ELEMENTS OF MISE EN SCENE IN POSTMODERN CINEMA
“The production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” – Aristotle, Poetics.
By Shailik Bhaumik
And the key machinist is the Director. In cinema the director is responsible for translating a script into visuals. This is the challenge of directing and this is where directors distinguish themselves as good directors or great directors. Cinema is an audio visual art form. Directors tell stories through this medium. Unlike other medium film is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand. At the same time semiotics of film is easy to explain because it is difficult to understand.
The structure of cinema is defined by the codes in which it operates and the codes that operate within it. A great variety of codes combine to form the medium in which film express meaning. While shooting, three basic questions confront a filmmaker: What to shoot? How to shoot it? And how to present the shot? The domain of first two questions is mise-en-scène, that of the last montage. The term derives from the French; ‘having been put into the scene’ is used to designate the visual aspects that appear within a single shot. The concept of mise-en-scène was developed by those theorists who were interested in issues of authorship in constructing the meaning of film.
Much has been written about the theory of mise-en-scène so much so that the craft and the art of directing have been submersed in a swell of adulation. So there is no meaning of repeating the same theories. Let’s have a look on how the elements of mise-en-scène evolutes over the century and are redefined in the new postmodern era. If we look back at the history of cinema we can find that the auteur theory of 1960s is a way in which film was constructed based upon the powerful originating style and figure of the author/director.
Auteur refers to the way in which a director’s discernible style is evident in the mise-en-scène of the film or to the director’s signature in the final film itself. Well known examples of auteurism are Orson Wells and Hitchcock in the United States, Godard and Jean Renoir in France, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders in Germany.
Postmodernist film departs from this by uncoupling style from the author – director, which opens up the arena for a plurality of style and voice which circulate within a flattened, de-historicised space. For example, Pulp Fiction (1994) borrows its style and sequence from a variety of other films. The dance competition is clearly influenced by Godard’s Bande A Parte (1964)
The portrait of the current film industry provides several entry points into a discussion of the postmodern, including the transition from celluloid to digital filmmaking. This new configuration would surely serve as an example of how film has become pure simulacra: the distinction between original and copy is lost. The digital age of cinema represents its introduction into hyperreality. This digital revolution signals the further substitution or displacement of reality, in which a technological or virtual reality replaces the human one and the distinction between factual and virtual becomes meaningless.
In addition to the postmodern features of film as an industry and medium, how might individual films themselves be postmodern? Intersexuality, self -referentiality, parody, pastiche, and a recourse to various past forms, genres, and styles are the most commonly identified characteristics of postmodern cinema. These features may be found in a film’s form, story, technical vocabulary, casting, mise-en-scène, or some combination of these.
We’ll now explore how the codes of mise-en-scène are applied in the films of few leading postmodern directors.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a film that explores contemporary theories of the postmodern. Blade Runner subverts our sense of history through the technique of mise-en-scène. In Blade Runner, Rachel, dressed as the archetypal femme fatal of film noir, goes to Deckard’s apartment with the intention of questioning him about the results of a ‘Voight-Kampff’. The scene moves smoothly into the new space of Deckard’s apartment with the traditional establishing shot, the framing of the important scene adheres to the Classic Hollywood continuity editing system. The use of the establishing shot gives the viewer time to process the alien-like mise-en-scene.
The mise-en-scene combines the common domestic with the bizarre and unrecognisable, imbuing the scene with an eerie sense of the familiar, which raises questions about a disconnected sense of heritage. Although the domestic aspects are familiar with our own, the kitchen sink and cupboards, we are unable to relate the aesthetic and technological advances to our contemporary life. The mise-en-scene is important as it reveals that underneath all of the questions about Rachel’s authenticity there is a lack of rational connection with our society to the society shown. The structures that surround the characters are disconnected from any logical progression in fashion and science.
The Coen Brothers’ cinematic vision includes use of mise en scene, which essentially means ‘placing on stage’ or how the visual theme helps tell the story better. While mise en scene rules the Coen Brothers’ movies in general, some like ‘Fargo’,‘No Country For Old Men’ and ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ are more distinct examples of the cinematic style. For instance in ‘Fargo’, when a cop pulls over the criminals’ car, the cop is not shown fully – his identity is irrelevant compared to the situation at hand. In “No Country for Old Men” and “The Hudsucker Proxy” the Coen brothers do a fantastic job of capturing the time period and setting within minutes of the movie. In the opening scene of “The Hudsucker Proxy” the narrator comes right out and says the year 1959 and location. This shows the old sheriff uniform to capture the time period with the hat as well.
The Coen brother’s work is a cross between both the use of thematic motifs and mise en scene and give examples of where this is most evident in their films. In their films, they use a number of techniques to shape the film so that the plot is presented in acertain way. The most important and one of their most particular techniques can best be described as ‘disguised editing’. This is the attempt to make the cuts between shots as discreet as possible so that the film is more fluid for the viewer.
Haneke is a director who stands out from the rest of Hollywood directors due to his desire to be different. He is a director for foreign films. His unique style steers away from common directing techniques as he shows his own twist in his films. Haneke has a dark outlook on how he wants his films to be directed. He is well known for his violent and dark films. Haneke has produced many well known foreign films such as Academy Award winning best foreign film, Amour, The Piano Teacher, Funny Games, and many more. Within his films there is an array of the usage of long shots and a minimal amount of cuts. He is also known for his symmetric frames he produces.
Michael Haneke is a director who shows within his films how he wants his viewers to see his movies. Haneke wants his viewers to see his films as being very realistic, which is why he uses techniques such as staged realism. Haneke makes each of his films in a way that most people tend to find themselves uncomfortable. He creates his films to be filled with dark violent scenes. In his film The Piano Teacher, it is apparent that the design and mise en scène were created to highlight the human melodrama at its centre. An impressive example of Haneke’s rigorously detached images is a breakfast scene of The Seventh Continent, in which the camera remains fixed throughout on the bowls of cereal being consumed, while the family talks and eats. This obsessive framing is not an arbitrary exercise in objectivity. Rather, it recreates the point of view of the ‘enemy,’ of the objects of consumerist middle class living. Hence the enigmatic distance constantly maintained from the actors and the fragmented form of the film: the ‘object-consciousness’ Haneke films out of is incapable of understanding the motivations behind the actions performed by the characters or empathising with their emotions. Human contact is experienced not as human interaction- the face – but as human contact with objects, the hand touching a surface. The incommunicability that afflicts the family seems the result of an attempt to impose conformism upon the mechanistic logic of appliances, reducing people to societal functions – mother, father, husband, wife, daughter – which somehow stifle feelings which might interfere with the expected behavioural patterns required by each situation.
David Lynch’s films are far from blind to cinematic history. Several of his most successful films can be characterised as additions to the canon of film noir. Unlike many other so-called neo-noirs, which reference the genre in postmodern pastiche or parody, Lynch’s noirs are straight-faced and sincere. One particular classic noir preoccupation is especially suitable for Lynch: the dream sequence. Lynch’s re-imagining of film noir is best seen in Blue Velvet (1986), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001). These films display noir sensibilities in their subject matter and style, and are perhaps most identifiably noir in the presence in each of a femme fatale.
The three films also form a cogent trinity in their shared preoccupation with the slipperiness of reality and the obliqueness of cinematic representation. Blue Velvet is mostly known for its extreme violent and sexual content, but the most interesting scenes of the film are without violence or sex. They are the three scenes that stand out in the film in which Lynch uses zooming. In Blue Velvet, Lynch uses zooming in and out on certain mise-en-scene to showcase the dark and disgusting nature of human life. Lynch juxtaposes beauty and disgust with zoom in the first scene, when he shows the perfect American suburb then zooms in to show the revolting truth of what really lies underneath. He also zooms in and out of an image of an ear to show what lies underneath the human exterior. In the film, zoom is used to not only show what is beneath the surface, but also what that means for Jeffrey’s motives.
Quentin Tarantino is one of the best directors when it come to Mise-en-scene and setting up a scene to give it the most dramatic and emotional feel. In this classic scene from “True Romance,”you can see how Tarantino carefully chooses his dominant, subsidiary contrasts, character placement and proxemics, staging, and especially lighting.The lighting is the most important element of Mise-en-scene in this scene. Tarantino uses the lighting to help the audience feel (rather than hear) what kind of men the characters are. The sole source of light in the scene is only coming down upon Dennis Hopper (foreground) and Christopher Walken (background) even though there are four other men in the scene. And while the light seems to give Dennis Hopper a glow, it darkens the face of Christopher Walken, giving the audience the feel that he is the antagonist.It is clear that our antagonist is the dominant in this scene. Our eyes are immediately drawn to Walken holding the cup of coffee. Our eyes are then drawn over to our protagonist, and subsidiary contrast Dennis Hopper. The reason for our eyes to shift in this way to both of these characters is mainly due to the lighting key, but is also a large result of staging and character placement and proxemics. Tarantino made this scene as aesthetically appealing as it is dark and eerie. His scene setup, as well as the dialogue that goes with it makes it one of the best scenes in movie history.
There are very few filmmakers working today whose films are so heavily marked by their DNA, so much so that they’re recognizable to cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike. One of these filmmakers is Wes Anderson. Most people know a Wes Anderson movie when they see it; the distinguishing color palette, signature camera moves, the many, many overhead shots, but there is much, much more to be said about his visual themes.
However, though he’s never worked in theatre, much of his inspiration comes from it, like the long takes his films are known for. But Anderson has become an auteur in his own right with a style that is one of the most recognizable in the industry. As you’ll see in the video, he is relentlessly attentive to detail — every blocking decision, set design, and camera movement carefully mapped out ahead of time (though, as Anderson explains, can never be fully imagined and calculated before you shoot).
Wes Anderson has one of the most recognisable visual styles out of the American filmmakers working today. He has carefully cultivated a unique look to his films which is difficult to confuse with others.
He is a director of mise-en-scène, someone who places the fabric of a character’s costume on the same level as the script or the actor’s performance.
Most filmmakers aren’t as interested in detail and the finer things as Wes Anderson. This trait makes itself known most clearly in his slavish devotion to typeface, specifically one: Futura. Though he has branched out in his last couple features into other quirky graphics, he remains a loyal disciple to the Futura typeface. It is seen in the opening and closing credits to all his earlier films, and acts as an official stamp to let you know in whose universe you are stepping into. Kind of like a seal of approval.
Finally we can conclude that authorship can no longer exist on the frame, only within it. As far as the physical medium goes, the author is dead now, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The film even seems to look forward to a newer, less egotistic cinema. The despotism of film is dead now; it’s time for some filmmaker to celebrate the democracy of digital video.
Shailik Bhaumik is an award-winning filmmaker and entrepreneur. Known for his feature film ‘Dasein’, Shailik is the founder and Chairman of Human Lab Corporation, a Multinational Film Company whose mission it is to help Independent Filmmakers survive and thrive in this highly competitive industry. Shailik oversees worldwide operations including production, distribution, and marketing for HLC’s live-action films, as well as films released under the HLC banner.