Aug 20, 2011

Everything that is and isn't cinema

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."
Clear enough. It means blocking. Done. Or as Jean Luc Godard might say: fin. Not so fast, says Jaime:
"mise-en-scene also concerns the transition between one frame and the next, whether the shot remains the same or cuts to another".
So not blocking but something closer to... editing? Something not spatial but — to take an entirely different tack — temporal? The term is already beginning to lose shape. This fogginess is to be welcomed, embraced and fulsomely inhaled, like unfiltered Gitanes, says Jason Haggstrom.
"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."
Hmm. What happens in the film frame. Isn't that dangerously close to just "direction"? Just so, says Hauser Tann:-
"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."
The sound track! Anything else? Simon Abrams:-
"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."
At which point the term begins to resemble the menu of my local chinese restaurant in the West Village, whose starters included: soup with egg, soup with corn, soup with vegetables, soup with fish, and — the piece de la resistance — "soup with everything." I always imagined the chef exhaling a weary "fuck it" as he scribbled that last.

Surely that has to be an end to it: everything that might conceivable be included in a motion picture, from shot composition to soundtrack. What could be more inclusive than that? What else might this term possibly be made to mean? Don't be so pinched and pygmyish of vision, says the appropriately named Fuzzy Bastard:-
"Oddly, I remember learning that mis-en-scene specifically referred to everything that wasn't camera or actor movement---production design, lighting, costume, color."
Oh Good Lord. Unsurprisingly, it is this quixotic definition that Richard Brody chooses to expand upon at his New Yorker Blog.

"It’s not a pattern of shots or a habit of framing but the inner life of the filmmaker as it is not shown but conjured; it’s everything that’s implied but not there, or, as Godard called it in “Hélas pour moi,” “seeing the invisible.”Modern criticism labors under an aphoristic misconception—or, rather, the misconception of an aphorism—even more grievous than the fixation of mise en scène: a phrase by Martin Scorsese, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” Scorsese is one of the greatest of modern filmmakers, and his best films are themselves significant works of film criticism, but what this phrase means isn’t obvious. The cinema is indeed a matter of both: what’s in and what’s out, not just what’s in; what’s visible and what’s not visible. In other words, it’s more than framings and visual patterns; it’s overtones, sympathies, hauntings."

If I understand Brody correctly — a hazardous assumption, Brody being one of those bearded sorts who looks as close to a pure thought-cloud as a human being can before people start slipping him leftover cheese — he means not just the footage on the cutting room floor. Nor does he just mean creative choices: unexplored backstories, thematic ellipses, and the like. He means to freight the term 'mise-en-scene' with its fullest metaphysical implications: everything that is both "in", and "not in" the movie we happen to be watching. Overtones, sympathies, and hauntings. Thus, if you happen to be watching Jaws, let's say, the mise-en-scene would include Francis Ford Coppola's shot selection for The Godfather, which haunts Spielberg's film, Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for Days of Heaven, with which it has sympathy, or — quite possibly— my aunt's recipe for Cornish scones, with which it shares an array of dark, raisinish overtones. Perhaps we should bring this debate to a close by detonating the term "mise-en-scene" altogether and suggest a definition that includes not just blocking and editing and the soundtrack and everything else that is both "in" and "outside" of a single given film, but all the other movies not contained within the one we happen to be watching, and not just movies but books and people and soup cans, submarines and sequins, sequels and suncreams, mosquitos and maiden aunts, moths and Cornish scones as well.


  1. Please for Christ sake help this poor boy from Haiti

  2. Scene setting. Meaning created and re-created in use, not just following it.