Mise-en-scène and the Rebirth of Film
By Tom Silva.
Film is a living thing and so it faces an unending series of deaths. Like the mythic hero in Joseph Campbell’s magisterial book The Hero of a Thousand Faces, if film is to experience a long survival, it must be continually reborn. As Campbell wrote, it requires a “continuous recurrence of birth (palingenesia) to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death” (Campbell 2004: 15). One of film’s principle sources of re-genesis is the mise-en-scène style of film directing which re-emerges every so often to beat back the restless, atomizing gaze of modern filmmakers. Mise-en-scène saves film because it synthesizes and transforms space, it crystallizes the essential unity of human experience. It is a play of light and shadow, shape and depth that restores the integrity of lived experience. While its power is undeniable, I will argue that the greatest accomplishment of the mise-en-scène style is often overlooked – that it is the apotheosis of realism.
Mise-en-scène organizes the artifacts of our perceptual life in a way that produces a simulacrum of the world and the experience of being placed within it; however, it goes a step further to show us the features of the human condition that are both noumenal and numinous. In doing this, it brings us into a heightened awareness of what it is to be alive and its mystery. Roland Barthes called this feature the “obtuse meaning”: “Rather than determinate meaning, the image was at a level that is obtuse or carrying a third meaning. As such, it erupts as ‘a tear’ within semiology itself. The obtuse meaning can be seen but not named. It occupies a realm not of signification but of significance” (Oxman 2010: 78-79). What Barthes is alluding to and what mise-en-scène at its most extraordinary achieves is a frisson that attends (even incidental) moments. These moments of grace spring out of a film’s “dense coherence,” to borrow Victor Perkins’ phrase. For Perkins, dense coherence described what occurs when a film’s meanings are “refined by patterns of detail built over them whose relationship clarifies and complicates so that the significance is locked into the picture’s form” (Perkins 1972:116-117). One of the results of this synergy of parts is a mysterious encounter by the spectator with often overlooked details. One could refer to them as slippages of significance. Below, we will look at three such moments from post-WWII films – Elia Kazan’s Wild River; George Cukor’s A Star is Born; and Anthony Mann’s Man of the West. In at least two of the cases, these are scenes which are rarely discussed because the larger concerns of the narrative do not hinge on them. Instead, these moments exist purely as glimpses of transcendental truth; they capture the aspects of human experience that are ineffable. Through thick descriptions of each scene, we will endeavor to show how they reify the rich parts of realism – the psychological and the aesthetic, the material and the essential.
In his book What is Cinema? André Bazin identified the initial purpose of the plastic arts and realism as preserving the dead. Tracing the impulse back to the Egyptians he recounted how they “secured a continued spiritual experience” with their forbears through mummification. The plastic arts began when ephemeral mummies were replaced with statuary in tombs. These sculptures operated as “magic-identity substitutes” which performed two functions: they satisfied the psychological need for representation – to create an idealized copy of the subject; and the aesthetic need to reflect spiritual essences. In doing this, the subject was saved from a “second spiritual death” (Bazin 1967: 195). Cinema represented the highest order of this realism because it was produced by a machine and did not involve subjective mediation. As Bazin put it, “its objective mode, its automatic genesis makes it a veritable luminous impression in light, a mould, a trace, more than resemblance; instead a kind of identity” (Friday 2005: 343). This is a critical concept because it posits the cinematic image as the identity substitute par excellence. The film is an apparition of the real thing. In other words, the image and the subject share more than a resemblance but rather a common ontology. Consequently, it warrants that we consider how this uncanny realism expresses itself. In looking at three sequences that exemplify this dyad of the aesthetic and the psychological, we will also search for what Roland Barthes called the punctum, the mysterious point that is most affecting. Barthes designated it as “the point on the image that pricks him […] that he loves and that cannot be referred to existing cultural meanings” (Oxman 2010: 83). In each of these sequences, we will seek out this transcendent detail of the mise-en-scène that most powerfully embodies the real.
Anthony Mann’s 1958 western Man of the West tells the story of Link Jones, a reformed outlaw traveling to El Paso by train. When his journey is interrupted by outlaws, Link must confront his past including his uncle, the notorious killer, Doc Tobin. The sequence we will examine comes five minutes into the film when Link first arrives at the train station to begin his odyssey. The scene begins with a medium long shot of the platform that is arresting because of its asymmetry – a juxtaposition of indoor and outdoor space. On the left, we see a ticket counter and an attendant in shade. The ticket window is painted in deep red with protruding trellises that bear signage for the town of Crosscut. The ticket attendant’s face is partially obscured which gives us a sense of the faceless bureaucracy that undergirds the railway system. The right side of the frame is exposed to the burning midday sun, alluding to the arduousness of travel. Link is placed between these two spaces, a liminal figure and one of great unease with respect to technology. We then cut to a high-angle long shot of the platform with the lines of perspective highlighted by the placement of the passengers along the length of the station. A group of children cheer at the end of the platform. The wide-angle lens accentuates the expansiveness of the open space but also makes the people look diminished by the force of the advancing train. The next shot begins with a striking forward track as Link walks towards the train. He nervously inspects the tracks as the camera continues to move in. The train then emits a cloud of steam that startles Link and floods the frame. We now see the passengers only in silhouette as the smoke billows and then clears around them.
Sounds like a mundane event, right? Yes, but it is an extraordinary scene for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it recreates the most iconic of early film images, the Lumiere brothers’ 1895 short film, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, which famously caused a sensation when audiences purportedly reacted with a mix of astonishment and panic. Interestingly, Link’s reactions in the scene recreate these early experience of film spectatorship; we sense both the thrill and threat of the lumbering steam engine (he describes it as the “ugliest thing I ever saw in my life”). The lines of perspective give us a visual metaphor for the way the railway system has slashed across the landscape, creating disruption (the town name’s name “Crosscut,” further underscores this). In addition, Gary Cooper’s reserve and the spectral appearance of the train both suggest the dialectic of the known and the unknown in the face of industrial technology. This, after all, is a space and a time of flux, represented by the outlaw turned homesteader. This mix of blindness, anxiety and the pursuit of knowledge infuses the frame. Roland Barthes in a letter to director, Michelangelo Antonioni wrote “there is a blind field (hors champ) both outside and inside the image, absent and present suggesting worlds of sense that await discovery […] this beyond launches desire” (Oxman 2010: 87). Barthes wrote about a visible realm that is charged with the force of the not-yet-named, a utopic dimensions of images. In our view of the approaching train and the displaced, waiting passengers we sense a world of movement and negated space in potentia. Another striking aspect of the scene is the track of the camera as the train approaches. Wolfgang Schievelbusch in his book, The Railway Journey wrote about how the view of landscapes was affected by train travel. In the moving camera, we find the same transforming and energizing of space as he describes: “technology in its mimetic relationship to the space traversed permitted the traveler to perceive that space as a living entity…not the objectively measured distance but the relation of such distance to potentiality” (Schievelbusch 1977: 36). We feel the advance of the camera in many moving ways – as isomorphic of the inevitability of progress, as a slow march to face an impending threat and as an inflection of Link’s bravery.
Finally, the scene’s punctum: the point that pricks us may very well be the cloud of smoke that issues from the train. It startles us as it startles Link. Firstly, it bathes the frame in the colors of industrial society – a despairing black and grey smoke that denudes the colors of the composition. It also makes its characters ghostly, suggesting their obsolescence in the light of technology. The image also has great beauty, with the trail of steam and its soft pullulating quality seeming like a release and a resolution to mark the train’s arrival. Barthes wrote that “significance is meaning insofar as it is sensually produced. It is sense that hesitates or shudders at the level of the signifier without correlating to a signified value […] it eludes the peace of nominations” (Oxman 2010: 80). It is clear that the detail is minor in the context of the film but the steam cloud affects us because it is extravagantly sensual. It even mirrors the cadences of our breath. It carries resonances that transcend the plot construction, evoking the experience of being a bounded, material being vulnerable to nature and social disruptions.
Elia Kazan’s 1960 film, Wild River tells the story of Chuck Glover, an agent of the Tennessee Valley Authority who arrives in Garthville, Tennessee, to clear land due to be flooded by a new hydroelectric dam. The drama centers on the last remaining landowner, the matriarch, Ella Garth who refuses to sell her property. During the course of the film, Ella’s granddaughter, Carol Baldwin commits the ultimate betrayal by falling in love with Chuck and abandoning the farm and her grandmother to the encroachment of the authorities.
The sequence we will analyze begins with Ella witnessing the exodus of her farmhands from her property. It starts with a medium shot behind her as she stands on her rough wooden porch, her interior shaded space demarcated from the desolate exterior space outside. Kazan choreographs the scene beautifully with competing patterns of movement: wagons move right to left while a young woman moves in the opposite direction in the foreground. The frame is also criss-crossed with gnarled tree branches and vines that add a sense of a gothic, untended space. A major element of the mise-en-scène throughout the film is the production design which is both theatrical and naturalistic. During the film, the Garth family continually sits astride their home in a way that recalls frontal theatrical blocking. Furthermore, the unvarnished wood of the house alerts us to the rusticity of the world but also its pre-modern quality, the sense that the family has operated outside the locus of 20th century capitalism. As the farmhands pass on wagons in medium shot, they avert her gaze.
After a series of crosscuts between Ella and the departing farmhands, we move to a medium tracking shot as she steps back into the porch. In front of her, we see Carol with her body turned so that it faces into the open doorway. As we continue to track, Carol shuts the door. The relative sizes of both women offers a stinging commentary on their positions – Ella is large and domineering while Carol is a shriveled figure on frame right. As Ella sits down, she begins an interrogation. We then cut to a medium shot of Carol, glassy eyed and central in the frame so she looks hemmed in by circumstances. The shot is followed by a medium shot of Ella in a high-backed rocking chair, the frame filled not only with her fallen mien but with the distress and weathering of old wood furniture and the siding of the house. We then crosscut between them as we hear the sounds of the wagons rolling past. Kazan then cuts to a high-angle shot of Ella underscoring her reduced state as she equates Carol with a vagabond yellow cat. We cut back to Carol, still centrally framed and clearly torn between two sides (“I’m doing wrong, I know, I know,” she says). After another crosscut between them, the camera pans as Carol goes down to her feet in front of Ella to beg her to leave her farm. The tableau is beautiful and austere recalling a Walker Evans portrait, with Carol in profile and Ella looking down. The next cut is cued by Ella’s scream.
The cri de coeur sets off one of the most extraordinary shifts of perspective in modern cinema: we move from the formality and flatness of the two shot to a long shot of enormous depth as we gaze down the length of the porch. On the left side of the frame, we see the rough wooden pillars and the decrepit yard and on the right we see Ella and Carol in the shaded area of the porch with its promiscuously arranged stools and flower pots. Ella then walks towards the camera as Carol exits the frame at the right edge with a few parting words. Seeing Ella’s entire body employed in such depth staging has great power. The long lines of perspective make us feel the boundedness of the world, its crushing inexorability. As she walks towards us, the porch becomes, like her circumstance, an arduous expanse to traverse. It also foreshadows her final journey. She touches the wall as she walks, increasing the harsh tactility of the world. She leaves an empty rocking chair behind her, a symbol of dereliction. As she reaches the edge of the frame, we cut to a POV shot of Sam, a farmhand, sitting on a stair with his hands cupped to his ears. It’s a mad, traumatized image, evocative of the insensibility of the events that have passed. Kazan then cuts to a long shot of Ella and Sam that restores the flat tableau of the earlier shot. The left side of the frame opens out to an infinite expanse of water and mountains but the right side of the composition is in shadow, carrying a valence of disappointment and tragedy. As a result, Ella and Sam seem formalized – like icons of despair. The distortion of the wide-angle image makes it seem even more optically pinched and flattened, like the entire world is askew.
The role of perspective in Western art has been a problematic one. André Bazin felt that its discovery in the 15th Century turned the course of painting from a concern with spiritual realities to an overriding need to produce a copy of the world. It was only with the invention of photography that the plastic arts were usurped: photography was able to mechanically reproduce perspective and the other features of reality through the “instrumentality of a nonliving agent.” In Bazin’s eyes, this allowed painting to turn back towards essence and noumenal truths while photographs became the epitome of the real. For Bazin, this meant that photos could capture both the concrete and the essential rather than merely the pseudo-real like painting which relied on subjective mediation to fool the eye. Cinema went a step further because it added temporality, capturing that “psychic fourth dimension to suggest life” (Bazin 1967: 196-197) Similarly, the explosion of perspective in the scene in Wild River delivers a frisson because it constitutes the world and the tenor of lived experience in such an exemplary way in a single edit. We move from a partial view to one that is all too compendious, making us feel the full extent to which our lives are determined and abutted by forces outside our control. It is worth noting that Ella says nothing; instead, we have her wordless walk across the porch. This taciturnity is critical to the expressive force of the shot. Victor Perkins said that “the relation between what is articulated and what goes without saying is vital to the sources of emphasis that enable the assertion of significance and the grading of significance” (Perkins 2005:30) The use of perspective does something even greater than words could – it opens a void in the middle of the frame. It is significant without signifying. It is the semiological tear that Barthes refers to in defining a punctum. As a result of the perspectival shift, Ella’s porch becomes a metaphysical space both infinite and witheringly empty.
The last film we will consider is A Star is Born, the 1954 musical drama by George Cukor. The film tells the story of the ill-fated love affair between Norman Maine, a matinee idol and Esther Blodgett, a young singer who he plucks out of obscurity to groom as the studio’s next star. As the film progresses, Norman’s drunken excesses cost him his contract, leading to a spiral into public brawls and his subsequent arrest. Their antipodal careers ultimately cause Norman’s suicide at the end of the film. The passage we will consider comes at the end of the 15-minute opening sequence which depicts Norman’s drunken performance at an industry event where he first meets Esther. As Esther performs onstage, Norman scuffles with stagehands and extras. Twelve minutes into the sequence, Cukor has a stunning medium shot of ballerinas fastening their slippers in front of a blue stage curtain that is a play of shadow and light. A stagehand is placed on screen left and his eyeline is fixed at the right edge of the frame – a striking use of oblique staging that raises our interest. The image carries an immediate charge because we recognize its resemblance to Edgar Degas’ sumptuous portraits of ballerinas like his Dancers in the Classroom (c. 1880). We are clearly in a space that is both performative and at rest. Norman then crashes through the curtain, to the sounds of screams, revealing a backstage area behind that is hot red. A cluster of stage Indians watch silhouetted against the red room – a surreal mixing of forms and genres and a beautiful evocation of the panoramic view that conditions modernity. Wolfgang Schievelbusch recounted how modern travel caused a new mode of perception: “Modern transport caused the panoramization of the world…movement made evanescent reality the new reality” (Schievelbusch 1977: 62-64). We see in this sequence that same conflation of high and low culture, the sublime and silly.
The camera then pans as Norman stumbles through another set of curtains as a pair of ballerinas try to restrain him. Still sustaining the shot, Cukor then moves the action into a low-key area in the shadow of the stage lights. Maintaining the panoramic breadth of the scene, we see a sequined showgirl in the center of the frame. As the camera follows Norman, he shoves a pair of stage managers as he approaches the wings of the stage. The camera then rotates from right to left, opening up the entire right hand side of the frame to the on-stage performance. As the lights flare into the lens, Norman turns in profile – a menacing satyr. In repeated viewings, this moment emerges as the punctum of the scene, a sublime example of expressive camerawork and an electrifying expansion of space within the frame. Writing about the moving camera, Daniel Morgan distilled its purview as “the nature of the world on screen and the felt presence of a creative agency involved in showing it to an audience” (Morgan 2011: 128). We are buoyed – participants in an auteur’s gaze but also in a shared communal vision impelled by modernity’s quest to know. Beyond this, we also have the wrecked figure of Norman Maine surveying the scene. Siegfried Kracauer wrote that “the moral task of the medium is no longer the symbolization of the ethical but rather the mirroring of the enslaved damaged quality of life […] uncovering a reality which lacks any true coherence” (Schlüpmann and Levin 1987: 102). The iconic image of Norman recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog; however, unlike the Romantic, self-possessed figure of the earlier work, we must now contended with the shattered modern subject.
One of the singular aspects of this scene overall is the geometry of moving forms that swirl and collide with Norman on his trek to the stage. It is mise-en-scène operating in a musical way with the movement of performers and functionaries, the revelations of space, shapes and depth choreographed at a pitch where they match the bravura and cohesion of the dance number on stage. The violence of Norman’s antics and backstage progress are also illustrative of what Walter Benjamin described as the sensation of shock which represented a new form of perception produced by living in urban, industrialized environments. Benjamin believed that film, more than any other medium reflected this state of continual arousal (Benjamin 1968: 238). Kracauer building on Benjamin’s idea described this as pure “externality.” As he wrote, “cinema is the contours of a new form of spirit […] in pure externality, the audience encounters itself, its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid sense impressions” (Schlüpmann and Levin 1987: 101). Norman’s queasy mix of humor and aggression on top of the overwhelming profusion of pro-filmic details deliver a skein of shocks and impressions that make this scene unforgettable, alarming and thrilling at the same.
“Don’t ask it for details but for the living whole,” Jules Claretie, a 19th Century journalist wrote about train travel (Schievelbusch 1977: 61). The wonder of mise-en-scène in cinema is that it can give us all of it. These scenes explicate the fact that this cinematic style retains a synthetic function in an age when human experience has been fractured. It works at the level of narrative coherence but also produces slippages that embody a higher order of consciousness, coherence and spiritual truth. In these extraordinary moments of craft, we see the various modes of mise-en-scène. Firstly, mise-en-scène has a capacity to reconstitute the world in the breadth of its artifacts, to reify its realism and materiality. Secondly it is a phenomenological method that shows us the way we inhabit and receive the world. Mise-en-scène charges the pro-filmic space, dramatizing the dialectic between people and their environments. This is an embodied, obstructed point of view–the sine qua non of the human condition. Lastly, mise-en-scène leads us to a meta reality beyond human subjectivity, a transcendental, unembodied viewpoint. It is sublime because it probes at the margins between a steady-state conception of reality and a terrifying, unknowable world of chaos. Roland Barthes described this latter function as a “peripheral zone of meaning […] where the analogy between signifier and signified is in some sort of disjoint, unattended. These broken signs elude determinate meaning and yet remain intelligible” (Oxman 2010: 75). It is for this reason that attempts to diminish the capacity of cinema to perform the sacred functions of art have always seemed unconvincing. Walter Benjamin claimed that the reproducible image was conducive of a loss of what he termed as aura – an overcoming of the uniqueness of every reality. “For the first time – and this is the effect of film – man has to operate with his whole living person , yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence” (Benjamin 1968: 238). Benjamin claimed that this caused a new mode of spectatorship which was politicized and anti-contemplative. It the opinion of this author that Benjamin entirely missed cinema’s preservation of true realism, both identity substitutes and essences (which I equate to aura as the ontological truth of a being and the locus of its particularity). The scenes and the punctums discussed yield up spiritual truths by drawing from the magical and mechanical sides of the medium. Cinema can penetrate into reality because of its instrumentality and ability to reproduce the material world but it also withholds meaning and causes us to see the world anew. Its silences, infinite spaces and geometric symbolism evoke profound contemplation and a sense of the transcendent. It is, quite simply, a glimpse of the afterlife looking back.
Tom Silva is a filmmaker and musician whose latest film, Silhouettes sneak previewed at the Art Institute of Chicago. His work has been reviewed by Rolling Stone, the Chicago Sun-Times, Public Television, iTunes, and in arts publications in Europe. He holds a Master of Arts from the University of Chicago.
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