Sculpting In Time - Meaning And Mise En Scène

Thoughts On: Sculpting In Time

The second post about Tarkovsky's book, focusing on a passage from the first chapter.

In this posts we'll be looking at a passage from (in my book) pages 24-25:

"As we know, mise en scène is a design made up of the disposition of the actors in relation to each other and to the setting. In real life we can be struck by the way an episode takes on a 'mise en scène' which makes for the utmost expressiveness. On seeing it we might exclaim with delight, 'You couldn't think of that if you tried!' What is it that we find so arresting? The incongruity of the 'composition' in relation to what is happening. It is in fact the absurdity of the mise en scène that catches our imagination; but this absurdity is only apparent. It covers something of great significance which gives the mise en scène that quality of absolute conviction which makes us believe in the event.
The point is that is no good by-passing the difficulties and bringing everything down to a simplistic level; therefore it is crucial that mise en scène, rather than illustrating some idea, should follow life--the personalities of the characters and their psychological state. Its purpose must not be reduced to elaborating on the meaning of a conversation or an action. Its function is to startle us with the authenticity of the actions and the beauty and depths of the artistic images--not by obtrusive illustration of their meaning. As is so often the case, undue emphasis on ideas can only restrict the spectators imagination, forming a kind of thought ceiling beyond which there yawns a vacuum. It doesn't safeguard the frontiers of thought, it simply makes it harder to penetrate into its depths."

What this passage is about, in as brief a summation as I can put forth, is the physical composition of a shot or scene and how it should be used to translate meaning. Furthermore, Tarkovsky asserts that the composition, the 'disposition of actors in relation to each other and to the setting', should tell the audience something revelatory and, as blunt as can be put across, 'deep' way without being painfully obvious.

This is a poignant example of blocking from Drive. We have Irene, Carey Mulligan's character, caught in a wide shot. We see her entire body focused by centre-framing, the use of overhead lights as well as the warm colours and depths provided by the elevator and the vibrant red of her top. The composition of this shot is all about showing her character as someone being observed from a distance. Moreover, this shot is about the expression of her character, it is about showing her as quiet and kept to herself which is built upon when we're brought closer into her life with her kid, husband and so on. However, all of this is undoubtedly in relation to the Driver as represented by the symbol of the scorpion. What's interesting about his presentation in this image is how polar it is to Irene's. She is small, taking up a small fraction of the frame, he is large taking up almost half of the screen, we see her entirely, we see him from the back and barely, we have focus on her through lighting, colour and her position in frame, the Driver is used as little more than a means of cutting the shot in half. This is such a great shot as it says quite a bit about the Driver and Irene, it also speaks to their relationship and the themes of the film (as represented by the symbol and Irene's disposition in respect to the Driver's).

Now, having said all of that about this one shot, I struggle to see if it fits within Tarkovsky's much more profound idea of this high quality mise en scène that isn't too on-the-nose. Sure, this is an expressive shot and it emotes a powerful sense of colour and lighting, but I do not exclaim with delight, 'You couldn't think of that if you tried!'. In saying this I'll have delve a little in my personage as we're dealing with subjectivity. I don't cry at movies, I feel uplifted, I can be hit with profound feelings, I can even fall in love with characters and movies on strange levels I don't really feel elsewhere. But, I never have an outward reaction to movie, there is no huge exclamation in my head, neither is there one verbalise - though there is a lot of verbiage and exclamatories on the blog, so maybe I'm over-selling this. Nonetheless, what this says to me is that judging expression as Tarkovsky implies is not really something I can do with confidence. Does this mean I haven't see the right films? I think there's thousands of films out there from all across history and many to come from the future that will hit me with profound realisations or be prolific experiences. In fact, I may watch dozens of films that become new favourites in my life time. But, I've seen a lot of movies, I've seen many of what most would say are the 'best' ever. In such, I find myself not in a postmodern vacuum whereby I see no hierarchy in the art of cinema. I simply am struck with apprehension faced with the unquantifiable. What Tarkovsky speaks of is something you can't measure, which begs a question of how he means to articulate this point with any sense of succinctness. He attempts to elaborate in a slightly later passage, giving an example of an expressive mise en scène:

"A man is run over by a tram and has his leg cut off. They prop him up against the wall of a house and he sits there, under the shameless gaze of the gawping crowd, and waits for the ambulance to arrive. Suddenly he can't bear it any longer, takes a handkerchief out of his pocket, and lays it over the stump."

The expressiveness of covering a severed leg out of shame here is clearly in the articulation of priority. Yes, this man has just endured what is likely to be the worst thing that ever happens to him physically, but, there is still an emotional consideration of such a thing as shame. This is absurd, yet something we can all understand, which conjures the feeling of profundity - something almost tantamount to being told a clever joke that catches you off guard. What this brings to mind is...

... the plethora of examples one can give of an athlete shitting themselves and carrying on in their sport - in this case running. There is no shame in this, it's just what happens. To this effect, I suppose if you wanted to see it, this shot of Paula Radcliffe is, as Tarkovsky may say 'expressive, indeed' because it speaks of the same thing the given example does, just with an opposing reaction of the character. What this says about mise en scène is that its all about how character and situation translate into blog posts. I know that sounds self-aggrandising, but my point is merely about the image triggering deep thoughts, it's about the picture quite literally having a thousand worth-while words almost streaming from it. This is what Tarkovsky speaks of when he talks of composition expressing something. I don't, however, see the specificity of composition being there to express character, life--the personalities of the characters and their psychological state. In considering blocking as a means of talking about character in this tangible manner, you overlook the power of the image, of utilising objects to reflect meaning. Such is the poignancy of these shots:

From the bone in 2001, the fizzing drink in Taxi Driver, the slaughtered cow in Eisentein's Strike, we are seeing the expressive nature of mise en scène being derived not from the pure mindset of the characters, their psychological state, but a wider idea. For 2001 it's about tools people use, for Taxi Driver it's about Travis' psychological state, yes, but also a comment on wider themes of an individual creating waves of perturbation in their community, for Strike, the butchered cow is there to comment on a massacre. What we see in this is the crux of meaning within mise en scène. It's not so much about character that you try to comment on, but singularly 'life', as Tarkovsky says. Through this we see the proceeding implimence that characters are there to serve this meaning. They are not the end all and be all of the point you're trying to make with an image or scene. They are there to draw focus on a wider idea. What this means is that when we bring back our first shot from Drive...

... we find ourselves at better odds of assessing its content. Yes, this composed image has a lot you may say about it in terms of technical detail, but can you stretch that commentary to life? Does this image imply as much about human nature as Radcliffe here?

Whilst that sounds sounds like comical rhetoric, it is a proposition you can take very seriously. This image says a lot about dedication and perseverance, about how drive can take over one's perception to the point where societal opinions on the what, wheres and whens of our faeces stop mattering. And in that sentence alone I think it becomes clear what Tarkovsky is telling us. I could write hundreds more words about the image above. I would struggle to say more about the one from Drive without relying on the rest of the film or many somewhat tangential subjects such as this one here. We then see the shot from Drive as just a powerfully constructed shot. It holds great technical camera work and cinematography, but this focus on the subjects in the film is not elevated to the artistic level of Tarkovsky's example of the man, stump and handkerchief. There is then a distinction through Tarkovsky's exploration of mise en scène. What he shows is the differnce between good shots, and great imagery, great story telling. Great imagery isn't directly about characters looking at each other, it's about what that then implies on a wider philosophical scale.

Why does putting things in hierarchy like this matter though? I think it matters for two obvious reasons. The first is that everyone has an opinion, and opinions are almost always there as a way of judgment. Judgement is quite simply the juxtaposition of two propositions, in this judgment comes a categorisation, one that inevitably leads of hierarchy. To want to abandon this by not assessing art (talking in wider terms now) is to primarily lie about how we perceive and ultimately why we consume things. We consume to find the next awe-inspiring movie that blows us away. We only get there by seeing many bad, mediocre and almost-there pictures. Recognising this establishes the audience as an active and reactive element that doesn't merely consume art. However, the second reason for looking at the images in respect to Tarkovsky's quote is to try to break down what makes composition or mise en scène expressive. And on that not we can turn to what Tarkovsky proffers:

What is it that we find so arresting? The incongruity of the 'composition' in relation to what is happening. It is in fact the absurdity of the mise en scène that catches our imagination; but this absurdity is only apparent. It covers something of great significance which gives the mise en scène that quality of absolute conviction which makes us believe in the event.

The suggestion here is that powerful images are absurd, that they capture the imagination by juxtaposing two polar ideas or perspectives. This is expressed perfectly by his example of the handkerchief on the severed leg just as it does Paula Radcliffe taking a dump in the middle of a race. What both of these composed 'shots' do is juxtapose the internal thoughts of the character to a wider societal perspective. The man without a leg is self-conscious in a dire situation where one shouldn't care about such a thing as people looking at him. Radcliffe shitting isn't self-conscious at all, not to the degree of letting it effect her behavior, to maybe hold in the shit, or just stop the race (as I think I would). The meaning in both of these images is then in conflict, a conflict between expectation and the unexpected, between the norm and the abnormal. After all, it's only the things we do not encounter too often that we feel the need to question. And it's this exact idea that allows us to understand what Tarkovsky means by expressiveness. To create a powerfully composed image you must capture both the abnormal as well as the philosophically conflicting. Doing just this isn't enough, there has to be 'absolute conviction' in a great mise en scène. How do we create this? Verisimilitude. You make the viewer believe that this could actually happen by grounding the absurd behaviour within the realms of acceptable reality. To clarify, we can envision someone placing a handkerchief over their severed leg. It seems a human enough action, but human in a way we don't often consider - this is what makes the mise en scène so poignant; it's in the fact that we get it, that it makes us question things and that it resonates. The same may be said for the runner defecating - though, because it's a real photograph, the reality of this is undeniable.

So, in the end, the approach to mise en scène that Tarkovsky speaks to us of is about having something to say, about building an image that is a major springboard for emotional and intellectual enquiry by inciting a philosophical conflict through absurdist realism. Something somewhat easier said than done of course, but nonetheless, a concept of quality that's hopefully a little easier grapple and apply.

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