All entries for Monday 09 April 2007
April 09, 2007
Does style determine meaning ? The scope and importance of Mise en scene criticism
In the final paragraph of his recent review of mise-en-scene criticism John Gibbs comments:
..that style determines meaning, that how an event is portrayed on screen defines its significance, that single moments or images of films cannot be adequately considered when extracted from their context - then close study continues to be vital. My belief is that an understanding of mise-en-scene is a prerequisite for making other kinds of claims about film..... A sense of how style relates to meaning needs to be central to your enquiry.’ (My emphasis: Gibbs 2002, p 100)
Gibbs is concerned to point out that although it shouldn’t be the sort of thing that goes out of fashion the idea of mise en scene went out of fashion. The fact that in the question AS OCR Media Students will receive for AS textual analysis ‘Action - Adventure’ films the term mise en scene is relegated to bottom of the list shows that the examiners are yet to catch up with the latest thinking on the matter! The handout below will argue that the term mise en scene necessarily includes elements of film making such as camera angle, shot, movement and position.
Mise en scene criticism is particularly important to an understanding of Hollywood cinema because within the production system directors are frequently assigned to projects rather than originating them unlike European cinema. It is a cinema which is self-evidently not ‘art’ in terms of the stories that are chosen.
The development of mise en scene criticism has therefore been to discover how layers of meaning can be incorporated into films through stylistic devices of the director who is not in control of the overall project. It is possible for example that the style could subvert the intended meaning of a script which the producers have decided to turn into a film. Bearing this in mind John Orr has pointed out the changes in direction of European realist cinema which have taken mise en scene in new directions. See the blog posting on Lilya 4-Ever for more on this.
At its heart mise en scene criticism is a critical concept which draws attention to and makes easier to discuss all those elements of a film which communicate in a non-verbal fashion. It allows us to understand film as a visual and sensory experience rather than just a literary one.
A working definition of mise en scene
The term is based upon a French theatrical term and has been used in Britain since at least 1833. Mise en scene is the contents of the frame and the way that they are organised. In this argument Gibbs prioritises the work of Robin Wood and the French critic Doniol-Valcroze arguing that the tone and atmosphere is all mise en scene. Mise en scene is what people go to the cinema for as it transforms a dry script and gives a form of expression unique to cinema. This means that it is the realisation of the script organising all the cinematic elements into an organic whole which is mise-en-scene and is ultimately the responsibility of the director.
Historically within Hollywood the director has not always had total control of all the elements. The soundtrack for example has frequently been somebody else’s decision therefore some mise en scene criticism has ignored the importance of sound in their attempts to look for evidence of ‘authorship’ coming from a director. Consequently these critics have focused upon visual style alone.
It is essential to focus upon both parts of this working definition.
The expression ‘frame contents’ = The inclusion of lighting, decor, properties and the actors themselves.
The expression ‘frame organisation’ = The way the contents of the frame encompass:
- Firstly : the relationship of the actors to one another and the decor
- Secondly: the actors relationship to the camera therefore also to the audience’s view.
This means that in talking about mise en scene one is talking about framing, camera movement, the particular lens employed and other photographic decisions:
Mise en scene therefore encompasses both what the audience can see, and the way in which we are invited to see it. It refers to many major elements of communication in the cinema, and the combination through which they operate expressively. (Gibbs John, Mise en scene: Film Style and Interpretation, 2002).
Gibbs looks at a range of 9 elements which contribute towards the mise en scene and argues that how a particular film or part of a film depends for its effect on an interaction of elements including:
- Lighting: The organisation of light, actors and camera makes possible a series of suggestive readings.
- Costume: clothing can be particularly significant. In films such as Thelma and Louise the clothing worn by the character changes gradually throughout the film signifying both internal and external changes in their condition.
- Colour. Colour is an expressive element for filmmakers. It is often mobilised by means of costume, which has the advantage of a direct association with a particular character. It might however be a feature of the lighting, the set decoration or particular props. In Thelma and Louise the home of Thelma is very dark and gloomy. Shots of Thelma discussing going away for the weekend show the interior with a bluish-grey hue signifying boredom, imprisonment and enclosure. After the shooting their getaway is within a frame which is of a bluish hue. A colour commonly associated with neo-noir cinema.
- Props. Props such as cars are usually associated with road movies, guns and other weapons with crime or crime thriller genres and various scary things with horror genres. The early slightly oblique shot of a gun making it difficult to recognise in Thelma and Louise gives the spectator an early inkling of something horrible to come. A few shots later a gun is clearly tossed nonchalantly into a bag. When Louise later sees the gun she asks why it was necessary. In case of a ‘psycho-killer’ replies Thelma in an ironical tone. The gun becomes an important element of the story.
- Decor. Robin Wood has argued that ‘It is his business to place the actors significantly within the decor, so that the decor itself becomes an actor;’ (Wood cited Gibbs, 2002 p 57)
- Action and Performance. It is important not to forget how much can be expressed through the direction of action and through skilful performance. A great deal of significance can be bound up in the way in which a line is delivered, or where an actor is looking at a particular moment. Critics have found writing about performance difficult but performance is central to our understanding of narrative film.
- Space. Space is a vital expressive element which is at a filmmakers disposal. In thinking about space we might think about the personal space between performers and our own sense as an audience when it is impinged upon. There is also the issue of ‘blocking’ that is the relationships expressed and the patterns created in the positioning of the actors. Look out for groups of three actors which allow for a range of opportunities to express relations. Always remember to try and identify whose point of view (POV) is being represented through the camera within any given shot.
- Position of the Camera. By thinking about space we necessarily think about the position of the camera. The position of the camera governs our access to the action. The same event filmed in a long shot is going to have a different effect upon the audience compared with shooting something close up. Decisions such as whether a character ‘leads’ the camera or whether the camera anticipates his / her arrival can give a different feel to a film: ‘...one of the instantly identifiable characteristics of Hitchcock’s mise-en-scene has been the subjective tracking shot, that places us in the actor’s position and gives us the sensation of moving with him; this usually alternated with backward tracking shots of the actor moving.’ (Gibbs 2002, p 20). Other directors such as Preminger in Laura the camera positioning has the opposite function. The camera tends to watch the character rather than implicate the audience in his movements. The critic Robin Wood has argued that camera movements connect whereas editing separates.
- Framing. What is in the frame is only a selective view of a wider fictional world. In the act of framing an action a filmmaker is presented with a large range of choices including what to withhold and reveal to an audience.
- Interaction of the elements. Gibbs proceeds to argue that it is the interplay of all the events that is significant. Any individual element only acquires its significance because of the context within which it is operating: in others words the world of the film itself.
This is because any filmmaker will be developing accumulating strategies of creating layers of meaning within the film. Gibbs strongly makes the point that ‘...it is terribly difficult to make claims for an individual element or moment without considering it within the context provided by the rest of the film.’ (My emphasis: Gibbs, 2002, p 39). The reason for this is the importance of identifying two related ways in which a film makes meaning which are through coherence and complexity.
Coherence in a film
There are basically two ways in which a film is ‘coherent’.
Firstly there is the example of a visual motif. This would be an element which acquires significance through repetition. In Thelma and Louise for example being out on the road seems to offer freedom and hope. As soon as they stop anywhere trouble not of their own making seems to occur. Out on the road they utilise the stereotypically sexist men such as the truck driver and the policemen to get a light-hearted revenge on a world of men which is oppressing them. When they do this it is only to take the mickey out of the men concerned. They don’t do any real harm.
The other way to consider the issue of coherence is of different elements of a single moment. Some argue therefore that the very form of the film is the content. The important thing to be considering is the question: Is everything within the frame pulling in the same direction developing the drama? Coherence isn’t everything. Something very simple and uninteresting can be coherent. What gains our attention is whether the coherence is combined with complexity or inner tensions which can bring a greater depth of meaning to the film. In Thelma and Louise for example the mise en scene which pictures Louise in the driver’s seat of the car soon after the killing breaks the image up by shooting her behind the edge of the windscreen. Shots like this give greater depth of meaning as they symbolises the deep rift in her mind as she struggles to decide what to do at that moment. The reasons for her decision unfold later in the drama but that moment is important and what is in the frame clearly marks this cinematically.
The overall coherence of Thelma and Louise finally is reached when it is understood that all the mise en scene aspects are also intertwined with generic conventions. This combination of mise en scene as a part of genre helps to lend this film extra subversive power.
Women and British Cinema: Some avenues for research
Many of you will have studied some history of British films in your AS film Studies. The critical research project in Media Studies offers the opportunity to develop that area of study. Below is a list of British films which could be useful in helping you to establish a research project on the topic of Women and Film. This is not intended to be exclusive. It is possible to take almost any film and link it into the topic of women and film from the major perspectives of film analysis and criticism. There are a range of common critical methodologies currently used to analyse films. Methods and methodologies like anything else are subject to change. Below are some common ways of approaching films. Please note there will be overlaps, categories are not usually discrete! The film industry will try and utilise genres and stars to target a specific audience for example. Common critical approaches to film that you will need to consider include:
o Is a film targeted at an audience which is primarily female? (How can we tell? – issues to explore: gender and genre / stars, gender and genre / representation of women).
o Is a film primarily targeted at men? (How can we tell? – issues to explore: gender and genre / stars gender and genre / representation of women)
o Here you need to focus on genre theory. See Blog entries on genre. You could examine several films from a specific genre perspective. You will need to read up on genre theory and identify how films have been targeted at audiences by gender. Examples of genres which have been traditionally ‘women’s films include:
§ Costume dramas / melodramas / romantic comedies
§ Genres such as Biopics (biographical films may (not will) tend to have a target audience gender bias depending upon the historical person being represented. Examples of biopics include: Hilary and Jackie / Iris / The Queen
- See blog entries on stars and theory. Questions you may wish to consider include:
- Does Britain produce actresses whilst Hollywood produces stars?
- Have there been shifts in the representation of female stars in relation to shifts in the position of women in wider society?
- Does cinema encourage or follow social change in society ?
- What has been the relationship of British women stars to Hollywood?
- The recent controversy surrounding Helen Mirren's comments on 'date rape' raise issues about the responsibilites of 'celebrities' and also how audiences react to controversy of that nature.
British women stars you may wish to study can include:
- Julie Christie
- Helen Mirren
- Judi Dench
- Kate Winslett
- Vanessa Redgrave
- Margaret Lockwood
- Elizabeth Taylor
- Keira Knightley
- Tilda Swinton
· Auteur / ‘Art House’ Cinema:
o Stephen Hill has suggested that from the 1970s the typical British genre film, often comedy, was squeezed out of the cinemas as American money went back to America and TV took over the function of being the main environment for the exhibition of British films.
o Hill suggests that this stimulated a new model of ‘Art Cinema’ for British film makers targeted at quite specific but relatively stable and known audiences:
§ Some of the films continued the social realist tradition such as Ken Loach & Mike Leigh
§ Others films were self-consciously ‘arty’ experimenting with new forms and ways of dealing with narrative
§ Other films were representations of what are considered as ‘high art’ texts such as re-workings of Shakespeare plays, the books of Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility) or E. M. Forster (Passage to India, Howards End).
· Useful films to consider for women and film critical research unit
o The films below deal with many of the issues of the representation of women, issues of audience, genre, Stars and performance and art house cinema. All of the films have quite developed critical discourses often from a feminist methodological perspective which will help you to develop your research ideas and give you more of a background feel to your chosen topic area.
§ The Wicked Lady. British star, Use of pirate / highwayman film to allow women different cultural space
§ Brief Encounter. Post war re-establishing of women’s ‘traditional’ position in society
§ Taste of Honey. British ‘New Wave’ realism
§ The L-Shaped Room. British ‘New Wave’ realism
§ Darling. The ‘Swinging Sixties’
§ Bahji on the Beach. Woman director / about changing position of women in relation to changing Britain
§ Orlando. Woman director / challenge to gender/ based upon famous woman writer who had at least a second wave feminist consciousness
§ Sense and Sensibility. Role of women historically / woman stars / can male directors be sensitive to women?
§ Secrets and Lies. Male director and representation of women
§ Elizabeth. Male director and representation of women / representation of great historical woman. Comparisons with Kapur’s “Bandit Queen”
§ Ratcatcher. Woman director
§ Bridget Jones’ Diary. Is this a ‘post-feminist? Representation of women? Is it a progressive or regressive representation of women?
§ Bend it Like Beckham. Representation of changing position of women in society / woman director.
§ Charlotte Gray. Woman director / woman as ‘hero’ non passive
§ Vera Drake. Historical representation of women could be compared to British New Wave realist films. Male director representing issues primarily affecting women. Could a woman do this better?
§ Dirty Pretty Things + Last Resort + Ghosts. Representation of women on the margins. (Could also go non-British and look at Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever see separate Blog entry)