Mise en scene: how for does style determine meaning?
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.