Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1992
Film: Matters of Style
Edited by Adrian Martin

The mystique of mise en scene revisited

Barrett Hodsdon

Introduction - A Mise en Scene Spectrum

The point is that all the freshness and invention of American films springs from the fact that they make the subject the motive for mise en scene. Jean-Luc Godard (1952) 1

Preminger believes first in mise en scene, the creation of a precise complex of sets and characters, a network of relationships, an architecture of connections, an animated complex that seems suspended in space ... What is cinema, if not the play of the actor and actress, of hero and set, of word and face, of hand and object? Jacques Rivette (1954) 2

So I consider mise en scene as a means of transforming the world into a spectacle given primarily to oneself - yet what artist does not know instinctively that what is seen is less important than the way of seeing, or a certain way of needing to see or be seen. Alexandre Astruc (1959) 3

The mysterious energy which sustains with varying felicities the swirl of shadows and light and their foam of sounds is called mise en scene. It is on mise en scene that our attention is set, organising a universe covering the screen - mise en scene and nothing else. Michel Mourlet (1960) 4

Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director's personality and his material. This conception of interior meaning comes close to what Astruc defines as mise en scene, but not quite. It is not quite the vision of the world a director projects nor quite his attitude to life. It is ambiguous in any literary sense, because part of it is embedded in the stuff of cinema and cannot be rendered in non cinematic terms. Truffaut has called it the temperature of the director on the set and that is a close approximation of its professional aspect. Dare I come out and say what I think it to be is an 'elan of the soul'?... as it is all I can do is point at the specific beauties of interior meaning on the screen and later catalogue the moments of recognition. Andrew Sarris (1962) 5

The depth and detail of American mise en scene puts most European films to shame. Yet it is characteristic that Minnelli referring to his use of mirrors in Madame Bovary should have to state that it is a recurring image that nobody noticed. The sophistication of cinema criticism was for too long such that it only noticed symbols when they were ostentatiously pointed out as such and that it could only recognise as art things that were labelled as such. David Morse (1971) 6

Few people nowadays deny the fundamental importance of mise en scene. But because our art lacks its Littre, words do not always have the same meanings and our vocabulary remains vague. Many critics confuse mise en scene with writing (ecriture). The error comes from literature where the word writing means two different things. When we talk about mise en scene, we are indeed thinking of the precision of writing, but a structural not a rhetorical precision: it is not a question of fine writing.That is why phrases like correct mise en scene or 'unadorned style' mean nothing at all. Fereydoun Hoveyda (1960) 7

In short, if you ask what characterizes an auteur, what makes a filmmaker an auteur, in the strong sense of the term, you fall into a new trap: it's his style, in other words, the mise en scene, a notion as dangerously risky, infinitely variable and impossible to pin down as auteur... Mise en scene means two things, one obvious - the directing process; the other mysterious - the result of that process... Jean-Louis Comolli (1965) 8

The 1970s concern for film as language or film as discourse marks a return to a more rigorous concern with the rhetorical figuration of mise en scene, a return which has frequently lacked the ability to account also for film pleasure, and that other developments in film theory have followed (particularly in Cahiers) from the need to rationalize the massive contradictions of an untheorised and assumed romantic auteurism. The tendency to reject auteurism because it is 'hopelessly contradictory' loses sight of the extent to which subsequent authorship theories of the production of ideologies in films were at least inflected, if not initiated by these contradictions. John Caughie (1981) 9

Mise en scene became very much a buzz word in the context of 1960s film criticism. Although a great deal was attached to it, this attachment was not commensurate with rigorous discussions over its application. It was as much a marker of critical euphoria as a serious entree into the realm of film stylistics. Critics could bounce off mise en scene as a resonant term vis-a-vis their favourite auteurs with little attempt to scutinise the concept. It offered a wide channel through which phenomenological criticism could navigate. Certainly mise en scene came to function as a key referent for that criticism which sought to capture the cinephile's response to and enthusiasm for the inspired moments and intricate rhythms of preferred film narratives. For the most part mise en scene was something to be continually marvelled at, but neither probed nor interrogated. Of course, this tended to push the celebration of mise en scene towards a mystical view of cinema. The cinephile of the 1960s was keen to uphold the privileged moments of mise en scene as evidence of directorial virtuosity. But this was also given a polemical edge by asserting the richness, vigour and density of numerous popular film narratives, especially those of the Hollywood ilk. The cinephile wanted to endorse sophisticated directorial architectonics over and above the obvious and basic trademarks of filmic storytelling that normally ensnared the public.

As the 1960s progressed, the excesses of the nexus between auteurism and mise en scene criticism became more apparent and the negative reaction to it was enshrined in the advocacy of Brechtian materialist criticism in order to place a progressive political cinema on the agenda. Moreover, film studies was emerging as an academically respectable path to pursue, and auteur criticism needed to be pushed aside to make way for new and more ambitious theoretical concerns. This was quite appropriate given the enclosed and cloying dimensions of the auteur/mise en scene ensemble. But, to some extent, it resulted in a reactive critique rather than an exploratory redefinition. This was especially so in regard to the concept of mise en scene. It was treated as relatively nebulous in comparison with the hard edged and apparently rigorous analytical tools afforded by semiotics and structuralism.

Yet with the post-modernist and post-structuralist preoccupations of the 1980s, fascination with mise en scene in commercial cinema has been reactivated, albeit in a tangential theoretical way, in conjunction with the new practice of cultural criticism, where the latter embraces a sort of critical gliding far removed from the traditional orthodoxy of interpretative decoding.

The development of mise en scene criticism can be attributed to the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema which assumed prominence in the post World War II era. In the 1960s its trailblazing was augmented by the role of Presence du Cinema in France and the spread of auteurism as a critical orthodoxy in England via the journal Movie and in the United States through the writings of Andrew Sarris. From the beginning mise en scene criticism became heavily intertwined with the task of upgrading the status of the American cinema, via the celebration of apposite directors, auteurs who were seen as the pinnacles of that cinema's expressivity. Cahiers championed Hitchcock and Hawks in particular, whilst Presence du Cinema extended the focus to Preminger, Fuller, Walsh, Tourneur, Dwan and De Mille. In 1963 Andrew Sarris systematically constructed an elaborate hierarchy of worth for American directors culminating in an elite pantheon of great auteurs. 10

Throughout the 1960s the critical process of auteur evaluation and thematic explication took precedence over the intricacies of exploring the nature of mise en scene in English language criticism, whilst a number of Cahiers and Presence critics became immersed in using mise en scene as a vehicle for abstract philosophising. The whole trajectory of Cahiers criticism was to take on prime significance in the 1960s, because of the filmmmaking achievements of its core writers (Rohmer, Rivette, Godard, Chabrol and Truffaut) under the Nouvelle Vague rubric.

These critics cum filmmakers had revelled in their cinephiliac construction of film history in the previous decade. In the late 1950s and early 1960s their critical mantle was shared with such confreres as Jean Douchet, Luc Moullet, Fereydoun Hoveyda and Jean Domarchi, and thence carried on by a new generation of critics - Jean-Louis Comolli, Michel Delahaye, Jean Narboni, Jean-Andre Fieschi, Michel Mardore et al. This was a period of the most exuberant auteur adulation which was further fuelled by the advent of Presence du Cinema. Here writers like Michel Mourlet fostered the extremes of mise en scene criticism. 11 During the 1950s, Andre Bazin, Cahiers' father figure, adopted a partial dissenting voice from the auteurist enthusiasm of his young Cahiers colleagues. He suggested there was value in a broader approach to the American cinema via an emphasis on the workings of film genres and the exploration of film language. 12 But his colleagues did not really pursue these avenues. Also, he demonstrated an interest in mise en scene aesthetics, through his analysis of depth of field in the films of Wyler and Welles. 13 The ultimate worth of this analysis was qualified by Bazin's elevation of a pure realist ontology, i.e., his desire to find a homology between the image world and a pristine social reality external to the image. There is no doubt that in order to advocate the nexus of auteurism/mise en scene/Hollywood cinema, Cahiers practised a degree of selective perception in its approach to the American cinema. Not only was generic analysis given limited coverage (although there were still certain fixations here - film noir, the musical, the western) but there was also a lack of interest in Hollywood's industrial context and the ideological and social dimensions of its movie making. The 1960s passage of Cahiers was marked by a gradual realisation that it had neglected these factors. 14

Moreover, Cahiers as the world's premier serious film journal was not singular in its focus but was always engaged in a multiplicity of film fronts throughout the stimulating and increasingly turbulent years of 1960s filmmaking. Inevitably, Cahiers was drawn into the hightide of Modernism in European film narrative alongside the prevailing cult of European auteurs (Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Bunuel, Resnais, Pasolini, Jancso et al). Additionally, Cahiers acted as a proponent for the possibilities of cinema direct and the emerging radical cinemas of Latin America and Africa. The changing landscape of world cinema in the 1960s obliged Cahiers to begin re-evaluating its devotion to auteurism and the American cinema in favour of a more critical view of Hollywood's global domination. This sowed the seeds for Cahiers' political reversal after the May 1968 revolution and the ascendancy of the New Left. From 1968 Cahiers overturned its past allegiances and explicitly dressed up its new stance with Marxist ideological analysis (in conjunction with the currents of structuralism then in vogue). Its new advocacy was one of forging a materialist cinema, with Soviet silent cinema as an exemplar.

The above brief resume of the spread of auteurism is meant as an historical referent and reminder of the 1960s' critical trajectory. It is not intended to substitute for any full scale discussion of the details of that critical terrain. However, there has been a tendency to sit in judgement on these past circumstances as perhaps unsophisticated and even simpleminded in their construction of a critical apparatus. To encapsulate this apparatus under the label of auteur idolatry is to distort the variable and ambiguous 'juggling' of a spectrum of critical impulses: the desire to rediscover the traditions and connections of film history by a new generation of cinephiles; the excitement of exploring the domain of film stylistics, something English language criticism had neglected for decades; the recognition that the American cinema was not just a successful entertainment machine but a bastion of highly refined filmcraft; and an eagerness to expand the horizons of film criticism, by igniting it as a passionate activity, as well as skirting the edges of theoretical investigation.

It is difficult to comprehend today the fascination with mise en scene that ruled in the 1960s critical environment. This was not a milieu driven by the theoreticism which so strongly defined 1970s debates about cinema. Moreover, there was a naivete and enthusiasm in critical engagement that is impossible to recapture today. In Australia the discovery of mise en scene and the rediscovery of Hollywood through it by a small collection of local cinephiles coincided with the immersion of the general public in the TV age and the collapse of the social institution of cinema (i.e., cinema going as social ritual that had prevailed since the 1920s). The retrospective critical interest in the mystique of mise en scene served to re-establish the aura of cinema at the very moment it was being dissipated. This was especially relevant when one considers the gearing down of mise en scene in TV drama which seemed to highlight the integration of TV into everyday life and its dependence on pedestrian codes of naturalism. One interpretation of Mourlet's writing might be the reclamation of cinema through mise en scene. This clearly involved the reassertion of cinema reception as a quasi-mystical experience - cinema as a special creature of otherness that should be clearly demarcated from the quotidian aspect of TV. Not only did the cinema institution itself initially try to combat TV via its resort to widescreen ratios and processes, but TV assimilated movies (and thereby downgraded and fractured them) via its own programming formats, and the intervention of advertising.

Although this essay is an attempt to sort out the concept of mise en scene, there is no doubt that part of the critical appeal of the term in the 1950s and 1960s was its elusiveness. Its critical invocation left it open to continual mystery and speculation. It was resplendent in suggesting a fullness of meaning and implication whilst simultaneously possessing a phantom analytic potential. Mise en scene could be used to conjure up the boundless vitality of the American cinema, the inspiration and majesty of chosen auteurs, the power of the star persona or the pure exaltation of the musical genre. Today it seems a little churlish to try and strip the term of its critical rapture since the 1960s cinephiles cum critics, whether French, American, English or Australian, wanted to reassert the attraction and intensity of cinema as a rich cultural repository. Mise en scene heightened the cinephile's entree into a tumultuous and often mysterious cavern, alluring in its mix of nowness and otherness. If this sounds a little like Michel Mourlet, it is not often pointed out that his ruminations were precursors to Metz's investigations of the film apparatus some years later. Both men were approaching analogous issues from very different angles; the latter demonstrating all the aplomb of the professional academic sent to shore up the new discipline of film theory, whilst the former was simply lost in a merry-go-round of phenomenological excess.

In the heyday of 1960s film criticism, mise en scene was a term with reverberations. Once it was sidelined on the critical agenda it became neutralised, almost passe. In the surge of 1970s film theory, with its grand array of intellectual referents from Marxism to Semiotics and Psychoanalysis, mise en scene as a potential conceptual tool found itself in the wilderness. It was swallowed up by the new interest in narratology (with its base in structuralism and formalist literary theory) as a valuable explanatory key for film narrative. One could hardly contest the need for 1960s film studies to break out of the crystal palace, which necessitated a concerted assault on the mise en scene/auteurist conjuncture at the beginning of the 1970s. Once a theory of authorship emerged to supplant auteurism, the critical edge of mise en scene vanished into a limbo world. In the commentary that follows I shall begin a reconsideration of the conceptual legacy of mise en scene.

Definitional Difficulties

A basic definition of mise en scene might be the staging of action before the camera in a fictive context. The question of fictive context is crucial since mise en scene criticism revolved around a primary interest in narrative cinema. Because the term mise en scene was borrowed from the theatre, there was a danger that its theatrical invocation might confine its application. Yet the main aim of Cahiers' mobilisation of mise en scene, as a fundamental aesthetic reference point, was to emphasize its cinematic specificities and perculiarities. A more elaborate working definition of mise en scene is the precise placement of actors and objects before the camera in various spatial, pictorial and rhythmic combinations. Despite retaining its generality, the definition does suggest that cinema far surpasses the theatre in its potential for the rigorous organisation of on-screen space, by virtue of deploying the film frame as a centering device. Whereas theatrical space is so often dead space, filmic space can be dynamised as a plenitude, subject to the look of the camera. In traditional narrative cinema, filmic space is normally active space where actors not only perform their roles but offer performance for the merciless scrutiny of the camera. Performing is almost melded to the camera because it only exists for it, while the mode of narrative address pretends it does not. The camera constantly charts and redraws filmic space as fictive space and the actors submit themselves to the ceaseless recharging of on-screen space. By contrast mise en scene in the quasi-void of theatrical space can never transcend its basic materiality (i.e., it retains its theatrical framing, usually the proscenium arch).

Cinema's mise en scene criticism was always enraptured by the sophisticated, nuanced rhythmic organisation of on-screen space. At times this verged on proposing a metaphysics of on-screen space, e.g. the oft cited "morality is a question of tracking shots". This concern with the metaphysical substitutes of mise en scene explains why the Cahiers critics were devoted to such filmmakers as Mizoguchi, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Ophuls and Rossellini. These filmmakers were presented as exemplars of precision and rectitude in the application of mise en scene. A recurring theme of Cahiers criticism was the fusion of ethics and formalism. Certain auteurs' procedural and aesthetic decisions elevated narrative patterning far beyond mere camera functionalism. Cahiers critics recognised the possibility of the camera deliberately adopting a precise vantage point to scan the fictive world over and above its mere storytelling function (i.e., the simple recording of fictive constituents). The control of mise en scene was correlated with the exercise of an authorial systemic at various levels of filmic articulation.

The Strictures of Authorship

As mentioned previously, auteurism and mise en scene criticism were closely aligned throughout the 1950s and 1960s. By the late 1960s auteurist decoding was very much the dominant component in the partnership. Instead of using mise en scene criticism as an instrument to open up a number of questions on film stylistics, critics found it convenient to rely on the protocols of auteur analysis. A particular feature of 1960s English language film criticism was the reliance upon thematic elaboration of authorial world views at the expense of investigating more abstract stylistic questions. For a while structuralism was enlisted to the auteurist project through efforts to reduce the authorial code to a set of binary oppositions. This procedure actually diminished the possibilities for nuanced interpretation in film criticism.

Often auteur scholarship collapsed mise en scene strategies into a collection of authorial tradmarks (recurrent motifs, iconic markers, inspirational camera movements, etc) in the service of an essentialist reading of the text. At other times, auteur criticism revelled in the sublime moment as an indicator of poetic insight. Certainly these tendencies imposed limits on the use of authorship as a critical device. The fixation on authorship encouraged the regular conflation of the auteur as textual construct with the personage of the director as a visionary. Although it was not asserted as such, the combination of mise en scene recognition and auteur decipherment did highlight a particular viewing pleasure of the spectator's willing complicity with the controlling agency of narrative.

Moreover, the critical pursuit of authorial meaning was tied to a desire to impose a second order unity upon the text - a simultaneous task of prising open textual meaning and then confining it by authorial enclosure. The reign of auteur analysis in the 1960s clearly restricted the attribution of meaning in a film text as well as overstating textual coherence in the name of the auteur. It continually repressed or deflected the ideological underpinnings of film texts and their roles as social mediators.

Too often the auteur was assumed to be a fully controlling consciousness, with mise en scene a textual marker appropriated to it. The idea of the text possessing a variety of unconscious leakages (real disparities and contradictions) was itself inhibited by the task of explicating the unified vision. Thus mise en scene was harnessed to critically enhance this aim, in stark contrast to the latterday post-structuralist interest in textual disparities and tangents. For a long time, auteurist criticism inadequately defined itself as a textual bracketing operation. Consequently stylistic analysis suffered accordingly.

The aporia between auteurism and the emerging domain of narrative theory in the 1970s was never really bridged because the former extracted itself from the dynamics of narrative and dramaturgy in pursuit of second order readings. This situation placed the aesthetic analysis of mise en scene between the devil and the deep blue sea. Indeed one could even argue that the excesses arising from the mystical celebration of mise en scene were a partial reflection of the prevailing critical impasse. Instead of opening up such notions as the 'felt presence' of the auteur or the 'regard' of the auteur as complex variations on narrating and looking, auteurism too often retreated into the task of elevating the director as the equivalent of novelist visionary. Romantic excess and closed interpretation were easier paths to pursue. John Caughie has correctly suggested that the 1970s attempts to take some distance from these excesses by postulating a theory of authorship did not do enough to renegotiate the isssues of stylistic analysis in accordance with the 'vocabulary' of mise en scene. 15

Mise en scene versus Narratology

One approach that came to prominence in the surge of 1970s film theory was the application of narratology to feature films. The conceptual basis of this application was formalist and structuralist literary theory (Propp, Greimas, Todorov, Barthes and Bremond). This theory was invoked to dissect the fundamentals of filmic storytelling. Certainly, it offered a valuable insight into the structural constants at play, but it did not avoid the taint of over-schematisation.

Alongside descriptive semiotics, narratology sought to specify key structural parameters (actants, plot repertoires, narrational methods, syntagms and so on). Because of its literary orientation, such stripping down of film narrative was carried out with no reference to mise en scene even though the latter had dominated film criticism for several decades. By implication narratology viewed mise en scene as an ornamental overlay and not as an intricate part of narrative dynamics in film. By definition mise en scene could not be readily reconciled with purely literary constructs. This disparity was always implicit in the 1960s critical valorisation of mise en scene, by emphasizing its transformative powers over even the most mediocre screenplays. Such a transformation was indeed a complex one given the a priori literary processing of a film through various phases (from storyline to script treatment, from screenplay to shooting script), and the director's control over decoupage, let alone the options for narrative organisation at the post-production stage. The Cahiers critic's desire to privilege mise en scene was a challenge to the notion of the screenplay as the launching pad of a feature film. For them the real moment of film activation was the shoot itself; all the rest were mere preliminaries. The instant of shooting offers a myriad of possibilities for the act of filmic synthesis, i.e., the bringing together of the actors' presence with performance, decor and costume, the dynamics of filmic space, camera rhythms and angles, the gradations of lighting and sound/image relations. Thus the Cahiers critics were correct in asserting that the script was a springboard, albeit an essential one, for the 'magical' task of realization. But they did much more than simply point to the rich constituents of mise en scene. Their critical approval, even adulation of preferred auteurs (from Hitchcock to Lang, from Murnau to Mizoguchi), proposed a cluster of directors steeped in the nuances of mise en scene, as well as proposing a mastery over the plasticity of filmic space. Preferred directors were not simply cultish auteurs but more importantly trailblazers and paradigm cases in marking out the autonomy of the film medium, where imagemaking could approach the realms of musical rhythm and poetic intonation whilst still maintaining the outward impression of solid characterisation based on plot orientated narrative. These auteurs were never simply script enhancers for their command over mise en scene made all the difference.

In the 1960s it was logical that much of the debate about the status of mise en scene should centre on Hollywood cinema because of its reliance on script formulae and lowly rated genres relative to the usual prejudices over the requisites of high art. Hollywood crystallised the whole issue of the transformative power of mise en scene. For its output frequently posed the question of a priori control over film material under the studio power structures. Where control of all phases of production was more or less automatic for esteemed European auteurs (Renoir, Cocteau, Dreyer, Rossellini et al), such a situation was not the norm in the carniverous commercial jungle of Hollywood. Here directors had to fight for and constantly negotiate and renegotiate their autonomy amidst quite rigid hierarchical, professional and business parameters.

Open Image Stylistics

In the period of ascendancy for mise en scene criticism the major aesthetic debate was over open image stylistics, i.e image continuum versus montage. In a literal sense this was a false debate since theories of montage were based on views of expressivity that predated the advent of sound cinema. However, this debate should not be encapsulated in terms of rigid polarities, but rather should focus on stylistic choices and tendencies. The Cahiers critics and their followers indicated a preference for stylistic strategies that privileged the frame/screen as a vehicle for narrative continuum, spatial freedom and multiple planes of diegetic action. In contrast to Bazin's attempt to match depth of field with a realist ontology, the young Cahiers critics were interested in the realm of mise en scene as a style option on its own account. They were excited by the possibilities of maintaining and using the immediacy of spatial contiguity in the frame instead of the crude excerpting of fragments of diegetic space. Within the tradition of mainstream narrative cinema this issue did not so much refer to frenetic editing as to the obligatory use of cross cutting conventions, and especially the close up as a regular spatial insertion. For the closeup, if used in a mechanical fashion, could undoubtedly disrupt the nuances of internal image relations. Open image stylistics not only pushed the representational axis towards screen time as a proxy for real time, but also placed characters in continual interaction with themselves and their milieux, in preference to isolating and abstracting them. Spectator freedom to select from the image became equated with the apparent spatial freedom of the characters in their on-screen representations. The image should not simply be thrust at the spectator in the classical montage tradition, by juxtaposing a series of shots as arbitary image signs. Rather, the open image director places the onus of reading upon a continuously unfolding fictive world. So-called open image strategies creep up on the spectator via the gradual process of meaning accumulation, since the configurations of on-screen space are converted into signification in a relatively unbroken time duration. Moreover, the symbolisation process with open image stylistics functions via an accrual method. Since the fundamental dialectic of cinema is the battle between on- and off-screen space (usually suppressed via mainstream narrative conventions), open image stylistics can suggest a more subtle interplay between these two variables by using the visual field as a means of continual expansion and contraction.

The danger of postulating style polarities in this debate was that the conventions of Hollywood narrative did not arise out of stylistic extremes. The norms of narrative exposition always balanced stylistic extremes (rapid cutting, long takes, off-centre mise en scene etc) against popular storytelling protocols. Yet even within those protocols some Hollywood directors could display their preference for camera fluidity, depth of field and the long take, e.g Hawks, Minnelli, Preminger, Fuller, Ophuls, Ford, Cukor, Stahl. If these filmmakers operated within implicit narrative constraints, they were also able to transgress them in surreptitious ways. Although bound by the centralisation of character and drama, these directors demonstrated a great facility in marking out, complicating and refining scenic space so that the spectator was afforded subtly shifting perspective on the diegetic action.

Open image stylistics inferred degrees of reading subtlety that acknowledged the ambiguity of image event, alongside a directorial desire not to overtly impose symbolic coding on the spectator. The spectator was required to enter the film text, scan it and not just surrender to narrative whim.

Narration and Directorial Vantage Point

Despite having indicated past difficulties in reconciling narratology and mise en scene criticism, I am certainly not asserting that there is no need to develop an adequate explanation of the narrational process in classical cinema and its bearing on the execution of mise en scene. I am arguing, however, that literary theory is not the golden key, even if it has raised some quite pertinent issues.

Much of the debate over classical mise en scene was linked to the question of the diegetic world seeming to speak for itself. Before this issue became politicised into a critique of narrative transparency, critics like Movie's Victor Perkins placed a positive worth on transparency as the ultimate in refined mise en scene. 16 Perkins took Otto Preminger as a paradigm case because his directorial method allowed events to unfold via his "commitment to an exact and lucid presentation". He argued that Preminger fostered an impression of narrational neutrality at the expense of expressive excess or the inscription of a moral vision a la Hitchcock or Ford. To Perkins, Preminger seemed exemplary in his ability to weigh the evidence in tackling the big subjects (Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise and Consent and The Cardinal). Preminger's low key approach to presentational form allowed him to work with scenic inflection in a quiet and subtle way. Perkins valued the case of Preminger as an exponent of stable transparent classicism because it marked the perfection of an unobtrusive mise en scene.

In the 1970s the issue of classsical transparency became a target for radical film theory. Such theory posited a binary opposition between Hollywood fiction as self-effacing, transparent narrative and a modernist reflexivity. This opposition, by promoting a new formalist critique of Hollywood, was primarily intent on reducing its narrative system to a few bare essentials instead of exploring its manifold characteristics. The passsive versus active spectator duality emerged as the new theoretical dictum. David Bordwell's latterday attempts to redress the imbalance with his notion of the hypothesizing viewer is pertinent to any reconsideration, even if it is a touch over-compensatory. 17 His aim is to counter the idea of the passive spectator as one who unproblematically surrenders to the remorseless flow of classical narrative. Bordwell's concept seems designed to put a brake on the use of film theory to patronise spectatorship.

Although raising legitimate questions, 1970s film theory provided an easy equation for classic Hollywood narrative [narrational system = transparency = realism = passive spectator] which was inspired by a mix of formalism and ideology theory. Little additional refinement flowed from this equation so that the critique of narrative transparency became rigidified. Even though Hollywood developed and perfected a fictive world of immediate access and illusionist flow, the presumption of narrational transparency was not so clearcut as the above equation claimed.

It seems to me that the notion of directorial vantage point might be a useful supplement to this analysis. It can be used to complicate any naive view of the operation of transparent film narrative and the spectator's subordination to it. The notion of directorial vantage point provides a link between narration and mise en scene. For narration in classsical Hollywood films rarely makes an intrusive modernist gesture since it tends to repress the extremes of an intervening consciousness. The bulk of Hollywood movies were anonymous in terms of inscribing a specific directorial vantage point since the normative values of classical exposition prevailed in most films.

The ease with which the transparency label was applied to Hollywood fiction was doubtlessly linked to the manner in which it could mobilise its mise en scene and narrative address to offer an immediate and intensely alluring fictive world to the spectator. The studio resources ensured the lavishness of mise en scene, i.e., the conversion of production values to mise en scene. Diegetic space did not just present performance, it could swallow it up with various layers of mise en scene (the lush pictorialism of von Sternberg for example). For Hollywood filmmakers, fictive on-screen space was there to be activated, symmetrically organised and dramatically exhausted. Nevertheless, classic narration should not be classified as literally transparent. Rather it constantly moderated and checked itself in order to ensure the centrality of character and storyline.

Because of Hollywood's representational priorities, classsical narration actually played an internal game of effacement and non-effacement. This is where the notion of directorial vantage point comes in. For classical narrative could only partially suppress the role of omniscient narration, i.e., it could not hide the narrative enunciator even if it tried to give the impression of a self explanatory fictive world. This meant that the spectator's awareness of narration qua narration was limited by conventional absorption tactics in the deployment of on-screen space. Since Hollywood eschewed highly explicit signifiers of an intervening consciousness, filmmakers resorted to subtle ways of marking the directorial vantage point. This frequently resulted in a delicate balance between diegetic confinement and embellishment. For example, the mobile camera could almost imperceptibly shift a narrative from a prosaic to a poetic mode (Ophuls, Welles, Minnelli, Fuller) without destablising a priori diegetic foundations. The directorial vantage point could provide a systematic inflection of camera angle, movement or rhythm which avoided any sort of narrative disorientation or rupture. Indeed it added an extra dimension to the norms of narrative articulation in which transparency was upheld but simultaneously qualified by the abstractness of the camera look and finely tuned narrational shifts. Thus the general reticence of Hollywood filmmakers to pursue narrational self-consciousness helped to generate a peculiar tension between the act of telling and showing. For the great classical auteurs the execution of mise en scene was a perpetual game of narrational hide and seek (Hitchcock, Lang, Ophuls, Preminger). My emphasis on directorial vantage point implies the continual possibility of a subtle realignment of the spectator's position in relation to the unfolding diegetic action.

The sophistication in the mise en scene of preferred Hollywood auteurs needs to be gauged in terms of narrational plays. Of course, Hollywood's narrative norms obliged the inscription of the spectator as the ideal eavesdropper. But this in itself was not a fixed position; the skilful auteur or metteur en scene could always toy with the ideal eavesdropper notion by oscillating between the spectator as victim or knowing subject. Much of the pleasure of classic narrative was tied to the spectator's complicity with the filmmaker's conceits and revelations in the flexible deployment of omniscient narration. Key auteurs like Lang, Hitchcock and Preminger were quick to recognise this.

Contemporary Hollywood and the Mise en scene Effect

My discussion of mise en scene has dwelt upon classical cinema and its correlation with Hollywood practice. One might well ask what the function and status of mise en scene has been in the revamped Hollywood of the 1980s. In the 20 to 30 years that have elapsed since the heyday of mise en scene criticism, Hollywood has undergone considerable structural changes as a consequence of radical transformations in the commercial media mix. Moreover, the social institution of cinema (which remained intact for more than half a century) and the old studio system are long gone. Yet Hollywood has survived in a recognisable form and has shown great resilience in overcoming historical crises. On a textual plane, Hollywood's commercial resurgence since the mid-1970s has been exemplified by an energetic generic revamping and the incorporation of new high-tech effects in its representational forms.

Where it is relatively easy to pinpoint some of the structural changes that have taken place in Hollywood itself, it is a more elusive task to trace out the nature of stylistic shifts that have occurred in the same period. Can we still talk about the parameters of classic Hollywood narrative and the marks of the auteur in a manner analogous to the terms of the 1960s critical debates? I would argue that, at the very least, Hollywood has shifted its representational register and that any attempt to make easy analogies is problematical. On the other hand, there has been a facile critical tendency simply to reclaim contemporary Hollywood as central to a post-modernist imbroglio. This has been done with little examination of the legacies of Hollywood classicism, at least in a formalist sense. A major film theorist like David Bordwell has argued that in terms of the formalist underpinnings of its mode of representation, Hollywood has not really shifted its ground. 18 However, this view relies on too restrictively formalist criteria to make a balanced overall judgement. Certainly it is true that Hollywood is subject to implicit cultural obligations which restrict the scope for experimentation with representational forms, since it is still bound by its historical destiny as a key commercial entertainment system with a conception of the general public before it (even if the public is more and more demographically targeted). This situation ensures that Hollywood movies continue to depend on an illusionist system and traditional forms of narrative address, as well as notions of dramatic centering.

Nevertheless, given these constraints, one should not underestimate the degree of stylistic and narrative flexibility in contemporary Hollywood fiction. Over the last few decades Hollywood filmmakers appear to have freed up the rigidities of cutting conventions. The new generation of filmmakers has generally chosen to move toward the stylistic axis of the mobile camera and relatively longer takes (i.e., single shot scenes) in order to enhance the rapid and fluid depiction of scenic space with as few cuts as possible. The accelerated pacing of narrative has resulted in the apparent compression of diegetic information. Yet this has occurred in tandem with Hollywood's continuing commitment to centred action and dramaturgy. As in the past, Hollywood narrative will not engage the notion of contemplative fictive space because of deep-seated fears about boring the audience.

In noting this stylistic shift I am not arguing that the old norms of articulation have been completely relinquished. Far from it. But the use of intra-scene cross cutting, reaction shots and obligatory close-ups has been reduced because filmmakers are taking a more holistic approach to scenic construction. In this sense the mechanistic organisation of scenic space via mandatory editing procedures has diminished. In the past, filmmakers' compliance with these procedures did not avoid a certain stiltedness, whilst still adhering to the canons of continuity.

The following remarks are basically intended as observations about the tendencies of current mise en scene strategies in certain mainstream Hollywood vehicles. Because they are offered as a loose collection of generalisations they are subject to further and more thorough investigation.

Today I am inclined to speak of the double accentuation of Hollywood illusionism via the increasingly mannerist application of mise en scene. The 'double' here refers to the traditional adherence to the canons of a unified diegetic world (i.e., maintaining the props of continuity and consistency) whilst at the same time stretching to the limit the audience's acceptance of them. The diegetic world is constantly threatened by stylistic excess but it is never really violated so that the conditions of illusionism would collapse like a pack of cards. Indeed, we might argue that Hollywood has entered a new phase of intensifying the aesthetics of commodity form, based on enhancing its techniques of image saturation. Here Hollywood has pushed its representational form in the direction of hyper-realism and beyond through its sophisticated deployment of a battery of special effects (e.g. computer graphics, elaborate synthetic make up and prosthetic skills, new composite matte systems, etc). In the 1960s, mise en scene was discussed as a visual feast in terms of the subtle tensions betweeen telling and showing in classical narrative. But today, cinematic spectacle is primarily geared to visual avalanche where the instant of showing almost overwhelms the telling. Visual avalanche trades off the conditions of illusionism to the point of complacently intimidating the spectator.

If we take the mannerist tendencies of mise en scene in the horror film, with its penchant for body dismemberment, a post-modernist justification would emphasize the playful artificiality of spectacle. Yet often the excesses of spectacle are a substitute for the genre's plot and situational atrophy, especially with the run of the mill exploitation fare (e.g. Friday the 13th and its numerous sequels as distinct from David Cronenberg's sophisticated renewal of the horror-sci/fi genre). Frequently, the desperation tactics of mise en scene in horror, science fiction and action genres give the impression of an imploding fictive world which some might construe as quasi-self-reflexive. I would classify this characteristic as pseudo-reflexive. The visceral and kinetic play of imagery exists as an almost self-congratulatory mode of empty effects. In the wake of post-modernist themes, current critical infatuation with mise en scene is couched in accolades for the endless display of surfaces and effects. These are regarded as the dispersed vibrations of a token fictional pretext.

One might even argue that the original Cahiers emphasis on interior meaning and rhythm has been reversed as a pertinent critical focus. The fascination with surface as surface and display as display has supplanted auteur revelation with stylistic opacity. Pictorial overlay and embellishment, once the pristine entree to the interior meaning, can now be construed as signifiers of aesthetic self exhaustion. We can no longer savour mise en scene for its inflective or inspirational moment, that crucial point of narrative turning or insight when mise en scene and directional vantage point come togther - Ray, Ophuls, Hitchcock, Lang, von Sternberg, Ford, Minnelli, Lubitsch and so on. In the apparent transparency of classical narrative the great auteurs were able to bend mise en scene back upon itself in intricate and surreptitious ways so that the alert spectator was not only aware of direct narrative enhancement but also of mise en scene as a form of meta-commentary. This mastery of mise en scene was not a case of unproblematic pictorial garnishment. By comparison, a number of contemporary Hollywood directors tend to indulge in variations on mannerist mise en scene almost to the point of devouring narrative interweave and resonance - Spielberg, De Palma, Cameron, Lyne, Craven, Carpenter, Hooper, Lynch, Stone et al. 19 They can skillfully generate narrative energy, only to work it out in an accelerated reflex (not reflexive) fashion. Today, many of Hollywood's whiz kid directors are exponents of image burn out at the expense of narrative modulation and subtlety. I would argue that today's examples of extravagantly mannerist mise en scene are stylistic tactics designed to trigger a form of audience blockage. Too often scenes are played off on a one for one basis, tainting narratives with a sense of strain or over-reach. Narrative modulation has become a lost art as filmmakers strive to achieve instant impact. The instantaneous 'being' and energy of popular Hollywood movies are deployed with a monotonous intensity as though the pursuit of narrative overkill was mandatory in order to retain power over a captive public. The public's insatiable desire for visual stimulation results in an image 'too much'. Mise en scene is rarely a process of sensuous visual accumulation; it is more often a relentlesss visual stream of sock-it-to-me, throw-away icons. The filmmaker now savagely fetishises the image at the expense of the spectator. In this respect classicism has been reversed. But to what end?


1. Review of Strangers on a Train under the alias of Hans Lucas, translated in Tom Milne ed., Godard on Godard (New York: Viking Press 1972), p.25.

2. Review of Angel Face, "The Essential", translated in Jim Hillier ed., Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950s (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), p.135.

3. "What is Mise en scene", translated in Film Culture, nos. 22/3 (1961), p.65.

4. Excerpt from Sur Un Art Ignore translated in Jim Hillier ed., Cahiers du Cinema: The 1960s (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), p.117.

5. "Notes on the Auteur Theory", Film Culture, n. 27 (Winter 1962/3), p.7.

6. "Why Hollywood", Monogram, April (1971), pp.3-4.

7. From "Sunspots" translated in Cahiers du Cinema: The 1960s, p.142.

8. "20 Years On - A Discussion about American Cinema & the Politique des Auteurs" in Cahiers du Cinema: The 1960s, p.205.

9. John Caughie ed., Theories of Authorship: A Reader (London: BFI/Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p.14.

10. Andrew Sarris, "Special Issue: American Directors", Film Culture, n. 28 (Spring 1963).

11. See Michel Mourlet, Sur Un Art Ignore (Paris: Editions La Table Ronde, 1965). This book was republished in an expanded form in 1987 as La Mise en Scene comme Langage (Mise en Scene as a Language) by Editions Henri Veyrier.

12. Andre Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol II, Essays selected & translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), pp.140-157, and also "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema" in What is Cinema? Vol I. Essays selected & translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp.23-41.

13. Andre Bazin, "William Wyler or the Jansenist of Mise en scene" in Chris Williams ed., Realism in the Cinema (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980).

14. See for example Chapters 17 & 20 Round Table Discussions by Cahiers critics on the American cinema in Cahiers du Cinema: The 1960s.

15. John Caughie op. cit., pp.14-15.

16. Victor Perkins, Film as Film - Understanding & Judging Movies (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1972). See chapters 5 and 7.

17. David Bordwell et al., The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), pp. 37-41.

18. David Bordwell et al, pp. 367-377.

19. This citation is not meant to imply that all these directors are equivalent. Rather they represent a range of mannerist styles. Hence I am not saying, for example, that Oliver Stone, James Cameron and David Lynch are directly comparable, only that they are different manifestations of stylistic overkill.

New: 7 December, 1995 | Now: 18 March, 2015