked to function but draws attention to itself. In other words, style is not motivated or justified by the subject matter, but is its own justification. The commentative heuristic is typically used to praise mannerist mise en scène.

2. Script/filming: mise-en-scène critics privilege the filming over the script. An integral part of mise-en-scène criticism is therefore to downplay the film's plot and instead focus on the process by which the script has been translated onto the screen.

3. Auteur/metteur en scène: this heuristic directly follows on from (2). If the film has merit beyond its script - if it transcends the script - then it is said to be the work of an auteur (who therefore demonstrates mastery over mise en scène). If the quality of the film is dependent on the quality of the script (where filming is subordinate to the script, to translating the script to film), then its director is downgraded to a metteur en scène.

4. Foreground-background: using this heuristic, the critic determines if there is any significant relation between a film's foreground and background. One privileged example of this heuristic is the analysis of deep-focus cinematography in the work of Renoir, Welles, and Wyler, where several planes of action remain in play and in focus in the same frame. This heuristic is based on the bull's-eye schema, for it focuses on the relation between characters (usually in the foreground) and the setting (the background).

5. Foreshadowing heuristic: does the film discourse presage upcoming events? (Foreshadowing is part of the commentative heuristic.)

6. Same-frame heuristic: although we have not discussed it up to this point, this widely used heuristic posits that, if characters appear in the same frame (either a static frame or linked by camera movement), they are united; but if they are separated by cutting, then they are in conflict, or isolated from each other. Bordwell (who named this heuristic) quotes the following example: 'Where the cutting is used to isolate the individual and his responses, the camera movement, as it reintegrates space, reunites the individual with his group to establish a sense of wholeness' (William Paul, in Bordwell 1989: 179). 7. Cutting or the long take: another very common heuristic to be found throughout the history of film criticism. Film makers have a choice of shooting a scene in one continuous take, where the camera is left rolling while the whole of the action takes place, and shooting the same scene with several shots. The first option involves the film-maker filming the action as it unfolds, uninterrupted. The second option involves breaking the action down into individual shots. Each new shot will include a change in camera position, camera angle, shot scale, and so on. Film makers have to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages in choosing one technique over another for each scene, since the choice of technique will influence the way spectators respond to the film.

3.2.1. Examples

Perkins has nothing positive to say about the British 'New Wave' directors of the 1960s - Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, and Jack Clayton. He uses the foreground-background heuristic to criticize them: 'Richardson, Reisz, Schlesinger and Clayton are weakest exactly where their ambitions most demand strength: in the integration of character with background. Because of this weakness they are constantly obliged to "establish" place with inserted shots which serve only to strengthen our conviction that the setting, though "real," has no organic connection with the characters' (Perkins 1962: 5).

As an example, Perkins cites the following from Schlesinger's A Kind of Loving:

the first 'love' scene in A Kind of Loving is filmed mainly in a medium shot which shows us the boy and girl necking in a park shelter. On the walls behind and to the side of them we see the usual graffiti of names and hearts. The setting makes, in this way, a fairly obvious but relevant comment on the action. But Schlesinger has no appreciation of the power of his décor; he destroys the whole effect by moving his camera to take the actors out of the shot and isolate the inscriptions in a meaningless close-up. As if he hadn't done enough damage he continues the movement until we come to rest on a totally gratuitous detail: a poster forbidding mutilation of the shelter.

(Perkins 1962: 5)

In this example, Perkins argues that the director begins by making an obvious but coherent commentary on the action by placing the couple against the park shelter wall covered in graffiti. But when the camera moves away from the couple and focuses only on the wall, then the commentary becomes obtrusive and destroys the film's credibility.

Perkins employs the heuristic of opposing script to filming, and implicitly opposes auteur to metteur en scène, in his discussion of Seth Holt's film Taste of Fear: 'Excellent films have been made from mediocre scenarios - Party Girl is perhaps the locus classicus but there are plenty of other examples. Taste of Fear is a useful reminder that there is a level below which a scenario becomes untranscendable' (Perkins 1962: 7). Perkins recognizes the quality of Holt's film despite the poor quality of the script: 'What sets [ Taste of Fear] apart from other British pictures? Simply that it reveals time and again a.director who can create cinematically, where other directors are content with illustrating their scripts' (Perkins 1962: 7). Perkins then employs two additional and interrelated mise-en-scène heuristics to back up his claim - namely, praise for classical mise en scène, and the expressivist heuristic: 'The distinction [between auteurs and metteur en scène] is as easy to see as it is difficult to explain: it has, of course, nothing to do with those collections of elite tricks that currently pass for style. We must be able to respond to the rhythm of the film' (Perkins 1962: 7). Here we see Perkins praise classical mise en scène and critique mannerism, which he reduces to 'cute tricks' of style. One successful moment in Taste of Fear where the classical mise en scène works is 'the tracking shot where the camera accompanies [Ronald] Lewis down the cliff-path to the salvaged car and communicates, in its movement, the character's growing uneasiness' (Perkins 1962: 7). Here we see Perkins use the expressivist heuristic, in which the camera movement is not only motivated by character movement but, in addition, expresses that character's state of mind.

Fred Camper (1976) implicitly uses the distinction between auteur and metteur en scène in his analysis of Frank Borzage's Disputed Passage (1939). He begins by summarizing the film's plot, focusing on the main characters' relation to spirituality, of the transformations a number of them undergo towards spirituality. Such a summary, Camper argues, could just as well relate to the script, or to Lloyd C. Douglas's novel upon which it is based. Camper argues that the film has interest because Borzage successfully transcends the script: 'it is the profound visual beauty of Borzage's style that is the deepest expression of these [spiritual] ideas; and it is the style that makes him a true romantic artist rather than simply a translator or metteur en scène. His style is not simply representative of spiritual transcendence, but rather seeks ways of visually representing the world which in themselves might lead to transcendence' (Camper 1976: 340-41). Camper does not, therefore, reduce Borzage's mise en scène to ineffable and intangible concepts such as spiritual transcendence, but analyses it in terms of concrete elements of film. The heuristics Camper uses are foreground-background relations, foreshadowing, and the same-frame heuristic. Camper argues that, to study how the film visually represents the spiritual transformation of characters, 'One might first direct one's attention to the visual position that the characters occupy in Borzage's conception of things' (p. 341). Camper argues that the characters in Disputed Passage are not firmly fixed in space, since they do not exert their physical presence in relation to their surroundings. He gives the example of Dr Forster lecturing to students: 'The shot of [Dr Forster] with students in the background lack the kind of depth which would give him, by separating him from the students he is lecturing, physical force. The extreme high shots in the scene hardly add to his presence. All the characters have presence only in two dimensions; as real beings they seem almost weightless, floating in abstracted surroundings' (p. 341). The significance of this mise en scène is that it foreshadows the characters' conversion to the spiritual world, renders this conversion inevitable, because the characters' weightless presence means they do not belong to the physical world.

Closely associated with characters' lack of presence is their lack of fixed location in the frame. In a scene depicting Dr Forster and Dr Cunningham, Camper writes:

In the graduation scene, while Cunningham is making a speech, we see Forster seated at the right of the frame. One could say it is logical to show Forster there because his beliefs are so at odds with Cunningham's. But due to shallow depth of field his face is a little out of focus, we do not see him reacting specifically to the speech; most importantly, Borzage then cuts to close-ups of Forster's face during the speech, then back to shots of Cunningham with him in the background.

Camper notes how this scene could have been filmed otherwise (i.e. more conventionally): the scene would contain an establishing shot showing Forster and Cunningham in the same space, but would then proceed to show the two characters separately. But on this occasion (and many other occasions in the film) Borzage keeps the two characters in the same shot, but films them from different angles and distances, creating the effect that their position in space is not fixed, which again illustrates their spirituality. But an additional effect of this cutting which keeps characters in the frame but alters their position is that it links them together, or creates connections between them. For Camper, cutting is therefore used to unite characters, not to oppose or isolate them. While employing the same-frame heuristic, Camper has nonetheless reversed its meaning - or at least the meaning Bordwell imposes on it. Walter Murch offers one solution to these contradictory readings of the same frame heuristic: 'In the States, film is "cut," which puts the emphasis on separation. In Australia (and in Great Britain), film is "joined," with the emphasis on bringing together (Murch 1995: 5).

Richard Jameson implicitly defines Mamoulian as a mere metteur en scène-, for his direction cannot transcend the script: 'Mamoulian keeps faith with the triviality of his ostensible subjects; he dresses them to advantage but he does not transcend them; he can be bright and clever, but when his material is turgid (Blood and Sand) or intractable ( We Live Again), so will his film be' (Jameson 1980: 10). By contrast, in All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone focuses on an important subject, and attempts to employ the important techniques of mise en scène to realize this subject on screen, including 'key cinematic principles' such as 'visual unity of foreground and background planes (All Quiet's soldiers-to-be in their classroom while troops drill outside the window), linking camera energy to character energy (admiringly tracing Adolphe Menjou's Walter Burns through the roaring print shop), the possibilities for syncopation in camera movement and montage (countless troops tracked laterally as they march into all-embracing battle)' (Jameson 1980:10). Jameson goes on to highlight two moments in the same sequence, one exemplifying Milestone's direction, the other exposing its limitations:

When enemy troops charge the German trenches, a lateral track along a barbed-wire barrier is synchronized with the collapse of charging men as they come into camera-range; it is as though the camera itself were a machine gun (the previous shot was of a machine-gun crew opening fire), and when the Germans' counter-attack is photographed in the same manner a few moments later, a lucid statement is made about war as a machine indifferently chewing up lives.

But midway between these shots comes a spate of hand-to-hand combat. Milestone again tracks, this time from a slightly raised camera position looking down into the trenches. As his camera arrives at each defender's position, an enemy soldier likewise arrives to leap in on his opposite number. Unlike the camera-as-machine-gun ploy, this shot lacks organic, intrinsic logic; or, more accurately, it is based on a logic at variance with that controlling the rest of the sequence. The careful synchronization of camera's-arrival is entirely a function of the desire for distinctive spectacle. The moralist behind the camera has been displaced by an obscene choreographer. Technical bravura has outrun stylistic sense. And style is conscience - even conscience in default.

(Jameson 1980:10). Jameson is therefore another apologist for classical mise en scène.

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