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Saturday, October 14, 2006


Yasmin Ahmad and 'mise en scene'

Yasmin Ahmad's column in the NST today interests me, mainly because of one word; 'mise en scene'. My former Media Production lecturer, Mr Mustafa's name would always pop up to mind each time we came upon the word. He was the first to introduce us to the word 'mise en scene' and taught us the theoritical meaning of it and always speak highly of the need to have mise en scene in video production. The basic meaning of it that i've been told is that it's the 'continuity' or the 'flow' in film scenes. These are one of the most important aspect in film. But I like what Yasmin wrote in her column;
In an American interview, an academician who described a battle scene in Ran as perfect in a film aesthetic sense, complimented the late Akira Kurosawa. He asked Kurosawa how he achieved such a perfect shot. Kurosawa replied that he had no choice; if he had turned the camera a little to the left, you would have seen a supermarket, and if he had shifted it to the right, you would have seen a parking lot.

Only theorists and academicians ever write about such things at great length. Pick up any book by film masters who have actually made good films (Sidney Lumet, Alfred Hitchcock, David Mamet, John Cassavettes, Francois Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, Lars von Trier, et al), and you’ll find they mostly talk about their feelings about humanity anyway.

I, for one, know I’m so dense that I don’t usually bother to interpret anything in a film. I just look for aspects of humanity that may mirror me in some way.
In short, I just sit back and try to watch a film like a child would. I don’t care how many subtexts or semiotics or foreshadowing the film-maker pumped into his shot.
I guesss it's the same thing with politics. You can say that you're more open, democratic, autocratic, political reform, or what sort of political or philosophy terms or styles that you follow but at the end of the day, the output, the progress that you've shown or the results of your leadership is what matters most to the rakyat.
Anyway terms are just that, descriptive terms, nothing much. On a different note, I don't give a damn whether a movie is defined as 'popular', 'indie', 'artsy' or whatever, as long as the movie is good, then I'll watch it. To me, there's only two way distinction of it; good and bad film, regardless of what genre the movie is. I don't mind watching a popular or mainstream film, as long as the film is good. Look at 'Ada Apa Dengan Cinta'. I like it not just because it was a popular movie or it was a teenage romance film (though i can't deny the Dian Sastro factor) but because the storyline is good and it was simply a good film. Well, if it's not that good, I wouldn't have watch it more than ten times. ha ha. Look at the impact that AADC has created in Indonesia. Dozens of sinetron remaja keeps on being produced year in year out because of the wave of AADC. And because of that, more Indonesian films are being shown in our cinemas. Compare that to our local film industry. We are still struggling even to find our own national identity of whether to call it a Malaysian film or Malay film. Is it so important to us whether it's a Malaysian or Malay film?
On another note, right now there's only two local films that I'm waiting for before year end; Red Kebaya and Cicakman. These two people are basically the only reason I want to watch these movies. Vanida Imran (Red Kebaya actress) and Yusry (Cicakman director). I have high respect for Yusry as a director, having seen much of KRU's music videos directed by him, i can say he's one of the talented that we have in our industry. I used to think of him as a better director than an actor. As for Vanida, she's just one of my favorite local actress. :)
Anyway, back to mise-en-scene. Here's an interesting comment on the meaning of 'mise en scene' which i found on the net.

The only guy I ever knew who understood what mise-en-scene meant also used to use the word "albeit" in casual conversation. Talk about your alien beings. Originally a theatrical term meaning a stage setting (literally, "putting-in-scene"), mise-en-scene is often loosely translated as "direction," which unfortunately tends to convey the purely mechanical notion of blocking out the actors' movements so they don't get in each other's way.

In its most significant sense, mise-en-scene refers to everything under the control of the director, that is, the aggregate effect created by art direction, placement and movement of camera and actors, lighting, and other visual elements in a given scene. In other words, mise-en-scene is what the director does. By extension, but somewhat more vaguely, mise-en-scene can refer to the dominant visual features of a film or film genre, e.g., the typically cramped, somber mise-en-scene of the film noir.

Mise-en-scene, according to some theorists, is the principle vehicle by which a film's "meaning," such as it is, is conveyed, and as such is supposedly imposed on the film by its director, who may also call him/herself a metteur-en-scene, "putter-in-scene." (Which is why this is a favorite term of adherents of the "auteur" school of film criticism, who emphasizes the director's importance.)

One may refer to a director's mise-en-scene in the sense of his/her characteristic visual style, such as Fritz Lang's use of harsh lighting and sharp angles. Or Walt Disney's use of primary colors and four-fingered rodents. Such are the trademarks of genius. -

Yasmin's Saturday Column;
KUALA LUMPUR is full of film experts. About four years ago, while shooting my first film Rabun, the phrase mise en scène, uttered by a young member of the crew, whizzed past my head and landed in a bowl of mee sup at the next table.

Lucky for me, the ever-informed Ho Yuhang was at hand. One quizzical look from me and he jumped to my rescue. "Haiyya," he began in true Yuhang form, "it literally means ‘putting into the scene’ or ‘setting the scene’ lah. When applied to film-making, it refers to everything that you put in front of the camera and its arrangement — sets, props, actors, costumes, lighting." "Why such a fancy name for such a basic thing?" I asked. "Faster to say mise en scène than the description I just gave you, mah?" he replied. "Besides, it gives the academics a reason to earn their salary lah."

Two years later, I was sitting on a discussion panel at Finas. They had just finished playing Rabun, and some film academics were there to dissect my film like a frog. A lecturer from a local university (apparently someone high up in the screenwriters’ association) leaned back when it was his turn to speak, and bellowed: "Maybe it’s because Yasmin has never been formally trained in script-writing that she has made a film which deviates from the formal structures of cinema 1, cinema 2, and cinema 3." I remember thinking, "Yeah, I know cinemas 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. They’re at Mid-Valley."But I kept my lips well sealed.

"Yasmin has written one funny scene after another in this film," he continued, looking rather pleased with himself, "and in the end, it all led to nothing. I came here expecting a tsunami of a film, but found a mere ripple." He had barely finished making this statement when a film student from the floor leapt anxiously to his feet and spoke.

"Puan Yasmin," stammered the student nervously, "my father has just had a stroke. Paralysed on one side of his body, he can no longer bathe himself. My mother has to do it for him. Every day, behind his back, she expresses her disgust at having to do it, because prior to the stroke, they had never bathed together in all their married life. "Puan Yasmin, the old couple in your film bathed together and they looked very happy. After watching Rabun, I made a pledge that when I’m married, I shall make sure my wife and I bathe together every day.

"So that when one of us falls ill, the other person will not be disgusted to bathe the spouse."
Bingo, I thought. That’ll do me just fine. A 21-year-old showing up a middle-aged academic, by demonstrating that film is not about rules and structures, but the human condition. I guess Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami was right. Watching a film is like going to a supermarket. The bigger your shopping basket, the more you’ll be able to take home.A year down the line, the academics were at it again. This time for Sepet and Gubra.

An angry man who claimed to have studied film at Columbia University (I’m told he failed and never finished the course) was waving his fist at me during a forum. "To make a film, you have to understand philosophy and psychology," he hissed, "otherwise you’ll make stupid films like Sepet that show a grown man’s sarung falling off!"

"Funny he should say that," I muttered to a friend. "He’s just a film grad and I’m the psychology grad with a philosophy minor, but hey, let’s hear him out, anyway."
By the time his tirade was over, it became clear to everyone there that as far as this angry man was concerned, Children of Heaven was about shoes, and The White Balloon was about balloons. Small wonder then that he thought Sepet was about falling sarung.
Not only did he not have a basket at a supermarket, the frustrated old geezer had brought a shopping cart to the dentist!

These forums are just two examples of what a new film-maker has to go through in this industry. If some big-time producer is not paying off some people to discredit every film you make (this is a fact, by the way), some angry academicians (read: failed film-makers) will hurl phrases at you to discourage you. Phrases like mise en scène, sub-plots, subtexts, semiotics, signs, signifiers, structures, estetika makna, etc.
And if you’re not old and stubborn like me, it can get pretty daunting and disheartening sometimes.

My advice is, don’t pay them any heed. If those old fogies really knew anything about film-making, they would have made at least one good film by now.
Besides, as Yuhang said, mise en scène is nothing more than what you place before the camera, to tell the story you want to tell, and to bring out the feeling that you desire.
And as for the rest of those phrases, I’ve been lucky enough to have academic friends like Hassan Mutalib who are genuinely educated in film, not merely well read.
They tell me not to worry about those fancy phrases, they’re just stuff you put in your film and how you play around with them, to achieve nothing other than to impart a feeling or an opinion you have about your life.

Although some academics will tell you that you must constantly think about the subtexts of every scene you stage, the truth is you just have to follow your instinct and not think so much.
The most beautiful subtexts give you a glimpse into the secret corners of a film-maker’s conscience. Places so secret that even the film-makers themselves were not aware of them, until they appear, mysteriously, in the work.

If you force these things while shooting, the outcome will be fake, contrived, and insincere.
Zhang Yimou said, "The most essential element in all movies is true sentiments. Be it for blockbusters or low-budget productions, the movie must convey real sentiments."
All that obsession with film theories can also get really ridiculous sometimes. The human intellect is so limited that it can only go so far, and then it runs around in circles, gets dizzy, and suddenly black is white and white is black.

Film students in Europe and America indulged in these academic navel-gazings from the 1960s to the 70s (a mindset some of our angry old academicians can never seem to shake off) but they snapped out of that solemn foolery, when it became more and more obvious that the real geniuses to come out of that generation were not academics, but regular folks with a talent for observing humanity and recording their feelings down on film with great style and sensitivity.
In other words, you’re better off spending your time enriching your life by falling in love, getting hurt, observing people, reading poetry, watching films, painting, photographing, travelling, and just living life, rather than burying yourself too much in books on film theories and script writing.

For example, here is a list of some of the greatest filmmakers in history and how they began:
• D.W. Griffith — failed journalist• Charlie Chaplin — stage burlesque comedian• Yasujiro Ozu — village school teacher• Billy Wilder — university dropout, journalist• Alfred Hitchcock — title designer• Akira Kurosawa — unsuccessful painter• Satyajit Ray — book cover designer• Ermanno Olmi — company clerk• Ken Loach — lawyer• Abbas Kiarostami — graphic artist designing children’s books• Pedro Almodovar — jewellery maker, clerk • Woody Allen — university dropout, philosophy major• Takeshi Kitano — thrown out of engineering college, worked as a lift boy at a nightclub, comedian• Zhang Yimou — farm hand turned photographer• Quentin Tarantino — high school dropout, video store clerk• Clint Eastwood — lumberjack and soldier

Finally, and most interesting for me, was this interview Peter Bogdanovich conducted with the late great John Ford. Bogdanovich noted to Ford that his earlier films were about the great Western frontier. That the heroes were clean-cut and invincible. Then he suggested that it all took a gradual turn towards darker themes in Ford’s later films. The lines of morality became more blurred than before, the heroes were visibly dirtier, and the work increasingly leaned towards film noir.
"Was this a conscious decision?" asked Bogdanovich. To which Ford replied, "What the hell is film noir?"

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