The term mise-en-scene translates as "(that-which-is) put in a scene", and at once its origin becomes obvious: the stage, the direction of theatrical productions. In his article "The Mystique of Mise-En-Scene Revisited", film critic Barret Hodsdon defines mise-en-scene as "the precise placement of actors and objects before the camera in various spatial, pictorial, and rhythmic combinations," (5) from which Adrian Martin extrapolates a more lyrical thought:

"Bodies in space: this is the primal, mythical image of what mise-en-scene does, what it shows us. People sometimes make the mistake of associating mise-en-scene only... with a certain abstract, highly artificial, contrived, controlled, studio-bound practice... in opposition to naturalistic practices." (Martin 8)
My personal definition of mise-en-scene is, all the elements of a film shot that would also be shared with both a stage version, and a painting, of the scene in question. It is a visual concept, and thus de-emphasizes dramaturgy and the soundscape (7-8). Ideally, mise-en-scene does not really absorb the audience. Rather, it composes the film shot, and defines and develops the space of the story world to emphasize salient story information.

Mise-en-scene can be divided into specific elements. The first and most general of these is simply setting; in a studio, the physical set, and in an outdoors shoot, the chosen locale. Its second element is the shot's lighting and use of color, the primary sources of emotion in film. The third element of mise-en-scene is the camera's manipulation of space and time, both of which can be contracted or dilated in film in ways which never occur objectively in the human experience (but frequently occur subjectively). The final element is more human in nature, that is, the costuming, makeup, and expressions of the actors performing within the frame. These four elements combine to give the viewer of the film their visual impressions, the film's mise-en-scene.

According to Martin, by 1990 the term mise-en-scene had taken the place that auteur had possessed 15 years prior, that of "a comically esoteric and elitist intellectual buzzword", irrelevant to film production. (27) Buzzwords can be reclaimed as significant concepts if they are given the correct treatment, but contemporaries of Martin such as Hodsdon, Robin Wood, Victor Perkins agreed with him, pronouncing mise-en-scene a lost cause. To put the verdict bluntly:"The characters and narrative elements in a mainstream film are overriding the possibilities it can have in terms of technique and style."

In "The Mystique of Mise-En-Scene Revisited", "the somewhat melancholic conclusion" (Martin 2) is reached that mise-en-scene's usefulness, as both a filmmaking practice and a critical ideal, has effectively expired. Hodsdon first gives the term's illustrious history, beginning post-WWII with the French film magazine Cahiers, and connects it to the theory of auteurism:

"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 suggestion a fullness of meaning and implication whilst simultaneously possessing a phantom analytic potential." (Hodsdon 4-5)
However, according to Hodsdon, the analysis of mise-en-scene became passé in the 1970s with the advent of narratology. This may not have been too much of a problem if "auteur scholarship collapsed mise-en-scene strategies into a collection of authorial trademarks... in the service of an essentialist reading of the text... Too often the auteur was assumed to be a fully controlling consciousness, with mise-en-scene a textual marker appropriated to it." (6) But if "narratology viewed mise-en-scene as an ornamental overlay and not as an intricate part of narrative dynamics in film" (7), then mise-en-scene as a critical idea did suffer. In Hodsdon's final section, Martin's melancholic conclusion can be seen.
"The increasingly manneristic application of mise-en-scene... The diegetic world is constantly threatened by stylistic excess but it is never really violated so that the conditions of illusionism would collapse... the original Cahiers emphasis on interior meaning and rhythm has been reversed as a pertinent critical focus... Pictorial overlay and embellishment, once the pristine entreé to the interior meaning, can now be construed as signifiers of aesthetic self-exhaustion." (Hodsdon 11-2)
Heavy accusations, indeed. But one cannot deny that they hold a ring of truth for many of the films hailed in the 1990s as engrossing visual masterpieces. Braveheart and Stargate are two movies that immediately leap to my own mind. Hodsdon continues:
"contemporary Hollywood directors tend to indulge in variations on mannerist mise-en-scene... devouring narrative interweave and resonants... image burn out at the expense of narrative modulation and subtlety... today's examples of extravagantly mannerist mise-en-scene are stylistic tactics designed to trigger a form of audience blockage... Mise-en-scene is rarely a process of sensuous visual accumulation; it is more often a relentless visual stream of sock-it-to-me, throwaway icons. The filmmaker now savagely fetishizes the image at the expense of the spectator." (Hodsdon 12)

To describe contemporary mise-en-scene as 'mannerist' is to refer to a period of art history in which there was a movement away from the conventions of one-point perspective and realism, towards exaggeration of certain features to palliate idealizations. It is true, that many of the contemporary films hailed as visual masterpieces are considered so for special effects, frequently computer-generated, that grab attention away from weak plots and characters. Films considered fun to watch are frequently action movies filled with illogical explosions and sequences that defy the laws of physics, and those that are not, are still fast-paced, placing more emphasis on montage than the sustained shot. These visuals are meant to absorb the eye without needing connection to the story-- art for art's sake gone hideously wrong. Hodsdon points out the folly of these trends, and claims that the audience can no longer use subtle cues to derive greater meaning from film, because those subtle cues are no longer there. But to say that mise-en-scene is dead is to undermine the efforts of those directors who do utilize it successfully. I would make a challenging assertion that there are still many examples of directors putting mise-en-scene to good use in contemporary cinema, with more than a measure of commercial success. Danny Boyle's Trainspotting is quite noticeable in this regard, and it came out 6 years after Martin's remarks on the subject of mise-en-scene.

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