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April 2001, Week 2


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Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Sun, 8 Apr 2001 13:48:29 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (91 lines)
Anthony Rocha requests:

> I am due to give a short lecture on Misc en Scene soon. My film school
> recognition of this was that my teachers made too much out of something
> simple. However later in graduate school I remembering having a more refined
> idea that Misc en Scene had more to do with control of focus. I thought my
> peers were confused in their understanding. However I can't remember if I
> pick this up in readings or independently just created my own interpretation
> (perhaps wrongly).
> Now that I must speak on it I am going back and reading. When I picked up
> Film Art (Bordwell) it seems his explanation was more in line with making
> simple more convoluted and he does not address much on focus.
> It seems as simple as everything in the shot is Misc en Scene (he also
> included music and things not seen).
> However my memory has more to do with depth and controlling where the viewer
> focuses, as this being Misc en Scene.
> Perhaps you can lend your ideas of interpretation. I am eager to hear
> interpretations and perhaps contemporary (accessible video) example of
> specific elements, color, lines, space, blocking, etc.

The term does vary somewhat in use.  For example, when Andre Bazin
wrote of mise-en-scene, he did include camerawork in his discussions
(which would include depth of field, "deep focus," etc.), and--just to
confuse things--the French term for "director" is often "metteur en
scene." However, the most common use of the term refers to the
"reality" that appears to be in front of the camera, independently of
how it has been photographed.

This is far from simple, though.  First, there is the recognition that
the "reality" we see has been staged and arranged for us.  That can
include an array of "special effects" (some of which can be created
through manipulation of the cinematographic process-eg., process shots
of various kinds, digital enhancements, etc.) and some of which involve
more direct manipulation of the real objects in front of the camera
(make-up, explosives, the "flying" in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON,

In general, mise-en-scene would include settings (and props provided by
settings), costumes (and props), make-up, the placement of objects in
front of the camera, how the scene is lit, and the motion (or
stillness) of said objects (including "acting").

One element that is often confused with "depth of field" has to do with
staging in depth.  In other words, the shot can contain objects and
characters from close to camera to the far distance; that's a property
of mise-en-scene. How sharply these are in focus is a property of

Even "simple" things can be significant.  Look at the use of written
signs, sunglasses, and corridors (not to mention the "border town"
itself) in a film like TOUCH OF EVIL. Just the use of women's *hats* is
very significant in a film like the criminally neglected THE HOUSE OF
MIRTH. Color plays a significant role of its own in Saura's GOYA IN
BORDEAUX, to name just one recent example.  The swordfight on the
bamboo tops in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON depends partly on
editing, but even more on staging and action (and costumes and color
are equally significant in that film as well).  Lighting and all its
variables is probably the most complex single area of mise-en-scene
(although many textbooks discuss it in conjunction with cinematography).

And, of course, elements of mise-en-scene work in conjunction with
other film elements, including cinematography and sound.  Silent films
can be a good way of introducing the concept, since most of them must
convey much of their information through mise-en-scene.  (See the
analysis of OUR HOSPITALITY in FILM ART, for example.)  The opening
shots of a film like REAR WINDOW or the graphic layouts of scenery in
many of John Ford's films can also be good introductions, among many

While camera angle, distance and focus can control "where the viewer
focuses," that can be guided by placement, color, movement, etc.  (For
example, the tennis match in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, where everyone's
head is moving back and forth watching the ball--except for Bruno's.)

Don Larsson

Donald F. Larsson
English Department, AH 230
Minnesota State University
Mankato, MN  56001

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