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Between Style and Specter: Figuring Mise en Scène


The new book from Australian critic Adrian Martin, Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art, is a rich, dense 200 pages, drawing on material written over a period of more than twenty years, from a writer who is, literally, exceptional in that he has been one of the few to successfully navigate the murky, troubled waters that separate film criticism or analysis from academic film studies. Even in this long(ish) piece, I cannot even begin to do justice to the book’s theoretical sophistication, the evocative fullness of its descriptions, let alone give a feel of the ‘grain’ of its author’s voice, at once sharp, lyrical and laconic, precisely calibrated between the dense verbiage of high theory and the dry wit of the British tradition of stylistic analysis. (Because of the companionable vibe this book gives off, it’s hard to refer to its author as ‘Martin,’ so I’ll say, ‘Adrian’ instead, although I’ve yet to meet Adrian Martin in person). So what I’ll do is take a leisurely stroll along its avenues of thought, without aiming at any kind of bird’s eye view. Although I will make a few critical remarks at the end, this essay should not be taken as a review, but rather as my half of a conversation on some of the ideas offered up by this writer, in print (monographs on Raúl Ruiz, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Miller’s Mad Max movies; an edited volume on cinephilia in the global age; an essay on figural analysis), in the blogosphere, or in the in-between realm of online journals like Senses of CinemaRouge and LOLA, platforms he helped launch and/or still edits.

MISE-EN-SCÈNE: Harmony in Movement

What becomes apparent quite early on in the book is that mise en scène is a means to an end, a way into the history of film style and aesthetic form. Taking another long look at the term also allows the critic to reassess its centrality as a concept in the story of film criticism and film theory. The choice of mise en scène as a point of entry for a study of film aesthetics and film criticism is both safe – as a historic object its initial elaboration and subsequent dismissal and reconfiguration run parallel to the development of the discourse on cinema and film theory – and courting danger, since, as the title of the book’s first chapter makes clear, it’s a term that means everything and nothing very specific (it is perhaps for this reason that the Belgian critic Dirk Lauwaert called it the most beautiful word in the critical language). The ambition of the book is to do full justice to the protean nature of the concept. Still, there is a base value, a starting point formulated as a  ‘principal intuition,’ which is that mise en scène shows us something; it is a means of display. In its presentational or deictic aspect this principal intuition tracks pretty close to the foundational definition of the concept within the framework of the ‘politique des auteurs.’ Here is Alexandre Astruc writing about the cinema of Mizoguchi in 1959:

One doesn’t need to have made a lot of films to realize that there is no such thing as mise en scène, that actors can do quite well without it and that any chief cameraman knows how to position the camera to get the appropriate shot, that the continuity between shots takes care of itself, etc. Mizoguchi and Ophuls obviously understood this very quickly and then moved on to what really interested them…Watching how people act? … Not exactly. It could more aptly be described as presenting them, watching how they act and at the same time what makes them act.

What mise en scène shows or presents, for Astruc, is an inspired and inspiring observation, primarily of the physical, material world, particularly the movement of the body. According to the kind of existential phenomenology fashionable in Paris at the time, the movement of the body, ‘like all that is physical,’ is ‘an immediate revelation:’ ‘the dance, a woman’s look, the change of rhythm in a walk, beauty, truth.’ The focus on the performer and the body in motion, on gesture, is a constant in Cahiers’ elaboration of mise en scène during the fifties. We find it, for example, in Rivette’s much-cited piece on Howard Hawks, ‘Le génie de Howard Hawks’ (1953): ‘We are not concerned with John Wayne’s thoughts as he walks towards Montgomery Clift in Red River, or Bogart’s thoughts as he beats somebody up: our attention is directed solely to the precision of each step, the exact rhythm of the walk, of each blow, and to the gradual collapse of the battered body.’

Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)

Adrian shares the interest of these critics in the (sensations and impressions produced by) the way actors move in the frame, in the way they walk, but he doesn’t necassrily share their philosophical framework, recently described by Jacques Rancière as ‘a coarse phenomenology.’ An important reference for the book is Positif critic Gérard Legrand’s 1979 book Cinémanie, which assumes a somewhat revisionistic stance towards what he labels ‘MISE-EN-SCENE’ (capitalized). Although he shares with classical Cahiers the qualification of cinema as first and foremost a physical event, he stresses the plastic part of cinema before its ontological realism when he says that the director’s job is to place in movement and harmonize the figures and gestures of his actors. Similarly, the great American critic Manny Farber (who, like Legrand, was a painter), made the directorial handling and arrangement of gesture, walking, and rhythm an essential part of the atttraction of ‘poetic’ action movies like those of Howard Hawks. And even in Epstein, moments of ‘photogénie’ arose out of the appreciation of  ‘harmony in movement,’ perceived but also composed, made to happen. So mise en scène as a means of showing something, implies a certain idea of transparency – showing the world – but at the same time the emphasis on the stylisation, as a craft or an art, decidedly shifts it away from the Bazinian ideas on cinema and from the exclusive conception of filmic expression underlying the ‘politique.’

A Coarse Phenomenology

The influence of phenomenological philosophy, via Sartre, on Bazin is well-known, but additional filters were provided both by Hegelian idealism (art as the revelation of ‘beauty’ and ‘truth’) and by catholic intellectuals and cinephiles like Henri Agel and Amédée Ayfre. The latter’s essay on Italian Neorealism was a Cahiers landmark, had a profound influence on Rohmer and Rivette, and started a vogue for heavy moralizing. The problem for Rivette and Rohmer was how to reconcile their neoclassical taste in art – say, for the dramatic unities, the purity and elegance of line of the American cinema of Hawks – to the ideal of a transparent rendering of material reality. In the case of Hawks or even Preminger, you could point to an absence of a signature style, a certain ‘poverty’ of style. But once you’re done talking about long takes, deep focus or the ‘wide’ focus of CinemaScope, how does this work for the quite openly expressionist, borderline mannerist style of other favourites like Welles, Nicholas Ray or Vincente Minnelli? Even a clearly Kuleshovian filmmaker like Hitchcock is considered in terms of transparency: it is the ‘discreet’, ‘theatrical,’ long-take Hitchcock of Under Capricorn and Rope who is favourite, not the montage wizard of North By Northwest.

Rivette’s qualification of Preminger’s mise en scène as a ‘door to something beyond intellect, opening out onto the unknown,’ was taken up by in a later period by a critic like Jean Douchet and reveals the lingering influence of a catholic strain of mysticism, whether with a leftist or rightwing politics attached to it. Adrian’s goal is to preserve the ‘mystery’ Rivette sees at the heart of cinema, but by introducing the Hegelian-romantic-theological conception of mise en scène to a postmodern philosophy of alterity and hybridity, opening up its limited and limiting conception of style by creating a new dialectic between an altogether different focus on materiality and a secular conception of the spiritual.


So if cinematic mise en scène is a way of showing, this entails not just ‘capturing’ but also ‘picturing’ or ‘arranging.’ In classical film aesthetics what the images are pictured or arranged for, is narrative comprehension. Adrian usefully proposes to look at the relationship between style and narrative as one of ‘aesthetic economy.’ The first type he discusses is precisely the classical one, that stands for a close correlation – an ‘organic unity’ – between style and thematics, and considers mise en scène to be expressive of a logical, coherent, three-dimensional story world anchored by three-dimensional characters. The critical text presented  as primarily expressive of this tradition, is V.F. Perkins’ Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies (1972), a book drawn from the author’s critical work at Movie, a journal that combined auteurist politics with New Critical close reading and detailed textual analysis. Essentially, Perkins’ work is motif analysis, exploring the relation between the appearance of structurally organized narrative elements and artistic choices in terms of camera placement and movement, lighting, editing patterns etc. Indeed, other than exemplifying the classical unity between style and meaning – to be found in the same filmmakers canonized by Cahiers: Welles, Ray, Hitchcock, Preminger, Minnelli – Perkins also stands for a close attention to story, character, theme, elements that stem from the work of the screenwriter, scoffed at by Rivete in his review of Preminger’s Angel Face. When the (willed) contingency of gesture, movement, object, becomes what is revelatory or ‘magical’ about the movies, the first thing that goes out the window is the script, which offers only ‘the temptation of the mediocre.’ Let’s also remember here Jean Epstein’s celebration of Hayakawa, the ‘tranced tragedian,’ ‘sweeping aside’ the scenario of an ‘improbable yarn.’

Text becomes something quite different from dialogue or story structure in an excessive aesthetic economy, for which, as Screen critic Sam Rohdie expressed it, ‘filmic moments are less about narrative articulation or communication, about authorial expression, than they are about being, about the sheer existence of surfaces or objects.’ We’re back to phenomenology, it seems, but now at an even more ‘micro-analytic’ level, and with added fetishism. One of the implications of this position, associated most closely with post-structuralism and journals like Screen, is that the work of analysis shifts from the filmmaker, no longer in control of the surplus of meaning that piles up in the film, to the viewer’s pleasure, formulated as a ‘libidinal’ involvement or investment. If the filmmaker still appears, it is in name only, as an ‘author function,’ expressive only of the irresolvable ideological tensions in the text. Contrary to the most radical avatars of poststructuralism, Adrian, like Rohdie, has no intention to get rid of the filmmaker as either actual person or authorial presence. What he takes from the poststructuralist tradition is not the dismissal of the artist as a named, living entity, but the openness of a film’s form as a terrain for play, exploration and discovery.

Moreover, the interest in gestures, surfaces and objects is what cinephiles share across theoretical boundaries, and can be found just as well in Perkins’ concentration on the smallest elements in a film as in Epstein’s or Aragon’s ‘fetishization’ of certain elements of movement or décor. It is surely not accidental that a crucial benchmark for the translation of poststructuralism in American film criticism of the late seventies, the ‘jam session’ on non-narrative elements of cinema hosted by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the pages of Film Comment, approvingly cites Gilbert Adair’s report on the color of Cary Grant’s socks in the cropduster sequence of North by Northwestas an example of a new kind of ultra-focused film criticism. Adair’s famous observation refers back not just to Barthes’ fetishistic treatment of Eisenstein in his essay “Le troisième sens,” published in Cahiers in 1970, but to the photogénic idea on which the politique des auteurs was built. Thus Mise en Scène and Film Style makes apparent the possibilities for rapprochement between opposing ‘schools’ or traditions, between the close reading of Jonathan Rosenbaum, Sam Rohdie, Raymond Bellour or Raymond Durgnat and that of Perkins or Rivette.

Anatomy of a Relationship (Luc Moullet, 1976)

A good example of such rapprochement is the book’s reconfiguration of the idea of a cinematic ‘dispositif,’ a term associated primarily with Jean-Louis Baudry and so-called ‘apparatus’ theory. The ‘dispositif’, for Baudry, is a social machine, a viewing situation that primes the viewer in an ideological sense. Adrian’s take on the concept, however, is borrowed from Luc Moullet, a filmmaker and critic for Cahiers, who as a critic is basically an expressivist. For Moullet, the dispositif is a crazy contraption rather than a numbing machine, a rule-bound conceipt comparable to the creations and practices of the Oulipo group (Perec, Queneau, Calvino), who, like the surrealists, created restrictive structures and patterns to inspire artistic creation. The dispositif as stylistic game is crucial to nouvelle vague-era Godard and has, as Moullet points out, made something of a resurgence in contemporary art cinema. Adrian considers this ludic conception of dispositif in its purely formalist incarnation, suggested also by David Bordwell’s conception of ‘parametric narration,’ a rule-bound form of cinematic presentation that can be found in the cinema or art pieces of Akerman, Apichatpong, or Tsai. At the same time, however, he shows how formal play is certainly not opposite to exploring the social, cultural and ideological ramifications of the relationship between viewer and apparatus, thereby preserving the essence of Baudry’s ‘appareil de base.’

Dancing and Driving (to the brink of excess)

Passion (Brian De Palma, 2012)

But Mise en Scène and Film Style wants to do more than reconcile hermeneutic traditions and oppositions; it also wants to bring in new ones, highlighting for instance the recent attention to film as a ‘sensory event.’ At the most basic level the conception of film as a sensory event points in the direction of the still overlooked importance, in most mise en scène criticism, of sound. We we say ‘sound,’ we can mean both (stylised) dialogue (as in the urban poetry of Force of Evil), the ‘grain’ of a voice or voice-over, its materiality as separate from linguistic construction (as in Al pacino’s voice-over for Carlito’s Way), or ‘effect noise or suggestive sounds’ (as in the layered ambient soundtrack of Philippe Grandrieux’s La Vie Nouvelle). Sound can be a function of offscreen space (as in The Lady from Shanghai), filling in the film world’s blind spots, or creating new ones. Perhaps most of all, for Adrian, sound means music. Attention to the performer’s rhythm and movement in Cahiers criticism betrayed the influence of earlier conceptions of ciné-dance, of pure cinema as a rhythmic art above all else. Dance sequences are a constant of mise en scène analysis: the two most elaborately described and memorably evoked moments of classical mise en scène in the book are dance scenes, from Minnelli’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche. Equally important, however, to the classical aesthetic value of cinematic choreography as conceived of by the filmmaker (constructed as much in editing as during shooting), is the affect music in cinema produces in the viewer and in the filmmaker as viewer-creator.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Vincente Minnelli, 1970)

In Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, a 2003 book edited by Adrian and Jonathan Rosenbaum that started as a series of letters between ‘Some Children of 1960,’ likeminded cinephiles from around the globe, Kent Jones writes about the sensual effect of music: ‘One of the key experiences for American teenagers of my generation was driving with the radio on and feeling the intoxicating effect produced by the marriage of rock music and the passing landscape.’He finds this feeling of being ‘mixed up’ with the music expressed in ‘a new strain of narrative film-making,’ in films by Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai, Olivier Assayas, Atom Egoyan and Lars von Trier, films many classical cinephiles have had trouble with because they ‘risks weightlessness in order to build from this new genre of modern experience’ (Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is probably the classical instance of the principle, and you can trace a straight line from Scorsese and Wenders to Hou and Yang to Assayas and Denis and Mia Hansen-Love). Alexander Horvath concurs, pointing to the same films and filmmakers, that ‘act/move/think in musical and filmic terms at the same time.’ In the same volume, Adrian attempts an eclectic taxonomy of the film musical that extends the genre into that of the ‘music-film,’ which he defines as ‘any film which feels as if it is driven by its music (instrumental or lyrical), where the guiding role of music in relation to image is especially foregrounded…suddenly ‘opening a window’ to another mood or another world, taking us elsewhere, beyond the confines of a particular time, place, nation and narrative.’ This is Rivette’s qualification of mise en scène as a ‘door to something beyond intellect, opening out onto the unknown’ given a matrerial grounding. In an essay for LOLA, the (auto)motive metaphor for the transporting potential of music in film – both psychic drive and a sublime sense of just being carried away – is extended: ‘Music simply carries: across space, across air waves; and then it carries us away (as the saying goes), transports us, along interior, personal paths as well as exterior, collective ones …

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)

Music, like movies, also seems the intercultural art par excellence: ‘As this music travels, it mixes up the traces of all the places, all the histories, it has intersected and interwoven with.’ In his invocation of the intricate and colorful tapestry of the music-film, Adrian adds a much longer list to the filmmakers mentioned by Jones and Horvath, including Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Michael Mann and the Coen Brothers, next to Baz Luhrman, Jerry Lewis, Kusturica, Jancsó, Godard, Fellini, Schroeter and – we’re talking tapestries after all – Paradjanov. This is a very inclusive list that joyfully extends not only the category of the movie musical but any classical conception of cinematic taste. Such ecclecticism is typical of the new cinephiles or ‘movie mutants’ assembled by Jonathan Rosenbaum, not just children of the sixties and music culture, but of (music) television and its later offspring, the video store, important influences on many of the filmmakers the mutants love but older cinephiles have trouble embracing, precisely because they reject these media as ‘anti-cinematic.’

What connects the modernist masters on Adrian’s list to the more contemporary ‘music-filmmakers,’ is also a certain taste for the baroque, for stylistic inflation. In terms of aesthetic economy this is excess conceived of as a stylistic principle. Martin nods to the current theoretical vogue for qualifying contemporary commercial cinema as ‘neo-baroque’ spectacle, while usefully proposing three kinds of stylistic inflation. First, there is the ‘broad fit’ between style and subject. This is not exactly Perkins’ classical articulation of dramatic unity, but more of a stylistic overlay, that ‘enhances the feel or meaning of the subject matter.’ Examples of this tendency are filmmakers like Michael Mann, the Coen Brothers, David Fincher. Then there is the more flashy, ‘mannerist’ approach that exceeds any direct narrative or dramatic motivation, which we find in the cinema of Sam Raimi, Kathryn Bigelow or, in a more poetic or art-cinema mode, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch or Claire Denis. In its extreme manifestation mannerism takes on the guise of a neo-expressionism: a total stylisation of all filmic parameters to express extreme emotional states: think of Tim Burton, Gaspar Noé, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Brian De Palma, directors who all hark back to a tradition of ‘Caligarism’ you could call operatic.

Domino (Tony Scott, 2005)

At the furthest extreme are those movies that have pushed traditional conceptions of mise en scène as a spatial and rhythmic art to the breaking point. In the early nineties filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Tony Scott started experimenting with three to four-thousand shot movies, that also pushed the envelope in other areas of kinetic and affective amplification: super-saturated color, superimposition, manipulated sound, variable motion or speed-ramping. If these are ‘incoherent texts’ in the poststructuralist sense, their attraction is also that they render explicit the ‘materiality of the total, sensory event which a film is,’ and that they have definitively done away with the almost mythical idea of mise en scène as a pro-filmic ‘something’ that happens on a movie set, the director’s inspiration at the moment of shooting, and shifted the attention to the realm of editing and post-production (so long forbidden montage!). These films raise the question what mise en scène is, as they make it hard to define the borders of the shot, traditionally the fundamental unit of cinema. What they make clear is that it is an even more hybrid, fluid, unstable concept than its complicated genealogy led us to presume.

Frames and Figures

Adrian’s treatment of the ‘Tony Scott problem’ repeats the democratic gesture of the movie mutants, who champion an ‘impure’ conception of cinema across aesthetic boundaries and whose cinephilia is ‘global’ in the sense that they have no truck with traditional separations based on national borders. A critic like Nicole Brenez moves nimbly across the barriers that even in postmodernist aesthetics traditionally separate, say, Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer and Rossellini’s Stromboli. Similarly, Adrian champions the arte povera of Cassavetes, Philippe Garrel, Maurice Pialat, and ‘minimalist’ Asian filmmakers like Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, while carrying the torch for video-shop directors like Larry Cohen or Tobe Hooper, teen movies, or Brian De Palma’s Passion. It’s all cinema, part of what Brenez refers to as a ‘true history of forms.’ The forms the mutants seem most interested in, however, are those which both in their aesthetic design and the affect, experience or sensation they produce, are centered on the body. In his introductory letter to Movie Mutations, Rosenbaum suggests that the kinship perceived between filmmakers like Ferrara, Hellman, Garrel, Eustache and Cassavetes, mainly concerns the physicality of actors and the kind of liminal emotional states that reveal a fascination with expressionism beneath the realistic-naturalistic surface. So it is expressionism – the famous ‘other’ of Bazin’s filmic realism – that transforms the classical cinephile’s interest in the actor’s physicality. And it is probably also in this expressionist undercurrent, in the naked, intense physicality and raw emotions bordering on hysteria – melodrama is never far away – that ‘outsider art’ meets the mannerist popular cinema of Brian De Palma and Tony Scott, the latter described as ‘sensation-banks and emotional triggers.’

The focus of critics like Adrian and Nicole Brenez, however, is not just on bodies in cinema, or even on the ‘mimetic’ experience of an embodied spectator (here the work of Australian scholar Anne Rutherford is an important point of reference), but on the body of the film itself. As a theoretician of cinema, Adrian has been hugely inspired by the work on ‘figural analysis’ by his fellow mutant, Nicole Brenez, whose book on Ferrara he translated in 2007 and who inspired the subject of his own book, Last Day Every Day: Figural Thinking from Auerbach and Kracauer to Agambem and Brenez (2012). This is not the place to expand on the precise hermeneutic range of figural analysis – a ‘somewhat obscure, difficult idea’ Adrian tells us in the introduction to Last Day Every Day (Brenez disagrees) – especially since the subject is not explicitly raised in Mise en Scène and Film Style (Catherine Grant has posted an archive of relevant text material on the subject here). Nevertheless, allow me to wander off track for a bit and open a sidebar on the suggestions for film analysis and appreciation made by both books.

In his enlightening review of Brenez’s De la figure en général et du corps en particulier: l’invention figurative au cinéma (1998), a book he translated, Australian critic and historian Bill Routt explains that figural analysis differs from mise en scène analysis insofar as its primary critical units are figures rather than shots. Figure or ‘figura,’ a term going back to Erich Auerbach’s eponymous essay from 1938, in which he explores the polysemy of the term in the ancient world, denotes both an attention towards ‘character’ as something between fictional agent and ‘real’ physical person, and towards the ontology of the medium in which cinematic ‘form’ is at the same time ghostly appearance and material imprint. An image as figura always refers to an unstable and invisible ‘Something Else.’ The concept of the figure therefore allows for another reconciliation, or dialectical meeting if you prefer, between the real and the made, opening up the Bazinian ontology to hermeneutics – the figure is what is to be ‘figured out’ – or at least to hermeneutics as ontology, as in Heidegger. A crucial idea for figural analysis is also the tension between the materiality of the figura and its latency or virtuality, its multiple temporality; the idea that  what is or was always also remains to be constituted, is always ‘latent’ or ‘virtual.’ This opens up a quasi-inexhaustable reservoir of meaning-making prompted by the suggestion that we are never ‘done’ with a movie, that there are always different ways of looking at it.

The Dante Quartet (Stan Brakhage, 1987)

Such endless freedom of interpretation, ‘phantomatic possibilities’, as Brenez terms it, is nevertheless grounded in the materiality of the film, both as aesthetic achievement and literal material base. Figural analysis not only produces figurative links and motif studies that playfully cross genres and aesthetic hierarchies (a typical case is Brenez’s take on ‘money’ in two ‘low-budget’ films, Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner) but also takes Victor Perkins’ close reading or even Raymond Bellour’s fine-grained shot-by-shot analysis to the next level, into frame-by-frame analysis.


This kind of micro-stylistic inquiry, although more problematic in an age in which the idea of a frame has to be rethought, is in itself nothing new to film historians who have studied a 16 or 35mm print looking for the precise frame-conscious way in which directors like Ozu, Hitchcock and Eisenstein, and before them Gance, Epstein and Dulac, timed and cut their films rhythmically (for an account of such frame counting see this blog post). A recent example of such ‘fine-grained analysis’or ‘micro-stylistics’ is film historian Lea Jacobs’ new book, Film Rhythm After Sound, which is described by David Bordwell as follows:

Film Rhythm after Sound is a breakthrough in showing how narrative cinema masters time in its finest grain. We’re used to talking about scenes, shots, and lines of dialogue. Lea has taken us into the nano-worlds of a film: frames and parts of frames, fractions of seconds, phonemes. As Richard Feynman once said of atomic particles, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” Of course Lea doesn’t overlook characterization, plot dynamics, themes, and other familiar furniture of criticism. But she shows how our moment-by-moment experience depends on the sensuous particulars that escape our notice as the movie whisks past us. We can’t detect these micro-stylistics on the fly. Yet they are there, working on us, powerfully engaging our senses.

Adrian takes this atomic metaphor for micro-stylistic inquiry into a slightly different, though still sensuous, direction, adapting Bazin’s famous qualification of the shot as an ‘an atom which joins with other atoms to make the scene and then the sequence,’ for an even more fine-grained kind of inquiry:

Figural analysis, thus, is granular or atomic, a true “frame by frame” analysis which takes its model and inspiration from the fine-grain materiality and action of experimental cinema; it is less concerned with lenses and depth of field than with the mobile arrangment, displacement and pulsation of screen particles. Shot divisions, even scenes or sequences are less pertinent for this work than analytic “ensembles”, slices of text and texture that demonstrate the economy and logic of a film’s ceaseless transformation of its elements. And everything to do with character, performance and actorly presence in cinema will have to be rethought from the vantage point of this ghostly, mobile flickering of the celluloid grain as it helps to form and deform the figure of the human being on screen.

A lot is going on in this paragraph, that offers a rethinking in material terms of the classical discourse on cinematic presence. The filmmaker’s expressive poetics still matter, but are complemented by an effect generated by the material base of the film, by something that cannot be historically located and refers back to what you could call the true ‘being’ of the film, or rather, in a more Deleuzian sense, its constant becoming or transformation, its ‘changing’ in the constant collision of the elements that constitute it, a true ‘moving picture.’ The idea of a film’s material basis figuring a lack of fixity fits nicely with Auerbach’s biblical-allegorical understanding of the figura as a type of representation that  ‘prefigures’ (itself a prefiguration of Walter Benjamin’s messianistic thinking, allegorically captured in the figure of Paul Klee’s ‘Angel of History’). But the evanescence of the moving image also takes us back to classical evocations of the poetry inherent in the contingent photographic basis of the medium, like D.W. Griffith’s observation that cinema has forgotten what it does best: to capture the movement of the wind in the trees. The paradox of a fleetingness seemingly captured forever is memorably evoked in Adrian’s essay for Rouge on Terrence Malick: ‘In Malick’s cinema…we are captivated by the rustles and murmurs of the world: the wind in the long grass, the sweeping changes in light, the waves of sound over the earth…nothing is fixed… Malick’s characters are never wholly there in their story, their history, their destiny: they float like ghosts, unformed, malleable, subject to mercurial shifts in mood or attitude, no more stable or fixed than the breeze or the stream.’ This interest in the ‘ghost’-like qualities of cinema – not just its ‘phantomatic possibilities’ but its unsteady temporality and ontological status – explicitly addressed in both the uncanny narratives and visual style of the films of treasured filmmakers like Hellman, Cassavetes, Rivette, Garrel, Lynch, Costa, Ruiz, and Tsai, goes a long way towards explaining Adrian’s interest in figural theory and analysis, one of the founding texts of which is arguably Gilberto Perez’s classic The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium (1998).

Spirits in the Material World: An Avant-Garde Poetics

The quote on the granular or atomic nature of figural analysis also reveals the desire to see a film, any film, from the perspective of the cinematic avant-garde. The avant-garde is largely neglected by traditional cinephilia and mise en scène criticism, a neglect put front and center of the Movie Mutations discussion by Brenez. Avant-garde cinema is often seen as an art of purely cinematic expression, working on the viewer in a more physical, tactile way, through pulsations of light, bursts of color, sudden ruptures or shifts of texture and structure, than its more rationalist, narrative-based counterpart. The avant-garde film is a lyrical and militant mode which, both through its obscure or multiform denotation and in its repetitive rhythms, engenders a heightened state of concentration, comparable to that of the trance or hypnopsis. The exstatic mode of both filmmaking and writing that Adrian’s description evokes, is typical of the early ‘avant-garde’ film criticism of ‘visionary’ writers like Vachel Lindsay, Béla Balázs and, especially, Jean Epstein. Epstein wrote in an ‘epiphanic’ style that, like the writing of Walter Benjamin, offers a way out for what is identified in Last Day Every Day as ‘a continual worry for the aesthetician: the problem, or challenge, for nonbelievers to understand and use a language of the sacred or the spiritual but without religion, to approach and celebrate mystery but without the mystical.’ Epstein’s highly sensory, ‘haptic’ writing was meant to extend the experience of the ‘magic’ of cinema, to mimic and ‘embody’ it, especially in the ‘demonic’ rhythms his colleague Louis Delluc had discovered in the films of DeMille and Gance.

Epstein’s writing also introduced the idea of cinema as a thinking machine, a medium inspiring the viewer to look at things in different ways precisely because the world it shows can only exist in cinema (Epstein is thinking primarily of cinema’s unsteady temporality). If all this sounds a lot like like surrealism, we should note again that Epstein rejected the films produced by the surrealist avant-garde for imposing extra-cinematic plastic or theatrical elements on a medium that was in itself already inherently surreal. But the idea that a new thinking that is highly unsystematic, unstable, contingent can be based on new technologies (especially those of movement), can be said to be common to both Epstein and the surrealists. For Adrian, I believe, the surrealist energies also enter via the writing of Raúl Ruiz and the criticism of Raymond Durgnat. The latter championed a cinema and a criticism that rejects any aesthetic, theoretical or ideological dogma and is free and endlessly generative, open to endless ambiguities, like life itself. Durgnat arguably became the first movie mutant when he memorably described Psycho as, ‘an impure tragedy, a modern mutation, all the more interesting for its many forms.’

Nodes within a network

Like Brenez and Durgnat, Adrian starts from a ‘thinking with the film,’ the assumption that there exists a singular analysis for each specific film, that each film is a laboratory that inspires its own way of thinking about it (strong echoes of Barthes’ admission in Camera Lucida that the essence of photography can only be derived from the effect of a particular instance and the subjective affect it produces; much of Barthes, of course, was inspired by Benjamin, notably the idea that the photograph is ‘a prophecy in reverse, like Cassandra, but eyes fixed on the past’). This kind of experimentalism in Mise en Scène and Film Style produces a piece like, “Where the skywalk ends,” in which the critic starts from the idea of alienation or ‘atomisation’ frequently associated with the work of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, to trace the way connections are either made or remain latent in Tsai’s architectural frame. The idea of atomic connection then triggers Jacques Rivette’s qualification of an entirely unrelated film, Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, as having a ‘cellular’ construction akin to serialist music. This in turn generates the observation that ‘the shot becomes less a quantifiable unit with fixed functions in a linear chain than a cell whose elements, levels and layers are multiple, freefloating and easily dispersed to form complex relations across an entire film.’ Tsai’s incarnation of ‘cellular’ cinema also ends up being likened to the process of viewing itself, as qualified by writers like Victor Burgin as a complex process of remembering, of disassembly and reassembly, a hybridity also evoked n the musical metaphor evoked earlier: ‘And, as this music travels, it mixes up the traces of all the places, all the histories, it has intersected and interwoven with: rhythms and instrumentation, textures and structure, memories and allusions, reinventions and hybridisations.’

The Skywalk Is Gone (Tsai Ming-liang, 2002)

The piece on Tsai is Adrian at his descriptive, digressive, evocative, cryptic best, but it also risks getting stuck in the same metaphorical groove and communicating little else than a ‘vibe.’ Now it’s certainly not my intent to cry havoc, since Adrian’s book is all about forgetting for a moment which ‘side’ you are on in the formalism-theory, criticism-academia debates. And since I’ve already gone on for much too long, I definitely don’t want to raise the spectre of the never-ending discussion on ekphrasis, the problem of how to find a poetic language that is appropriate to cinema when language lacks cinema’s intrinsic qualities of movement and change (a problem addressed, if not solved, by a new kind of criticism in images, the visual essay). But I do want to ask a question: if the film ‘instructs,’ as both Epstein and Nicole Brenez believe, can the critic’s own facilitation of learning then consist of something more than pointing, in the sense Barthes gives it in the context of photography, ‘Look! See! Here It Is!,’ of ‘showing’?

I also want to confess that one of the things I like least about the kind of ‘mimetic’ inquiry Adrian suggests, is its tendency toward conceptualism, its ambition to capture a critical practice in a single nomenclature, a rhetorical congealing that is contradictory to the idea of constant transformation. Several of the postmodernist concepts offered as a way to further the conversation also seem to me quite well-worn. Does ‘social mise en scène’ – presented as a blind spot in mise en scène criticism – the idea that certain situations captured in mise en scène have a predetermined shape in that they adhere to the social lay-out of the world, really add anything to Erving Goffman’s ‘frame analysis,’ a sociological tool already employed by several books on film performance and stardom, primarily those by James Naremore and Richard Dyer? You could even argue that the social constitution of mise en scène, Brecht’s idea that all of life is always already theatrical, is at the heart of both modernist cinema and the relation between social or cultural and cinematic codes in semiotic criticism. Adrian knows this, but when he writes, ‘What idea is ever totally new?,’ this sounds somewhat weary compared to the high energy levels of the rest of the book. And while we’re on the subject of Brecht and modernist cinema: will we really see Godard’s Vivre sa vie in a different light because a postmodernist term, ‘non-identity,’ is offered to describe Godard’s self-conscious and, at this point, distinctly modernist, inquiry into the question of representation (specifically, the question of how to film a conversation)?

To be fair, Adrian has no ‘new’ reading in mind and offers Vivre sa vie as an instance of the ‘excessive’ film, a film that does not match the coherence between content and form proposed by the classical aesthetic economy (in Godard studies, the differential term ‘non-identity,’ borrowed from Deleuze, was first essayed by Farocki and Silverman). My point is that, despite the book’s ecclecticism, it remains biased towards the post-structuralist end of things, heavily weighed in favor of the heterogeneous pleasures provided by texts rather than the dramatic appeal of close-knit narratives. You can see this not only in the distinctly avant-garde inspiration of the book’s attention to aspects of materiality or rhythm, but in the almost total absence of a more classical cinema of narrative integration once we have moved beyond traditional mise en scène analysis. Few of the auteurs celebrated not just in this book but in Adrian’s other critical writing are strong in terms of a classical conception of narrative (even the teen flicks he loves are more about the spectacle of gross out or the energies of rock ‘n roll than about their mostly traditional coming-of-age narrative). The kind of narrative filmmaking that does make the cut at best provides a ‘broad fit’ between subject and style (as in Altman or Ferrara). In his recent – and most readworthy – reviews for Sight and Sound of films by Lisandro Alonso and Tsai Ming-liang, story and plot are once again seen as restricting rather than enabling the expression of a film’s mysteries, as the critic enthousiastically informs us that in Stray Dogs Tsai’s aim was to get ‘get rid of the story’ at every phase of the production. The viewer trying to impose narrative cohesion on these dreamlike films misses the point about their sensual, immersive address, their tangential relation to a reality that is not captured but constructed through these filmmakers’ stylistic systems. I find a lot to agree with in Adrian’s astute analyses of the complex nature of the highly elliptical narratives of filmmakers like Hou and Tsai, whose storylines have generated the paradoxical response of being both impossible to follow and understand and absolutely simple and straightforward. But after a while the repeated contrast that is made to traditional ways of storytelling or story comprehension starts to seem programmatic. In fact, it is laid out early on as the book’s central aim: ‘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 … of organic coherence and singular fictional worlds? What would it mean to … reconfigure its classic moves in a new and different way?’ The question gets an answer at the end of the book: ‘What is expressive in cinema, finally, comes not just from the complexity of drama or character, but equally, or even more so, from the emotional, dynamic power of abstraction, from the materiality of the total, sensory event which a film is.’ This is a worthwhile correction of a perhaps overstrong emphasis of past mise en scène criticism on dramaturgy and fictional world-building. But such reconfiguration also leads the critic to treat one of the most finely tuned narrative engines of recent memory, the television series Breaking Bad, despite noticing its ‘tight integration of narrative elements,’ primarily as an example of the creation of ‘sonic space’ or a ‘sound event.’

Mere or more? 

I agree that much is that exciting about contemporary cinema – the films of Hou, Tsai, Jia, Apichatpong, Assayas, Lynch, Martel, Kiarostami, Gomes, Alonso, and many others – is perhaps less related to the joys of narrative, in the nineteenth-century novel sense, than with the music, energies, tactility and exploratory, altering forms we associate with both mise en scène, avant-garde film and modernist poetry. But let’s not forget that Rivette was as fond of Balzac as of Mallarmé, and that any discussion of the aesthetic posibilities of contemporary mise en scène needs to include Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, David Fincher’s Zodiac and The Social Network, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, or, indeed, the best of TV fiction, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad. All offer relatively straightforward narrative pleasures in a nineteenth-century sense.

I’m sure Adrian won’t mind these quibbles because they elucidate what is perhaps his book’s greatest quality: that they express, as Rivette put it, ‘a specific idea of cinema.’ Now if only he could get rid of Rivette’s disdain for script, the idea that a film’s mystery is always about getting more out of a director than ‘the mere ability to get the best out of skilful scripts, excellent actors and the technical resources of a well-equipped studio.’ I love that ‘mere.’