Mise-en-Whatnow?

So, while taking a break from the inestimably boring chore that is searching for employment I chanced upon a review for the new, ultra-minimalist Ryan Reynolds vehicle, “Buried,” over on the NPR website. The first sentence of the review reads as follows:  “Sure to become a staple in film-school classes titled “How to Make a Blockbuster With Only an Actor, a Box and a Blackberry,” Buried may be the first thriller where the sole stunt is the film’s mise-en-scene.”

A relatively obsequious opening line if ever there was one. Apparently not for NPR Community reader sfbornx3, who complains, “Okay, Jeannette, a film review is officially as pretentious as its subject when the reader is forced to look up a French film reference in the first sentence.”

My first reaction was one of consternation and irritation; one more philistine comment clogging the Internet’s tubes. Then I sat and thought for a moment, what does the writer of this review mean when she says the film’s only stunt is its mise-en-scene? How is mise-en-scene a stunt? Then I thought a little bit and came up with an idea: an extended point-of-view shot, like the one that opens Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 rendition of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” starring Fredric March in the title role. Or maybe Hitchcock’s 1948 film, “Rope,” which is built on what is essentially a single long take. In both instances prop placement, acting, sets, and action within the frame are all subordinated to a gimmicky aspect of the film, in this case the camera work. Although I haven’t seen “Buried” I suspect that what the author (Jeannette Catsoulis) means when she describes the mise-en-scene as a stunt is that the confined setting (the entire film takes place in a small coffin) and lack of props (a Blackberry and a lighter were, apparently, the property master’s only charges) are the ploys used to make the film stand out, and if you don’t buy into that ploy you won’t buy the rest of the movie, either.

But, is Ms. sfbornx3 grievance a legitimate one? Would it not have been easier for Ms. Catsoulis to simply say, “…the film’s sole stunt is the lack of props and claustrophobic setting…?” In one respect the grievance is certainly illegitimate. Part of the job of a critic is to be erudite, or to appear as such anyway, and using terms like mise-en-scene, terms that are so firmly embedded in the language of film, is a way to demonstrate the authority of the critic. You can’t expect a critic to speak authoritatively on one hand and then disparage them for being, “pretentious” on the other.

However, mise-en-scene is one of those terms brandied about a lot without it ever being entirely clear what the writer is talking about. For the benefit of Ms. sfbornx3 I’ll provide the David Bordwell definition: “…those aspects of film that overlap with the art of theater: setting, lighting, costume, and the behavior of the figures.” (Bordwell, David; Thompson, Kristin (2001). Film Art: An Introduction, 6th ed.. New York: McGraw-Hill)

Again, this definition can be changed depending on who you ask, as some subscribe to either a narrower or broader definition. Early American auteur theory champion and longtime Villiage Voice critic Andrew Sarris, for example, thinks of mise-en-scene as having a sort mystical meanings that connects to the emotional resonance of the film. It can also be broadened to encompass the general visual style of a film, or even the way meaning is conveyed through a shot or series of shots.

Does mise-en-scene have a place in popular film criticism? Of course. However, given that its kind of a catch-all term the major problem with the review rests with the term’s use at all when delving into specifics might have been a more effective tactic. Is it pretentious to use the term? Well of course I’d say no, but I’m biased. And in any case, why complain about learning something? Really Ms. sfbornx3 should be grateful; now she knows what mise-en-scene means and she can casually drop it into conversations. In a very un-pretentious way, of course.

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