Cahiers: "For ten years Cahiers said that mise en scene existed. Now one has to say the opposite instead."
Godard: "Yes, it's true. It doesn't exist. We were wrong." —"Let's Talk About Pierrot," Cahiers du Cinema 171, October 1965, reprinted in Godard by Godard, edited and translated by Tom Milne, 1972
Yippee! Own of my favorite sport is in season, second only to Monty Python's Soccer Tournament for Philosophers. Every so often a bunch of film critics gather in a circle and clunk eggheads over the meaning of the term “mise en scène". I've always had an aversion to the term, which seems to mean everything and nothing, and has found almost zero purchase in the minds and vocabularies of actual cinema-goers. You never hear anyone coming out of a film going "great mise-en-scene!" or "great acting; shame about the mise-en-scene." But those are just people! comes the cry from the teetering ivory tower of film criticism. How dare you view the splendiferous enterprise of criticism through the pinched prism of plebian minds! Here's the thing though. It's not just that I never hear cinema-goers use the term "mise-en-scene". It's that I never even hear them struggle to describe the thing that "mise-en-scene" refers to but which they lack the vocabulary to describe. In other words, it's not a gap in their vocabulary. It's a gap in the world. The referrent doesn't exist. Meaning follows usage, as my old linguistics tutor used to say. If a) "mise-en-scene" really was as central to the soul of cinema as some critics claim and b) millions of people go the movies every day and respond vocally and enthusiastically to what they see, then c) wouldn't at least one of them come out going "wow I really loved the... what's the word for it... I don't have the word for it but that thing that made me feel the way I did when he shot the guy with the whip... something to do with the way they stood.. or the speed of it... the soundtrack.... or something..."? And yet there does not exist the slightest rustle of a breeze of a whisper of a demand plucking the term mise-en-scene from the pages of Cahiers du Cinema and pressing it into common usage.
And so it proves over at Glenn's Kenny's redoubtable blog, Some Came Running, where Glenn kicks of proceedings with the traditional opener for this sporting event: "Mise-en-scene: what does it mean?" As is also customary, the matter is almost immediately settled, sensibly, by the very first commentator on the post. "Can we just call it blocking for the camera?" asks Matt.
"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."
"mise-en-scene also concerns the transition between one frame and the next, whether the shot remains the same or cuts to another".
"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."
"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."
"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."
"Oddly, I remember learning that mis-en-scene specifically referred to everything that wasn't camera or actor movement---production design, lighting, costume, color."