Mise-en-scene: Sirk, Fassbinder, Haynes

WriterDave By WriterDave, 2nd Dec 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Film & TV>Independent

This is a critical analysis of mise-en-scene as it relates to three directors and their subsequent films. The director's expert use of mise-en-scene enabled them to explore race, gender, and sexuality in subtle fascinating ways.

Mise-en-Scene: Sirk, Fassbinder, Haynes

From the time of Edward Muybridge’s early motion captures to the Wachowski brother’s CG revolution, moving pictures have stirred the human consciousness and sparked the imaginations of millions. One of the key factors of this explosion of art is the element of mise-en-scene, the language of the filmmaker. Mise-en-scene, which translates from French as “putting into the scene” makes up all the elements of what we, the audience, sees on the screen before us, including actors, costumes, placement, setting, lighting, behavior and the entire scope of magic that comprise the flickering images before us. Three filmmakers who use mise-en-scene to there ultimate advantage to explore race, gender, and sexuality are Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Todd Haynes. Looking at three films of these marvelous directors one can see a similar intertwining of theme, meaning, and purpose. The directors are not only showing vivid images on screen but they seem to be asking their audiences to think and act upon watching their films. Each of these directors in their own way explore societies attitudes, morays, and hypocrisies through clear portrayal of characters that are a reflection of our own defects, prejudices, and most of all, fears.
Sirk was able to work inside the classic Hollywood system and make movies that had more meaning than they were originally thought. The gestures in Sirk’s films are all very deliberate as well as the reactions and the dialogue. When Jane Wyman in “All That Heaven Allows” first meets Rock Hudson their dialogue to one another is crisp, polite, almost staccato. Wyman’s “Carrie Scott” is a shown thinking which Fassbinder points out is a wonderful thing, indeed. Hudson’s “Ron Kirby” lectures Wyman and Wyman replies, “…and you want me to be a man.” The double entendre shows the artifice we put on male/female roles in general. Film is fake and in the genre of melodrama, we see this fallacy can show us the error of our ways. The fallacy of this genre as Sirk demonstrates gives us permission to have emotions we may be suppressing. By example, a popular song by Courtney Love states, “They fake it so real, they are beyond fake.” Douglas Sirk shows with mise-en-scene elements of classicism and sexism by showing this fallacy through deliberate blocking, dialogue, and staging.
In Fassbinder’s “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” we see a heartbreaking portrayal of a romance between and older German woman and a younger Moroccan man. Fassbinder stages his characters in purposeful tableau in front of the camera in order to show race tensions throughout his film. When Mrs. Kurowski walks into the bar where she first meets Ali the characters seem to literally freeze as they stare at her. The shots are set up so they make us uncomfortable, in other words, they allow us to feel the prejudice because they show us something about ourselves. Ali’s character is very tense. He stands very upright, he dresses very conservatively, he keeps all his emotions on the inside and we can see this on screen because Fassbinder has staged it so. Fassbinder allows interminable seconds to tick by as we see the couple being stared at, at the outdoor restaurant, which finally makes Mrs. Kurowski cry out that Ali is her man and collapse in a heap of tears on the table. Fassbinder stages his actors frequently on staircases or in doorways in a way to convey the outside-looking-in quality of life. There is a coldness that comes across when we look at Ali and the bar owner making love. The shot is framed so we see the action not from inside the room, but instead from the adjacent room. We see the couple framed in the doorway, the bed in front of a window, with ugly orange drapes. The actors, too, are very cold. Ali mechanically takes off his clothes. The couscous woman grabs onto Ali but remains very still. The couple lie on the bed with Ali planted on top of her, again not moving. The whole scene seems lonely. It makes the viewer feel the alienation and hopelessness of the situation. Instead of a steamy Hollywood love scene that we can have a cathartic experience with, the infidelity is shown to make us uncomfortable, wondering, tense, even ashamed. Fassbinder is brilliant at showing us things about ourselves that we’d rather not look at. In effect he’s saying, “Wake up! This is wrong. Why can’t a black man and a white woman who love one another have a relationship without being ostracized for it. What’s wrong with us! Let’s do something about it.” Whereas Sirk uses the cartoon-ish colors of Technicolor and the dark shadows of film noir to convey artifice to effect, Fassbinder uses the horrid hipster fashions of the 1970’s to give us a sense of place and time. Mrs. Kurowski’s dresses, for instance, are all frighteningly clashing colors and jagged patterns contrasted with Ali’s drab brown suits and stiff collared dress shirts. Fassbinder dresses his actors in order to show how they express themselves. In Mrs. Kurowski’s case, she is somewhat of an emotional woman so she dresses in a way fitting to that end. While, Ali keeps his emotions tightly bound and henceforth dresses conservatively. The on purpose style of the costumes is just one way Fassbinder uses mise-en-scene to convey emotion or lack of it.
Fassbinder’s deliberate staging shows how we exclude certain people and how in this exclusion we try to make ourselves feel superior. Take for example, when Mrs. Kurowski is first married to Ali. Her co-workers deliberately move away from her on her lunch hour, leaving her on the upper staircase while they go off to the lower. There is a shot of Kurowski sitting dejectedly, on the staircase, behind the stair rungs, almost as if she is in prison as she gazes at her co-workers beyond. The shot is set up so it seems as if she is gazing at us, the audience. Her face is Mona Lisa like and the audience can project onto her whatever feeling they may have at the time whether it be confusion, longing, sadness, hatred, or despair. Then later in the film, when Kurowski’s co-workers have again accepted her we now see the new woman from Yugoslavia sitting in the same place Kurowski was as Kurowski and her co-workers move aside for a gossip session. Fassbinder shows us our own hypocrisy. Even after experiencing racism firsthand Kurowski still goes back to the exclusionary tactics that she had abhorred herself earlier in the film. It’s an amazingly truthful and deeply saddening character trait that begs the audience to see it not as a social faux pas but a lesson to take to heart. The social and political importance and ultimate message of this film is unquestionable. Again it is because of mise-en-scene that these emotions can be struck up in the viewer in the first place and Fassbinder leaves his conclusions deliberately vague and unhappy as a way to propel the viewer into thought and action.
Todd Haynes’s homage to Douglas Sirk is readily apparent in his period film, “Far From Heaven.” Haynes mixes the elements of ageism and classicism that we saw in “All That Heaven Allows” with the elements of racism that we viewed in “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.” Haynes also adds one important element in his film and that is sexual orientation. The triangle of a woman who falls in love with a black man and happens to be married to a gay man allows us to explore gender, race, and sexuality in the milieu of melodrama. Once again, this genre allows us a comfortable enough distance from the material to shine the flashlight on our own inadequacies as human race. Much like the genre of animation, melodrama gives us permission to feel because it is purposely impersonal. Ironically, however melodrama works so well because it doesn’t force it down our throats like a documentary might. As Professor The alternate title of “Far From Heaven” was “The Surface of Things” and mise-en-scene very directly deals with the surface aspects of film. Haynes’s homage begins with a crane shot of red, yellow, and greens leaves gently swaying in the breeze as the camera pans down upon the town of Hartford, Connecticut. It’s not the real town of Hartford in 1957 but instead an idea of what the movie melodrama view of Hartford might be, in other words, Haynes has purposefully made a movie-ish Hartford in order to work in the framework of this given genre. Again we have the theme of repression. In Julianne Moore’s character of Cathy Whitaker we see a form of repression. Cathy cannot express herself verbally so she expresses herself in the dresses she wears. Here the element of costumes takes on a key importance in mise-en-scene. Cathy begins the film wearing a snappy blue dress when she is deeply ensconced in denial for her “perfect” life and ends the film, at the train station, wearing a brown overcoat that may represent her realization of the real world around her. In one scene, the purple scarf that is tied around Cathy’s neck like an anchor flies away, up and over the roof, apparently lost, but is later picked up by Dennis Haysbert’s character and given back to her. Something lost and something found; her ideals, perhaps? In the end, the purple scarf, like another character, is wrapped around Moore’s head this time, not choking her but instead giving her comfort as Haysbert is carried away on the train.
Early on in the picture, Moore is being interviewed by a reporter. The reporter’s photographer snaps a picture and takes Moore off guard. “Candid views are always best,” the reporter quips. A telling statement that will later prove true for the three main character’s as they wrestle with their circumstances. Haynes slyly gives us clues into the triad relationship in a scene in which Dennis Quaid’s character enters into a movie theater playing “The Three Faces of Eve.” These characters are all masked in their own ways. Moore is masked by her politeness and housewife “duties,” Haysbert is masked by the upstanding “Negro” role, and Quaid is masked by his rock solid model citizen act. When in affect, Moore yearns for love, equality, and understanding. Haysbert yearns for a world wear his daughter won’t be judged by the color for her skin. Quaid yearns for acceptance of his sexuality. Yet, in this world of 1957 and certainly in the world of 2012 (to a lesser degree), human beings are grappled down with prejudice, separatism, and sexism. All the characters simply yearn for love and acceptance. Certainly, its all right for a woman to be happy and in love. Certainly, the color of someone’s skin should make no difference in living out one’s life and not being discriminated against. Certainly, whether a man is gay or not should not have to be hidden away in shame. Yet, these are the themes that plague are society still: race, gender, and sexuality. “Far From Heaven” deals with these things in a genre that can invoke emotion and pathos in such a way that generates thought, even ideas on how we as a society might become better people.
In one scene in “Far From Heaven” Cathy’s son says, “Father never wants to come home.” Is it any wonder? Home is where the heart is, but his character is struggling to love himself and express who he really is. Patricia Clarkson’s character of the best friend (who ironically played a lesbian in the film, “High Art”) is understanding and sympathetic of Cathy’s bruised eye, Cathy’s husband leaving her, and even of Cathy’s husband being gay. But the minute Cathy confides in her that she has even had a platonic relationship with a black man, Clarkson’s character withdraws, becomes judgmental and cold. What is it about a black man and a white woman that is so taboo? What is it about our world that won’t allow this? What is it deep in ourselves that is so adverse to this? Haynes explores these questions by showing rather than telling, and like Fassbinder and Sirk he leaves you with a deliberately ambiguous ending in order that we may be propelled into action and thought. Never mind that the sixties are right around the corner, that feminism and civil rights are getting ready to explode circa post 1957. The point being, is what is going on in this film that is still very prevalent today. “Far From Heaven” is about our attitudes right now. It is a modern film. It is not only history but a movie confined to the genre of melodramatic artifice that can show us something current about today. The idea that Quaid goes to a doctor because he thinks he can “beat this thing,” seems absurd by today’s standards. The doctor suggests rigorous therapy, and ludicrous five to thirty percent heterosexual conversion, as well as electroshock treatment. We know by today’s standards that this is absolutely insane thinking, but Haynes pointing out the absurd, parallels the current. Does someone wearing a turban on their head, for instance, produce suspicion and fear within us? Are not we still being conditioned about things that may seem ludicrous fifty years in the future? Haynes’s “Far From Heaven” is an important film about how we foist labels on everything: he’s black, he’s gay, she’s a woman. Aren’t we all just human beings? Shouldn’t we all try to see the similarities and not the differences?
Sirk, Fassbinder, and Haynes all show us something about ourselves that we may or may not want to admit through the fine art of mise-en-scene. The parallels between films are endless; from the television set that represents loneliness and the absent love of family in “All That Heaven Allows” to the television set that is kicked in by Mrs. Kurowski’s son in “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.” From conversation through a screen between mother and son in “All That Heaven Allows” representing alienation to the framing shot of Mrs. Kurowski on the staircase looking through prison bar-like stair rungs in “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.” All three films have elements of staring, meaningful colors and costumes, music as almost a central character, and socio-political importance through their discussion of controversial topics like racism, sexism, ageism, classicism, and discrimination of sexual identity. Fassbinder even has something to say about borders and relations between countries. Haynes’s characters only touch a few times, in fact there is only one kiss; that is, Haysbert kissing Moore’s hand and this is on purpose, but through mise-en-scene he is able to make that a monumental moment. Whether it be the subtlety of Haynes and Sirk or the more direct approach of Fassbinder, we see how every element in front of the camera works towards the emotion of the viewer. These films and these directors have something to say about prejudice and that is very important. Since Fassbinder and Sirk are no longer with us, the message is carried on by the integrity and technical skill of Todd Haynes. Haynes holds a mirror up to us as a human race and says “This is how we are, like it or not. And…let’s do something about it.”


Critique, Directors, Gender, Independent Film, Race

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author avatar WriterDave
Writing can be many things to many people. For me, it is a way of expression and understanding. Reviewing films, hopefully helps myself and others better understand and get more out of the film.

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author avatar vpaulose
2nd Dec 2012 (#)

Interesting. Thank you dear David for your post.

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