What Mise-en-scène Is and Why It Matters

What Mise-en-scène Is and Why It Matters

null1. What Is Mise-en-scène?


Any student of the cinema quickly encounters the term mise-en-scène, and often comes away the worse
for the wear. The word—or is it words?—is long and funny-looking (to those who
don’t speak French). Making matters worse, 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.

The term’s meaning is similarly complex, having shifted many
times over the years since its creation; it has also gotten bound up in several
different arguments, many of which we no longer inhabit directly. In this
article, I aim to survey that evolution, paying special attention to how it has
become associated with only particular types of filmmaking—the cinema of the
long take. Finally, I’ll argue against that tendency, and attempt to
demonstrate the relevance of mise-en-scène
to the short take.

First things first. Mise-en-scène
was applied to film in the 1950s by the French critics writing at Cahiers du Cinéma (Notebooks on Cinema). They borrowed it from French theater, where
it essentially referred to everything that appears on the stage (it literally
means “putting in the scene”). The thinking was that a film’s mise-en-scène consisted of everything
that the camera sees: the setting, the lighting, the actors, their performances
(including blocking), costumes, makeup, props. It also referred to how those
elements were arranged within the frame—in other words, it was synonymous with
the shot’s composition.

A few problems sprang up immediately. The first was that the
Cahiers critics never defined their
term all that precisely. Alexandre Astruc famously called mise-en-scène “a song, a rhythm, a dance” (267); in a 1998 interview,
Astruc’s Cahiers colleague Jacques
Rivette claimed, “Here’s a good definition of mise en scène—it’s what’s lacking in the films of Joseph L.
Mankiewicz” (Bonnaud). I thought at the time that Rivette was simply being
cheeky, but there’s a way in which he’s also deadly serious: he means that All About Eve, despite literally having
lighting and staging and props and settings, etc., nonetheless somehow lacks a
certain special quality, which is mise-en-scène.
Delving into the Cahiers writing of
the 1950s makes it apparent that there was, right from the start, a tendency to
define the concept loosely, poetically—which is what led critic Brian Henderson
to later call the term “undefined” (315).

The second problem occurs when you consider how people who
make films see different things than those who view films. When you watch a
play, the stage is in front of you, and it’s clear what’s on it and what isn’t.
But films differ from theater in two key aspects. One, the camera frames the
image. Two, cinema includes cuts (edits).

Let’s say you’re making a film, shooting a scene on a busy
street. The camera sees only so much of that street, but you, being there, can
see the whole thing (and the actors can see the whole thing, which presumably
influences their performances). Where does the mise-en-scène begin and where does it end? What’s more, a lot of
what you shoot won’t end up in the film—parts of takes, and perhaps even whole
takes (what we today call “deleted scenes”), will end up on the cutting room
floor, or in some separate portion of a hard drive. What happens to the mise-en-scène of those images?

This is why mise-en-scène
isn’t really a production term— as Astruc had already noted by 1959, it’s not
something that filmmakers talk about when they’re shooting (267). Instead, it’s
a critic’s term, referring to the content of shots that appear in the finished
film. And since it refers to the content of the shot, then it also must refer
to camera movements, since panning and tracking changes the shot’s content.
(The famous long take in Goodfellas
that follows Henry Hill and his date as they enter the Copacabana via the
kitchen features more than one setting, as well as numerous actors, props,
costumes, and so on.)

So mise-en-scène
refers to the entirety of any given shot: the stuff that was filmed, as well as
how it is framed (and how that changes). And in many places, the term has more
or less survived into the present day in this form. For instance, here’s how Ed
Sikov’s Film Studies: An Introduction
(2010) defines it:

“Everything—literally everything—in the
filmed image is described by the term mise-en-scene:
it’s the expressive totality of what you see in a single film image.
Mise-en-scene consists of all the
elements placed in front of the camera to be photographed: settings, props,
lighting, costumes, makeup, and figure behavior (meaning actors, their
gestures, and their facial expressions)
. In addition, mise-en-scene includes the camera’s actions and angles and the
, which simply means photography for motion pictures. Since everything in the filmed image comes
under the heading of mise-en-scene, the term’s definition is a mouthful, so a
shorter definition is this: Mise-en-scene
is the totality of expressive content within the image
.” (5–6, italics in
the original)

But when one stops to think about this concept, one sees how
even this is problematic. For one thing, how is mise-en-scène any different from the term “shot”? Or “composition”?
Obviously, we’re not dealing with the actual things in the shot—the actual
setting, the actual props—but a two-dimensional record of them, frozen in a
particular arrangements. What’s more, if every shot is essentially its mise-en-scène, and a film is made up entirely
of shots, then isn’t mise-en-scène in
fact synonymous with the entire film? Which is to say, isn’t mise-en-scène synonymous with cinema


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
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.)

3. Mise-en-scène and Its DiscontentsnullKeeping this convoluted history in mind, I want to examine
now at what is overlooked by the historical tendency to associate mise-en-scène with the long take, and to
oppose it to editing. Because I believe that these traditional oppositions and associations
limit our understanding of the richness and artistry of the cinema.

For starters, let’s look more closely at Bazin’s argument
that the long take is better than the short one for representing reality. A
commonly heard argument here (one still hears it today) is that whenever a filmmaker
cuts, he or she is guiding the viewer’s attention, and forcing them to look at
particular things in particular ways. By way of contrast, Bazin argued that
long takes allowed viewers more freedom—they could look where they wanted. This
contributed to the idea that long takes are somehow more respectful of film viewers,
and as such require more sophisticated viewers. Over time, this created the
kneejerk association that long takes are somehow smarter than shorter ones (an
idea that lives on in the attacks on Michael Bay).

But is this argument necessarily true? There are many
reasons to doubt it. For one thing, all shots, long and short, are equally
artificial. It simply isn’t the case that as a shot gets longer, it somehow gets
truer. To think that way overlooks the artifice of the long take.

For instance, Bazin’s arguments about how long takes were more
respectful or less manipulative than shorter ones don’t always hold up to
scrutiny. As it turns out, there is nothing stopping long takes from being just
as composed and manipulative as shorter ones. Directors have many tools at
their disposal to direct the viewer’s attention through the long take, just
like they do in shorter ones. Composition can be, and often is, a means for directing
attention. So, too, are performances and camera movements. In other words, there’s
no reason to assume that mise-en-scène
is any less “manipulative” than editing.

This point is well made by David Bordwell in his article “Widescreen
Aesthetics and Mise-en-Scène Criticism” (1985, available
here as a PDF
). In particular, Bordwell observes how Otto Preminger’s use
of widescreen was celebrated by certain critics operating in the Bazinian
tradition. He relates how two critics writing in the Bazinian tradition, V.F.
Perkins and Charles Barr, praised a scene in River of No
(1954) in which Marilyn Monroe’s character, Kay, drops her
valise while boarding a raft. As the scene continues, we see the valise drifting
away in the background of other shots. The argument here is that Preminger has
left it up to the viewer to see this detail, even as the action continues in
the foreground. Both Perkins and Barr celebrated Preminger’s employment of long
takes and deep focus, arguing that they gave his films a kind of naturalism,
transparency, and subtlety.

But Bordwell argues that this isn’t the case at all. In his
analysis, he notes how the film actually employs several devices that function
to draw attention to the disappearing valise:

“When Kay drops the valise she glances
frantically toward it and cries out, ‘My things!’ Harry shouts, ‘Let it go!’ At
the same moment, the camera pans sharply to the right to reframe the valise,
and a chord sounds on the musical track. Our attention to the drifting bundle
is just as motivated. For one thing, the bundle is initially centered when Matt
and Henry pass. Furthermore, Preminger has anticipated this camera position a
few shots earlier, when matt ran to the edge of the bank. It is common for a
classical film to establish a locale in a neutral way and then return to this
already-seen camera setup when we are to notice a fresh element in the space.
We thus identify the new information as significant against a background of
familiarity. As a fresh element in a locale we have already seen from a
comparable vantage point, the bundle becomes noteworthy. In sum, Preminger’s
staging of the scene stands out because it avoids editing, but it uses other
means to draw our attention to the bundle—centering, the return to a familiar
setup, and the repetition of cues for the bundle’s loss.” (22–3).

So much, then for Preminger’s supposed naturalism and transparency.
His long takes and use of deep focus—hallmarks of Bazinian realism, and supposedly
free of manipulation—turn out to be saturated with artifice, and highly
manipulative. (Preminger is hardly the only example one can find of this—Citizen Kane, for instance, also uses
composition and sound cues to focus its viewers’ attention, in addition to its celebrated
usage of long takes and deep focus.)

Another problem with the critical tendency to oppose long
takes and editing is that it ignores the many ways that those two techniques commonly
work together. This point is well made by Brian Henderson in his 1976 essay “The
Long Take,” which seeks to deconstruct the false binary between Bazin’s long
take and Eisenstein’s montage. For one thing, Henderson points out that long
takes still have duration, beginnings and endings, and as such still employ
editing—they’re edited together. What’s more, even a director like Max Ophuls—truly
a master of the long take if there ever was one—rarely assembled his films out
of nothing but long takes. Thus, a film with many long takes may also feature
shorter ones, and those shorter takes may in fact come between long takes:

“The present article takes its chief
emphasis from the fact that the long take rarely appears in its pure state (as
a sequence filmed in one shot), but almost always in combination with some form
of editing. […] Most analyses of long take directors and styles concentrate on
the long take itself and ignore the mode of cutting unique to it—what we call
below the intra-sequence cut. But such cuts or cutting patterns (one could even
speak of cutting styles) are as essential to the long take sequence as the long
take itself.” (316)

Throughout the essay, Henderson patiently draws attention to
these problems in order to ultimately argue that a film criticism that simply opposes
long takes and editing is bound to overlook the crucial role that editing plays
in defining the long take, and sequences of long takes. His goal is to point
out an area of filmmaking that has largely gone unstudied. Sadly, the tendency
to diametrically oppose mise-en-scène
with cutting prevails nearly forty years later, leaving a fascinating realm of
cinema still largely unstudied. At the present moment in popular film
criticism, the championing of long takes has once again risen to something of a
fetish. It receives a disparate amount of attention despite the fact that the long
take is but one element of filmmaking, no better or worse than any other.

A related problem is the tendency to measure the length of a
film’s takes by calculating the Average Shot Length, or ASL. This value is
calculated by dividing a film’s running time by the number of shots it
contains. And ASL is a very useful value in many respects. For one thing, when
one surveys many different films, ASL can give a general sense of how rapidly
films are cut in a given place or time. Thus, one can say that the average rate
of cutting in Hollywood cinema has increased throughout the sound era. Or, one
can attempt to catalog which contemporary Hollywood films feature the longest
I did here
, in an earlier article for PressPlay.

But ASL also leaves out a lot of information, especially
when one is analyzing specific films. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity,
for instance, has an ASL of roughly 35, since it features 156 shots in 90
minutes. (I’m speaking approximately here; I’m going off reported numbers, and
haven’t performed this analysis myself. Also, I don’t know the actual runtime
of the film, sans credits. The exact ASL, however, is beside the point.) Having
in hand an ASL of 35 doesn’t mean that every shot in Gravity is 35 seconds long—or indeed that any shot in Gravity is 35 seconds long. The opening
shot, for instance, is at least twelve minutes long—meaning that, on average,
the remaining 155 shots have an ASL of 30 seconds. And for every shot longer
than that, there means there are also shots shorter than that. What of them?
Are they any good? What is their relationship to the longer shots in the film?
Or is Gravity only good during its
long shots? (And if that’s the case, then why?)

The fetishizing of long takes is part of a larger,
long-running problem in film criticism, which as a whole is arguably less
critical than it pretends to be. As David Bordwell has expressed it:

“Instead of asking how films work or
how spectators understand films, many scholars prefer to offer interpretive
commentary on films. Even what’s called film theory is largely a mixture of
received doctrines, highly selective evidence, and more or less free
association. Which is to say that many humanists treat doing film theory as a
sort of abstract version of doing film criticism. They don’t embrace the
practices of rational inquiry, which includes assessing a wide body of
evidence, seeking out counterexamples, and showing how a line of argument is
more adequate than its rivals.” (“Articles“)

Put another way, the fascination with the long take risks
becoming entirely symptomatic, and uncritical. What makes a movie good? Long
takes! How do you know which movies are the best? Why, just check which ones
feature the longest takes! This is a totally dumbed-down type of film
criticism, where all we need do is calculate ASL’s in order to rank all the
movies ever made.

I don’t want to imply that long takes aren’t important, or
don’t feature a special relationship with mise-en-scène.
Certainly we should be sensitive to the unique challenges and properties posed
by the long take, and how it presents its content to the viewer. No film better
illustrates this than Aleksandr Sokurov’s feature Russian Ark
(2002), whose 96 minutes of footage consist of a single take. I myself watched
the film twice in a row in the theater, something I’ve rarely done—but Russian Ark is truly an atypical film.

However, is Russian
somehow more realistic than films that feature editing? Hardly. It’s worth
remembering, a la Henderson, that the 96-minute-long shot, and the film itself,
still has a beginning and an end. When compared with a person’s life—or even a
single day—it is still but a miniscule slice of time, unable to compete with actual
lived experience.

What’s more, we would do well to remember Bordwell’s
analysis of Preminger. The film as a whole, rather than being some transparent
documentation of reality, is entirely contrived. The single take carries us
from room to room, and from scene to scene. We go where Sokurov takes us. And
the man isn’t just wandering the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage
Museum with a camcorder, capturing whatever reality he finds there. Instead,
he’s organized everything that we see. His camera movements and framing glide
along very differently than we people do, being balanced by a Steadicam. And
they continuously direct our attention, focusing it to particular aspects of
the spectacle. Meanwhile, everything that appears on screen is the product of meticulous
design and rehearsal. And we aren’t even seeing the first take, but the fourth!
(Goodfellas’s Steadicam passage
through the Copacabana is similarly no more real or less artificial than any
other shot in any other film ever.)

Along these lines, associating mise-en-scène exclusively with long takes perpetuates the bias
toward long takes, since they then seem to have a special quality (mise-en-scène!) that’s lacking in
shorter ones. Because, I mean, if cutting eliminates mise-en-scène, then aren’t they inherently worse? But short takes
do have mise-en-scène, and
understanding the connection between the mise-en-scène
and the montage is extremely important. To put it another way, if montage is
the study of the interrelation of shots, and all shots possess a mise-en-scène, then montage is also the
study of the interrelation of mise-en-scènes.
This is a topic just as worthy of serious critical attention as the study of
individual long takes. What is needed, overall, is a critical approach to cinema
that seeks to relate the various parts to the whole (as we find in the works of
critics like Bordwell and Henderson).


4. Mise-en-scène and the Short Take

In order to demonstrate the importance of mise-en-scène in short-take cinema, I’d
like to devote the remainder of this article to analyzing a scene from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
(2010), looking at how mise-en-scène and
editing work in concert to produce several complicated larger effects. A few
notes first. I chose this scene because the editing in it is very fast. (The
editing in Wright’s films tends to be very fast in general.) Here, we have 24
shots in 57 seconds, yielding an ASL of only 2.1. That of course doesn’t tell
us how long each shot is, but it’s worth noting that this ASL is lower than in
most contemporary Hollywood films, which tend to hover in the 3–6 second range.
And yet, despite the brisk pace, a great amount of information is communicated in
this minute of film. Let’s see how that is done.

The scene in question occurs roughly 26 minutes into the
film. Scott Pilgrim has just had his first date with Ramona Flowers. Later that
day, his band (Sex Bob-omb) is due to play in a battle of the bands at a club
called the Rockit:

Ramona arrives, surprising Scott; she then meets some of
Scott’s family and friends. She also meets Scott’s current girlfriend, Knives
Chao, who kisses Scott, causing the young man to stammer and flee. Along the
way, we also get the beginnings of a subplot in which Wallace will seduce Jimmy
away from Stacey. In order to understand how Edgar Wright accomplished all of
this (and more!), we need to examine his sophisticated deployment of mise-en-scène.

For one thing, even though the Rockit isn’t the primary
focus of the scene, the setting is still important. The first two shots (of the
club’s sign and the interior, including the stage) function as establishing
shots, after which we catch glimpses of people milling about, and crew members
preparing for the upcoming battle of the bands. The next ten minutes of the
film will take place at the Rockit, and these establishing and background
elements help set the stage (literally) for the coming action. The setting also
figures into the film’s larger plot: its dive-bar atmosphere (“this place is a
toilet”) helps establish the upward progress that Scott and his band mates are
striving to make, which will be entwined with Scott’s struggle to win Ramona’s
heart. As both Sex Bob-omb and Scott advance, the clubs grow progressively
nicer until they wind up at the final battle, at Gideon Graves’s
state-of-the-art Chaos Theater.

Other background elements are also doing important work.
Edgar Wright sets up a quick joke by using the first few shots not only to
reveal information, but to conceal some as well. Ramona arrives and greets
Scott, and we get some conversation between them done as shot-reverse-shot.
Wright then cuts to reveal that Wallace, Stacey, and Jimmy are also present,
and have been standing there the whole time. The reveal is humorous, and helps
further Scott’s obliviousness (he has eyes only for Ramona). (The maneuver
recalls the joke in the opening scene of Shaun
of the Dead
, where Wright gradually adds in characters.)

Another important function of the mise-en-scène of each shot is how it helps focus our
attention—which is in fact vitally important, given how short these shots are.
Lighting and costuming are used to offset the characters from the background,
drawing our attention to their faces. And it’s worth noting here that, even in
short takes, there’s still room for mobile camerawork. (In other words, changes
in composition and changes in shots through editing are hardly opposed to one
another, but can work in concert.) As Stacey introduces Wallace and Jimmy, the
camera whip-pans to show us each character. Wright then builds another joke out
of this, hand-in-hand with the cutting, as Wallace sets his sights on Jimmy.

As the scene progresses, our attention is gradually shifted
away from the background elements of the setting, and more toward the
characters themselves. Again, numerous elements are working together here to
accomplish this (including tighter framing and a shallower depth of field). The
focus grows increasingly shallow throughout the scene, as our perspective
shrinks to that of Scott Pilgrim and his discomfort. The payoff comes in the
final shot of the scene, where Wright opens the space up once again, returning us
to a larger sense of the club. The pounding of Scott’s heart turns out to be a
drum being used in the sound check. Meanwhile, Scott, unable to handle the
conflict at hand (his basic problem as a protagonist), takes advantage of the deeper
focus of the shot to run off into the distance, and out of sight. (We have here
an illustration of how cinematography often anticipates how the actors are
going to move in the course of a shot.)

Yet other elements of the mise-en-scène work to develop the ongoing conflicts and jokes. When
Knives Chau shows up, her performance calls attention to her new hairstyle,
which is part of her character’s arc: her adoration for Scott is causing her to
become an indie rock fan. In a later scene, she’ll dye her hair blue, in
imitation of Ramona—and already the film is drawing comparisons between their
respective looks, and setting that love triangle in motion.

It’s also worth noting that the scene, despite being rapidly
edited, is hardly incoherent, either temporally, spatially, or narratively.
Indeed, a great deal is being communicated here in all three of those aspects
of the film. Several of the jokes depend on a consistent sense of space. And,
narratively, the scene introduces many characters to one another, delivering
some exposition to them and to the audience, as well as establishing two
separate love triangles (Scott / Ramona / Knives and Stacey / Wallace / Jimmy).

And this analysis only scratches the surface—we haven’t
considered much how sound functions in the scene, or color, or any of the CGI
elements. But I think we can see how the scene functions due to its complex
interaction of lighting, costuming, setting, character positioning (blocking),
camera movement—and editing (and camerawork). Rather than opposing one another,
all of the elements of the film—including the mise-en-scène and the editing—are working in concert to progress a
wealth of character and plot detail. Indeed, it’s only because those elements
are so carefully arranged in consideration of one another that Wright can
accomplish so much so economically. That complex interplay is the very heart of
the film’s sophistication, and artistry.

A.D Jameson is the author
of three books:
  Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), and 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium Inc., 2013). Other writing has appeared
and HTMLGIANT, as well as in dozens of literary journals. Since August 2011 he’s been a PhD student at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at

5 thoughts on “What Mise-en-scène Is and Why It Matters”

  1. I guess I've always considered mise-en-scene more or less synonymous with "composition," in terms of how elements are arranged within a shot (and by extension how they move within a shot). I think I would define montage as creating meaning through time and mise-en-scene as creating meaning through space. I'm not sure that contradicts anything you've said – I would define them in opposition to each other, sure, as different ways to create/express meaning, but not in the sense that one is more useful/valuable than the other. They work in concert to create a totality of meaning through space and time, as you've analyzed in Scott Pilgrim.

    I think that Hollywood now tends to rely on editing more than on mise-en-scene. As you mention in your comment below on Bay, he may not cut faster than Wright, but Wright's images remain utterly comprehensible whereas Bay's (to me, at least) do not. That suggests that Bay's mise-en-scene is not good enough to sustain the editing speed he uses, while Wright's focus on careful mise-en-scene allows him to make faster cuts while remaining comprehensible.


  2. " This contributed to the idea that long takes are somehow more respectful of film viewers, and as such require more sophisticated viewers. Over time, this created the kneejerk association that long takes are somehow smarter than shorter ones (an idea that lives on in the attacks on Michael Bay)."

    I don't think long takes are superior but imo Bay cuts so fast its hard to follow the action.


  3. Sounds like nobody really knows what it means, and judging on this I don't see why they should really care either. If indeed it does mean nothing more than 'shot' then it's entirely superfluous and using the phrase is nothing more than a pretentious affectation.


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