This book review was originally published in the magazine 24 Monthly, February 2016. My thanks to Ehsan Khoshbakht for the Farsi translation.
Mise en scène and Film Style
By Adrian Martin
Palgrave Macmillan, £63 (hbk)/ebook £49.99
Disassembling so vague a term as mise en scène is no easy undertaking. As an early chapter of Adrian Martin’s new book makes clear, the term has come to mean “everything and nothing” over the years. Developing his own complex ideas about mise en scène and film style, Martin suggests ways in which audiovisual material might be studied afresh, in order to better articulate not only the value we might ascribe to specific works, but also the many passions and perceptions that they prompt in us – which the language of ordinary film criticism so often fails to capture. Along the way, Martin outlines the different uses of mise en scène in film writing through the decades, and the various responses among critics and filmmakers to shifting stylistic approaches and technical possibilities in audiovisual production.
Martin’s interest in the audiovisual here runs the gamut from reality TV and the European New Waves, to web videos and gallery installation art. Martin resists clichés concerning those ideas typically associated with mise en scène – including auteurism and symbolic signification – and has no truck with those who would restrict what cinema, as a medium, is or should be. The author challenges the persistent attempts to hive off cinema as epitomised by 1950s Hollywood, and mise en scène as being synonymous only with the moment of staging and shooting a scene during the production stage. Martin pushes beyond those elements of mise en scène merely expressive of narrative content (including lighting, set design and actors’ movement) to highlight other surprising dynamics, logics and materialities on the screen. Still, he includes examples by John Ford and Otto Preminger within his expanded understanding of the possibilities of mise en scène.
Although Martin sets out to focus on one aspect of filmmaking – as Michel Chion has previously done for the voice, and James Naremore with acting – he actually finds a way to talk about all levels of production. He moves beyond discussion of mise en scène to outline a related idea, that of the dispositif, by which artists initiate a system of rules and patterns that are elaborated and modulated to create multiple textural, compositional and emotional effects over the course of a single work – aspects which can be worked over at any stage of the film’s production. However, the extent to which this opens up critical analysis to a field of unbridled relativism, dependent upon a critic’s ability to tease out interesting motifs and turns within any given film, may be faced with reasonable dismay by some.
It is not often that one gets a sense from even esteemed critics that they are as well read as they are ‘well viewed’. The inspiration found in the writings of influential and also relatively unknown theorists, from various language sources, including French, Spanish and German, is continually foregrounded. Martin’s ability to underline inventive concepts in difficult texts in order to refine his own ideas, and apply those to specific films, all communicated in a prose style that uses exclamation marks unapologetically to convey the author’s cinephilia, makes for some of the most accessible and enjoyable film writing in English.
The book exemplifies Martin’s skill in introducing original concepts through succinct, often entertaining, examples, as well as more detailed moment-to-moment analyses of a given film scene – as in the section focusing on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha, and the book’s final chapter on Ritwik Ghatak’s film The Golden Line. Martin finds apposite examples from many of his own favourite films to illustrate his points; though not even the intelligent remarks about the fusillade of post-production effects in Tony Scott’s Domino or the formal inventiveness of the videos of pop duo Pomplamoose encourages me to return to the source material discussed once seen and heard.
Longtime readers of Martin’s work will likely find the experience of reading the book one of revisiting some of the author’s guiding interests, and gaining a better sense of how they intertwine: specifically, figural theory and the notion of the dispositif – elsewhere analysed in the short publication Last Day Every Day, and the essay ‘Turn the Page: From Mise en scène to Dispositif.’ The sheer breadth of references and unusual critical methods that Martin presents here will take newcomers longer to fathom but ulitmately offer illuminating and energising new approaches to film criticism.
The book serves as a most valuable reference work on what has long remained a loosely defined aspect of cinema and a masterclass in audiovisual analysis that teachers and writers on cinema will benefit from re-reading. It ought to find a place in any library of film writing alongside such comparatively wide-ranging, and equally slim, surveys of style as VF Perkins’s Film as Film and Noel Burch’s Theory of Film Practice, two early cornerstones for Martin.