Seeing Mise-en-scène: Defining the Form – Open or Closed?

by Smart

Audiences are constantly volunteering themselves in droves to be manipulated and experimented on by films. A seasoned moviegoer will be absolutely filled to the brim with preconceptions and expectations when they go to the cinema. Conventions in iconography mark just the beginning of these expectations, as even the style of cinematography is subconsciously questioned and analysed by every attentive member of an audience. This means that if a film happens to deviate too far from the basic formula, which after decades of tradition has become cemented as the base of our film going experiences, confusion and detachment may ensue. Naturally, the first point of interaction an audience member has with a film, and perhaps the most important interaction, is on a visual level, and this is where the ambiguous terms ‘open form’ and ‘closed form’ come into play.

In the vast realm of film criticism there are numerous terms which float about freely with vague definitions hanging loosely from them, blowing liberally in a breeze of constant flux. These terms seem to change in definition based solely on who is using them and for what purpose. One victim of this frequent manipulation and lack of universal agreement is ‘mise-en-scène’, which presently resides in a world of definitive obscurity, and always has. The French, from whom the term originated, often use it to credit the role of a director, although when translated into English it literally means ‘to put on stage’, which is instinctively different and equally as unclear. The lengths to which scholars have extended and inversely restricted mise-en-scène’s definition across academic film discourse is truly mind-boggling. Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland observe that “in a narrow theatrical sense, mise-en-scène refers only to what appears in front of the camera – to the pro-filmic events, not to the procedures which transpose those events onto film. But for most critics mise-en-scène refers both to what is filmed and to how it is filmed.” This is an excellent starting point, but it is not very specific.

As a whole it seems mise-en-scène is most commonly applied to envelop all of the elements that we see onscreen and their movement and arrangement in relation to each other. In this sense it is useful to juxtapose mise-en-scène against montage filmmaking, as the two ideas have almost opposite, although not mutually exclusive, expressive goals. The elements that are frequently seen as under the regulation of mise-en-scène include, but are not always limited to, sets, props, scenery, actors, costumes, and lighting. Logically this excludes aspects such as sound and editing, although there have been definitions formed which include even these practices under the omni-flexible umbrella of mise-en-scène. If we push forward from here and instead search for a more figurative understanding of the term, we may find it becomes less shrouded in anonymity and as such more user-friendly. Hence, let us view mise-en-scène as that which gives a film its, as Brandon Cesmat puts it, “visual weight and movement”. This is certainly and deliberately an imprecise definition, but one that hopefully conveys a notion of the cumulative and visual nature of filmmaking that mise-en-scène so often alludes to.

When analysing a film with mise-en-scène in mind there are a number of secondary terms that can come into play. One such term is the earlier mentioned ‘form’, which is then customarily divided into two camps, ‘open form’ and ‘closed form’. The broad purpose of these terms is to illuminate the affect that camera style has on the audience, primarily in the way that they are aware of and influenced by framing. Cinematography is the surface level at which an audience interacts with a film, and framing is of the utmost importance in this regard. Naturally, these two divergent forms, much like mise-en-scène, do not have stringent definitions accompanying them, and therefore become malleable when applied in discourse. Luckily, they are not employed all that often and when they are they generally serve only to evoke the concept of a stylistic contrast in relation to shot composition. Understandably, to get a stronger grasp of the meaning behind open and closed form, we have to look back to a time before cinema came into existence. Heinrich Wölfflin writes about the idea of closed form style in paintings that “what is meant is a style of composition which, with more or less tectonic means, makes of the picture a self-contained entity, pointing everywhere back to itself, while, conversely, the style of open form everywhere points out beyond itself and purposely looks limitless.” This makes the difference, in theory, very clear. Closed form confines all the relevant information of a painting, or in our case a film, inside the frame. In opposition to this is open form, which instead allows the world of the painting, or film, to extend beyond the frame and occupy space that we, as the audience, cannot actually see.

There is however an intrinsic problem with transplanting the form theory for painting onto film; paintings are static. Although the two art forms do share the common limitation of a frame, film has only to cut and change shots to temporarily alleviate itself from this burden, which is a luxury that no painting can afford. Fortunately, mise-en-scène is more focused on the study of single shots, disconnected from editing or montage. As such, form theory in film really has only one major complication in relation to painting, and that is movement. Not only can a camera move about in an almost infinite number of directions, without the use of editing, but so can the actors and props move about inside (and outside, in the case of open form) a continuous shot. This is something we have to take into consideration and make allowances for. Film is an alive, moving form of painting, and although different standards of practice have emerged to accommodate for these disparities, it is still the familiar idea of the frame which is present in both art forms that form theory is infatuated with.

Since these forms are so clearly reliant on composition and what the audience is able to learn through visuals alone, it seems prudent to understand where open form and closed form fit in relation to the dominating theories of representation in film: realism and formalism. Realism, as the name suggests, wishes to demonstrate that ‘truth’ can be represented through film, and consequently the degree of unadulterated reality shown is what determines artistic success in this style. Formalism, on the other hand, believes that film is a visual system of representations and conventions. A realist film would not seek to alter or manipulate the way the audience view the content, while a formalist approach would strive to create meaningful compositions through mise-en-scène that would tell the audience exactly what the director wants them to know, normally in relation to the narrative or in aid of character development. To put it simply, formalism values composition over content, realism the opposite. From this it seems clear that open form would lend itself perfectly to realism, while closed form is more suited to the rigid, semiotic based structure of formalism.

Closed form, in essence, is all about control. It is a deliberate and anticipatory approach to filmmaking. Through rehearsal and planning it is pre-established where and how the camera and performers will need to move in order to keep everything framed appropriately in a continuous shot which will also convey all necessary information. Each individual shot is approached in this manner, which explains the benefit of storyboarding in preproduction. Closed form is the prevalent style in Hollywood films, and has been extensively refined to a point where it is exactly what a mainstream audience expects when they go to see a non-documentary film. An example of a film that epitomises closed form by its very nature is Back to the Future Part II (Robert Zemeckis, 1989). At first glance it is quite obviously a Hollywood studio film, and one that does not presume to be anything more. Therefore, closed form is a given, and it feels natural. Everything we need to know is carefully located inside the frame and nothing dares to deviate outside of it. There are a million films out there just like this, but what makes Back to the Future Part II an exceptional case is that at one point in the film it asks the audience to follow two separate narratives at the same time, both of which are occurring inside the same shot. The first is obviously the continuing narrative of the film itself, but on top of that we are also shown events that took place in the first film of the series, Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985). This is accomplished through the characters time-travelling back to the period when the first film occurred, which makes logical sense as the world of the film is built to allow for such exceptional mechanics. The pivotal moment of this visual trickery occurs when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is sneaking about inside the high school principal’s office. Through a window the audience are able to see an event from the first film occurring in the school car park. At the same time they are also free to watch Marty McFly continue his search in the office. Everything about this shot is so meticulously planned and timed that it becomes impossible to be unaware of the preparation that went into it. It is almost self-reflexive through its use of the window as a frame within a frame. Unsurprisingly, both frames are closed form as they confine all relevant narrative information within their respective spaces. It is clever uses of closed form framing such as this which ooze creativity and show the true power of the technique, which is able to go above and beyond simply being an efficient structure for storytelling.

Open form, on the other hand, seeks to reduce the level of awareness the audience has of the planning that goes on behind the camera. This is done in hopes of achieving a greater sense of realism, as the audience is not being distracted by the visual craft, and are left to focus only on the world of the film. The most common application of this is in documentary film, where the cameraman is generally without a staged route to follow, and instead works on instinct to keep up with the action as it occurs. Documentaries function by keeping the audience under the assumption that what they are watching is a real ‘slice of life’, something that happened not by planning, but by chance. This is exactly the feeling that open form seeks to recreate, even when it is applied in the filming of a fictional film. It does not matter if what is being filmed is actually real; it only matters if it feels real, or more precisely, spontaneous, for the audience. For example, The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975) is a film built around the director’s personal memories. It does not have a structured or cohesive narrative, and works mainly as a series of images and moments stitched together to create an atmospheric understanding and appreciation of a range of important events and preoccupations from Tarkovsky’s life. For the most part The Mirror is strongly open form. It is filled with long, flowing shots where the camera moves about as if in a dream. Free from the interruption of montage editing or the pressures of following a causal narrative, the cinematography feels effortless. One shot in particular that gives an intense feeling of transcendental reality is when the camera is left to wait statically on a field as a man walks across it. Almost at random the man stops walking and stands still. Just moments later a strong breeze blows across the field, producing a visible ripple through the long grass. Events such as this when seen on film feel almost divinely inspired, as if they are capturing the true beauty of nature without any interference. Another scene in The Mirror which is lusciously open form is set inside a room that is occupied by two characters who are conversing about their relationship. Completely against audience expectations only one of the characters is ever shown, the other is left entirely outside of frame. This is instantly disconcerting, but is used to deliberate effect by means of open form mechanics. It makes the viewer feel as if they are inside Tarkovsky’s mind, where he is unable to relate with the character that stays hidden from the inquisitive, circling camera.

Despite the apparent dramatic differences between open and closed form, it is imperative to keep in mind that the terms are not absolute. This means that a mixture of these two styles is not only possible, but in many cases preferable. True open form seems unattainable after realising that by the very act of bringing a camera into a location, the realism is diminished. A single frame cannot hope to encompass an entire world, even if the audience is aware of the continuation of the world outside of the frame. Instead, it may be useful, as in the case of The Mirror, to add a touch of closed form to this pseudo-open world, to give it a little guidance and intent, which lets the audience know that there is someone behind the camera directing, even if the images are not as structured as a formalist approach would call for. It is surely impossible to find a perfect balance between closed and open form, but Tarkovsky may have come close with Stalker (1979). In Stalker the compositions mostly adhere to an open form aesthetic, where shots are left to linger and progress naturally, without the manipulation of excessive editing or fast camera movements. What makes this a mastery of form though is that it remains clear throughout that each shot has been precisely planned and perhaps even storyboarded before filming. Tarkovsky has emulated open form aesthetic to such a degree that the line between realism and formalism has blurred. Characters and props in Stalker frequently leave the confines of the frame, but not without tangible intent. The space outside of the camera is of just as much importance to the narrative as the space within the frame, and the balance and interaction achieved between the two worlds is mesmerising.

While it may seem convenient to define open form and closed form in opposition to one another, the downside to doing this is that it undermines the true analytical power of the terms. They work best in unison and it is through blending these two divergent approaches to mise-en-scène and acknowledging that neither form will ever prevail wholly over the other in a single film, that the terms are able to fulfil their potential in discourse. In theory, the differences are clear, but in practice things become more complex and many films cross the boundary between open and closed form with a surprising amount of finesse.