I have never been so transfixed by any form of art the way I am transfixed to Cinema. All forms of art have their own characteristics but I’ve never found anything as dynamic as cinema, though I feel Music is the most dynamic of all but I believe I have a tone deaf ear and that really brings in a lot of limitations. However with Cinema the more I absorb the more I discover and this cycle of absorbing and discovering seems endless.
With Cinema, there are so many dimensions, every frame that you see in a film presents a piece of information and with 24 frames per second and at an average length of 100 minutes , so much of information could be fed to us. No wonder the Nazis and Russians use this medium very effectively for their propaganda. But it’s not just that, every frame could act as a painting, a beautiful sight that could teleport us to an altogether different universe. Speaking of universe, the reason I feel cinema is so dynamic is because it’s a universe created within that temporal space.
To further put my point across, let’s assume god created this universe and of course we know what all lies in this universe. Things that we could comprehend and things beyond our comprehension. Of the things we could comprehend are the spaces around us, the time, the people, the sky, earth, monuments, nature, textures, smells, so many things that trigger our senses. No wonder it’s called creation, it’s best piece of art ever. Now a director in its truest sense is the god of his own universe - film, cinema, motion picture whatever you may call it. He has created a Universe that follows the same principles of space and time, though this director has complete liberty to warp this space and time.
A director creates a space specifically for his film, the space where the characters live, it could be familiar or completely outlandish, He can find a real location or create a set, provide texture to walls, colour it or whatever he may like, later he could also decide on giving a specific tinge to his films in post-production to enhance the viewing experience, for e.g. Kieslowski used specific tinges for his ‘A Short film about Killing’. Our eyes have a field of vision of up to 180 degrees but the frame of a film is much smaller and since we generally see a piece of art in a set frame, the space of the film always seems to be limited within that frame, but a director can create infinite space within our imagination. Taking a very simple example - when a character in a film talks to another person in a shot/reverse shot scene, the other person is often off-screen and that this person exist there in that space is for us to imagine. It could also apply to a character who is off-screen but is talked about, again the existence of the character in some part of that universe is left to our imagination.
A director can not only create spaces in our imagination but also bring together two extremely different spaces from the real world into one place in his film. For e.g. we see an interior of a house and when the characters step out of the house, there’s a garden. Now this house and garden might not exist in the same place in real world but a director could successfully bring the two together in his film. One classic example of this would be the opening scene of The Godfather, where Don Corleone is sitting in his office and goes to the window and he looks out and we see the wedding celebrations of his daughter, in reality these were two totally different location but it is implied that it is the same location and hence a space is created within a film that actually didn’t exist in real world. Space could also be conveyed by sound. For e.g. We see a person sitting in a room, we hear the sound of a train passing by and we immediately think that the room is situated near a railway track, which could not be the case in reality.
But universe is not just made up of space but also time, and time in cinema could be far more flexible than space. Flashbacks and Flash-forwards are the most noticeable examples of how time could bend in Cinema, but there is certainly lot more to it. Let’s take another example, A man gets out of his apartment, takes a bus and reaches some place in a matter of seconds. If we really were to show this action in real time, a big chunk of our film will be spent in this simple journey that doesn’t really add enough value to the narrative. On the other hand a man accidentally comes across a dried flower hidden in the pages of a book and we immediately enter his memories which perhaps run for an hour and when we come back to the same scene, we still see him holding the flower in his hand. That certainly doesn’t mean he was holding the flower for an hour. What basically happened here was that in the first case the time was contracted and in the second it was expanded, in both the cases it was done to keep the narrative interesting and engaging, to keep a rhythm. In any of these scenarios we are never explained the bent in time and yet it is so simple for us to understand the time passing rapidly or halting altogether.
What we should also understand is that this universe is just as infinite as the real one and there are things which we could comprehend and things beyond our comprehension. And just like we have our perception of the real universe, a cinematic universe could only be perceived.
In this universe created in time and space, movement is essential. And the most important element in cinema that explores the movement through space and time is camera. Of course sound is equally important but film primarily being a visual medium could do without sound but never without visuals.
Any movement from one point to another in the cinematic universe through time or space is very dynamic. The first dynamic movement comes from the writing, where the story moves from one plot point to the next. The second dynamic movement is of the characters, where have they come from, where would they go, how are the placed on that frame, how would they move around in that frame, how will they travel through the space, how will they traverse through the timeline of the story, would we see them just for a span of a night or would we see their entire lives, would we see them pacing within a room or would we see them traveling the globe or whatever universe was created for the film. The third dynamic movement comes from the camera, which part of the story would it capture, which part of the story it wouldn’t so that it only takes place in our head, how would it move across in a room, or would it stand still rather capturing the movement of the characters or the space or the time, would it follow the characters, or would it keep a distance from the character, would it zoom in, dolly in, would it show a wide space or a close-up. The fourth dynamic movement comes from editing, wherein all of the above movements are brought together to convert it into one seamless movement of the film, editing is possibly the part where this fantastical movements through spaces and times are made credible.
Well even though Cinema is primarily a visual medium, Sound has played an important part since its introduction to the world to cinema. And again the director is in control of the sound that he wants to be the sound of his universe, be it diegetic that is visible within the universe or non-diegetic like a voice-over or a musical score. Sound can also move across the space and time to keep the narrative interesting for e.g. we could already start hearing the diegetic sound from the approaching next scene while we are in the current scene. This is again a fantastical movement only made credible through editing.
Having said about the movements and traversing across space and time and sound, we are still only talking about the physical aspects of cinema. Every creation and every movement holds a much deeper significance. If the above physical aspects represents how are we going to portray the narrative, the question of why are we going to portray the narrative brings about the metaphysical aspects.
A film can be made just by considering the physical aspects and completely ignoring the metaphysical ones, but then that wouldn’t be called an art form. It could perhaps be called a film but I would rather call it a mere recording of a story. Mind you even documentaries follow the physical and metaphysical aspects rather than simply recording the facts.
In order to find a deeper meaning, there should be a reason behind every act in the creation of this art form. One should consider simple things like why is it that there is light flowing in from that window, why is that vase standing there on the table, why is the colour of that vase red, why is the camera moving from left to right, why is the character walking in and out of the frame, why is the character wearing that costume, why is the character talking in that accent.
Every creation and every movement we talked about should hold a meaning, either comprehensible or not. They must be conscious choices rather than habitual one. The meaning could be literal or metaphorical, and at the same time perceptive. A director could be the god of his cinema, but once the creation is completed he doesn’t have any control over it. It is totally up to what the viewer can perceive of this universe, what the viewer can explore in this universe.
Mise en scène literally means placing on stage, it is an undefined term and I wouldn’t dare to define it either. It generally refers to the arrangement of anything that appears before the camera or on a stage, the sets, the actors, props, costumes etc.
But in my understanding, Mise en scène simply means creation of this universe with its physical as well as metaphysical aspects and throw it open to the viewers to perceive and explore.