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What Mise-en-scène Is and Why It Matters

Press Play By A.D. Jameson | Press Play June 25, 2014 at 4:59AM

Any student of the cinema quickly encounters the term mise-en-scène, and often comes away the worse for wear. The word is long and funny-looking (to those who don’t speak French). Also, the term isn’t always spelled the same way: sometimes there’s an accent, sometimes there aren’t any hyphens, and sometimes it’s written in roman type, not italics.
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Mise Godzilla

2. Mise-en-scène and the Long Take

Some critics noted straight away that the one thing that mise-en-scène didn’t refer to was editing. As such, they started using mise-en-scène and editing as antonyms. Here it will help to know that, for the Cahiers critics, editing was a hotly contested topic. Simply put, certain film theorists who had gone before them—namely Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein—had emphasized the importance of editing, or montage. To them, the artistry of cinema lay very much in how a film was assembled from disparate shots. This was due to their noticing early on how editing could be used to create wholly artificial relationships between shots. For instance, you could shoot a person looking up at something on one side of town, then go to the other side of town and shoot an image of a sign. When you edited them together, the resulting film gave the impression that the person was looking at the sign, even though that look was impossible in real life. Similarly, you could film a person walking into a building in one locale, then film a different interior. And so on.

There proved to be no end to the artificial relationships that you could create between shots. We partly understand this phenomenon today as the Kuleshov Effect. If you take a picture of a man’s face, and follow it with a shot of a bowl of soup, it creates the impression that he’s hungry. But if you follow it with a shot of a woman reclining on a divan, it makes it look like he’s ogling her. (See this entire clip for a humorous description by Alfred Hitchcock of how editing changes the way viewers interpret shots.)

To put things very crudely, the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma began questioning the importance of montage. They were led here by André Bazin, whose background was in documentaries and Italian Neorealism. As such, he was less interested in how cinema could artificially warp reality, and more interested in how it could be used realistically. Accordingly, he devised an argument of cinematic realism in which he proposed that the history of cinema was one of an increasing capacity for realism. The way he saw it, improvements in film technology allowed filmmakers to more faithfully capture reality. Improved film stocks (including the development of color) allowed for higher resolution images. Sound cinema replaced silent cinema. Widescreen formats allowed for larger compositions. Cameras got smaller, enabling filmmakers to leave studios and shoot on real locations. Lenses improved, allowing for deeper focus shots. And takes could also get longer and longer, being less limited by the capacities of earlier reels.

Given this, Bazin and his protégés deemphasized the artistic importance of the cut. They argued it had less to do with the “expressive content” of cinema than the content or composition of the shot itself. So it’s no wonder that they invented and emphasized the concept of mise-en-scène. And it’s because of this period in film criticism that the term came to mean something opposed to editing. People began speaking of two different approaches to filmmaking: editing (or montage) vs. mise-en-scène (which got tied up with other devices that Bazin favored—long takes and deep focus). According to this line of thinking, a director necessarily favored one approach over the other. The art of cinema was either one of cutting or of long takes.

Critics, too, often fell into one camp or the other. Those who supported montage noted how editing allowed for the manipulation of reality, and the creation of effects that were impossible in real life. Such arguments, of course, became the very grounds for dismissal from the long takes / mise-en-scène camp. To them, filmic artistry depended not on artifice, but on the faithful imitation of reality. According to this line of thinking, since we experience time and space continuously, a superior cinema—a primarily realist cinema—should by definition avoid cutting. Returning to our earlier example from Goodfellas: when we follow Henry Hill from his car through the kitchen and to a table in front of the stage at the Copacabana, we see how all those spaces are connected; we aren’t just cutting from an exterior shot to an interior shot on a back lot or on a soundstage.

If these arguments sound quaint, then I hasten to stress that I am indeed oversimplifying them here in order to highlight a very particular historical debate. It’s also worth mentioning that Bazin died quite young, at the age of 40 in 1958, and as such had no control over the ways in which his arguments were later transformed by some into clichés. There are of course complexities and subtleties to this long history of criticism that a general survey necessarily omits. It’s is also indisputable that modern film studies is largely based on the work of Bazin and the Cahiers critics. Without their contributions, we critics of today would be significantly impoverished. (We might not even be here!)

That having been said, there is a historical tendency to oppose mise-en-scène to montage—an entrenchment that lives on today in various forms. It’s hardly unusual to hear film buffs claim that long takes are somehow inherently superior to shorter ones. For instance, cinephiles often celebrate movies like Goodfellas and Russian Ark and Children of Men and Gravity simply because they feature long, complicated shots; meanwhile, people dismiss Michael Bay’s Transformers films, or movies like Quantum of Solace, because they feature way too much cutting. These arguments are heir to the debate between Bazinian mise-en-scène and Eisensteinian montage. Meanwhile, plenty of critics continue to equate mise-en-scène with long takes—see, for example, the opening line of Ben Sachs’s recent Chicago Reader review of Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla, as well as this AV Club article by Mike D’Angelo, which directly engages the debate between editing and long takes (and does so by opposing mise-en-scène to montage). And the Wikipedia article on mise-en-scène, while garbled as a whole (and of course always prone to sudden revision), contains some language equating mise-en-scène with long takes.

(Actually, the Wikipedia article is even more restrictive in its usage, equating mise-en-scène only with something called “oners,” or scenes that are filmed in single takes, and that also feature mobile camerawork. This is so selective an association that it renders the term practically useless. It’s also fairly nonsensical. This particular line was added by a now defunct Wikipedia contributor, “StephanDuVal,” who popped into the conversation for twenty minutes two years ago, then disappeared. Since then, various users have randomly appended sources that themselves don’t employ the term, resulting in the kind of hodgepodge so typical of the Wikipedia. Instead of defining the term objectively, the article stakes out a peculiarly small tradition. A term that was once seemingly synonymous with all of cinema is there reduced to the point where it refers only to a miniscule number of shots in a miniscule number of films! Not even the most fervent devotees of Bazin ever restricted the usage of mise-en-scène to scenes that were executed in single, mobile takes.)

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