This is a compact, dense, magisterial book. The scholarly coverage and detailed analysis of select sequences from films, television and new media art, plus extensive commentary on scholarly film criticism and theory, together packed into its 216 primary pages is quite remarkable. That I can imagine almost any chapter or section of the book potentially forming the basis for further, expanded work is a tribute to Mise en Scène and Film Style’s substantiveness. Almost without exception, Martin sustains with absolute grace the juggling of a frequently vast array of reference points taken from a copious array of film critics, theorists, and audiovisual texts, and the author’s always interesting commentary thereon in developing his thesis. He assumes a relatively well-informed reader, one already familiar with many of the intertwined historical and ongoing debates charted throughout, and who is perhaps occasionally prepared to pause and read up on a given concept or argument in the event of feeling the need to engage with it more extensively. Rather than a meaningful criticism, this latter possibility shows how evocatively Martin marshals his material, making the reader want to read further beyond the book itself. And his writing remains exemplary in describing and summarising the key ideas invoked, regularly providing clear and expert exegesis of what are often complex, multi-strand critical and theoretical histories. This is all carried out through an appropriately tantalising prologue, followed by nine relatively short chapters each subdivided with regular clear and suggestive section headings, and a short afterword. Mise en Scène and Film Style is a truly ambitious book, offering the most sustained “academic” piece of writing yet published by this most prodigious and prolific of Australian film critics and scholars.
So, what is the book about? For Martin, mise en scène remains the key descriptive and analytical concept through which to elucidate a given audiovisual text’s (no matter how it is categorised) aesthetic style. Part of the book’s real value is in providing an extensive historical charting of this intimately connected critical-scholarly discourse, illustrating how central and endlessly argued over it has been to much cutting-edge writing on the cinema and beyond over seven decades. In the process, the author offers both a beautiful, respectful yet also rigorous and not uncritical account of this story, presenting a strikingly re-calibrated account, drawing on other historical and contemporary scholars’ discussion, of how our new-century developments necessitate a reformulation. Unsurprisingly, then, the book comprises neither yet another version of the “mise en scène is dead” argument nor a continuation of the closely connected, more grandiose and inherently flawed “death of cinema” lament that peaked around the medium’s centenary 15-20 years ago (and which Martin dispenses with appropriately). Rather, Mise en Scène and Film Style successfully argues that while a rethink is certainly in order, with new developments across technological, artistic, and critical-scholarly fields vital to take on board, an updated definition of mise en scène remains not only viable but the best way to address ongoing and unresolved questions of audiovisual textuality and style.
The challenge, Martin reminds us, is a big one. In particular, simply translating written accounts of mise en scène from its original 1950s or ‘60s heyday (or even much more recently in some cases) – no matter how generative and valuable such writing might have been at the time, and sometimes still – that exclusively stresses internal composition of the “shot”, will no longer do. For one thing, he points out, such a focus often had the effect of historically allowing scholars of film style through the figure of mise en scène to thereby evict sound from the picture. (The book devotes a whole chapter to sound, “Sonic Spaces”, or more precisely how sound relates to what we see, and it emerges for comment consistently throughout the others, even if the visual track usually remains the focus.) But this is not the only historical limitation or privileging that the book seeks to overcome.
The challenge of defining what we mean by mise en scène, and why it remains a useful concept through which to analyse audiovisual media, has always been difficult. Today it is more so than ever, due in part to the fact that for digital-era cinema – especially, but not limited to, big-budget Hollywood productions – previously assumed distinctions maintained by scholars between pre-production, the shoot itself, and post-production are now increasingly difficult to uphold. Similarly, Martin reminds us, with appropriate examples to hand, how it has become extremely problematic to delineate where one shot ends and another begins. Two of the most central analytical concepts in film studies in seeking to isolate and address the basic formal building blocks of cinema – the shot and the cut – are, thereby, increasingly broken down. Through an analysis of a brief moment in Domino (Tony Scott, 2005), Martin shows how our understanding of a delineation between individual shots, and the whole theory of montage, has to be fundamentally reconfigured, or even overcome, when it comes to the digital era when addressing both Hollywood films like this but also less mainstream work. He concludes:
[D]igital post-production treatments produce so many split-section reframings and variations on the raw footage out of the camera than one is left grasping onto flashes of light or breaks in sound layers rather than highly ambiguous cuts to mark or (in musical terms) score a scene’s modulations. (p. 105)
It is striking that in the same gesture, via the Domino example and many others, Martin seeks to re-claim and update mise en scène as a useful, even central, concept in our ongoing attempts to analyse filmic style, while at the same time offering a palpable critique of the way this analytical tradition has often typically centred around – in the process fetishising – the notion of the individual shot and, by extension, its moment of quasi-mystical on-set “creation”. In a short section addressing the way in which auteurism sought to codify mise en scène through the lens of especially privileged singular creation, he writes: “We need to have done with the dream that ‘creation on set’ is the only or primary site where a film is made, or where it becomes art.” (p. 17)
So if the individual shot, and the often excessive privileging of the visual over the aural in much mise en scène analysis is deemed by Martin an exponentially inaccurate and unreliable guide, what does he suggest are productive ways of updating this concept, and why does it remain relevant despite such historical baggage? It is here that the author as an especially well-read film scholar really comes into his own. One of the great strengths of the book is the way it carefully delineates what Martin presents as still relevant or valuable in a given writer’s past work in this area from what now reads as less convincing or pertaining to arcane dead-end debates. As a result, the book’s updated claim for mise en scène’s importance to understanding audiovisual style across many decades is drawn from an enormous diversity of sources. Martin’s ultimate argument sits, with full (even at times perhaps excessive) acknowledgment, on the “shoulders” of others’ copious contributions from the 1950s on. In addition, and unlike much English-language film scholarship even today (and certainly television studies), the book is far from Anglophone- or even Francophone-centric in its account of both cinema and criticism/theory’s history, being at pains to emphasise the reality of new-century scholarly discourse as truly global in scope. On top of what reads as an almost encyclopaedic account of English-language writing on and debates around mise en scène, Martin offers appropriate engagement with French film scholarship – both in translation and in the original – plus the thriving world of trans-national Spanish-language film criticism. There is also careful use, where possible, of translated work from Japan, Germany, Portugal, India, and Iran.
For one thing, this book – quite besides its stated theme – exemplifies, as evidenced both by its Australian (and now Spain-based) author’s own significant trans-national impact (and coming from a country usually considered far from “central”) and his work’s genuine attempts to engage with film culture on a properly “world” scale, the fact that as both an artistic practice and a topic of scholarly attention, the cinema both buzzes with new life and is more genuinely global than ever. And as cinephiles’ shelves and hard-drives from every country clearly evidence, the digital era has enabled a massive expansion of such a culture when it comes to accessing world cinema (meaning, for the first time, it is less important to live in a major metropolitan centre to “keep up”). Data histories and social media trails would also show that this applies equally, within the confines of linguistic difference, to an ever escalating world-wide engagement with written film scholarship ranging from academic work, through critical pieces published in an ever-exploding array of online and print journals, to brief but often substantial Facebook exchanges of truly global collective authorship. (Martin is today a notable protagonist across all these platforms.)
If I have made Mise en Scène and Film Style sound like a very big-picture, “world” oriented contribution to a truly large topic – and in part it certainly is – any suggestion that this leads to a generalising tendency would be sorely mistaken. This goes both for the rigour with which Martin marshals his discussion of an immense and increasingly global stream of scholarly work, but also to the other crucial thing about this book: its regular shifts into rich formal analyses of select sequences from films, television programs, and new media art. Indeed, the prologue starts with one such sequence from a relatively un-talked about late film by one of the author’s most beloved directors. Martin’s rich account of a brief, perceptually vertiginous sequence from Brian de Palma’s 2012 film, Passion, illustrates both this particular filmmaker’s elaborately foregrounded, in part deconstructive deployment of “the gaze” and how fragmented and mise en abyme-like it truly can be in comprising the lifeblood of an especially “overdetermined” audiovisual style. The role of this formal analysis at the start of Martin’s book is also important for the fact that his project of “restoring” mise en scène as a frontline analytical concept immediately sets sail via an example that may not at first seem to fit the bill. Passion is a recent, commercially released genre film that is also formally “advanced” partly through its thoroughly integrated use of everyday first-world business culture and private multi-screen environments, networks, and resulting mediascapes, often combined with various dream states, to constantly pull the rug out from beneath the viewer’s confidence when it comes to the moving image’s never convincing yet somehow dogged claims as enabler of knowledge (narrative or otherwise). Such a style seems rather different to the peak, sustained – frequently in spatially and temporally long shots – mise en scène characterising the cinema of other famous directors more strongly associated with such a concept, especially featuring less complex editing regimes and minus De Palma’s vertiginous frames-within-frames treatment of the gaze. Yet, Martin suggests, it is here that we find an example of mise en scène’s innovative, updated twenty-first century iteration (p. xiii).
The Passion analysis works to first introduce a key concept the book will eventually advocate in its updated advocacy for an understanding of mise en scène that moves beyond the rather religious obsession with individual, often long shots and their temporal and spatial contents. This is the ‘dispositif’, which Martin defines as:
an apparatus, arrangement or set-up of interrelated pieces or elements. Passion, in its very 21st Century way, offers us, in this set-piece, a version of a gallery-like installation, but brought back intro cinema an coordinated on a single screen: a game with multiple images and soundtracks. (p. xiii)
But Martin’s ever-keen attentiveness to recent changes in the way films are made, watched and theorised does not mean he seeks to proclaim any kind of neat break with the past. Rather, the book stresses cinema’s inherently impure, ‘multimedia’ nature, posed by key questions laid out in the prologue:
Has not cinema always been in some crucial respects, 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? (p. xiii)
For Martin, situated as it still is in the world of narrative-based commercial genre cinema, Passion forces us to ask challenge questions underscoring much of his book’s subsequent argument and proposals:
Did we collectively take a wrong turn in film studies by grasping the work of mise en scène or style in cinema as a matter – at least, in the first instance – of wholeness and fluidity, organic coherence and singular fictional worlds, or a certain “transparency” or indivisibility? And what would it mean, now, to shift gears and retrace our steps over the ground of mise en scène, trying to reconfigure its classic moves in a new and different way? (p. xiv)
Directed not to cinema itself but its critical and theoretical analysts, such a critical investigation is offered as the book’s primary aim.
Throughout its pages Mise en Scène and Film Style features an affectionate and appropriately indebted account but ultimately also an extensive “internal” critique of serious critical and theoretical writing on cinema, both for its sometimes homogeneous and limited account of mise en scène and for turning away from questions of filmic style once such obsessive emphases became perhaps understandably unfashionable, often in favour of more political and overtly theoretical concerns in the late 1960s and early 70s. “Film theory has investigated many fruitful, complex areas,” Martin writes of scholarly work since the key – in many respects founding – decade of the 1970s, such as:
historical contexts, spectatorship, race and gender, film-and-philosophy, and so on. But it effectively dropped the ball on sensitive, stylistic analysis – of the kind that, at its best, accompanied and elevated the investigations of the 1950s and 1960s. This is part of the reasons why there has been something of a heroic comeback for stylistic analysis in many quarters over the last decade or so. (p. 39)
Martin certainly offers a highly enthusiastic and substantive addition in this recent upsurge of interest in film style and the closely linked concept of mise en scène – their strong relationship made clear as linked in the book’s title – by providing a properly updated and reclaimed scholarly account of both. But this doesn’t mean that mise en scène – an analytical concept that can easily, and unnecessarily, befuddle undergraduate film studies students and many others – is given a single, neatly updated “explanation” here.
Rather than laying out a clear definition for mise en scène, on the first page of Chapter 1, appropriately “A Term That Means Everything, and Nothing Very Specific”, Martin flags the danger of affirming any singular account of this central but perennially elusive concept. This is not only a healthy scholarly position, he posits, but even a pedagogically sensitive one, citing the “horrible, crunching sensation” felt by many a film studies educator after delivering such an explanation in the classroom. Regardless of how provisional and carefully chosen the lecturer’s words may be at such a moment, Martin writes, at such a moment “you have just helped to further perpetuate the smokescreen of faux certainty.” (p. 1) The book, then, is fuelled by pedagogical inquiry in the most productive and challenging, rather than “answer-oriented”, sense.
In place of ascribing preferred definitional clarity, Martin immediately proceeds to offer a rich sketch of the generative importance of mise en scène for film criticism and scholarship in providing a kind of justification for the taking-seriously of cinema that specifically addresses film style – and through this, often, authorship – before and beyond the more “literary” concerns of narrative and character. Mise en scène has at key moments played a central role within serious film discourse, but as a concept it has never enjoyed a stable definition. It has more been something to argue over, driven by the sense that such an idea evokes cinema’s “essential”, but forever appropriately elusive, character – and thereby perhaps its secret power. This should not surprise as, as no one has been able to provide a convincing definition of cinema itself!
An apposite example of the difficulty involved in defining this topic is made clear when we consider that even one of the more technically delineated accounts of mise en scène, found in David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s much-used Film Art books, is not without its ambiguities. For Bordwell and Thompson, Martin writes, “mise en scène is staged for the camera, but does not itself include the work of the camera, beyond the rather static notion of pictorial composition.” (p. 14) He then suggests that what Bordwell would go on elsewhere to call “staging” – which, like mise en scène, also “has a theatrical ring” – is perhaps closer to a workable account of mise en scène that includes the active role of the camera:
When Bordwell speaks, for example, of staging in depth, he is referring to the combined action of the perspective taken by the camera (and often designed into the set) and the actions, figures and objects arranged before it. If we ever need a decent, English translation for mise en scène staging is not bad. (p. 15)
This is because “staging” retains something he wishes to emphasise throughout the book, writing that “mise en scène is indeed the art of arranging, choreographing and displaying – and an essential part of this, in many films of many different kinds, is what is staged (predominantly, actors in an environment) for a camera.” (p. 15)
So how does Martin approach what moving images typically show – “predominantly, actors in an environment” – and their presumed function? One of the book’s aims, he says, is to problematise “common-sense assumptions” on its subject, such as the familiar idea that films or television programs are “essentially stories about people, their actions and emotions.” He goes on, however, to note: “But there can be no doubt, at the outset, that characterisation is a principle drive, and a major source of pleasure behind every kind of classically informed or classical derived cinema.” (p. 23) This reads, I think, less as a concession to “everyday” discourses around audiovisual media as primarily being about stories and characters than another way to emphasise Martin’s core theme. On the next page, we read: “In fact, one way of gauging a director’s skill and inventiveness is to see how they are able to illuminate such usually taken-for-granted activities” as “walking, eating, driving, and so on.” (p. 24) Scholarship around gesture and performance (both of which have been of much interest within film studies for some time now), become in Martin’s regime component parts of a re-conceived, broadened study of mise en scène. The way someone on screen walks, talks, drives, breathes, shifts position in a chair, opens a door, or simply behaves when alone, may or may not tell us much about their “character”, but every such inflection and movement of the body or part thereof is a key mise en scène event. No matter how large or small such details appear on screen, one has to agree with Martin that in this way, “inescapably”, film is “a material art”. A Jacques Rivette paraphrase then seals the point: “[T]he screen-spectacle, this medium of display, is a huge beast.” (p. 40)1
One of the pleasures of the book is its properly palimpsestic, intertwined approach to cinema history and that of film scholarship. This is made all the more complex, and rich, for its refusal of any simple linear account. One of Martin’s long-held points (with which I concur) is that moments of innovation within the cinema are not necessarily matched by equivalent contemporary leaps in the critical and theoretical literature devoted to it.2 So, he writes: “Films including Persona (1966), Last Tango in Paris (1972), Mélo (1986) and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) mark a range of moments when film form was racing well ahead of the critical language we once possessed to speak of it adequately.” Of this lack of contiguity when it comes to critical and theoretical responses to formal and aesthetic innovation – increasingly described by critics and scholars as encapsulating modernist or ‘modern’ cinema’s rather palimpsestic through-line – Martin explains: “And so there is there much leftover work to be done in trying to bring this mode of cinema back into an expanded mode of mise en scène analysis.” A key moment of this expansion, he suggests, is when “beginning in the 1970s, mise en scène itself began to stage a comeback in movies, albeit in a new, mutated form.” The central, highly appropriate filmic example offered is Fassbinder’s work of this period via the central dining scene from his 1974 film, Martha. (p. 78)
In a section devoted to recent world cinema of the more adventurous “art-house” variety featuring a special focus on sound-image texture – in the process challenging traditional hermeneutic-thematic criteria of filmic analysis – Martin writes of films by Tsai Ming-liang and Lynne Ramsay: “I am speaking of something different to the classical aesthetic model of rhymes, motifs, and so on, that form meaningful thematic patterns.” Instead, he explains, before offering a crucial point of clarification:
In this particular branch of modern cinema, we are faced with a free, figural economy of elements (of a very different kind and parameter) that are constantly being transformed, extended, reversed, doubled or shrunk in intensity – a dynamic economy that can find its inspiration (if not its ultimate interpretation) in psychic processes of condensation, displacement, investment, fantasy projection. This cellular cinema is a poetic construction – but on in which poetry no longer signifies a vague, ambient moodiness (as it so often does in hyper-decorative, design-conscious films), a merely poetic effect; but rather a solid structure – material and virtual at the same time, conscious and unconscious in its apprehension by the spectator. (p. 91)
This interest in the abstract and figural dimensions of mise en scène far from exhausts Martin’s coverage of his topic, the book notably also including a chapter devoted to its seemingly opposite understanding on the theme of “social mise en scène”.
At once both rather removed from well-trodden, sometimes rarefied or “mystical” cinephilic writings and discussions, while also far more familiar to both documentary cinema and our different experiences of everyday life, the notion of “social mise en scène” opens up the concept to include material that exceeds the filmic and by necessity predates it. This understanding of mise en scène is by definition one not owned or authored by a writer or director – which may account for its comparative lack of attention within hardcore film appreciation discussions – or even in conscious terms the given film’s actors, but rather a specific social reality, time, and place. Here the filmic text is inextricably marked, even authored by, context – historically inscribed social convention and conflict, and its embodied non-linguistic “language”, as cinematic energiser.
Martin’s best example of social mise en scène at work is an examination of the mealtime scenes in How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941), which accumulatively stage the entire politics of a family (or culture) and its ultimately fragile patriarchal structure with immense gestural attention. He writes of such bodily arrangements and situations that they
are social because we know and recognise them in the world beyond the cinema; they form a sort of omnipresent theatre of everyday life. Whether as material for cinema or as the stuff of the quotidian world, certain, specific rules are involved, and sometimes explicitly invoked: habits, rituals prohibitions great and small, punishments if infringements of the code is too great. (p. 129)
No matter how stylised or non-realist a film appears to be (and Ford is not regarded as an especially “realist” director, but rather idiosyncratic in thematic, formal, and performative-gestural proclivity), this social mise en scène can never be entirely banished. As one of the chapter’s section headings succinctly puts it: “The profilmic insists.” (p. 131) But in addition to such a concept’s necessary limiting (although far from evicting) of authorial and artistic agency, especially in the sui generis sense, it is also relatively clear why this approach to mise en scène can be easily overlooked, especially where a critic is addressing cinema that emanates from a culture beyond her own. For good reason, such writers are often strongly beware of simplistically (and patronizingly) treating a film as a simple kind of sociological or ethnographic text, educating us about a particular “foreign” milieu and its conventions, all the while somehow still seeking to pay appropriate attention to the importance of specific cultural coordinates so to avoid traditional liberal platitudes about “universal values”. (In effect, here lies are the twin pitfall of world cinema scholarship: excessive emphasis on difference and local detail on the one hand versus falling back into generalising global humanism on the other.) Martin has demonstrated strong advocacy for film studies to undertake far more genuinely “world cinema” coverage and discussion over many years, and is certainly aware of such potential problems.3 Referring to the commonly cited danger of a “facile” sociological film studies in the above sense, he follows with another caution: “But all the same, do we short-change ourselves by censoring out, so completely, the social dimension of the profilmic?” (p. 142)
Another chapter that may initially seem to divert from more conventional mise en scène discourse is absolutely crucial to the book’s overall argument, bringing together Martin’s dual aim of forging a productive internal critique of sacred mise en scène obsessions while seeking to update the concept’s claim to ongoing relevance and thereby cinema’s own continued importance. Including some analysis of recent television, such as the US Netflix series House of Cards (2013-), this chapter is given the appropriately rhetorical title, “Cinema, Audiovisual Art of the 21st Century”. Here some of the book’s starkest critical words are unleashed. “Mise en scène, as a conceptual and analytical tool,” Martin writes, “must literally change its location to grasp what is going on: it no longer encompasses only what happens in front of the camera, on the set or in a field, but also what happens, dynamically, within a synthetic video or digital frame.” (p. 163) New questions of materiality arise in the process, he explains:
And is the materiality of mise en scène not so much what it records or captures (as in the Bazinian ideal), but rather what organises and layers? … Is it the nature of film to be fundamentally a means of artifice – an artifice geared to the arousal of the spectator’s emotions? Mise en scène, if we choose to learn from the starkly different forms it has taken in the international history if both film practice and film criticism, points us, I believe, in this direction. Mise en scène, grasped anew, is a decent name for the aesthetic reality of cinema. (pp. 163, 164)
These suggestions are brought into sharper focus in the book’s final chapter, “The Rise of the Dispositif”, bringing to a proper analytical conclusion a proposal first flagged in its prologue.
Martin writes of mise en scène reconceived through the notion of dispositif as a multi-planed game model, set, or series of sets. But rather than causing strongly-etched lines, distinctions between audiovisual forms can appear to melt away, as each folds into others. One of the clearest signs of this development is the increasing connection between “films” and gallery installation video productions by many of world cinema’s key practitioners:
Akerman is only one in a wave of filmmakers – Harun Farocki, Agnès Varda, Pedro Costa, Victor Erice, Tsai and others – who have seemingly “migrated” to the art gallery scene and the generous funding opportunities it provides, just as more narratively inclined filmmakers have gravitated to television in recent years. (p. 183)
Moving effortlessly between each realm, such figures (other prominent examples include Abbas Kiarostami and Apichatpong Weerasethakul) both maintain some medium distinction in the process while producing work the formal style of which illustrates ever-increasing “crossover”. So, rather than continue a critical fight for the various “essences” of film, television, or new media art, Martin asks appropriately: “[I]s there a way to resolve this dispute which would give something new to both cinema and art?” (p. 185) He follows this with a moment of confirmation for Mise en Scène and Film Style’s reader:
Let me be perfectly clear here: I do not believe that the cinema, has have known it, is dead or dying; or that the medium of film has deserted projection halls once and for all in order to be completely absorbed (happily or sadly, according to your temperament) into galleries, museums and digital archives (including your humble laptop computer). My contention is at once more modest and more inclusive: that the contemporary workings of dispositifs can offer us a new entrée into rethinking the film of film aesthetics, in a way that mise en scène, on its own, has not always invited or privileged – especially whenever we doggedly hold on to its purest and most classical definition. (p. 185)
The spirit and reality-engagement of this overall approach is summed up neatly by a section heading two pages later: “A thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble”.
As the final analytical piece of this book’s puzzle, first introduced via Passion in its very first pages, the dispositif is not presented as a uniquely twenty-first-century phenomenon – that is, as a way of seeking to simply explain our increasingly multi-media audiovisual world. In fact, famous work by many of cinema’s greatest filmmakers – some of whose careers predate the emergence of television, when cinema enjoyed an unchallenged proprietary audiovisual claim – is testimony to this. To more or less obvious and foregrounded degrees, cinema has always utilised a vast array of different sets, series, stages, modes, and heterogeneous textual formations across a film or within a scene, or even a single shot. It has also inherently concerned itself, therefore, with questions of exclusion and inclusion – of what is and is not brought into this unique Wagnerian dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk or “total art work” at any given moment. As Martin reminds us, this question of consciously orchestrated inclusion/exclusion and resulting limits has often been at the core of claims about formal innovation and authorial brilliance as expressed through cinematic style. (Think of the strict, often radical self-imposed rules Robert Bresson or Ozu Yasujiro observed for much of their careers, or the less voluntary and more conservative restrictions all Hollywood directors have worked within, especially during the so-called classical or studio era.) “Refusals to play by this or that convention deemed corrupt or ossified by the filmmaker,” he writes, for “devotees constitute the immediately recognisable stylistic traits of many a modern direction.” (p. 192) Martin cites as examples the much-discussed rejection of “shot-reverse-shot” editing conventions in Akerman’s work, and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s commitment to “direct” sound.
The ultimate importance of the dispositif for Martin in seeking to understand mise en scène and film style in the most generative, diverse, and updated way possible, is for its liberating function. “To restrict the action of mise en scène to the space-time of the fictional world is already a false move,” he argues near the end of the book, before paraphrasing the touchstone figure of Raymond Bellour:
In the critical history of the term mise en scène, too much attention has been paid to the scene – the scene as theatrically defined, in line with the term’s origin, as a unity of space, time and action – and not enough to the mise, to the fundamental process of putting in place, the organising of elements. (pp. 194-5)
But again, this attempt to liberate mise en scène from some of its critical adherents’ religious belief in the coherence of time and space within a privileged understanding of the shot – both its original “creation” and its subsequent life on the screen – is less a new concept than an “eternal return”-like re-emergence of moments that span modernist theory and film practice from decades past. Most famously, this can be seen in the writing and cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, Martin reminds us, but also the work of select post-war critics in the West (such as Marie-Claire Ropars). What such a palimpsestic history of both cinema and its written analysis shows us – if not always at the same time – he concludes, is “the fundamental notion that what comprises cinema are diverse elements, and then the intervals or ‘spacings’ between those elements, hence a set or system of articulations.” (p. 196)
Far from a necessarily “intellectual” or “hard” understanding of cinema, the lines of demarcation between the various sets comprising the dispositif are so impossible to untangle that the cinema becomes what a final section heading at the end of Martin’s last chapter calls a “Soft Machine”. (p. 201) Considering its already impure, multi-set origins from the very beginning, that viewers “accept” such an in-theory complex construction and bewildering fundamental make-up in the act of spectatorship, in fact hardly noticing the criss-crossing “lines” connecting demarcating its multiple constituent parts any given moment, should hardly surprise us.
Do I have criticisms of this book? There are only two points I would raise, each pertaining less to what is discussed but what is not, or only partially so. In both cases I only wish the book were longer. Any additional work in response to my first point in particular would necessitate a change to the book’s scope and subtitle, “From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art”.
Especially considering Martin’s (relatively uncontroversial) claims about cinema being from the very start an impure and form, a “dispositif”, I wish he had found room to include some select commentary on the silent period. Even as the nomenclature had not yet entered critical writing on film, here mise en scène was perhaps most thoroughly dominant or “centre stage” – and, contra any arguments about “pure cinema”, demonstrating that even before both sound and the hegemonic triumph of what we now called classical narrative, a given film’s form and style was a thoroughly multi-set and multi-media “dispositif” affair indeed. (One only needs to think of Fritz Lang’s 1920s work, which Martin has discussed along just these lines elsewhere.4) Silent cinema’s omission from the book is understandable; the publisher undoubtedly had a strict word limit, and silent cinema often tends to be treated by scholars as a large, specialist topic. But given the stated theme, and particularly the mise en scène glories of cinema through its first 30 years in Germany, Japan, Scandinavia, France, the USSR, and the USA in particular, some selective inclusion of this period would have “rounded out” the book’s already magisterial address even more thoroughly.
The other point is that, to my mind, Martin doesn’t quite tackle head-on the great, endlessly debated theme through which both mise en scène at its “artistic peak” and the question of film style have so often been read and asserted: auteurism. Certainly one can, as the book makes clear, discuss this area in and of itself, and important mise en scène writing has not necessarily been appropriated through the figuration of this or that director. But much influential criticism has seen mise en scène as the absolute key to defining authorial brilliance using “purely cinematic” criteria, and while Martin offers a few commentaries on this connection – sometimes effectively critiquing it, elsewhere appearing to update such a critical tradition – he seeks to largely corral the discussion to a short section craftily titled “All That Auteurism Allowed” in the first chapter. Although I would agree that we do not need yet another book fanning the flames of often tired debates around auteurism, the question of directorial authorship has over the last two decades or so strongly re-emerged within scholarly debates, in a very different way to its 1950s and ‘60s heyday. The stated theme of Martin’s book in matching its two key concepts is such that at times authorship felt to this reader like a notable elephant in the room. More overt reflection on its long-familiar role in understanding – and harnessing – these ideas, no matter how problematic the results may have often been, might have benefitted the book’s overall delineation of the author’s ultimate position. What comments Martin does offer on the topic hints at a very interesting, rigorous position. At the same time, I was glad authorship did not dominate – as it so easily could – the rich audiovisual and scholarly analysis on offer throughout these pages.
The book’s final pages illustrate beautifully the truly palimpsestic, historically engaged nature of Mise en Scène and Film Style and its perhaps paradoxical insistence that, on the one hand, mise en scène (and film studies per se) has no choice but to update its core assumptions and conceptual map, while, on the other hand, the new critical and theoretical iterations we can forge in the process help us better understand films from many years ago – such is the cinema’s always-already nature as a “dispositif”, its true complexity so often not fully grasped in analysis yet happily taken in by a film’s viewer. The short afterword is comprised almost entirely of one final piece of rich formal analysis. But this is devoted not to some example of fashionable, digital era audiovisual text, and instead a monochrome, Academy ratio Bengali masterpiece, The Golden Line (Ritwik Ghatak, 1965). Without trumpeting it, Martin here quietly demonstrates at the end of his marvellous book the virtues of close analyses in cinematic style, and how each moment of a given film has the potential to explode or open anew critical and theoretical concepts we thought we knew, or had “outgrown”. Prime among them is what today can often read as a central but perhaps too sacred, mystical, or rusty concept at the heart of cinephilia’s dusty annals: mise en scène. In Martin’s hands, no matter the audiovisual example addressed (whether it is deemed a “film” or something else), this concept emerges as anything but sclerotic, and rather a truly vibrant one in our continued efforts to understand what remains – despite sometimes appalling everyday ubiquity – the still mysterious nature of cinematic images.
Adrian Martin, Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (Palgrave: Houndmills, Basingstoke, and New York, 2014).
- The Rivette paraphrase is drawn from Jacques Rivette (1977), ‘Interview with Jacques Rivette, April 1973’, in Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.) Rivette: Texts and Interviews (London: British Film Institute), pp. 39-53. In a short section from Martin’s book designated “A Huge Beast” (pp. 21-34), he fleshes out Rivette’s idea. ↩
- Underpinning part of the book, this argument was also explicitly put during a conference paper Martin gave in 2012 (“2nd Cinematic Thinking Workshop: Thinking Cinematically Before Deleuze”, University of NSW, Australia, 12 November, 2012). ↩
- In addition to his own published work, Martin has co-convened an academic conference appropriately punctuated as ‘World Cinema Now!’ (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia: 27–29 September 2011). ↩
- For example, see – or in fact hear – Martin’s select DVD commentary to parts of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Fritz Lang, 1922), Madman Entertainment, 2007. ↩