Turn the Page: From Mise en scène to Dispositif

The representational chamber is an energetic dispositif. To describe it and to follow its functioning, that’s what needs to be done.
–      Jean-François Lyotard (1993: 3, translation amended)

Graphics, Stacks and Materiality

It is always fascinating and instructive to return to a moment in history when a change in the conditions of culture loomed on the horizon. In terms of international film culture—and the mode of it with which we live today—such auguries reared up in the early 1990s. Thomas Elsaesser, in a position paper on the ‘the state of research and the place of cinema’, spoke of “the rapidity, apparent anarchy, and explosive force with which the so-called media and information ‘revolutions’ have swept the cinema along with them”; he was thinking at the time mainly of “TV [and] the VCR”, with a mere abstract nod, at the time, to the kinds of “virtual space” that computer technologies were to bring (1993: 44). Elsaesser was atypical, in that period, for refusing to produce the standard, pessimistic reflex as to the much-touted and entirely overrated ‘death of cinema’; he speaks instead of “oxygen” (1993: 41), of revitalisation, of new possibilities. One particular research question, however, crystallises in his account (anticipating, as it does, the influential positions of Manovich [2002] and Cubitt [2004]): the nature of the photographic image in an increasingly post-photographic world.

[A]s long as celluloid was its only basis, the image retained a physicality whose deceptiveness the electronic media underline from an altogether non-academic perspective. In front of the computer, for instance, no one speaks of images: only of graphics and animation. […] With images reaching us as the analog video, and more recently, in a digitized form that is indifferent to its material manifestation, it becomes difficult, and therefore once more necessary to think of the image. (Elsaesser 1993: 46-7)

In this period of the early 1990s, mainstream television still (as throughout much of the advanced work in cultural studies of the 1980s) showed the way to critics and theorists for the possible destinies of the image in the contemporary and future audiovisual landscape. Television formed a shared horizon for audiences and commentators alike—all of us more of less watching the same things on the same box-format—in a way that seems unimaginable, even quaint, from the far more dispersed and tactical vantage point of today’s YouTube, Facebook and iPhone culture. In that period, cable or pay TV, and the new or exacerbated formats it invented, seemed like the cutting edge of a mass culture which could still bear that descriptor—before the termites of digital fragmentation well and truly went to work on textual forms and spectator-groupings alike. What may have seemed to commentators of the time as the cutting edge can now look to us, with hindsight, as a last gasp of a particular configuration of technologised popular culture. However, it remains for us to return to this moment of critical writing in the early 1990s and see whether, indeed, some sign of the times was being cannily intuited and formulated there.

For my part, I find such a sign not only in Elsaesser’s far-reaching meditation on his profession, but also a remarkable text by Margaret Morse, “An Ontology of Everyday Distraction: The Freeway, the Mall, and Television”, which first appeared in the 1990 collection Logics of Television. The piece has a broad, cultural aim: to grasp the ways in which “television is similar or related to other, particular modes of transportation and exchange in everyday life” (Morse 1990: 193). What grabs me especially, however, particularly in retrospect, is the concrete detail of Morse’s analysis of the “principles of construction and operation” (1990: 193), and especially of “passage amid the segmentation” (1990: 200), at work in that last great bastion on broadcast television on the cusp between cable and digital: the news-magazine program.

[T]elevision discourse typically consists of ‘stacks’ of recursive levels which are usually quite different in look and ‘flavor.’ These stacks are also signified at different spatial and temporal removes from the viewer and have different kinds of contents. Thus a shift of discursive level is also a shift of ontological level, that is, to a different status in relation to reality. Television formats then amount to particular ways of conceptualizing and organizing ‘stacks’ of worlds as hierarchy of realities and relationships to the viewer. (Morse 1990: 206)

We shall later consider the enormous prescience of Morse’s analysis of new-fangled television formats. For the moment, I merely want to juxtapose her superb word-picture of an audiovisual medium as a stack of worlds with Elsaesser’s 1993 musing about the post-photographic image, fast becoming a matter of graphics and animation:

Now it is not so much the reality-effect, but the materiality-effect of the cinema that is at stake, and with it, the questions of film theory, of the apparatus, of ideology and subjectivity may need to be rethought. (Elsaesser 1993: 47)

Not the reality-effect but the materiality-effect? Not the tradition of the photographic index as classically associated with André Bazin, but rather the notion of cinema as fundamentally artifice—an artifice geared to the arousal of spectator-affects—as expressed, for example, in Daniel Frampton’s trailblazing 2006 book Filmosophy? The idea, it seems to me, is so radical that contemporary theory today mounts a sophisticated rearguard action against it, as in the recent work of Laura Mulvey. For her, the digital era—with its genuine potentiality to conjure or retouch absolutely anything—paradoxically “allows a cinephilic meditation on the cinema’s relation to reality […] to continually rediscover the beauty, that Bazin compared to the flower or snowflake, of the indexical sign” (Mulvey 2009: 193). This is not mere nostalgia on her part for the ‘lost cinematic’; for, as Elsaesser remarked in the conclusion to his 1993 piece, cinema’s “relation to the existence of objects and bodies in time and space, in this time and this space” (Elsaesser 1993: 47) must also be considered a key part of any aesthetic, political or ethical commitment to mapping what he (among many others) has called material culture.

Nonetheless, it is precisely materiality—the ways in which we define it, and deploy it, in relation to cinema—which is at stake, and in flux, today. To pose it bluntly (at least at the outset), is materiality a matter of the reality registered within the film frame, or the reality of the frame (and everything we could include within the complex process of framing) itself? In response, I choose, polemically, to seize upon the following, somewhat gnomic pronouncement from Nicole Brenez, also first written in 1993, when she called in the pages of Art Press for (après Godard) a “Bazinian exigency maintained at the heart of a type of non-Bazinian analysis that no longer takes the real as second nature or as the second nature of film”; in this avant-garde quest, Brenez estimated that, in fact, “we remain still a little behind Bazin” (Brenez 1997).

Are there any tools lying around for us to pick up and use in this non-Bazinian analysis? It is always a mistake to assume that new theory must always begin from a scorched earth policy—which is the mistaken character of so much cyber-theory in the digital age—rather than scouring at ground-level for those glimpses of past models that have been overlooked, forgotten, or were never allowed to develop a future. The premonitory rumbles of a revolution in thought always come from far away and long ago; at last, from the vantage point of the present, we are able to hear and understand their echoes.

Morse’s 1990 article provides one such example. In that text, Morse was attempting to define a (then) new media form in television which “involves two or more objects and levels of attention and the copresence of two or more different, even contradictory, metapsychological effects” (Morse 1990: 193). She distinguished this from a regime of “split belief” and of “sinking into another world” which characterises, in her view, “the apparatuses of the theater, the cinema, and the novel” (Morse 1990: 193). Her approach is richly useful for us today in the way it combines a very recognisable, but now rather forgotten, feature of 1970s film theory –the treatment by Jean-Louis Baudry (1978) and Christian Metz (1982) of metapsychology—with the manifold industrial and economic elements (and constraints) of a material culture case study. It is also uncannily prophetic in seizing on another 1970s buzzword that has returned to us in a resurrected, newly energised way: the apparatus or, as I will call it for reasons that will soon become clear, the dispositif. Recall that Elsaesser, too, in 1993 called for “the apparatus […] to be rethought” (Elsaesser 1993: 47). The time and opportunity for this rethink is now at hand.


Two snapshots from the beginning of 2010:

1. A negative review of Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008) in Cahiers du cinéma by Patrice Blouin—a perceptive critic attentive, since the 1990s, in the pages not only of Cahiers but also of Art Press, to ‘new media’, post-TV forms like video games. Blouin recalls the way in which Kiarostami began the 2000s, in Ten (2002), with the “audacious gesture” of attaching cameras to the left and right sides of a car and simply letting his cast members drive off to improvise their conversation, thus seeking precisely to “do away with mise en scène” (Blouin 2010: 74). And what replaces the traditional procedures of mise en scène—staging, dressing the décor and setting the lights, choreographing of the camera, guiding and cueing of actors—here? In a word: a dispositif, a fixed and systematic set-up or arrangement of elements (in this case: bodies, cameras, sightlines, moving object, passing cityscape) that enables what Blouin describes as an “automatic recording” (Blouin 2010: 74).

2. Alongside all the ‘best films of the year’ lists run by cinema magazines the world over, a new sort of poll has started to gain prominence: it is geared to ‘moving image highlights’, and draws upon not only theatrical or festival screenings but also, and increasingly, Internet platforms. Here is what I contributed to one such poll: my delighted discovery of the website maintained by the group Pomplamoose (2010), on which Nataly Dawn and Jack Conte unveil a VideoSong (as they term it) for each of their new musical recordings. Pomplamoose offers a disconcertingly light-hearted flipside to the gloomy vision Jean-Luc Godard concocted, thirty-five years previously, for Numéro deux (1975)—wherein the shut-in, working-class inhabitants of a high-rise apartment complex are viewed only ever on unglamorous video footage framed within domestic TV sets positioned in the darkness of the full 35 millimetre image. For Dawn and Conte, the ‘total environment’ apartment has become a DIY home-studio (we rarely see anything beyond it), and this studio seems more like a children’s playground than a prison or a hell. Their VideoSongs adhere to two exact rules of self-determined construction: “What you see is what you hear (no lip-syncing for instruments or voice). 2. If you hear it, at some point you see it (no hidden sounds)” (theBestArts 2009). This dispositif – for that is exactly what it is—generates amusing gags: whenever Nataly overdubs herself singing (as she frequently does), we instantly jump to multiple split-screens—naturally, to maintain the integrity of the rules of the game. (“I’m a rule dogma kind of guy”, remarks Conte in Dag 2009.) Fixed digital video cameras, set positions, restrictions on place and action: who could have guessed, in the days of Numéro deux, Chantal Akerman’s severe Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), or even Kiarostami’s combative Ten, that a dispositif could be this much fun?

The mention of fun brings us immediately to a perhaps unlikely or surprising source for theorisation on the nature of current audiovisual dispositifs: the droll, often deliberately naïve or primitive French filmmaker and critic since the 1950s, Luc Moullet. In a 2007 article titled “Les dispositifs du cinéma contemporain”, he enumerates the strategies and tactics of the many films that are, in one way or another, as rule bound as Pomplamoose’s VideoSongs or Kiarostami’s recent films up until Certified Copy (2010). A dispositif film—to render Moullet’s own idiomatic voice, I almost feel as translating it, in this context, as a contraption—is both a conceit (like the literary conceits of Georges Perec or other members of the Oulipo group [see Mathews 2003], writing an entire novel under the pre-set constraint of not using a particular letter of the alphabet), and a machine. Above all, it is a conceptual film (in the vein of conceptual art), a disposition (as the word is sometimes translated) that usually announces its structure or system at the outset, in the opening scene, even in its title, and then must follow through with this structure, step by step all the way to the bitter or blessed end.

Once regarded as an eccentric aberration of Peter Greenaway movies or avant-garde exemplars like Hollis Frampton’s Hapax Legomena (1971-2), such procedures are now at the centre of the international art cinema. One need only look, among the progressive Asian films of the past two decades, at the work of Hong Sang-soo or Hou Hsiao-hsien, or (in East Europe) the prodigious feature experimentation of Kira Muratova. Numbered sections (and even titles: Five, Ten, Three Times, Three Stories); intensive restrictions on camera angle and point-of-view; entire narrative structures built on a formal idea and its eventual, long-delayed pay-off (as in the final face-off of two close-ups concluding the Akermanian repetitions of Masahiro Kobayashi’s The Rebirth [2007]); films built up from parts and layers and sections (a pop example being Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There [2007] with its multiple Bob Dylans) …

This movement (if it can be called that) finds a succinct summary in one of the video-letters that Kiarostami contributed to the remarkable exhibition Correspondences: Erice-Kiarostami (2006-7): a lengthy series of digital images, landscape and urban views, filmed through a rain-spattered car window; each one slightly animated with a small, digital zoom-in reframing (but a reframing that shows or reveals nothing not immediately visible or evident); and a final image in the series announced as final precisely by having the windshield wipers erase the rain drops and cancel the dispositif. (Kiarostami is, as we have seen, fond of car dispositifs, as in the system of framings, entries, exits, scene dramaturgy and cuts generated by the two-camera set-up on the front seats in Ten.) Shirin offers another bold dispositif: a lush Persian historical-mythological epic begins, we see its start and end credits, but for its entire unfolding we only hear this imaginary film off-screen, while we gaze at the faces of the many spectators—all women, all in fact well-known Iranian actresses—who are watching it and reacting in their diverse ways. No matter—this is in fact part of the work’s beguiling charm—that the women are not really sitting all together in a movie theatre (each was set up, separately, in Kiarostami’s house), and that their reactions are triggered neither by watching nor even hearing the off-screen film-within-the-film named Shirin!

Cinematic dispositifs are often generated (Perec-style) from exclusions—refusals to play by this or that convention deemed corrupt or ossified by the filmmaker—and thus, to devotees or masochists, the immediately recognisable stylistic traits of many a modern director: the adherence to direct sound recording in Straub and Huillet, the de-dramatisation of performance in Pedro Costa, the absence of typical soundtrack scores in Tsai Ming-liang (where music only bursts forth in exaggerated song-and-dance sequences), the eschewal of shot/reverse shot and consequent frontality in Akerman, the resolutely fixed camera in Sohrab Shahid-Saless … In the vein of Moullet’s article, we might also pinpoint predictable dispositifs that run out of steam and fall flat long before their finishing point (I’m Not There), or anti-contraptions like Masculin-féminin (1965) by that eternal, cheeky anarchist Godard, which announces ‘fifteen precise facts’ in its subtitle—and then proceeds to deliberately scramble the numbering, forget the conceit, and alter the structure mid-flight. (Numbers, including the dates of history, are always a lure, and a gag, in Godard, all the way to Histoire(s) du cinéma [1988-98] and its many film/video off-shoots.)

But we must immediately insist that a dispositif is not a mechanistic or rigid formal system: it is more like an aesthetic guide-track that is as open to variation, surprise or artful contradiction as the filmmaker (who sets it in motion) decrees. And it is not necessarily tied strictly or exclusively to the familiar style of an auteur: some directors change their dispositifs, slightly or radically, from work to work. The workings of dispositifs are often subtle and singular; and this approach allows us to move beyond the paralysing, shorthand designations that conventional criticism most often falls back on when casting a glance at post-1960 modernist cinema, labelling such films either Brechtian, minimalist, collages, or embroidered with a parametric narration (a notion which has been critically useful but rarely extends far or deeply enough into a complex film’s textual logic).

A Thoroughly Heterogeneous Ensemble

The term dispositif is popping up in many places in English-language theoretical writing at present. Its feed-in to film studies is coming, simultaneously, from at least five sources—sometimes with overlaps, sometimes with confusions. But all these sources help to feed the richness of the concept: the theory of dispositif is itself a methodological dispositif! Indeed, it is useful to keep in mind that, in fields such as urban planning and in various branches of the social sciences, dispositif is a term used to describe such mundane set-ups in the everyday world as the operation and maintenance of traffic lights, or the organisation of rituals such as funerals (see Kessler 2006a)—and, thus, an entire social ‘flow’.

Here are the main lines of dispositif inquiry feeding into cinema theory at present. Firstly, there is a return (for instance, in Kessler 2006b) to the meaning of the term in the foundational film theory texts of Jean-Louis Baudry (1978), where the term has a richer, more diverse sense than is often realised—partly due to a problem of its linguistic translation, as we shall see. Secondly, and perhaps most prevalently, there is a political-cultural deployment of the term that originated with Michel Foucault (most eloquently outlined in a 1977 interview), was taken in a particular direction by Gilles Deleuze (1992), and has been recently revived and expanded by Giorgio Agamben in his short 2009 book What is an Apparatus?. Thirdly, and least cited, is Vilém Flusser’s suggestive, shorthand use of the term, which seems to mix (without citation, and possibly purely instinctively) both Baudry and Foucault, especially in the sole major essay that this keen social commentator wrote (in 1979) “On Film Production and Consumption” (see Flusser 2006 and Martin 2009a). Fourthly, there is Jean-François Lyotard’s enthusiastic and extensive deployment of the term to describe all manner of phenomena in the high period of his ‘libidinal economy’ theorising (1993). Lastly, there is a use of the term that has crept in from art criticism, especially in relation to installation art since the pioneering work of Anne-Marie Duguet (1988), and this in turn has fed into recent film criticism addressing the film/art interchange.

Dispositif or apparatus? When film students imbibe second-hand, summary accounts of ‘apparatus theory’ (which is often cast out, in the same breath, as some outmoded relic from a delirious, continentally-infatuated moment of ‘grand theory’), they are often learning (badly) to conflate two quite different, though necessarily overlapping, terms in Baudry’s essays of the 1970s (English translations collected in Cha 1981), both of which came unfussily translated as apparatus. On the one hand, Baudry posed the appareil de base, the basic cinematic apparatus which consists of the tools and machines of camera, projector, celluloid, photographic registration, and the like. The dispositif, on the other hand, is instantly and necessarily more of a social machine for Baudry, a set-up, arrangement or disposition of elements that adds up to the cinema-going experience: body in a chair, dark room, light from the projector hitting a screen. Baudry posed the movement between the two terms in this way: where the basic cinematic apparatus already includes the fact of projection, the dispositif adds in the spectator and all this implies (Baudry 1978). It has come to imply a great deal more since the era of Baudry’s texts: to counter the somewhat abstract category of ideal or Platonic spectatorship, successive commentators have gradually added all the economic, architectural and social conditions in and around the movie theatre (single-screen or, more usually today, multiplex)—its proximity to or inclusion within a shopping centre, for instance—that Flusser drolly outlined in his 1979 piece. However, where Flusser evokes a dark nightmare of social determinations, Jean-François Lyotard (1993) stresses the energetic, indeed libidinal dynamics of any given dispositif, from the human body itself to the ‘representational chambers’ of theatre, cinema and television.

It is on the broader level of political analysis that Baudry’s formative contribution to film theory begins to intersect with Foucault and Agamben. Foucault did not get terribly far with the explicit or elaborated theorisation of the dispositif idea before his death in 1984, although much of his work, in retrospect, can be seen as developing it under other rubrics and through other models. In a long, much-cited 1977 interview, he proposed his plan of future research—especially as related to his projected, ultimately unfinished series on The History of Sexuality—defined as the study of a dispositif:

What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble of consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements. Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogeneous elements. (195)

Agamben generalises the term even more decisively than Foucault – while, at the same time, sharpening Foucault’s fix on tracking the ways and means of subjectivisation, as well as what may fall beyond or resist such subject-making effects:

I shall call an apparatus [in Italian, dispositivo] literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings. Not only, therefore, prisons, madhouses, the panopticon, schools, confession, factories, disciplines, juridical measures, and so forth (whose connection with power is in a certain sense evident), but also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and – why not – language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient of apparatuses – one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences that he was about to face. (2009: 14)

The influence of art criticism on film analysis (as practiced by Bellour or Duguet [2002]) is important, because it aids in negotiating a fruitful passage between the vast social ensembles that Foucault and Agamben conjure, and those specific audiovisual works that also internally construct a system of relations between thoroughly heterogeneous elements. (Which is, by the way, exactly what Raúl Ruiz means when he refers to mise en scène in his work – or rather, the always multiple mises en scène that are possible in any staging or storytelling situation; see Ruiz 1999.) Erika Balsom, for instance, mixes Baudry with Foucault in order to discern, in the 16 millimetre projection-exhibitions of Tacita Dean, a “new and different conception of medium specificity” created from the conjuncture of the “economic and ideological determinations of the space of the gallery work in tandem with the material attributes of analogue film” (2009: 416).

When Morse cites “the apparatuses of the theater, the cinema, and the novel” (1990: 193), or Bellour (2000a) invokes the contemporary “quarrel of the dispositifs”, they are ranging across all these working definitions of the dispositif.  The cinematic dispositif today is no longer apprehended in the abstract or ideal terms elaborated by Baudry – it is not a matter of some totalised and totalising ‘cinema machine’ before or beyond the forms and contents of any specific film. Nonetheless, we must not lose sight of the essential elements of film production and consumption which Baudry (like Flusser) highlighted, and their basic metapsychological effects. These elements and effects are neither immutable nor all-determining, but they offer what we might call (after Kant and Eisenstein) a Grundproblem with which every film must work, whether it chooses to or is even aware of it. Thus, each medium (cinema, novel, theatre, art gallery/museum) has its broad dispositif—arising from a mixture of aesthetic properties and social-historical conditions—and each particular work can create its own rules of the game, its own dispositif.

Foucault’s elaboration of the term, although not addressed to the nature of properties of aesthetic works, is in fact suggestive and helpful. According to him, in each dispositif there is both a functional overdetermination (each element in the heterogeneous ensemble “enters into resonance or contradiction” [Foucault 1980: 195] with the others, leading to constant and dynamic alteration), and a strategic elaboration—a need to recognise, deal with, and then take further the new, unexpected, unforeseen effects and affects produced by the essentially experimental, ‘see what happens’ workings of any dispositif. This is, as Lyotard stresses, the positif aspect of a dispositif.

Spatialising the Gaze

Let us retrace, more slowly and gradually this time, the step that Patrice Blouin made in his Shirin pan from classical mise en scène to the modern dispositif. It is not a matter of declaring, in this progression, that mise en scène is dead, whether as a mode of filmmaking or of film criticism. Perfectly fine classical films are still made today (whether by Clint Eastwood or Lone Scherfig), and mise en scène criticism, as we have known and loved it, is far from exhausting the field, historical or contemporary, of its research (see Gibbs 2006, McElhaney 2009, Perkins 2009). Rather, the question is: has there been a certain tendency in cinema (and audiovisual production more generally), not necessarily only an invention of recent times, that has been marginalised or literally undetected by the protocols of mise en scène critique, with its inevitable, in-built biases and exclusions? A tendency which is not the opposite of mise en scène or its negation, but a particular, pointed mutation of it? (Indeed, many auteur signatures—those of Bresson, Ozu, Angelopoulos, to take only a few classic art cinema examples—resemble the structure of a dispositif, even though auteurism, with its Romanticist attachment to a creed of unfettered creativity, has long fought shy of apprehending this intuition.)

Or—the most radical notion—does the notion of the dispositif name or point to something that is and has always been inherent in mise en scène—maybe even larger or greater than it, as an overall formal category? This is what Raymond Bellour suggested in 1997 when he proposed that la-mise-en-scène (as, with a literary flourish, he dubs it) is a classical approach that corresponds “to both an age and a vision of cinema, a certain kind of belief in the story and the shot”, but is ultimately only one of the available “modes of organising images” in cinema (Bellour 2003: 29). And if the dispositif idea should rivet our attention to anything, it is the modes of organising filmic materials: Christa Blümlinger, for instance, defines a dispositif as the “spatial or symbolic disposition of gazes characterising a medium” (Blumlinger 2010), where gaze refers to all manner of looks, orientations and perspectives (fictive, technological, spectatorial)—and this is a matter not only of our eyes but also our ears. Naturally, within an art gallery—where directors including Akerman and Pedro Costa have literally disassembled some of their feature films and spatialised them across several screens in an architectural arrangement—the idea of dispositif as installation (and this can serve as yet another possible English translation of the term) is obvious enough. But can we also project the concept, and everything it raises, back into the single-screen medium of cinema, illuminating this medium in a new way?

A key thrust of the machinic or systematic side of the dispositif concept is to remind us—a 1970s notion too quickly forgotten or repressed since then—that a dispositif is heterogeneous, that it is truly a matter of bits and pieces of very different substances brought into an often volatile working relation. For the great German critic Frieda Grafe (who died in 2002), all cinema—no matter how seemingly neutral or classical—came down to something resembling this: “Only the calculated mingling of formative elements originating in various media, each with its own relative autonomy, generates the tension that gives the film life” (Grafe 1996: 56). And she was, on this occasion, speaking not of any conceptual art installation but Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)!

A televisual detour is again useful here. In her 1990 text, Margaret Morse provided what was to be a prophetic vision of the audiovisual workings of our digital screen-media age:

The representation of the copresence of multiple worlds in different modes on the television screen is achieved via division of the visual field into areas or via the representation of stacked places which can be tumbled or squeezed and which, in visual terms, advance toward and retreat from the visual field of the viewer. Discursive planes are differentiated from embedded object-worlds via axes: the vector of eyelines and movements, and changes of scale along the z-axis of spatial depth indicate a proxemic logic of the shared space of conversation with the viewer. In contrast, embedded stories are oriented around x- and y-axes, actually or virtually by means of the field/reverse field of filmic, continuity editing. The primary logic of alternation in television segments is then not that of suture, as in filmic fictions, but rather that of communication with a spectator in various degrees of ‘nearness.’ (Morse: 1990: 206-7)

Communication with a spectator, as theorised by Morse, is indeed a crucial aspect of the materiality of any audiovisual medium—a fact that is becoming increasingly evident to us today. At a conference on contemporary film and criticism at Reading University (UK) in September 2008, the brilliant cinema aesthetician Gilberto Perez, author of The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium (1998), began his keynote address—which covered questions of point-of-view and direct address in movies from Buster Keaton to Andrei Tarkovsky—with a consideration of Barack Obama’s spectacular stadium speech in the US (August 2008). Perez, comparing Obama’s mode of address with that of the typical television host or news reader, distinguished two glances or gazes in the Senator’s clearly very rehearsed performance: the look left and right to the stadium crowd, and the look straight ahead into the camera, thus addressed to the television audience. Obama’s achievement, in Perez’s estimation, was to fluidly draw together these two audiences—live and mediated—into the one mass.

Jacques Aumont’s significant 2006 book Le cinéma et la mise en scène begins, in a similar vein, with a discussion of a key moment in the contemporary media politics of France: the farewell speech, on national television, of outgoing President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in May 1981 (Aumont 2006: 6-11). (The best and longest YouTube snippet of this media event, labeled “Giscard French President Goodbye France”, is taken from a Raymond Depardon documentary.) It was an odd spectacle: from a mid-shot into a close-up of Giscard, before an indiscernible backdrop—and then suddenly a pull back, way back, by the camera, to show a rather unglamorous desk (complete with papers and flowers), an obvious set, and then Giscard awkwardly standing up, turning his back to the viewing audience, and marching off frame-left and off-screen—leaving the image bare and empty (like in an Ozu film) as the French national anthem played out to completion. It was a historic TV event that (as Aumont remarks) gave rise to numerous, popular, colliding interpretations: was it designed as an expression of Giscard’s bitterness; was it an attempt by someone behind the scene to subvert the politician and his image; or was it a monumental example of overall ineptness and lack of planning?

Both Perez and Aumont present their televisual case studies as instances of mise en scène analysis—the kind of mise en scène which is (as Aumont puts it) partout, everywhere. A mise en scène of political speech—of the powerful addressing (unifying or dividing) the masses through the spectacle, based on the centuries-old model of the public rally, with its various modes of magnification (auditory, visual, architectural) of a central, authoritative figure; and a type of mise en scène common to televisual formats, from news broadcasts to variety shows. Species of mise en scène, in other words, that came into existence both before and after the advent of cinema, and now work alongside it, feeding into it. Indeed, for Aumont, the Giscard broadcast is an exemplary instance of at least two mises en scène: the politician’s theatrical mise en scène overturned (wittingly or not) by the regard of the camera, by its movement in and out, by the commentative or interrogative mise en scène which this viewpoint introduces into the raw event that it renders.

This is a powerful displacement of traditional mise en scène analysis in the study of cinema—whether practiced by the French critics of Cahiers du cinéma and Positif in the 1950s, Andrew Sarris and his auteurist acolytes in America, or the British school that was first associated with Movie in the ‘60s and is today enjoying a widespread, international revival, especially in relation to the magisterial work of V.F. Perkins. Traditional mise en scène analysis –precisely the kind that most university students are introduced to as a basic or essential tool of how to analyse a film—rests (as Aumont’s 2006 book makes clear) on a simple but powerful assumption: that cinema is, above all, an art, an art form rather than (for example) a social discourse or a mass media form. No reasonable person today can doubt that cinema is indeed an art; but the real question is: is it only an art? And what would this question mean for its analysis and theorisation? However, even when cinema studies moves on (or up) to integrate historical, political and philosophical factors in its synoptic view of the medium, it tends to leave this area of close analysis (variously known as formal analysis, style analysis, detailed analysis or textual analysis) relatively intact and unquestioned at the art-medium level, as an aesthetic building block in our apprehension of cinema. It becomes a protocol, unquestioned and untheorised in any new or significant way.

Turn the Page

One of the few texts to tackle the conceptualisation of mise en scène from other perspectives is Aumont’s 2000 anthology, La mise en scène. Among the virtues of this book is its recourse to lesser known histories of the discussion of film style, histories that differ significantly from the more rehearsed, enshrined and canonised histories emanating from France, USA or Britain. Instead, we are introduced to (for example) the work of Belgians Dirk Lauwaert and Frank Kessler; Shigehiko Hasumi and Tadao Sato in Japan; Sergei Eisenstein’s overlooked theorisation of mise en scène in the Russian context of the ‘30s and ‘40s; brief but suggestive reflections by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Umberto Eco in Italy during the late ‘60s; or the Filmkritik trajectory associated with Frieda Grafe and filmmakers including Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky.

Traditional mise en scène analysis is what I have elsewhere (Martin 1992 & 2009b) diagnosed as expressive in its orientation. When the poststructuralist revolution of the ‘70s and beyond contested expressive theories, a new generation of critic-theorists tended to junk expressive tendencies in toto, replacing them with other models: an excessive model of film style, for example, derived from modern psychoanalysis and inspired by the unruly dynamism of psychic drives and processes, controlled or mastered by no artist (however great). It is not now a matter of turning back the clock to what film studies once was before the semiotic revolution. It is clear that the panoply of terms, functions and figures that derive from expressive aesthetics—artist, artwork, craft, masterpiece, artistic achievement—have never truly left us, never will, and never should. There is still—as Elsaesser once remarked—something powerful left over, some aesthetic force, some “pleasure that seems to have no substitute in the sobered-up deconstructions of the authorless voice of ideology” (1981: 11). It is our duty to find an account that is worthy of the complexity of this artistic experience—an account which, at the same time, encompasses the manifold modernities and post-modernities of cinema that the theory of the ‘70s (and beyond) primed us to grasp. This is where the notion of dispositif can help, and challenge, us in trying to bring these intellectual traditions together.

What is the central problem with traditional mise en scène analytics, of the kind bequeathed to us by the famous critical movements of Paris, London and New York, the kind that once upon a time illuminated for us so powerfully the works of a Minnelli or a Mizoguchi, a Visconti or a Sternberg? This problem has two aspects. As the Swiss critic-theorist François Albera has expressed it, classical mise en scène, at the height of the rhetoric associated with it, is meant to “capture the invisible soul of things and manifest them in a form” (2000: 228). To put this in slightly more mundane terms, the classical gesture of cinematic creation – what is literally involved in the act of a director moving around actors and a camera and arranging the scenic elements on set or on location—is construed as one of “organising, in some way, what is unorganised” (2000: 228), of giving form to what is initially formless, chaotic, dispersed. The director pulls together all these elements and, beyond a mere act of ordering or orchestration, transforms them through the regard of the camera and the way it defines the field before it. Hence, for example, Australian critic Barrett Hodsdon’s notion (1992) of the epiphanic transformative moment in mise en scène (most often carried by a camera movement or a physical gesture), which is so crucial to the cult of cinephilia.

The idea of creating form from the formless is, properly speaking, a fully Romantic idea, and it corresponds, at this fundamental level, to the philosophy and ideology of grand Romanticism. And as far as film criticism may have moved, in many of its postures and assumptions, from the trappings of the Romantic code, it nonetheless remains beholden to and entrenched within it. In this sense, the legacy of Alexandre Astruc’s famous notion of the caméra-stylo corresponds not only to the movement of the Romantic writer’s pen, but also the Romantic instant of the painter’s inspired brushstroke. Yet, as Bellour (2000b: 119) has pointed out, there was always a stark cleavage between two ideas or tendencies in Astruc’s thinking, as distinct from his filmic practice. Where the caméra-stylo was a concept projected into the future, mise en scène was for him a fully classical, even retro ideal: that was the only kind of cinema (often adapted from literature) he himself made. It is more on the side of the conceptual dispositif than the freewheeling caméra-stylo that the ex-cinema of the future—i.e., the cinema of now—is to be found.

The critique of this first aspect of the traditional concept of mise en scène thus opens one door: the challenge to think of what pre-exists the moment of shooting—whether we think of this along the documentary category of the pro-filmic, or some other distinct stage of the artifice of filmmaking—as itself already replete with all kinds of form (and meaning). One result of this line of thought has been the new concept of a social mise en scène that has been pursued, variously, by Albera (2000), Kessler (2000), Perkins (in his pathbreaking 2005 essay “Where is the World? The Horizon of Events in Movie Fiction”), Jean-Louis Comolli (2004), Deborah Thomas (2005), and myself (2011). I will not say much more about it here but, suffice to say, a social mise en scène is fully in play in the examples of mediatised public politics deployed by Perez and Aumont: the mass stadium rally and the ‘intimate’ Presidential farewell alike are already stagings as complex (if not quite as artful) as those by John Ford or Stanley Kwan.

The second aspect to the problem of classical mise en scène analysis has been tackled, in a far-reaching and rigorous way, by Raymond Bellour since the early ‘90s, when he began co-editing Trafic magazine (founded by Serge Daney) and turned his attention back to cinema—sometimes quite classical cinema—after a long period attending to the revolutions in video and new media art. This work has culminated in his remarkable recent magnum opus, Le corps du cinéma (2009). Bellour, it is safe to speculate, was no doubt troubled by the limited scope and reach of the mise en scène tradition, especially as it filtered down to us many decades after its heroic age. Not only did it restrict itself to a rich but ultimately small body of classical works, especially associated with the ‘50s; it also stopped short of those elements in otherwise classical works (those of Hitchcock, for instance, or Ritwik Ghatak) that were on the very border of classicism, or clearly broke free from it (see McElhaney 2006). Traditional mise en scène criticism had little purchase on much (even most) that had happened in cinema beyond the advent of 1960, all the New Waves of the world, not to mention its avant-gardes—thus burning altogether the longed-for bridge between cinema and the experiments of the new media. In this, Bellour recreated and pushed forward the critique once vociferously voiced by André S. Labarthe in a 1967 Cahiers du cinéma text ominously titled “Death of a Word”: for Labarthe, by that moment in cinema history, “mise en scène is not only mise en scène, but also the contrary” of how it had been originally conceived in the days of Louis Delluc (Labarthe 1967: 66).

Bellour puts the matter succinctly (2000b: 112): in the cinematic history of the term mise en scène, too much attention has been paid to the scène—its theatrically-derived origin—and not enough to the mise, to the fundamental process of putting in place, the organising of elements. To think of (narrative) cinema, in a foundational gesture, as a matter of theatrical scenes—however transformed by the work of the camera and the expansive nature of the set or environment—is already a crippling limitation; yet it is one which much mise en scène criticism happily assumes. For with the assumption of the centrality of the scene comes a great baggage, which is precisely the baggage of classicism in the arts: continuity, verisimilitude, the ensemble effect in acting performance, narrative articulation, the necessity for smoothness and fluidity, centring, legibility and formal balance  … which can encompass the richest kind of classical expressivity (that of Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls or Nicholas Ray) or, just as easily, be shut down into a merely professional, functional-instrumental craft. At this point in ‘expanded cinema’ history, the definitional limitation of mise en scène as an old-fashioned tool—its almost fetishistic, quite unrealistic emphasis on the moment of the shoot in cinema, when the camera-take (as pen mark or brush stroke) transforms the scene—has become all too apparent. Where do pre-production and post-production—all the forms of preparation and montage—figure in this divine circuit of Romantic creativity? How can a theory of style or form in cinema—an aesthetic of cinema—ignore production design (in all its levels), picture editing and the construction of a sound track? (Mise en scène criticism, at its simplest and most naïve, is indeed a relic of the—sometimes lamentably revived—‘film is a visual medium’ era.)

Bellour’s procedure post-1990 marks, in a sense, a return to the theories of Eisenstein: in cinema there are elements, and intervals between those elements, and hence a set or system of articulations. Let us note an important displacement here: where for many years the mystique of mise en scène—from Delluc right through to recent work on depth staging by David Bordwell (2005) or on the elasticity of the filmic scene by Alain Bergala (2000)—has rested on a holistic aesthetic of ‘bodies in space’, Bellour (2000b) prefers to speak of the more supple, variable and less continuous organisation of bodies and shots, particularly as defined by the constantly redefined and mutating interplay of camera movements, cuts, natural environment or built décor, and figure movements. Aumont made a similar methodological point in a groundbreaking 1978 essay on Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) in relation to the protocols of textual analysis (Aumont 1982).

Cinema as a medium ceaselessly ‘puts into place’ (this is the most literal sense of the term mise en scène), arranges or articulates, many things: not just theatrical scenes, but also images, sounds, gestures, words produced as speech, passages of strongly marked rhythm or colour. And here, even the seemingly empty or inexpressive cadences of articulation—the black frames that can separate images, say—have a role to play which is just as aesthetically determining as the more obviously full or signifying ones. Hence Bellour’s provocative spray of new concepts: mise en phrase, mise en image, mise en page, mise en plan, “and above all” mise en pli (Bellour 2000b: 126). Each corresponds to a certain strategy, technique or novel gesture of placement of a material element within a film: its weaving, ‘spacing’, particular emphasis—and, ultimately, its specific place and role within the logic of a cinematic dispositif. Here is where Elsaesser’s intuition of cinema becoming an audiovisual apparatus “only of graphics and animation” (Elsaesser 1993: 46) comes home to roost: to that we can add Morse’s image of stacking, and even (to use an old-fashioned trope become new again in the digital age) the turning of printed pages.

Brief examples of Bellour’s categories must suffice here. Godard is the figure who has experimented with and demonstrated them all, in different combinations and with varying emphasis: think of the Histoire(s) du cinéma series, with its performative placement of still photographs (mise en image), sampled shots from hundreds of films (mise en plan), pictorial design layout (mise en page), and quotations that are written or spoken (mise en phrase). We can also take a far more mainstream, less essayistic instance: think of the phenomenon of ‘explosive speech’ which Australian artist-critic Philip Brophy (1992) has analysed in genre cinema, a vast machinery of image, performance and sound marshalled in order to prepare and deliver a dramatic utterance like Clint Eastwood’s immortal “read my lips” in Dirty Harry (1971). Mise en pli, the textual process that Bellour describes as the “folding of the physical body of the mise en scène” (Bellour 2000b: 123), a pressure that can split or even efface the scene, is less common: he uses examples from the career of Alain Resnais, ranging from the celebrated montage sequence of ambiguous, intertwined bodies “submitted” (Bellour 2000b: 122) to the voice-over text in Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), to the hollowing out of a shot by the camera panning over a blurry bit of nothingness mid-scene in Mélo (1986) (Bellour 2000b: 123).

Cinema Without Walls

A dispositif is not a writing or painting from a formless real; nor is it something arrived at, on the set, spontaneously, intuitively or mystically. It is a preconceived, or organically developed, work of form. In this sense, the idea of dispositif allows us to conceive of cinema in the holistic way that mise en scène analysis once promised, but failed to deliver: it is about the integrated arrangement of form and content elements at all levels, from first conception to final mixing and grading. Furthermore, its applicability to other audiovisual forms, both artistic and cultural, is immediately more extensive: the force of the analyses of television events by Aumont and Perez is that they identify not only an age-old political mise en scène, but also a very specific and very modern techno-assemblage or agencement of angles, gazes, televisual spaces and the laws that govern (or the moves that unravel) them all. One need only look at Harun Farocki’s gallery installations—which, as Blümlinger has noted, aim to reveal “how moving pictures are formally organised” (Blümlinger 2004: 61)—or the peculiar live performance of the re-editing process by Straub and Huillet in Pedro Costa’s documentary Where Lies Your Hidden Smile? (2001), to see how a cinematic dispositif can be projected into other spaces and redistributed in new arrangements.

It is at this point that dispositif thinking intersects with another term that has become richly productive in recent years: intermediality (Martin 2009c). This refers to more than simply the sheer fact of a multimedia culture, or the mixing and copresence of many media forms within specific works (from Olympic Games Opening and Closing ceremonies to Histoire(s) du cinéma). Intermediality, as the crucial work of Belén Vidal (2002 and 2006) has shown, takes us to the strange, hitherto unfamiliar heart of even the most seemingly classical and commercial films, like the heritage adaptations of beloved novels: here we see not the seamless blending of citations and allusions from literature, fine art, the history of costume, architecture and so on, but rather an evident spray—as in a catalogue—of all these items and levels, complete with implicit, allegorical tips as to how, where and why to consume them in the modern world (hence the endless, heavily marked shots, in such movies, of characters reading books or looking at paintings). We are closer now to the floating, queerly spaced-out realm of popular culture evoked in Timothy Corrigan’s prophetic 1991 book A Cinema Without Walls than ever before.

The realm today defined as World Cinema—critical surveys at last taking fuller measure of the work produced in Iran, Africa, India, China, Argentina, Romania, Portugal and so on, beyond the tried and true Euro-Anglo centres—is also giving us an urgent impetus to understand filmic dispositifs as intermedial phenomena. In the productions of Manoel de Oliveira (A Talking Picture, 2003), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a Century, 2006), Miguel Gomes (Our Beloved Month of August, 2008) or Godard (Film Socialism, 2010), traces of so many diverse media (film, theatre, radio, installation, fiction, documentary) are set in relation to each other like so many levels, panels, screens or computer windows, not fused but held distinct and resonating precisely via their intervals. This is Bellour’s conclusion about a new understanding of mise en scène: that it can be redefined as the “proper power of the interval” to the extent that there is a “readability of the interval between shots” as well as a “readability of the work that operates a transformation of this interval” (Bellour 2000b: 125).

It is not entirely a matter of inventing a new critical idiom in order to grasp all of this. In some ways, a tradition of such analytical work has long existed, in however fragmentary or unrecognised a form. There are elements of dispositif insight in the work of many critics usually associated with the expressive school. Manny Farber was an astute observer of what he called the “ritualised syntax” (1998: 310) and “stylistic moves” (1998: 324) in directors including Fassbinder and Duras. Jean Douchet (1993) invented a ‘V Diagram’ to decipher the characteristic mise en scène arrangements in Mizoguchi. In Perez’s account (1998) of Straub-Huillet, everything that happens (dramatically, sensually and intellectually) from shot to shot in their films happens as a result of the establishing of, and subtle variation within, a dispositif of shot-counter shot and eyeline relations – not in excess of or beside this dispositif (which would be the default position of much expressive criticism). Indeed, taking an approach to cinema via the dispositif may well allow us to overcome the contradiction pinpointed strongly in recent years by Ian Hunter in his critique of the contemporary ‘moment of theory’ (King 2008): the tendency for criticism (even the most sophisticated) to swing, in an unconsciously opportunistic fashion, between the code (eg, the code of classical narrative) and its excess or surplus. As I have argued elsewhere (2009b), it is, rather, the category of textual logic that we must reinvestigate and reinvigorate—neither the strict (structuralist) code nor its liberatory (poststructuralist) surplus.

Let us return, finally, to Brenez’s challenge (1997) to produce a “Bazinian exigency maintained at the heart of a type of non-Bazinian analysis”. Bazin’s work, as we shall see if we look at it closely again today, was always of a dual-edged nature: he has been taken as the spokesperson for transparent realism, but in truth his position (as clearly stated in his unfinished book on Jean Renoir) was that “realism does not at all mean a renunciation of style”—going on to stake his ethical-aesthetic preference that “cinematic expression must be dialectically fused with reality and not with artifice” (Bazin 1986: 106). Yet this opens the possibility of precisely the opposing option: that cinematic expression can also be dialectically fused with artifice. Moreover, Bazin spoke with equal passion and conviction of the vocation of an impure cinema (Bazin 2009), and it is to this idea that Bellour returned at the dawn of our new, digital 21st century:

Thus, the cinema, this impure art as Bazin called it, since it is inspired by all the other arts while offering up reality itself, paradoxically gains in purity to the extent that its most active truth becomes the truth of its dispositif. (Bellour 2000a: 52, translation mine)

The truth of cinema’s dispositif: on one level, this thought returns us (as Duguet [1988: 240] has astutely pointed out) to the positions in art history and criticism concerning medium specificity, from Clement Greenberg to Michael Fried, that have been central to modernism. Greenberg’s argument that “what had to be exhibited and made explicit was that which was unique and irreducible not only in art in general, but also in each particular art”, and that an art “had to determine, through the operations peculiar to itself, the effects peculiar and exclusive to itself” (1982: 5) finds its echo today in Stephen Melville’s assertion (made in relation to post-minimalist painting, but popular among some avant-garde filmmakers) that a work of art in a particular medium “counts” as such only when it manages to define and make manifest its materiality “where it is most in doubt”, through a ceaseless “work of measuring and discovery” (Melville 2001: 3).

On another level, cinema is surely a paradoxical object: its medium-specific possibility seems to have been well and truly overrun by its tendency to intermediality, its fundamental impurity. That is where its true materiality-effect, today, is situated: in the palpable aura of a mise en scène that is always less than itself and more than itself, not only itself but also its contrary, ever vanishing and yet ever renewed across a thousand and one screens, platforms and dispositifs.

This essay is part of work funded by the Australian Research Council through Monash University for 2010-2012, on the topic of “Between Film and Art: An International Study of Intermedial Cinema”.


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V.F. Perkins, “Where is the World? The Horizon of Events in Movie Fiction”, in John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (eds.), Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film (Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 16-41.

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theBestArts, “Pomplamoose Music – Nataly Dawn and Jack Conte”, 2009, < http://www.thebestarts.com/pomplamoose/default.aspx >.

Deborah Thomas, “‘Knowing One’s Place’: Frame-breaking, Embarrassment and Irony in La Cérémonie (Claude Chabrol, 1995)”, in John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (eds.), Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film (Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 167-78.

Belén Vidal, “Classic Adaptations, Modern Reinventions: Reading the Image in the Contemporary Literary Film”, Screen, 43/1 (2002), pp. 5-18.

Belén Vidal, “Labyrinths of Loss: The Letter as Figure of Desire and Deferral in the Literary Film”, Journal of European Studies, 36/4 (2006), pp. 418-436.

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is http://www.filmcritic.com.au.View all posts by Adrian Martin →