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September 04, 2008

Mise en scene

Mise en scene

This term originally came from theatre and meant staging. Its literal translation from the French means ‘having been put into the scene'. The term crossed over into cinema from theatre relating to the production practices involved in the framing of shots. This covers:

  • The location
  • The sets
  • The props
  • Costumes
  • Lighting
  • Movement within the frame
  • Sound.

These are is the expressive tools available to a film or TV programme maker.This means that analysis of mise en scene can be a way of identifying a particular filmmaker. As a range of expressive tools mise en scene is essential to the construction of a preferred reading / meaning of a media text and it is intimately bound up with the concept of representation in media.

The theory of mise en scene was developed by those interested in how the director and sometimes the team could participate in the construction of meaning. (See Auteur). Mise en scene is a term employed in theatre to designate the contents of the stage and their arrangement. In cinema however the reference is rather to the film frame, including the arrangement of the profilmic event, of everything that is , which is in front of the camera – settings, costumes and props. Mise en scene also refers more broadly to what the spectator actually sees on the screen – the composition of the image and the nature of the movement within the frame. As an element of mise en scene, composition of the cinematic image , for example, may produce narrative meanings relating to the spatial location of the story …..In any one film, mise en scene will work in conjunction with other codes to produce narrative meanings. ( Kuhn Annette, 1982 :37 ) See also props, setting, costume, performance, deep focus.


For a more in depth article see: Does style determine meaning ? The scope and importance of Mise en scene criticism

British Film Institute Resources

Further Reading

An excellent short book on mise en scene by John Gibbs is available from Wallflower Press in the Short cuts series.

Google search of Gibbs

March 01, 2008

Mise–en–scène & Textual Analysis: Part One

The Importance of Mise-en-scène and Textual Analysis: Part 1


For those visitors who are reading this piece to help them with an 'A' level textual analysis exam, you will find that the term mise-en-scène is a contested one. The OCR Textual Analysis paper specification is largely following the position of the writers Bordwell and Thompson in their book Film Art: An Introduction. Consequently there is a clear list of its expectations. an on-line page from Northallerton College has usefully put the OCR details up. You do need to be aware that there is a debate about exactly what constitutes mise-en-scène. Learning at A level should partially be a matter of recognising that things in the world aren't entirely black and white.  

At the end of the day, the essay you are expected to write based upon an unseen scene from an action-adventure movie needs to discuss the creation of meaning using the various elements of film-making. In that sense the film as presented to you on the screen can be considered as an organic whole which stimulates a range of meanings and interpretations. You need to write about how these various elements contribute towards the holistic meaning. You will need to say why certain shots, for example, created a deeper sense of meaning for the audience.  


The issue of mise-en-scène and textual analysis in terms of the importance of creating meaning within a film is a very large topic. Below there is some discussion about the term mise-en-scène. There is some discussion of depth of field with some video links. Use of depth of field creatively is a very important tool.There is some discussion around the notion of cinematic space and the use of different types of shots to help organise the cinematic space. Sound, which is a very important component creating meaning, is not discussed at all here and must be discussed elsewhere in order to keep the article of a manageable size. There is an extract from Once Upon a Time in the West followed by a shot and spatial analysis to show how meaning can be created. There is doubtless more that can be said here and some aspects will probably be revised and developed in due course. There are also some definitions and a Webliography and Bibliography.

What is Mise-en-Scène?

Mise-en-scène is an extremely important aspect of cinema and in many ways it is surprising that there is relatively little misè-en-scene criticism in recent film studies writing. John Gibbs (2002) focuses in the problem of misè-en-scene criticism in the opening page of his small handbook on the subject which I have paraphrased:

...mise-en-scène is sometimes used as a straightforward descriptive term but it is really a concept complicated but central to a developed understanding of film...

...Thinking and writing of misè-en-scene which is concerned with visual style in the cinema - helped the study of film reach maturity. Yet many of the textbooks of today, including those which aim to give an introduction to the subject area, underestimate the importance of misè-en-scene. (Gibbs 2002, p 1) 

This term misè-en-scene originally came from theatre and meant staging. Its literal translation from the French means:

having been put into the scene

It crossed over into cinema relating to the production practices involved in the framing of shots. This covers the sets, costumes and lighting and also movement within the frame. As this is the expressive tool available to a filmmaker analysis of mise-en-scene is a way of identifying a particular filmmaker. As a theory it was developed by those interested in how the director and sometimes the team could participate in the construction of meaning. 

Mise-en-scène is a term employed in theatre to designate the contents of the stage and their arrangement. In cinema however the reference is rather to the film frame, including the arrangement of the profilmic event, of everything, which is in front of the camera – settings, costumes and props. mise-en-scène also refers more broadly to what the spectator actually sees on the screen – the composition of the image and the nature of the movement within the frame. As an element of mise-en-scène, composition of the cinematic image , for example, may produce narrative meanings relating to the spatial location of the story …..In any one film, mise-en-scène will work in conjunction with other codes to produce narrative meanings. ( My emphases;Kuhn, Annette, 1982 :37 )

But it is worth challenging whether this analysis is fully adequate. Gibbs (2002) is keen to emphasise the importance of the interaction of all the parts of the film. Gibbs argues that there are many variables and elements of mise-en-scène at a film makers disposal:

...these elements are most productively thought of in terms of their interaction rather than individually - in practice it is the interplay of elements that is significant.

There is a history of mise-en-scène criticism which goes back to France in the 1950s and then  taken up in the UK through the magazine Movie as Adrian Martin (2004) points out. Originally this discussion was linked to the notion of the Auteur - the idea of the director having at the moment of taking the shots the possibility to impose his (usually) / her creative vision and methods of making meaning upon the film. This was always an aspect of film criticism which was overemphasised and nowadays anybody who mentions the word auteur rapidly qualifies the expression by emphasising the team making aspects of a film.  

Problematising the meaning of mise-en-scène

As is becoming apparent the notion of mise-en-scène isn't quite so 'deceptively simple' as it first appears. In the argument put forwrd by Martin below there is a concern expressed that Gibbs is in danger of making the term mise-en-scène mean everything that is the director's work and risks losing the specificity of the separate aspects of the process : 

Gibbs it seems to me never frontally tackles let alone tries to resolve the foundational ambiguity that has long haunted mise-en-scène criticism. Namely: does it indicate a quite specific phase in the filmmaking process—which would be the shooting or ‘principal photography’ phase in which the scenes are blocked and shot within the décor—or is it a looser term a metaphor almost for film style taken more broadly and holistically? If it’s the former then the definition of mise-en-scène must be meaningfully limited and not allowed to ‘bleed’ over other phases of the  filmmaking process; and if it’s the latter then is the displacement of the word style by mise-en-scène blocking our full appreciation of the complex levels of aesthetic form in cinema? This is what I believe has indeed happened in many places where film criticism is practiced.(Martin, Adrian 2004)

To some extent it seems as though film criticism is short of a concept around which consensus can be constructed. Should we use the term style to define the overall effects of what is created through the whole film-making process and which combines together in an organic whole to create layers of meaning which are available for interpretation by audiences? How does this relate to the notion of the use of the term poetics which is sometimes used to describe more artistic films and is the subject of  a recent book by David Bordwell? Perhaps Martin's use of Bertolucci is helpful at this point in helping to giveus a feel of an essence of good cinema. Strangely in the spirit of serendipity this turned up on a search after I had completed the analysis of the scene of Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West co-scripted by Bertolucci.

If  in this sense mise-en-scène is taken as the essence of film art, and of the auteur’s ‘gesture’, it enshrines the three-point diagram with which Bernardo Bertolucci paid fond homage to Sergio Leone and, behind him, a vast tradition of ‘organic’ cinema: what matters, fundamentally, is that mobile, modulating, sinuous relationship between the camera, the actor, and the environment (whether natural or constructed).(My emphasis: Martin Adrian 2004)

For those visitors who are reading this piece to help them with an 'A' level textual analysis exam, the next part of Gibbs' argument will not become available to them as they must currently view a five minute extract unseen from a film. This means that you are likely to have only a narrative perspective which is given in that 5 minutes which is clearly very limited. This attitude to the teaching of  whilst it is useful up to a point can have its limitations and is in danger of leading to  mechanistic approaches to mise-en-scène analysis. Those particular visitors to this page may wish to add that mise-en-scène on Gibbs' argument needs to take into account the narrative structure as well:

Additionally we need to consider the significance acquired by the individual element by virtue of context: the narrative situation, the 'world' of the film, the accumulating strategies that the film maker adopts. (Gibbs, 2002 p 26)

Gibbs' second chapter is entitled 'The Interaction of Elements' and he notes here the importance of casting:

In addition to the expressive skills which a performer brings to a film, the casting of a role has consequences for our understanding. (Gibbs 2002 p 33) 

Gibbs' third chapter is about the coherence of relationships within a film and below he refers to an examination of a scene with the film Lone Star which he examined in chapter two however the argument is relevant across cinema: order to make sense of the one moment, we have had to balance a detailed examination of the sequence itself with perspectives derived from an understanding of the rest of the film, knowledge of the traditions and conventions within and with which the film is working (those of the Western for example), and information from the world outside... (Gibbs,2002 p 39)

Gibbs argues that within a film there can be two elements contributing to a sense of coherence. In the first instance this would be taken across the whole of the film. From the pespective of those reading this to help with an unseeen extract for example Gibbs' second point will probably be prioritised. We can be talking about how the form and the narrative content merge together to make a coherent whole. In this sense it is artifical to separate out form and content. We can say on that basis that style is substance providing that there is an overall holistic sense of coherence achieved. Where a film becomes known as simply being about style then it is likely to fade in people's memories fast. If it is a truly substantive film it will probably stand the test of time.

Later on in his book Gibbs makes very clear the differences between a form of criticism and analysis which values coherence (and by implication complexity) in a film compared to an older form of criticism that wasn't so aware of the issues raised by
mise-en-scène. There is always a danger of being mechanistic in applying the notion of "rules" to an analysis of say the camera angles. The mechanistic approach suggests the a high angled camera is ALWAYS signifying a position of power and a low camera angle ALWAYS signifying a position of inferiority. Of course this is not the case at all. In the scene in The Matrix where Morpheus is introducing Neo to the concept of The Matrix they start in a sterile white space containing two retro leather chairs and a retro TV. When Morpheus shows Neo the real world of The Matrix he ends up sitting down in a clear position of authroity reinforced by his dress code compared with Neo's. The dark mirror shades simply add to the position of power. Neo is standing up very much as a minion might to a sovereign lord and master! ANALYSIS MUST ALWAYS BE GUIDED BY THE FILMIC CONTEXT!

Other Critics versus Bordwell and Thompson

Gibbs moves on to challenge the evergreen Bordwell and Thompson and their classic book on Film Art: an Introduction which many students end up with on their shelf.  Gibbs argues that to fail to think about the issue of the interaction of elements is a fundamental problem with Bordwell and Thompson's work:

It is my belief that the definition of mise-en-scène offered in the book is misleading. Bordwell and Thompson restrict thier definition of mise-en-scene to those elements common to film and thatre. The definition of of mise-en-scene therefore makes no reference to framing, camera movement or the position of the camera. Instead Film Art devotes a separate chapter (entitled "Cinematographic Properties") to the discussion of these areas. (Gibbs 2002, p 54)

Gibbs powerfully contributes to his cause when a little later he comments that the actual reality of film making supports his position:

...on set or location, film-makers do not stage the action and only subsequently think about where the camera is going to be placed in order to record it. Similarly to discuss the lighting of a shot without reference to the position of the camera is to misunderstand how films are made, one does not light a set and then set about where the camera is going to be placed. Rather a set is lit with the framing and the movement of the camera absolutely in mind. (Ibid)

Currently I don't have an up to date version of Bordwell and Thomson's book and Gibbs' comment relates to the 7th edition which may have changed I've taken it at face value for now. I guess it's time to update). There isn't the space to specifically discuss lighting in any depth precisely because of its importance. Cinema is after all 'writing with light'. Something on lighting will be added in due course. There is something very brief below.

Jacob Leigh is coming from the same direction as Gibbs (this is confirmed by looking at the bibliography. Immediately below though he cites the famous art historian Gombrich which is awarnig against reductionism when it comes to creating criticism:   

When it comes to criticism, articulating levels of meaning or describing parts of a harmonious whole risks tearing what Gombrich calls the ‘web of ordered relationships’; Gombrich notes that ‘as soon as you single out a certain relationship of forms you upset precisely that balance between all the relationships of which you want to speak’ (Gombrich 1993: 73). Further on, he emphasises: ‘It is partly a matter of taste and tact how far we want to go in articulating these levels of meaning, for they, like all others, can only be singled out at the risk of tearing that miraculous gossamer web of ordered relationships which distinguishes the work of art from the dream’ (Gombrich 1993: 79-80) [Cited Leigh Jacob]

In the early years of Hollywood lighting wasn’t meant to draw attention to itself. In some countries such as Germany lighting was used very early on to create dramatic effects. Low angle , low key lighting was used in German Expressionist cinema . There are three main aspects to lighting:

  • key lighting – hard light, used to highlight focused on a particular subject
  • Fill lighting – used to illuminate the framed space overall
  • Backlighting – this can distort and brings out silhouettes (commonly used in  horror / film noir / expressionism).

Deep Focus / Shallow Focus Photography and the Construction of Cinematic Space

The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover

Mise-en-scène is, as Kuhn  and also Gibbs (2002) have pointed out, a way of organising what appears to the spectator on the screen

Space is a vital expressive element at a film-maker's disposal (Gibbs p 17)

The Term deep focus means that both the foreground and background of a shot are in focus at the same time. Correctly Andre Bazin links this technique of photography with the concept of mise-en-scène. Bazin argues that deep focus  helps to make a film more realistic, however it will be argued below that this is not necessarily the case . For Bazin deep focus has three advantages:

  1. It brings spectators into closer contact with the image
  2. It is intellectually more challenging than montage which manipulates spectators to make them see what the filmmaker wants them to see, whilst deep focus gives the viewer choice in what they see;
  3. It allows for ambiguity essential to works of art. For example Andrè Bazin thought that Italian Neorealist film kept 'reality' intact. By shooting in deep focus less cutting is necessary so the spectator is less 'manipulated' by the narrative and more free to read the set of shots in front of them. Ideologically (see ideology) as an editing style it can be considered as counter to the Hollywood style of film making which is found in action adventure films for example.

Whilst Bazin was keen to link the concept to realism deep focus photography can of course be used for all kinds of films. It is frequently used in action adventure movies and if we add another element to that of Bazin's we can see that deep focus can often link characters together on screen whereas shallow focus could bring out the presence of one character and make a different impact upon the spectator by isolating that character from their surroundings. This would probably encourage a spectator to think in terms of the psychological state of mind of that character at that particular moment. 

Deep focus is derived from the technical term within photography called depth of field. A photographer can gain greater depth of field (keeping more of the image in frame in clear focus by decreasing the aperture and taking a slower exposure. Of course if the lighting is low as well then fast movement can be a problem to capture. The diagram below taken from the wikipedia article clearly shows the effect of a shallow depth of field. Here the butterfly is only in focus in the centre ground.  To capture a butterfly flying requires a very 'fast' lens with a very wide aperture. This wide aperture makes the depth of field narrow / shallow.

More photographic examples are available on this entry.

Wikipedia Depth of Field Diagram

A photographer can of course use depth of field to create certain affects upon the audience. In the image below the photographer simply wants to highlight the term 'depth of field'. There are also some web based videos in the webliography which explain the basic photgraphic conects effectively. 

Shallow Depth of field

Connecting the Characters in Cinematic Space

Best years of our lives

In this image from the William Wyler film the Best Years of Our Lives players of the piano duet are intimately connected to the rest of the bar as can be seen by the reactions to the music from the two men sitting at the bar who are plainly in focus because it is a deep focus shot.

Touch of Evil Deep Focus

In this shot from Touch of Evil both characters are intimately linked through the use of deep focus. This is very important in terms of narrative development. Narrative and cinematography are integrated.

Sergio Leone was an adept at utilising a low placed camera combined with a deep focus shot to link characters together within cinematic  space:

Sergio Leone Deep Focus

The lead up to the final shoot out in The Good the Bad and the Ugly starts with a wonderful establishing shot of the scene which places all the characters literally within an arena of death which is even coloured with the pall of death to emphasise the point. Perhaps it is Leone's familiarity with amphitheatres which gives him this sense of space:

Good Bad and The Ugly 2

In Once Upon a Time in America the gang arrive at the farmhouse to deal with any witnesses. The small boy is linked to the gang through a deep focus tightly cropped long shot. The colour of the clothing evoke notions of a bleak dustiness and a bitter wind seems to be blowing in the desert in a shot full of forboding. There is a strange sort of symmetry constructed with the three central gang members wearing dark hats and the ones on each end wearing light hats:

Once Upon a Time in America 4

The following extract from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America is an excellent example of the construction of a cinematic space through the use of deep focus and long takes. For Bazin this might have meant reality however this is a highly stylised and choreographed scene where the villain finally meets his nemesis * in the ultimate of rvenge movies. I'm afraid this extract has got a dreadful soundtrack as somebody has made a "music video" out of it so forget that and concentrate on the visual and camera techniques!!! 

An analysis of some of the film language which Sergio Leone has utilised in the extract

If one was presented with the extract as an unseen piece it is immediately obvious from the clothing and buildings that the film is a Western of sorts and it quickly transpires that  there is some sort of stand-off which  looks as though it is a prelude to a shoot out and that it is to the to the death. This is shown by the way the space is represented and by the way the characters are moving through the space.

Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the whole scene is how the cinematic space is constructed as an arena which becomes a fight to the death. This fight is handled in a highly ritualised and symbolic way utilising the iconography* of the western but embedding a combination of unusual shots and a deliberately slow unfurling of the narrative which is the climax of the film wherein poetic justice is exercised. The extract has a European flavour to it in the way it utilise longer takes than Hollywood style films and Leone's style emphasises a lot of deep focus work in this extract. 

The scene starts with an LS at a normal persons height Frank's (Henry Fonda) symbolic black outfit stands out in stark contrast to dusty browns and beiges of the slightly tumbledown buildings.  There is a cut to deep focus extreme close up from behind Frank's right shoulder. We see Harmonica (Charles Bronson) in the distance. Behind him is a greyish looking hill. The arean and its protagonists are established. There are no witnesses other than the spectators voyeurs in this fight to the death. There is a reverse shot with an ECU of Harmonica's left side of his face lit up facing a black figure himself set against the background building which is in deep shadow and very dark. The manichean symbolism is hard to avoid. On a crane the cameras zooms out whilst gaining height and Harmonica walks to the left. Meanwhile Frank walks slightly forward. There is a cut to an LS of the whole area taken from behind and to the right of Harmonica. The sun is casting shadows from Harmonica's left / Frank's right. They are manouvering within the arena to ensure they are not facing into the sun. Behind Harmonica there is a low wall reinforcing the sense of an arena or theatre (of death). It is a ritualistic space. In a cut the camera is now position further to the right- now only Frank is in frame. Dust gently wafts from the right hand side of the screen to emphasise the isolation of the gladiators. There is a cut to a camera position directly behind Frank at his boot level. Still in deep focus we see Harmonica who looks relaxed with his left foot on what appears to be a tree branch in the distance as Frank sheds his black cloak which is flapping in the wind as the tension is gradually built up. The grey cliffs and the sparsely vegetated hills lends an unremitting bleakness to the proceedings. The camera cuts to a MLS of Frank with the buildings still very much in focus behind him as he moves forwards and to his right. Tracking him the shot changes to an ECU of Frank head turned towards Harmonica looking concerned this time though it is in shallow focus. The spectator is only concerned with what is going through the mind of Frank. suddenly the supreme predator has a hint of doubt. The camera pans and dollies with Frank for about 7 seconds. There is a cut to Harmonica MLS still motionless. The camera tracks to the right for amoment then there is an ECU of Harmonica who is deadpan. Still in ECU the camera dollies around him to the right whilst Harmonica is watcing Frank who is clearly moving in that direction.  There is a reverse cut to Frank who is still moving to his right in ECU. Then the camera cut to a full on CU of Harmonica zooming into an ECU. Then all is dark for a transitional to a flashback.

A hand is holding a harmonica which is being forced into the mouth of a youngish teenager. Only at that moment is the audience privileged to understand what has happened in the past. as the scene unfurls the narrative details become clear.   The camera zooms slowly out to reveal that there is somebody standing on the teenagers shoulders. The camera continues to zoom out to reveal the rest of the surrounding scene. A young man is talking to the boy. There are a group of horses grazing in the background there is a man tending them. There are mountains in the extreme distance. This is all in deep focus. Continuing to zoom out whilst the camera is tracking backwards and going higher on a crane the spectator now sees the full scenario. The man on the boy's shoulders has a noose around his neck which is attached to something that itself is a part of a strange arch structure in the middle of a desert. Probably marking agateway to the property of the man and boy. Some other cowboys are symmetrically lounging at the bottom of each side of the arch.  The camera cuts to an ECU of a younger Frank smiling viciously; there is then a reverse shot to the boy in CU who is wobbling from the strain and the heat with the harmonica in his mouth knowing that eventually he will collapse and the man on his shoulders will die. The camera tilts upwards tracking up the man man to a very low angle shot of his face in CU. As he wobbles there is a cut to the distressed features of the boy in ECU in shallow focus with the boots just showing. Again the audience is drawn into wondering what is going through his mind as the sweat drips of his face. It is clear that his hair is also drenched in the sweat of fear / physical strain / heat.  Cut to a reverse slightly low angle shot of the younger Frank with a contemptuous sneer on his slightly curled lip. A moment of blackness. The camera reverses to a cut of the boy in MCU with camera at waist height. It is a shallow focus shot with the legs of a gunman whos is leaning nonchalantly against the archway to the boys right whilst behind the boy who has clearly collapsed to his knees are the pair of boots dangling at an angle which makes it clear that the wearer has now died. The camera tracks the boy down as he collapses face first into the dusty soil at a slightly high angle as he hits the ground. We see the harmonica by his mouth then there is a cut to the draw with the camera positioned at waist height behind Frank,  Harmonica appears as a 'Plan Americaine' so the camera is at a slightly low angle. We seem them swiftly drawing their guns with Frank's holster in CU and in the deep focus shot we see the smoke from the muzzle of Harmonica's revolver.   There is a reverse cut and the spectator sees Frank wheel to his left jerking backwards. There is a cut to a blurry shallow focus ECU of Frank. Here the audience is led to identify with Frank's subjectivity or point of view (POV)*- he has been critically wounded and his vision is going. The image snaps back into focus for a moment and then cuts away to Frank's right with the background slightly out of focus.  For a couple of seconds the audience sees the hand trying to reholster the gun while the body is shaking hard in the background. Then the gun drops. There is a CU of Frank tottering forwards unbelievingly. The camera tracks back and zooms out slowly as Frank staggers forwards after it, refusing to give up on life. He comes to a stop as the camera tracks up on him whilst at the same time he falls to his knees.  The camera stops moving and zooming and the head of Harmonica appears in the bottom of the frame behind and to the right of Frank. He walks forward implacably into frame in slightly low angle shot.  Frank collapses to the left of the screen just the brim of his hat showing as Harmonica moves towards the right of the screen. The camera cuts to a high angle deep focus shot from behind Harmonica's left shoulder. Looking down on the stricken Frank.  The shot is held for some seconds whilst Frank queries Harmonica. There is a cut to an extreme low angle shot of a now smilingly scornful Harmonica in ECU in a position of absolute power. He says nothing. There is a reverse cut high angle ECU to Frank staring up, then it cuts to a low angle medium close up of Harmonica ripping the harmonica of its string.  The camera pans left following Harmonica down as he gets to his knees beside Frank.  In a low angle two shot from behind Fonda with the camera seemingly at ground level Harmonica leans forward with the harmonica in his left hand. The audience know what he is going to do. The camera cuts to a very high angle shot with Frank in ECU and Harmonica's hand so close to the lens it is blurred.  Frank's performance manages to combine a look of fear and loathing knowing what Harmonica  is about to do.  The hand implacably moves into full focus and thrusts the harmonica into Frank's mouth. Frank takes a few breaths and his eyes wander. There is a cut to the teenage boy falling into the dust and Frank knows who his nemesis* is. There is a cut back to Frank from the same high angle - he gives a slight nod of recognition then starts to fall to his side. There is cut to a two shot ECU of Frank's head from beneath him with Harmonica looming up. The camera tracks him down as he collapses dead onto the ground the camera is at ground level and Frank's face is in ECU with the harmonica so close to the lens it is slightly out of focus.

In terms of its wider meaning the film's climax is about the delivery of poetic justice (see also definition of nemesis below*), as this whole piece is about trying to get better definitions of meanings then this too needs defining. My fairly ancient Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms has this in the entry:

...the morally reassuring allocation of happy and unhappy fates to the virtuous and the vicious characters respectively, usually at the end of a narrative or dramatic work...the term may also refer to a strikingly appropriate reward or punishment , usually a 'fitting retribution' by which a villain is ruined by some process of his own making. (Baldick,1990 : Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms )

There are layers of meaning within the mise-en-scène which simply are not available to those who see the film as just this extract however on Gibb's notion of coherence in terms of the film as a whole as well as the extract in isolation we can begin to weave together certain aspects of the scene's overall coherence through the clothing and make up and performance of the actors.  Even in this scene the viewer can see the difference in the way the actors are dressed. Frank in this scene and also throughout the film has a certain sartorial elegance which is amplified by his dress, posture and attitude. He is a man of the city, articulate and, knowing and powerful, able to be a leader of men albeit of the most unpleasant sort. By comparison Harmonica is taciturn in the extreme. He is almost the colour of the earth into which he collapsed in the scene and he blends with the countryside.

Bronson in Once Upon a Time in America 1

Bronson playing the taciturn Harmonica looks and dresses as though he has come from the earth itself, dusty and bleached out. Signifying perhaps a force from beyond the grave.

Frank's city clothes stand out he is not of this space, but he feels he can control it. However throughout the extract we see that his supreme confidence starts to take on elements of doubt. The fact that he feels the need to move. The fact that had we seen the previous scene Harmonica already had the drop on him and has given him what appears to Frank to initially be an easy chance to win in a formalised showdown sees consternation begin to emerge in his face. Why would this seemingly implacable enemy even give him this seeming chance to avoid death unless he was so confident he could beat Frank. Here Henry Fonda's performance and indeed his casting fit beautifully with the role just as Bronson's for those familiar with The Magnificent Seven know him to be both taciturn and brilliantly fast with a weapon. This of course relates to Gibbs' point about knowledge and expectations about the genre. 

Fonda as Frank

One can get an impression here that Frank has a better dress code than Harmonica. In the scene below Frank is is in a position of power in the ornate railway carriage interior, smoking a cigar. Here the image is in quite shallow focus. With the horses out of focus the viewer is led towards the meeting between the two men. Not only does the high angle shot make Harmonica look inferior it can be sen that Frank's dress is more in keeping with the interior. Harmonica looks out of place: 

Fonda as Frank 2

*Iconography: Buscombe came closest to arguing the position that a genre’s visual conventions can be thought of as one of the defining features of a genre such as guns, cars, clothes in the gangster film. It is hard to argue this with any great consistency because the possible connections between the items or icons is unclear. More importantly it is actually very difficult to list the defining characteristics of more than a handful of genres, for the simple reason that many genres – among them the social problem film, the biopic, the romantic drama and the psychological horror film – lack a specific iconography. The genres of the western and gangsters discussed by critics McArthur and Buscombe happen to fit the concept of generic iconography very well. Others that fit well are the gothic horror film, and the biblical epic. Neale argues that the failure to apply the concept productively to other genres suggests that the defining features of Hollywood’s genres may be heterogeneous.

*Nemesis: "retribution or punishment for wrong-doing; or the agent carrying out such punishment, often personified as Nemesis, a minor Greek goddess responsible for executing the vengeance of the the gods against erring humans".(Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms.)

*Point of View: The following definition is taken from the Dictionary of Literary Terms and of course literature is not cinema although there are obvious cross-overs. More work will be done on point of view (POV) later. The position or vantage-point from which the events of a story seem to be observed and presented to u. The chief distinction usually made between points of view is that between third-person narratives and first-person narratives. A third person narrator may be omniscient, and therefore show an unrestricted knowledge of the story's events, another kind of third-person narrator may confine our knowledge of events to whatever is observed by a single character or small group of characters, this method being known as 'limited point of view. A first-person narrator's point of view will normally be restricted to his or her partial knowledge or experience, and therefore will not give us access to other character's hidden thoughts. Many modern authors have also used the multiple point of view, in which we are shown the events from the positions of two or more different characters.


Filming Shakespeare's Play. A Google search of this book provides an explanation and shows how deep focus helped create a relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. go to pages 48 / 49.

Depth of field Wikipedia entry

Photography tutorial on depth of field from 'My Cambridge'

Yale Cinematography notes

An interesting and in depth for the more advanced visitors. This  blog posting and discusssion on the importance of Bazin and misè-en-scene and takes issue with some comments by the well known critic David Bordwell.

This Film Lexicon from MIT is particularly useful providing information and ideas about film language well beyond the notion of  deep focus.

TV Critical Methods and Applications  

Category D: A film and Media Blogspot

Adrian Martin Film Philosophy

Jacob Leigh from the Screen Studies postgraduate training site 

A useful basic glossary of moving image 'grammar'.  


Baldick,1990 : Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Gibbs, John. 2002. Mise-en-scène: film Style and Interpretation. London: Wallflower Press

Kuhn, Anette. 1982. Women's Pictures. London: Routledge

April 09, 2007

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: ‘ 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 ‘ 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. 

January 05, 2007

European Film Glossary: From Ed–Mo

Film Glossary Continued

Editing. See also Film Editing. Editing is essential to the creation of a wide range of media products. It can mean the process of choice of articles and changing articles in print journalism. It means putting together a particular choice of shots in film and TV as well as the way in which sound is used. It is an essential part of the whole process in creating preferred readings of a media product as well as ensuring that it as coherent as possible. Susan Hayward (1996) identifies four categories of editing:
  • Chronological editing
  • Cross-cutting or parallel editing
    Deep Focus.
  • Montage. The first principle of montage editing is a rapid alteration betwen sets of shots. They become significant when they collide. Fast edting and unusual camera angles denaturalise Classic narrative cinema. Image becomes privileged over narrative and characterisation. Originally used mainly in avante-garde and art cinema mainstream cinema has incorporated the technique and the principle appears to have become the fundamental aspect of Film and TV advertising. See also Kuleshov.

Emergent genres. In Britain it is possible to discern an emergent genre of British-Asian films. The most recent addition is Bend it Like Beckham (2002) by a British-Asian woman director. At the time of writing it was the top selling British film for 2 weeks. This is the latest in a line stretching back to My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Sammie & Rosie Get Laid (1987), Bhaji on the Beach (1993), Wild West (1992), East is East(1998),Anita & Me (2002) . Only the last of these became known within mainstream cinema. These tend to be marketed as being comic or comedy. The comic side works through a wide range of issues including inter-ethnic relations, inter-generational relations, cross-cultural relationships and sexual identity issues. This genre can be usefully seen as intertextual as it relates to successful TV comedies such as Goodness Gracious and more recently The Kumars.

Establishing shot. This shot uses a distant framing and enables the spectator to understand and map the spatial relationships between the characters and the set.

Exhibitionary Context. This term sums up the conditions of viewing of a film which can be highly variable. This is not just physical conditions. In Nazi Germany Jews were not allowed into cinemas and people were not allowed to enter a film late to ensure they saw the more propagandistic newsreels and documentaries.

Eye-line match. Another Hollywood editing convention designed to encourage identification with the protagonists. Here the audience sees the action from the characters eye-line or viewpoint.

Female revenge film. Thelma and Louise is often interpreted (incorrectly) as a ‘female revenge film’. This genre construction could be seen as misogynistic. These films feature female characters in which the potential of women for violence is contained within plot scenarios that either demonise them or destroy them in some way (Fatal Attraction (1987) , Body Heat (198), Black Widow (1987). They are films in which femme fatales wreak havoc on the lives of innocent men. The films above are often considered by some critics as neo-noir.

Flashback. (See also intra-diegetic)

Genre as a vehicle for a star. Genre can be a vehicle for the development of a star. John Wayne was developed as a star by director John Ford who used him in many very famous westerns such as Stagecoach. Clint Eastwood came from a relatively minor role in the TV western series Bonanza to become famous through his role in ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, directed by the Italian director Sergio Leone.

Genre Cycle. Genres emerge ( see Emergent Genres) and evolve. The first film or films which are thematically connected are not a genre. Once certain themes become common in certain settings then a genre can be seen to emerge. The Western is a classic example. Once the most popular type of film in the US very few westerns are now produced. Genre stars such as Clint Eastwood make the occasional western. A film such as The Unforgiven in its deconstruction of the natural manly virtues of the gunfighter by depicting paralysing fear and in its criticism of the legal system and the treatment of women it is responding to very different social concerns from the heroic establishing of the values of the US on ‘savage’ or ‘Indians’ i.e. displaced and exploited Native Americans , which was commonplace in the early part of the genre cycle.

Genre Hybridity. A film where the codes and conventions from a range of established genres are used. Singing cowboys making a western musical or a musical western for example. The higher the production values of a film the more likely it is to be a hybrid genre film in order to attract the widest possible audience. Titanic is both a disaster-movie, quasi-historical movie, and a romance. It may be that one of the genres is predominant but this requires a close reading to establish.

Genre Text. A term developed by Stephen Neale to try and differentiate between individual films (the genre text) and the generic norms of the genre as a whole.

Hegemony. In relation to ideology it is a more sophisticated idea than the ‘hypodermic’ model of ideology. Hegemony, or ideology, is the process by which certain paradigms or ways of thinking become so self-evident as to relegate alternatives to the spaces of the nonsensical and the unthinkable. The term originally taken from the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci argues that hegemony is not repressive in the way that armies or the police can be used to repress opposition . Instead, hegemony means that control is maintained through a consensus maintained through the dominance of its “forms” of how society is conceptualised. This renders other forms and other imaginaries, unreadable, inaudible and incomprehensible. For example, films which explore a corrupt government official in the United States don’t see this as a fault of the system but as a fault within the individual. These films, usually through the medium of a self-sacrificing hero , ensure that the system is restored ‘to normal’. The possibility that corruption is the ‘normal state of affairs’ is not considered. See The Insider and Erin Brockovich for examples of this. This position can tend to ignore certain state cultural policies such as censorship laws as having a strong effect on what is shown and when. British cinema between the two World Wars was not allowed to show or make films which were critical of the British Empire for example.

Iconography. Buscombe came closest to arguing the position that a genre’s visual conventions can be thought of as one of the defining features of a genre such as guns, cars, clothes in the gangster film . It is hard to argue this with any great consistency because the possible connections between the items or icons is unclear. More importantly it is actually very difficult to list the defining characteristics of more than a handful of genres, for the simple reason that many genres – among them the social problem film, the biopic, the romantic drama and the psychological horror film – lack a specific iconography. The genres of the western and gangsters discussed by critics McArthur and Buscombe happen to fit the concept of generic iconography very well. Others that fit well are the gothic horror film, and the biblical epic. Neale argues that the failure to apply the concept productively to other genres suggests that the defining features of Hollywood’s genres may be heterogeneous.

Ideology. In media terms this thinking argues that there is a form of ‘false consciousness’ which hides a deeper underlying social reality. This has given rise to the model that people can simply be injected (Hypodermic syringe model) with a certain view of the world particularly via media output. Critics of this model in the media field argue that this hypodermic syringe model is very patronising as it doesn’t give people the credit for being able to develop alternative ideas. Rather they see ideology as a hegemonic process. There is a commonly held belief that Adorno and Horkheimer were behind the so-called ‘hypodermic syringe’ model of ideology. This is a serious misrepresentation of their position which will be dealt with in a separate article in due course. In the meantime students should ask lecturers who put forward this view exactly where Adorno and Horkheimer have supported this reductionist model. The model rather better describes the idea espoused by the Stalinist Communist parties.

IDHEC. Instituit des hautes etudes cinematographique. The leading French film school which was first started in the Second World War and renamed after the war.

Indexical sign. From CS Pierce the American founder of semiotics. This sign is associated with what it is a sign of, such as smoke with fire or spots with measles.

Intertextual. Intertextuality is a relation between two or more texts which influences the making of and/ or the reading of the text (film) being consumed. By using references to other texts the critic or director can be seen to be constructing the knowledge about the film based on other films.
  • Intertextual Relay. Neale uses the term ‘inter-textual relay’ to refer to the discourses of publicity, promotion and reception that surround Hollywood’s films, and includes both trade and press reviews. It is argued that this role of relay is a crucial one. ( Neale , 2000: 3 ). The cinema industry’s marketing campaigns were first described as ‘inter-textual relay’ by Lukow and Ricci in 1984. Neale considers that cinemas, cinema programming and cinema specialisation can all be considered as components in the relay especially when broader conceptions of genre such as newsreel and shorts are taken into account.

Institutional mode of representation. A term used to describe mainstream cinema and its system of representation. There is strong identification with a character and the world is usually seen through this characters experiences. The origins of this were in the 19th century novel which focused on the psychology of one or two characters.

Jump cut. This cut demonstrates a jump in time and disrupts the ‘normal’ continuity editing. It was used as a device by several internationally famous directors during the 1920s and then dropped out of fashion. The development of sound played a major contribution in overwhelming a more diverse range of styles. Malle, Truffaut and most famously Godard used this editing style. Godard’s first feature film Breathless is best known for this. The jump cut ‘calls attention to the constructed reality of the filmic text, to the spectator’s ongoing labour of generating a fictional world out of often contradictory stylistic cues, and to Godard’s own expressive, auteur presence’. (Neupert, 2002 p 216).

Kuleshov effect. The Soviet filmmaker Kuleshov showed that through good editing that it was possible to create alternative readings of the same facial expression. Through this Kuleshov was attempting to show that the meaning or preferred reading of shots could be changed by altering the juxtaposition of the shots.

Lighting. In the early years of Hollywood lighting wasn’t meant to draw attention to itself. In some countries such as Germany lighting was used very early on to create dramatic effects. Low angle , low key lighting was used in German Expressionist cinema . There are three main aspects to lighting:
  • key lighting – hard light, used to highlight focused on a particular subject
  • fill lighting – used to illuminate the framed space overall
  • backlighting – this can distort and brings out silhouettes ( horror / film noir / expressionism).

The Hollywood cinema system had strict rules about lighting not wishing to allow the lighting to supersede the actual narrative. This could make audiences uneasy. See also mise-en-scene.

Meaning. It is now recognised that meaning is made from the active process of reading a cinematic text. Audiences bring a range of individual experiences to the cinema and these are intermingled with wider socio-cultural responses as well. Sometimes filmmakers could use allegories to allow audiences to derive alternative meanings other than the officially preferred reading of a text. This happened in Eastern European cinema during the Soviet times for example. See also audience work.

Mise en scene. Please see under separate entry.

Modernist device. This is a way of using editing or other cinematic convention in a way which draws attention to the film as a construction. The opening credits of Godard’s Mepris and the very content of the narrative itself ensure that the spectator is always considering the process of making a film.

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