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Movies and Film

The Mise-en-Scène Really Means Everything, Almost

In a certain sense, the mise-en-scène includes almost everything pertaining to the picture that isn't actually movement.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Mise-en-scène (pronounced meez-on-SEN), literally means "placement in the scene" in French. This phrase refers to

  • Every visible element in the frame: lighting, costume, decor, and so on.
  • How these elements are related to each other.
  • How you see them (how they are photographed).

A Little History

Borrowed from the theater, this phrase—and the idea of deriving meaning from film by examining its space—was popularized in the 1950s by filmmaker/critic Jacques Rivette and the French New Wave directors, who admired the effect in the films of Eric von Stroheim, Roberto Rossellini, F. W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang. The assumption is that the greatest directors—the auteurs—are not simply interested in including visual elements that further the story, but rather elements that create thematic richness. Directors actively create meaning, not just story. Examining the mise-en-scène in film became the equivalent of doing a "close reading" in literary criticism.

Short Cuts

As with the notion of the auteur, French critics were the first to admire the mise-en-scène of American filmmakers like John Ford and Orson Welles.

The word is a little fuzzy to define, first because it seems to refer a little too broadly to everything in a film, and second because some critics exclude sound, actors, and/or other elements from the mise-en-scène, while other critics really do mean everything. While some critics really think of the mise-en-scène as a still picture—a crosscut of a moment from a film—others take movement into account.

Control Freaks vs. the Look of Reality

Have you ever wondered why documentaries tend to look so different from feature films? Let's take nature documentaries as an example. Mr. Naturalist is near a river, trying to catch a shot of salmon as they swim upstream. Once he's established his setup, he's pretty committed to it. He can't travel by canoe over the boulders in the stream, even if he does have a Steadicam. He only has one camera, so he can't do a shot-reverse shot combination from the other bank. (In this instance, shot-reverse shot is an edit in which the camera moves from the looker to the thing looked at.) In short, and in comparison to the feature filmmaker, he's up the creek without a paddle as far as control over his environment is concerned.

This powerlessness means that things go in and out of the picture without the director's control. That deer coming into frame and blocking the view of the river just can't be helped. The two fishermen walking up the path, onto the screen from the left, and then off to the right on the opposite bank, draw away our attention, and don't make the director's job any easier. The salmon emerge to the left of the camera's frame, so the cameraman has to swivel awkwardly to get to them, leaving us with a blurry pan to look at. An airplane flies overhead, the sound ruining the feeling of wilderness solitude. Seems hardly worth the trouble, right?

Second Take

Actually, television nature series are famous for doctoring and artificially setting up their "back-to-nature" photography. Some finagling has been going on from Nanook of the North (1922) to the latest National Geographic special.

Hardly. For the very reason that the documentarist seems powerless to control the mise-en-scène, his films seem that much more real, less a product of special effects, studio executive decisions, and big budgets. Gullible or not, we believe in the truth of his world more than we do that of the feature filmmaker.

On the other hand, the feature filmmaker can (relatively speaking) control every aspect of the mise-en-scène, especially if she is shooting under studio conditions. She can keep everything extraneous out of the shot. She determines how quickly the camera is going to move so that the picture is not blurry. If any plane noise is heard on the soundtrack, the microphone boom operator is fired and replaced with someone who doesn't snore while working. Nice, huh?

Well, there is the downside that we don't believe in the absolute reality of this director's world as much as we do that of the documentarist, no matter how captivated we are while watching her film. Star Wars (1977) is a film, but Wild Kingdom is real life. Sort of.

In brief, because conventions vary from one kind of film to another, part of our sense of the reality of the film depends on our sense of how much control the filmmakers exert over what gets on screen and what stays off.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order the e-book book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com.

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