Miseenscne theory

In the early days of mise-en-scène criticism (the early 1950s), mise en scène was defined in terms of film's immediate perceptual presence, its physical and concrete rendition of space and bodies on screen. These critics (JeanLuc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut) valorized immediacy and presence because, they believed, it relates to film's specificity, its visual and aural tactility, and, most importantly, its adherence to the truth of surface appearances (for a selection of their work, see Hillier 1985).

During the same period (the early 1950s), a number of the above critics mystified the concept of mise en scène by making it intangible, linking it to the notions of spirituality and to pure creativity. In effect, they reduced mise en scène to a director's individual vision or world-view, their unique inspiration that cannot be generalized. In opposition to this Romantic or existential view, we can develop a non-mystifying understanding of mise en scène by thinking of it in terms of a series of compositional norms from which directors choose how to construct their shots, scenes, and whole films. Individuality re-enters the 'non-mystificatory' critic's vocabulary when he or she focuses on how, in an individual film, its subject matter is translated into the specifics of mise en scène (rather than being translated by the director's 'unexplainable' vision). The mise-en-scène critic ideally focuses on an individual film's stylistic and thematic development, that is, the film's moment-by-moment progression as it concretely manifests or realizes its themes through its mise en scène. Fred Camper mediates between this spiritual and 'secular' view of mise en scène by focusing on the way inner spirituality is manifest and made visual and concrete - or tangible - in a film's visual style, as we shall see in his analysis of Disputed Passage.

Mise en scène names what is there on the screen and emanating through the loud speakers, before the spectator's eyes and ears. It is what the spectator looks at and listens to, but not necessarily what they see and hear. Mise-en-scène criticism is a form of connoisseurship that directs the spectator's awareness to the significance of certain elements of mise en scène. Victor Perkins notes: 'My standard for good criticism is not that I agree with it but that it tells me something I haven't noticed about a film, even if I've seen it a number of times.' He goes on to emphasize the position of the Movie critics: 'We are helping people not to know which are the right and wrong films, but to see what's in a film____We're not concerned with the education of taste, but with the education of awareness' (Perkins et al. 1963: 34).

Mise-en-scène critics point out the significance of certain visual and aural elements of a film. The critic draws attention to the design of the mise-en-scène, highlighting the significance and importance of what the non-

connoisseur spectator takes for granted. For example, one fundamental assumption of mise-en-scène criticism is that foreground-background relations are significant; these relations are not pre-given - that is, 'natural' or purely denotational - but have to be designed by the director, and the choices he or she makes signify different meanings (connotations).

More generally, a fundamental assumption of mise-en-scène critics is that the relation between what and how, between style and theme or subject matter, is not arbitrary. Mise-en-scène critics dismiss the common-sense assumption that all a director needs to do is simply place the camera where the action can be seen best. Filming involves a productive relation between film style and subject matter, of style transforming the subject matter. This is where mise-en-scène criticism becomes evaluative, because its adherents evaluate films according to the skill and artistry in which subject matter is creatively transformed by the specifics of the film medium. Mise-en-scène critics valorize classical Hollywood films (particularly those directed by auteurs) on the basis of their successful (economical and significant) transformation of subject matter into film. But with the decline of the studio system and the ageing of the Hollywood auteurs in the 1960s, a number of the most prominent mise-en-scène critics (primarily the original writers for Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s - Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, Truffaut, but also Victor Perkins in Movie) detected in New Hollywood directors a decline in the creative use of mise en scène.

To place this shift in mise en scène in historical context, we shall use Adrian Martin's essay (1992) which establishes three basic categories of mise-en-scène, of the relation between style and theme: classical, expressionist, and mannerist mise-en-scène.

In Martin's definition, films that adopt a classical mise en scène 'are all works in which there is a definite stylistic restraint at work, and in which the modulations of stylistic devices across the film are keyed closely to its dramatic shifts and thematic developments' (1992: 90). 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: 'stylistic effects and decisions serve the creation of a coherent fictional world. ... what is crucial is that the fictional world be an embodiment and dramatization of a thematic particular to each film' (p. 100). Classical mise en scène results in a coherent film 'in which, under continued scrutiny, more and more of [a film's] elements can be seen to function as integral parts of the whole, reflecting (by comparison or contrast) aspects of the over-arching thematic' (p. 100).

Marc A. Le Sueur notes that classical mise en scène is based on what he calls the classical synthesis principle: 'There is an implication [in the classical synthesis principle] that the content should necessitate the techniques used, and that, as Aristotle has maintained, none of these technical components could be reduced or changed except at the expense of the aesthetic whole. Form and theme are then meshed and synthesized in a unitary web' (1975: 326). The celebration of classical mise en scène parallels the work of art critics who celebrate High Renaissance art. Classicism in both film and painting is valorized because it does not distort the truth of appearances, but renders those appearances faithfully.

Victor Perkins is also an exponent of classical mise en scène, which he defines in terms of a film's credibility and coherence. Noël Carroll notes that, for Perkins, 'a narrative fiction film must first satisfy the realist requirement of credibility, after which it may go on to be as creative in terms of shaping meaning and significance as it can, while abiding by the basic restraint of credibility' (Carroll 1988a: 181). But what does Perkins mean by credibility? 'A narrative fiction film will be credible or not according to whether its images are consistently derived from the fictional world it depicts' (Carroll 1988a: 181). The concept of credibility therefore refers to a film's adherence to the truth of a fictional world. As Carroll points out, within the fictional world of Hitchcock's film The Birds, it is perfectly credible for birds to attack humans. We can refer to a more recent example: within the fictional world of Spielberg's Jurassic Park, it is perfectly credible to see dinosaurs walking about. However, is it credible to see them opening doors? It is at this point that the film's credibility begins to break down.

Although credibility is a necessary condition for analysing a film's mise en scène, it is not sufficient in itself. For Perkins, the second condition is coherence: the more coherent a film, the better it is. He identifies coherence with a film's heightened significance, derived from the creative transformation of the events onto film (what he calls 'cinematic elaboration'). Heightened significance is created by means of symbolism added to the events by the mise en scène. However, these attempts to create coherence by means of symbolism must not compromise credibility. The symbolism must therefore be implicit and unobtrusive: 'What happens on the screen must not emerge as a directorial "touch" detached from the dramatic situation; otherwise the spectator's belief in the action will decrease or disappear. The director's guiding hand is obvious only when it is too heavy' (Perkins 1972: 77). When symbolically enhancing a dramatic situation a director must not impose meaning on it. Instead, he or she needs to ensure that the additional meaning emerges from the drama. Perkins examines a scene from Johnny Guitar, where a group of mourners set out to capture the killers of the man who has just been buried. The sister of the dead man, Emma, leads the posse. As she advances, the wind blows off her black-veiled hat. and the camera follows it as in lands in the dust:

The 'action' of the hat amplifies our view of the character: grief for the loss of her brother is not the motive guiding Emma's actions, and her sorrow has been forgotten in the exhilaration of the chase.

Nothing in the story or dialogue obliged the director to include this action in the sequence. It was invented to convey a particular view of Emma's character and motives. But we can respond to it simply as information; within the film's world it happened because Emma was in such a hurry, not because it was significant.

(Perkins 1972: 78)

The scene remains intelligible whether or not the spectator is aware of the symbolism, since the credibility of the scene remains more important than the symbolism. But symbolism that can work within the boundaries of credibility becomes a valuable addition to the film.

Expressionist mise en scène, Adrian Martin's second category, is found in films 'whose textual economy is pitched more at the level of a broad fit between elements of style and elements of subject. ... general strategies of colour coding, camera viewpoint, sound design and so on enhance or reinforce the general "feel" or meaning of the subject matter' (Martin 1992: 90). Martin mentions the films of Robert Altman, Michael Mann, Abel Ferrara, the Coen brothers, and Alan Rudolph as representative examples of expressionist mise en scène, for they use film style to enhance particular meanings in the subject matter.

Finally, in mannerist mise en scène, 'style performs out of its own trajectories, no longer working unobtrusively at the behest of the fiction and its demands of meaningfulness' (Martin 1992: 91). 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. It is in such (predominantly post-classical Hollywood) films that the original critics of Cahiers du cinéma, as well as Perkins, see the concept of mise en scène being inoperative, precisely because the style does not serve the subject matter. Martin seems to be in partial agreement with these critics when he writes that, if post-classical Hollywood film 'gains something interesting and novel, it seems to also lose a great deal that has been associated with the lofty concept of mise en scène. In particular, it loses the capacity for a more subtle kind of "point-making" - the kind we associate with a certain critical distance installed between the director and the events that he or she shows' (Martin 1992: 90). However, Martin, Perkins, and the Cahiers du cinéma critics are simply lamenting the demise of classical mise en scène in mannerist films, not mise en scène itself.

Le Sueur also calls this type of filmmaking mannerist (1975). He finds a parallel between mannerist films and mannerist paintings of the sixteenth century, which disregard the classical synthesis principle of Renaissance painting. Instead, mannerist painters worked to create a disjunction between form and theme, an unmotivated form that does not lead to coherence, but to disharmony.

The critics who valorize classical mise en scène do so because style productively conveys themes. And they criticize mannerism because style and techniques stand out as techniques, creating a dislocation between style and theme. In other words, mannerism replaces truth of appearances with artifice. But critics who valorize mannerism in the cinema argue that mise en scène becomes interesting once it is freed from theme and subject matter, from the need slavishly to represent subject matter accurately. One result is that mise en scène may start working against the subject matter, offering alternative information and subverting the film's dominant theme.

Le Sueur makes the now obvious point that such forms of classification are not absolute and watertight. This suggests that we can find moments of mannerism in films otherwise dominated by classical mise en scène, amongst which he includes the films of Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, Vincente Minnelli, and Orson Welles, together with the mannerist aesthetic of musicals.

Another key dimension of mise-en-scène criticism is the opposition between the script and the activity of filming. François Truffaut clearly articulated this opposition in 'A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema' (Truffaut 1976), where he criticizes the dominant tendency in French cinema during the 1940s- and 1950s - the 'tradition of quality'. This cinema is a contrived and wooden cinema that projects a bourgeois image of good taste and high culture. For Truffaut, the tradition of quality offers little more than the practice of filming scripts, of mechanically transferring scripts to the screen. The success or failure of these films depends entirely on the quality of their scripts. The privileging of the script in the tradition of quality deflected attention away from both the film-making process and the director. Truffaut (together with the other Cahiers du cinéma critics and the New Wave filmmakers) defined himself against literature, against the literary script, and against the tradition of quality, and instead promoted 'the cinema' as such.

From this opposition of script and filming emerges the opposition between the director as auteur and the director as a mere metteur en scène. An auteur is a director who does not mechanically transpose a script onto film, but transcends the script by imposing on it his or her own style and vision. The script is the mere pretext for the activity of film-making, and an auteur film is about the film-making practices involved in filming a script, rather than being about the script itself. An auteur works out his or her own vision by establishing a consistent style of mise-en-scène, a style that usually works over and above the demands of the script. By contrast, a metteur en scène is a director whose films depend on the quality of their scripts - they make good films from good scripts, and bad films from bad scripts. Auteurs consistently make good films because they transcend the script, whether it is good or not.

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