Tuesday, January 13, 2015


When it comes to academics, I have to admit that I am not the brightest bulb on the marquee; but, I am ever eager to learn and—as I was taught by my mentor Joseph Campbell—I am committed to the populist practice of winnowing from the "thickets of jargon" that characterize academic writing those insights or ideas that a non-academic audience might appreciate. That's by way of qualifying that it would be near to impossible for me to "review" Adrian Martin's valuable survey Mise En Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). As accessible as I find his language, his erudition sometimes flies over my head or bounces off my rather blunt forehead. It will take a few more readings for me to feel in enough command of the rich diverse ideas he has presented in this volume to sufficiently "review" same. Why hazard being presumptuous when I can just be honest?

Yet time waits for no man, let alone a reviewer, and I can only respond slackjawed to the swift, brilliant responses of Girish Shambu and Jonathan Rosenbaum to Martin's latest publication. How can they read and absorb so fast?! Girish breaks down the four things the book is trying to do and Jonathan highlights some of its key achievements. Along with Rosenbaum, however, I urge Palgrave MacMillan to provide an affordable paperback copy of this volume as soon as possible.

What I can do, however, in lieu of a review, is to launch a new sidebar on The Evening Class that I'll entitle "Applications", which is really the way I process books. How do I apply what I am learning? Where do the insights gleaned from reading a book like Mise en Scène and Film Style find their way into my spectatorial and critical practice? Let's give it a shot, shall we?

Perhaps the most evident achievement of Mise en Scène and Film Style is its careful and thorough attention to the historicity of such a deliciously vague French term as mise en scène (along with the equally delectable dispositif, découpage, décalage, montage, auteur, genre, cinephilia). If anything, Martin has underscored why I was never clear about the exact meaning of mise en scène and why—every time I asked—I received a variant answer. The history of mise en scène has involved a fascinating variety of applications through an evolving continuum of critical and cultural fashions and nowhere has this been laid out more clearly and helpfully than in Martin's survey. Mise en scène becomes "the term that means everything." Citing Paul Willemen (1994:226), Martin summarizes that a term like mise en scène, though cherished, rarely defines anything precise in cinema. "Rather," he writes, "they mark a confusion, a fumbling attempt to pinpoint some murky confluence of wildly diverse factors." (2014:1) I feel exonerably confused with optimistic room for improvement.

I've been traveling on the film festival circuit with Martin's volume under my arm for a couple of months now and it has been genuinely fun to approach films with his insights, as I've understood them and (again) as I have applied them. This exercise is not meant to be in any way exhaustive as much as indicative of how the book is impacting my sensibility while reading it.

At last year's edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), I had the great fortune of watching POV Award recipient Isaac Julien's Ten Thousand Waves, a heady nine-screen composite of Julien's original installation, projected for its SFIFF audience and enhanced by a fascinating on-stage conversation between Julien and B. Ruby Rich. Bubbling at the surface of my overflowing cauldron of untranscribed recordings, I've never quite known how to approach writing about this split-screen one-off event, which seemed so much more than "just a film." Although in his volume Martin focuses on Brian DePalma's Passion (2012), much of what he says about DePalma's film spoke to my experience of Ten Thousand Waves, especially with regard to the "polyphonic interplay between multiple screens, spatialised across the walls or constructed zones of a gallery" His definition of spatialised cinema as a "version of a gallery-like installation, but brought back into cinema and co-ordinated on a single screen" displaying "evident formal fragmentation, the tension between displayed parts and levels, that we experience in modernist and postmodernist artworks" and his alignment of such a practice with dispositif ("an apparatus, arrangement or set-up of interrelated pieces or elements") has provided the perfect tool for me to return home and finally work on this piece. Wish me luck!

Further, I very much enjoy how Martin speaks through his text to his readership as if he were addressing them from behind a lectern or, even at times, across a café table: "Has not the cinema always been, in some crucial senses, a dispositif? Has it not always been a game with a multiplicity of spaces, looks and sounds? Has it not always been the sum—or rather, the face-off—between the different media that comprise it: theatre, novel, radio, music, painting, architecture?" (2014: xiii.) As someone who deeply appreciates the connective tissue between art mediums, I find that quote inspiring.

In mid-November, en route to San Francisco, my flight was delayed out of Boise due to an early snow fall. Anticipating same, I had the good sense to have Mise en Scène and Film Style close at hand, and read, first: "Part of the argument of this book is a plea to always attend closely and full-bloodedly to this type of materiality in cinema—a materiality that works on the double register of textuality (concrete properties of the constructed, composed work) and the spectator's emotions (the affects that films create in us, the experiences we have of them)" (2014:xvii) and then: "In recent years, some scholars and critics have revived the concept of mise en scène in the context of a general engagement with affect—the spectator's emotional states triggered by a film—over and above the literary or dramatic niceties of thematic meaning." (2014:18)

In that marvelous way that words evoke image, the second I finished reading these sentences I instantly visualized The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), wherein I was much taken by the sequence of dissolves used by Olivier Assayas to film Kristen Stewart driving on curving roads. I loved this sequence because it was purely visual, purely musical, no dialogue, and though it told me nothing about the narrative per se, it filled me with—as Martin termed it—overwhelming affect. I was deeply affected by the sinuous beauty of this sequence. I felt the torque of each curve, and intuited aspects of Kristen's character Valentine that—though not fully articulating her character—allowed me to feel her character and her struggle for autonomy and independence. This aligns with what Martin terms "an energetic or dynamic approach to film style", which introduces "the action or psychic drives into both the making of films and their reception." (2014:19)

A few years back at the Toronto International, I became quite infatuated with Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) and couldn't absorb enough of his work for months afterwards. For that matter, the passion continues and—thanks to Martin—I now understand a little bit better why: "For Chilean-born Raúl Ruiz, what Sigmund Freud outlined as the mechanisms of the dream-work—the condensations, displacements and overdeterminations that create what we see, hear and feel in our dreams—are the very operations of mise en scène itself. In a striking formulation, Ruiz called these Freudian mechanisms, 'the mise en scène of the dream.' Hence, transporting this concept directly to cinema, all mise en scène, no matter whether it is working on the most obviously dreamlike or the most seemingly naturalistic material, has the function of 'producing displacements of intensity, and condensations' (Ruiz 1999, p. 84). It warps and stresses the scene, twisting it potentially into a strange shape, or an unforeseen direction. [¶] For my part, at the outset of this book, I want to hold onto Ruiz's sense of mise en scène as always potentially transformative—but transformative in ways that refer to the entire materiality of cinema, not solely the inspiration of a director on set or the phenomenological subjectivity of enraptured viewers. Transformation is not transcendence. Mise en scène can transform the elements of a given scene; it can transform a narrative's destination; it can transform our mood or our understanding as we experience the film. Style is not a supplement to content; it makes content—and remakes it, too, in flight." (2014:19-20)

That summarization of the transformative style of Ruiz's cinema could just as easily explain my fascination with the dream works of Olivier Smolders, Charlie Kaufman, or especially David Lynch who—in my estimation—serves the criteria of "strangeness" held out by Paul Schrader as essential to establishing a film canon ("Canon Fodder", Film Comment, 2006). What for years I termed "the Lynchian imperative" I can now accurately reduce to the transformative potential of mise en scène.

Recently, I was fortunate to be in attendance at the world premiere of Dolissa Medina's The Crow Furnace (2014), an experimental essay short which begged the question: "Where's the mise en scène?" In his expert and thorough review of styles of critical analysis, Martin cited a 1956 essay by Jean-Luc Godard ("Montage, My Fine Care") which distinguished between montage cinema ("films essentially structured and formed in editing") and mise en scène cinema ("films essentially created on set or in an environment, in expansive long takes") (2014:54) and I'm grateful for this working distinction to later approach characteristics of a lineage of found footage artifacts.

"If mise en scène is bodies in space," Martin queries further along in his text, "dance scenes are (as we have already observed) prime candidates for pure cinema. But what can a director actually do with these dancing bodies in space?" (2014:58) This question immediately reminded me of my conversation with Wim Wenders whose use of 3D to choreograph the work of Pina Bausch defined the challenge.

When I first began writing on film in 2006 after resigning from a legal career it was largely fueled by an already-existing journalistic impulse inspired by the Diaries of Anaïs Nin, which approached films (in particular, I'm thinking of her journal entry on the 1953 Paris premiere of Gate of Hell) as life-experiences worthy of journal entry. Thus, I appreciate Martin's discernment: "But films are not just the points they make, or even the sum of their thematic structures; they are also palpable surfaces and immediate experiences, sensation-banks and emotional triggers." (2014:107)

Speaking of surfaces, Martin explores the cascading textures of audiovisual art yoked to the computer screen as an extension of filmic mise en scène. He asks: "But what happens when the copresent screen—complete with its user's distractions and the layered, metapsychological effects that result—gets represented back to us 'as is', simply as things that happen on a screen surface, yet staged, timed and fictionalized? This is the premise of the short Canadian film Noah (Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, 2013), which zippily recounts the unraveling of a teen relationship via 'live' social media." (2014:175) Described as a "hybrid-documentary" at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, Noah paved the way for its horrific iteration in Leo Gabriadze's Cybernatural (2014), which was a runaway sleeper hit at last summer's edition of Fantasia.

In his (for me, quite challenging) chapter "The Rise of the Dispositif" (2014:178-204), Martin continues to tackle the reconfigurations of mise en scène within the digital frame by extolling the creativity of the Internet's first true superstars: Nataly Dawn and Jack Conte, aka Pomplamoose, who were fêted at an earlier edition of the Disposable Film Festival (a festival which, singlehandedly, shifted my perceptions of digital imagemaking). Of Pomplamoose, Martin writes: "Their VideoSongs adhere to two exact rules of self-determined construction: 'What you see is what you hear (no lip-synching for instruments or voice). 2. If you hear it, at some point you see it (no hidden sounds)' (TheBestArts, 2014). This dispositif (in this case, there is no better word for it) generates amusing gags: whenever Nataly overdubs herself singing (as she frequently does), we instantly jump to multiple split-screens—in order to maintain the integrity of the game's rules. …Fixed digital cameras, set positions, restrictions on place and action: who could have guessed … that a dispositif could be this much fun?" (2014:182)

Listening to Jack Conte speak about their working methods proved inspirational for me, especially when he detailed how much energy, time and money he put into producing his first album, only to have it fail financially, and how it taught him to "lighten up" in order to succeed. His advice initiated what, for me, became my portfolio approach towards film writing, understanding that what I write on this blog The Evening Class has more to do with a quicker more immediate form of writing than, say, what I might offer to a magazine, or contribute to a publication like The Film Festival Yearbook (an essay which took me seven months to write). In other words there is a value to shifting along a continuum of film writing, from purely cinephilic to critical. These days I add to that portfolio the shoot-from-the-hip short form festival impressions I share on Facebook, never meant to be a bona-fide review, but merely early sketches of what I hope to develop later on down the line. My true pleasure in film writing comes from shifting along this continuum and writing at different pitches of acumen.

Last night I was watching a DVD of Chris Marker's Le Joli Mai (1963) and found myself appreciating it from the perspective of Martin's comments on "kinesics": "Kinesics, for its part, offers a complex breakdown of the body—where film studies, in default mode, usually concentrates on faces (the cult of the close-up, filtered through Deleuze's theory of faciality) and eyes ('the gaze'), on the most obvious gestural work of hands…." (2014:138). There was a lot to digest in that early cinéma vérité documentary of Marker's—his visible presence no less!—but, what I kept noticing were his close-ups on the hands of the Black man, the priest, their expressive gestures, which reminded me, in turn, of the two recent interviews I conducted at the Palm Springs International Film Festival with directors Abderrahmane Sissako and Andrey Zvyagintsev, which required the assistance of translative interpreters. With Zvyagintsev particularly, I was fascinated by his staring me in the eye as he spoke and his demonstrative gestures which proved as eloquent as the interpreter's eventual translations. Further, in both interviews I borrowed from Martin's description of "image-events" as a way to approach certain sequences in their respective films.

I could go on and on, but, I presume at this juncture you get the idea. What makes Martin's study of mise en scène and film style is precisely its capacity to enrichen an educated cinephile's cinematic experience by awareness of the stylistic elements and strategies employed to create any single film and the multiple ways those elements and strategies can be approached and expressed. I'll close with a glance at what I'm finding to be one of the most provocative theses in his volume, that of "social mise en scène", which I've applied to two recent screenings.

The first would be Fabrice Du Welz's Alléluia (2014), which I just caught at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The most recent staging of the infamous "Lonely Hearts Killers" of the late '40s, this film begs a comparative stylistic analysis with its predecessors: Leonard Kastle's The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Arturo Ripstein's Deep Crimson (1996), and Todd Robinson's Lonely Hearts (2006). Armed with Martin's volume, I might actually try to endeavor same.

Martin details the conceptual underpinnings of social mise en scène in his chapter "A Detour via Reality: Social Mise en Scène" (2014:127-154), pointing out that—though it is not a totally new idea in film studies—it's an overlooked path. "With social mise en scène," he writes, "rather than going directly or primarily to the unique, idiosyncratic sensibility or world-view of the maker, we attend to the newly grasped raw material of social codes, their constant exposure and deformation in the work of how a film articulates itself. In particular, it allows us to zero in on something specific: known rituals that are recreated, marked, inscribed in the flow of the film, usually in order to be transformed." (2014:134)

To clarify his argument, he utilizes the listening booth sequence in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) where Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) listen to Kath Bloom's "Come Here"—"a play of stolen glances and half-hidden smiles" (2014:135) that register their awkward attraction and stylistically play out the tension between private feeling in public space.

Boyd van Hoeij could just as well have been consciously using the term social mise en scène when—in his review of Alléluia for The Hollywood Reporter—he focuses on the first meeting between the film's killer duo, Michel and Gloria, staged at a chic restaurant, which he describes as having "the precision of a military airstrike." Van Hoeij details the encounter: "Michel talks a lot and ladles on the gentlemanly charm like nobody's business, while Gloria says little, at once shy and mesmerized by this man. Initially, the handheld camera looks at the couple in profile, going back and forth from one face to another in a single take, which stresses the distance and void between them across the table. But halfway through the conversation, over-the-shoulder shots and reverse shots fuse the two together, as the eye of the person opposite looks straight at the face of the other, whose head is seen from the back in the same shot."

Although van Hoeij is the only reviewer I've read to actually use the term mise en scène in reviewing Alléluia, he appears to be doing so predominantly by way of Manu Dacosse's cinematography, emphasizing grit and grain and "numerous intense close-ups allowing the actors to turn their deranged characters into frighteningly three-dimensional human beings." But his description of how Dacosse's camera "stresses the distance and void between them across the table" comports with Martin's definition of social mise en scène as an effective tension between the intimate and public spheres, and expected and unexpected relations.

Another recent application of Martin's proposed social mise en scène would be the courtroom drama Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014) by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz. The space of a courtroom and the appropriate behavior prescribed to the space is, first, elasticized by a roving camera that incriminates the viewer into the courtroom through brilliantly pitched moments of direct address, and upsets the court's formality through insubordinate and irreverent asides filmed behind the backs of the solicitors from both sides.

Again, I could go on and on applying insights from this masterful volume into my ongoing appreciation of films and I have no doubt that my reviews in the next few months will do exactly that. For now, I hope I have achieved my assertion of how useful Mise En Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art can be to both academic and non-academic alike. I may not be educated enough to write an informed review, but I am smart enough to recognize what a valuable tool this volume is; it's requisite for any cinephile's book shelf. It is, at once, an easy book to read because Martin is intent upon communication of complex ideas, and also challenging for its complexity. I envision reading this book twice, probably three times, and keeping it at hand for ready reference for years to come. It's well worth the price (consider it an investment in your education), though, again, I hope the publishers will see the need to provide an affordable paperback edition. Until then, pardon me if I keep quoting from it in months to come.

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