Mise en scene
However, in terms of auteurs' ideas about the world, Cahiers conceded, in an important 1960 article by Fereydoun Hoveyda, 'the consistency of the ideas we came across in the films of Lang, Rossellini, Renoir, Welles ... we realized that our favourite auteurs were in fact talking about the same things. The "constants" of their particular universes belonged to everybody: solitude, violence, the absurdity of existence, sin, redemption, love, etc. Each epoch has its own themes, which serve as a backcloth against which individuals, whether artists or not, act out their lives.' But if these themes were more or less constant across different auteurs, how were they to be told apart, and what made them original?
The originality of the auteur lies not in the subject matter he chooses, but in the technique he employs, i.e. the mise en scene, through which everything on the screen is expressed ... As Sartre said: 'One isn't a writer for having chosen to say certain things, but for having chosen to say them in a certain way'. Why should it be any different for cinema? ... the thought of a cineaste appears through his mise en scene. What matters in a film is the desire for order, composition, harmony, the placing of actors and objects, the movements within the frame, the capturing of a movement or a look; in short, the intellectual operation which has put an initial emotion and a general idea to work. Mise en scene is nothing other than the technique invented by each director to express the idea and establish the specific quality of his work ... The task of the critic thus becomes immense: to discover behind the images the particular 'manner' of the auteur and, thanks to this knowledge, to be able to elucidate the meaning of the work in question.
Mise en scene thus establishes itself as a - perhaps the - central and essential concept in Cahiers and in later criticism influenced by Cahiers. There is clear continuity, for example, between Truffaut's comment that 'it is not so much the choice of subject which characterizes [Jacques] Becker as how he chooses to treat this subject' and V. F. Perkins's comment on Carmen Jones that 'what matters is less the originality or otherwise of Preminger's theme than the freshness, economy and intelligence of the means by which the theme is presented'.
In origin mise en scene is a word drawn from the theatre, neutral in intention, meaning literally 'placing on the stage' or 'staging', that is, the way in which a play-text becomes a staged play. For several reasons, the word's original descriptive neutrality no longer applied to its usage. Firstly, Antonin Artaud, in The Theatre of Cruelty, had used the term polemically in relation to theatre in arguing for the supremacy of the director as the person responsible for visualizing the spectacle, over the writer:
The typical language of the theatre will be constituted around the mise en scene considered not simply as the degree of refraction of a text upon the stage, but as the point of departure for all theatrical creation. And it is in the use and handling of this language that the old duality between author and director will be dissolved, replaced by a sort of unique Creator upon whom will devolve the double responsibility of the spectacle and the plot.
In the 1940s Alexandre Astruc, arguing for the camera-stylo as a 'means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel ... in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts', had taken a recognizably similar position in relation to the auteur-director in cinema (and one similar to Truffaut's in 'Une Certaine Tendance'): 'this of course implies that the scriptwriter directs his own scripts; or rather, that the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of film-making the distinction between author and director loses all meaning. Direction is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but a true act of writing.
Secondly, the way Cahiers conceived mise en scene tended toward an aesthetic which privileged realist, or illusionist, narrative. In this sense mise en scene became a sort of counter to theories of montage, privileging the action, movement forward and illusion of narrative against any foregrounding of the relations between shot and shot, and narrative function against any sense of pictorialism in the individual shot (hence Astruc's 'tyranny of what is visual; the image for its own sake'). The body of conventions to which this conception of mise en scene was attached was, of course, broadly that of mainstream narrative cinema, particularly American cinema - that cinema characterized so effectively by V. F. Perkins in Film as Film. It is a relatively 'conservative' aesthetic, and one broadly adhered to by Cahiers in the 1950s. There is a clear enough continuity, for example, between Bazin's pre-Cahiers writings on realism and both the aesthetic assumptions of most Cahiers critics and the aesthetic practices of the films they themselves made in the late 1950s - see, as an instance, Hoveyda's account of Truffaut's Les 400 Coups. Interestingly enough, at the same moment that this aesthetic triumphs with Les 400 Coups and the nouvelle vague, it is also 'challenged' by the relative modernism of Hiroshima mon amour.
Thirdly, mise en scene was not a neutral term in the sense that it was the start of an attempt to raise the very important question - fundamental to the critical-theoretical debates which Cahiers provoked in Britain and the USA - of specificity: 'the specificity of a cinematographic work lies in its form rather than in its content in the mise en scene and not in the scenario or the dialogue'. This concept of specificity was absolutely central to the discussion and validation of American cinema, as Elsaesser points out:
Given the fact that in Hollywood the director often had no more than token control over choice of subject, the cast, the quality of the dialogue, all the weight of creativity, all the evidence of personal expression and statement had to be found in the mise en scene, the visual orchestration of the story, the rhythm of the action, the plasticity and dynamism of the image, the pace and causality introduced through the editing.
Much Cahiers discussion of genre, for example, depended on the supposedly transcendent qualities of mise en scene: 'the strength of the cinema is such that in the hands of a great director, even the most insignificant detective story can be transformed into a work of art.'
It was this question of the cinematographic specificity of mise en scene which contributed so decisively to what John Caughie calls the 'radical dislocation' in the development of film theory: auteurism 'effected ... a shift in the way films were conceived and grasped within film criticism. The personality of the director, and the consistency within his films, were not, like the explicit subject matter which tended to preoccupy established criticism, simply there as a "given", They had to be sought out, discovered, by a process of analysis and attention to a number of films.' As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith put it: 'It was in establishing what the film said, rather than reasons for liking or disliking it, that authorship criticism validated itself as an approach.' Mise en scene provided the means by which the auteur expressed his thought, as Hoveyda put it, and thus also the means by which the auteur is critically discovered, analysed.
In many respects, the attention to mise en scene, even to the extent of a certain historically necessary formalism, is probably the most important positive contribution of auteurism to the development of a precise and detailed film criticism, engaging with the specific mechanisms of visual discourse, freeing it from literary models, and from the liberal commitments which were prepared to validate films on the basis of their themes alone.
Cahiers du Cinema/ Volume 1/ The 1950: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave
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