Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Come on In, the Mise-en-Scène Is Fine!

I'm feeling perturbed by an article that Tom Shone has recently published in slightly different versions on his own website and at the Daily Telegraph. I am not going to dispute all of the reasons for which Shone is understandably annoyed at the state of contemporary film criticism nor defend all of the reviews he singles out for disdain. But having seemingly worked himself into a lather over all of the sins he perceives in these reviews, I think he strikes some incoherent notes and zeroes in on some inappropriate targets that weaken his overall credibility.

I tried commenting on both sites to no avail, whether because of Blogger's recent rash of Comments-related problems, or the convoluted interface at the Telegraph that keeps asking me to login before I comment and then cycles me among the same series of comment-blocking screens, or because of some ineptitude of my own, or because Tom Shone doesn't want to hear from anybody. I assume the first three culprits are much more likely than the last. In any event, here's what I would say if I could figure out how to get it said:

A quibble, since you're opening the door for critiquing everyone else's critical vantage and voice: is mise-en-scène really so hard a term to understand, or such an irrelevant term to film criticism worthy of the name? It strikes me as one thing to be rankled by hyperbole, clichés, groupthink, and lots of the other trends that flatten and homogenize so many film reviews, which seems to be your overarching beef. But to ridicule writers for using even the most essential terms related to the art they are critiquing? And in an age where more and more film programs and wider and wider access to them and more and more exposure to "insider" commentary means that many, many more than "six people" know what mise-en-scène is? Seems churlish, and inconsistent with your other gripes.

Despite the long tradition of hiring paid film critics even at major publications with no real background in film or film studies, I'd think one would want to encourage more film criticism that can actually articulate the aspects of a movie that provoked a critical reaction, rather than implying that simply writing from emotion is enough to constitute a "review." I wouldn't want to read music criticism that wasn't allowed to talk about melodic lines, or book criticism that couldn't talk about voice or syntax, or theater criticism that couldn't talk about blocking or alienation. Surely it's not an insult but a credit to a general readership, maybe even an obligation, to write arts criticism that bespeaks and presumes at least a rudimentary grasp of the arts in question. And if some essential terms require a bit of explaining from time to time, then critics ought to offer portals into that understanding, rather than making sure that no one reading a review—including some of the people writing those reviews—ever has to deal with anything except intuitive responses and non-specific comments about huge, undifferentiated categories like "writing" and "acting."

I always get in trouble when I spout off about issues like this, but I just soured at Shone's conviction that certain forms of hollow prose imply that all forms of writing that he dislikes or misunderstands are also, by extension, equally hollow. Let me know what you think.

And by the way: mise-en-scène encompasses every tangible thing that is a visible component of a cinematic image, from the actors to the props to the locations to the color palettes. Imagine that what you formally experience when you experience cinema could be divided into four groups: what you hear (the soundtrack), the objects and stimuli physically present in the images (mise-en-scène), the lighting that illuminates those objects (cinematography), and the ways in which those images are sequenced and juxtaposed to each other (editing, or montage). Some areas like color or depth of field involve an overlap of cinematography and mise-en-scène: how far into the scene you can see, and how resonant or meaningful the image remains the further back you go, requires the camera to be situated a certain way, the lighting to be organized and manipulated a certain way, and the space and the objects being filmed to be arranged a certain way. In some films, the lighting is so intensive that it's almost a palpable component of the image, as in German expressionist cinema, so lighting can reasonably be discussed as part of the mise-en-scène in some cases. Other elements like visual effects, more and more of them computer-generated, entail part of the mise-en-scène despite having never appeared before a camera.

So, yes, there is sometimes ambiguity about where one of these arts stops and another picks up, perhaps especially between cinematography and mise-en-scène. It's a hybrid and highly collaborative medium. And I realize that Tom Shone might have been making a justifiable point about the blurry edges of these terminologies, if he hadn't got caught up implying that to even broach them is to make yourself jargony and ridiculous. But stop me if your mind has just been so blown that, even if you just learned the term for the first time, you can't imagine reading a review that invoked it in any way. Otherwise, don't believe anyone who thinks their readers are unequal to the task of looking up a word they don't know, or whose impulse to redeem film criticism involves laundering reviews of any language that implies even the most limited forms of expertise.

From what I hear, Inception does have pretty mind-blowing mise-en-scène (see how easy it is?), but I probably won't know until next week or the week after.

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Blogger Andrew K. said...

I'm feeling conflicted over his article too, I was almost feeling where he was coming from, but like you said the climax of his argument makes the entire piece lose a bit of its credibility. Naturally, internet criticism has its negatives, but I hardly think people writing "pseudo-critically" is the biggest one. I like seeing words I don't know in review, doesn't everyone like learning new words?

I will say though, I was feeling a little he apparently does before I saw Toy Story 3 with the overwhelming buzz, and I think it's just good after seeing it. (Any chance of you reviewing that?) It made me think that perhaps there's too much of a mob-psychology with new reviews that we MUST love it...or else. Still, much to think about...

5:26 PM, July 14, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

In addition, though, (in theory) I understand that no one wants to read pretentious prose, but I don't really want to read conversational reviews either. "Hey, that new movie it's the sh**. Lots of stuff blowing, up and stuff like that."

No thank you. Not to be condescending, but isn't one of the tenets of growing older writing with a more mature tone? I don't know, I'm probably just as culpable; but I hate how people (Shone not being the first one) gripe about reviewers being too "full of themselves". Ugh. This probably makes me sound like a snob.

5:35 PM, July 14, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

I like what you wrote but mostly regardless of Shone's piece. I think you made a big deal something that was a minor point in his argument.

I didn't know the meaning of the term and looked it up in wikipedia (in addition to reading your definition) where I saw that he was kind of right when he wrote that everyone understands it differently.

Of course the point is more about whether a critic should use terms not widely known or not. I agree with you on that and I have to say I liked the fact that I learned something new about cinema. After all, it's not that hard in the age of the internet.

I do like ambition, eloquence and specificity in reviews but if Shone senses some kind of pretentiousness it's his right though he makes unfair generalizations.

Andrew - "Hey, that new movie it's the sh**. Lots of stuff blowing, up and stuff like that."

I don't think he means that way is the right one.

I completely disagree with him on the Ebert bit. Ebert's writing is elegant but quite simple.

11:55 PM, July 14, 2010  
Blogger Jason said...

For the record, I keep my Apple Dictionary open every time I make a visit to Nick's Flick Picks (you know, just in case)--which is, during the lazy summer months wherein I'm constantly tweaking my Netflix queue, at least a few times a day. And that's just fine.

In seriousness, though: I also had quite a hard time swallowing the crux of Shone's argument. To paraphrase, he suggests he might not be so miffed, "if only" "heathens" would "stor[m] the ivory tower" of film criticism? I could buy into his argument (or at least regard it as a genuine concern) if he weren't, in reality, writing from that very ivory tower. That he even has a scope that enables him to pontificate about a so-called "democratisation of film criticism" belies his seemingly democratic objectives. By suggesting that everyone "tries to sound exactly like a critic," he establishes the "critic" as something distinguishable (a label with which he adorns himself repeatedly on his profile) while complaining that others, no doubt less able really to understand or properly use jargony terminology--that is, no doubt less educated--merely try to sound like "critics," hoping, apparently futilely, to fit in that increasingly obscure category. So those wannabe-critic folks should be writing from their guts, then, I suppose, and not their heads, right? Instead of using--what was it?--"strangled self-conscious locution" (i.e., pretentious style) or "obfuscatory jargon" (i.e, confusing words), right? In order to... storm the ivory tower, right? What a snob.

Keep on writing, Nick. Love the site!

12:47 AM, July 15, 2010  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Yeah, everyone here's hit on the major points. He sounds like the critics he's lambasting, and uses poor examples. Charging "mise en scene" as obfuscatory is one. Suggesting that most critics are trying to be Roger Ebert are another. And it's a laugh that he should stand back and sneer at all those "self-afflating" snobs. Hmm...

And Inception's mise en scene IS wonderful, though it's the only thing to recommend it (give or take its few attempts to critique the continuity editing system, and I don't mean the tired "wait for the flashback" opening).

3:19 AM, July 15, 2010  
Anonymous Guy Lodge said...

I've already said so in e-mail form, but I really love you for writing this. Shone may pick on a few deserving targets in the piece, but his blanket dismissals and condescending chiding of internet critics for "trying to sound exactly like critics" -- as if none of them can reasonably be considered critics themselves, with or without the "internet" qualifier -- really stuck in my craw.

And yes, who doesn't gain from learning a new term now and then? I know I do. A few months ago, one commenter quite specifically instructed me to "scale back the vocabulary" because he wasn't familiar with the word "oleaginous" -- self-regarding verbosity is obviously not to be encouraged, but honestly, why would one want fewer words in one's life?

Hope Shone reads this, one way or another. At least a link to this post has surfaced on the original blog!

6:39 AM, July 15, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

Sadly, i don't think that many people like to learn new words. I'm generalizing but I notice on the web (as I do on reality tv) that there is a very conscious pride in ignorance and a very real anger at anything that challenges people to step outside their comfort zones.

It's not hard to miss the fact that in heated comments sections of polarizing reviews, SOMEONE will complain that the author is using "big words" to try and sound smart. Not because you know, words are very useful and sometimes larger ones have very specific meaning that might be just the right thing for the thought being conveyed. ;)

i personally don't get it (i love learning new words... i had to look up gaullimaufry the other day and IMMEDIATELY loved the word) but i see it enough to know that the ease in which you can obtain knowledge (hi Google!) does not deter people from not wanting to obtain it.

7:54 AM, July 15, 2010  
Anonymous Guy Lodge said...

Nathaniel, if you're not careful, I'll have to quote you twice in one day.

10:01 AM, July 15, 2010  
Blogger Tim said...

Marvelous & insightful essay, though I haven't read the article (I am so fucking done with those "death of film criticism" jeremiads, and Shone sounds like a screaming cobag). But I have too many good friends in cinematography not to point out one wee quibble: that discipline includes not just lighting, but also choices pertaining to focus and focal depth, and the related use of different lens sizes.

Second: I want to print Nathaniel's comment and tape it to my computer screen.

12:17 AM, July 16, 2010  
Anonymous Omar said...


4:24 AM, July 19, 2010  
Blogger The Pretentious Know it All said...

Great article, Nick (as per usual). The given name for my internet personality tells you exactly what I think of everything you said.

By the by, the further away I get from Inception, the more I think that mildly interesting mise en scène was just about the only thing that film had going for it.

Isn't it strange how Inception is already all but guaranteed that editing Oscar (whether it deserves it or not).

1:11 PM, July 19, 2010  
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2:36 AM, October 28, 2010  

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