Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mise en Scene: Blog, You Sucker aka A Fistful of Screen Culture

(Note: An edited version of this post was previously submitted for my AFTRS Screen Culture course, Mise en scene Task, October 2010)

Sergio Leone is one of the most distinct filmmakers in the history of the medium. A significant element that led to his distinct style or auteur signature is his use of Mise en scene. There is little to a 'Leone' film that is not immediately identifiable as such, and the only films that challenge this identification are made by directors who were significantly influenced by the Italian born director. From blocking and shot selection, to music beats and performance, a Leone film is a true experience.

Mise en scene in full force

The element I feel that is crucial to a Leone production, is something many people may not first think of, and that is blocking or staging. A production design area often lost on filmmakers of today, and something they can never touch on with regards to classical films. These days sets are rarely built in full for a scene's staging to be laid out, they are manufactured in pieces and the sense of space and environment is never established. Leone was the exact opposite. He knew the exact amount of paces and time it would take a character to walk from one side of the room to the other.

Now I'm not one for visually artful techniques, but the reason why this and the rest of Leone's techniques with regards to Mise en scene effect me greatly, are because they relate to character and story. Certain characters could walk 4 paces in 4 seconds, others could walk 6, others could walk 2. The definition of Mise en scene is everything that happens before the camera. This is often limited to everything that happens in the frame. But blocking and character interaction in the environment is before the camera, and must not be forgotten. Leone characters have set paths to take and marks to hit, and in a sense he is editing the movie as he directs it. His 3 way standoff has been duplicated by endless filmmakers today, most notably by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill, and is a prime example of his understanding of what is within the frame, and most notably, how it is positioned.

 Sergio Leone on set

Leone uses everything within the frame, whether it can be seen or not, to his advantage. Elements such as time and sound play a great role in establishing character motivation and feeling. His pacing is very languid but stylised, as we are drawn in as an audience, as if we are actually in the physical space of the characters. People are framed in extreme closeups or for dramatic effect. He was heavily influence by Akira Kurosawa and manages to create similar worlds and themes of tension and impending action purely from techniques. We get strange perspectives not seen before, like the perspective of a gun at the edge of frame as we observe where the bullets fly, or a simple thing such as filming a horse from the rear, which was a massive change for the westerns of the time.

Many of these techniques are displayed in the classical opening sequence to "Once upon a time in the West." The following clip only shows you some of the scene, which is a piece of art. The placing of the characters is significant as it shows their skills and training and motivation. Their performance is in alignment with their characters frame set, ie whether this be relaxed (Jack Elam), observant (Woody Strode) or focused (Al Mulock). The mood becomes sombre with anticipation, and Morricone's fabulous score builds upon this. I was lucky enough to see a remastered print of the film up on the big screen of the Chauvel earlier this year, and Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography had never looked better.

Opening Scene of "C'era una volta il West"

Characters clothing is not only distinct for various gangs or classes, but the sounds they make again impact upon the scene. Mise en scene is usually associated with visuals but to me the reason why Ennio Morricone soundtracks have always stayed with me were because they were 'visual sounds'. Harmonica (Charlie Bronson) in "C'era una volita il West" is a prime example of this. The sound is used as an orchestral piece in some scenes, a plot device in others. This is a key element as often Leone scenes feature little dialogue. The characters speak through movement and reactions, as we get endless shots that manage to translate visual thought to the audience. In fact Leone makes a sort of comic book superhero movie, as Bronson, Robards, Fonda and Cardinale all get their own character theme that plays when they are on screen.

Even casting is integrated into the Mise en scene of a shot. The style and look of the person, their costume, but even the persona of the actor. My favourite word of the blog to date is 'meta' and it is exemplified in this video, where Henry Fonda talks about his casting in "Once upon a time in the West". Not only is the scene one of my favourites in cinematic history, but also the meta-elements behind it are astounding. This clip always blows me away, and makes me wish i was in the audience in '68 that GASPED as Fonda's face appeared behind the ruthless killer.

Henry Fonda tells one of cinemas greatest behind the scenes stories

The casting of Fonda in the role is like casting George Clooney as a sadistic killer of children, but keeping it a secret until the audience is in the film. Right down to the detail about Fonda's baby-blue eyes, tells Leone was considering the image composition of the film right from the get go. To have these blue dots stand out from a bland desert landscape. Leone originally planned for the 3 actors in that first scene of "Once upon a time in the West "shown above to be played be the 3 heroes from his "Dollars Trilogy," Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef, in what would have been one of the greatest twists in movie history, just 10 minutes into the film!!

It didn't matter if Leone changed his style to suite the theme of the film, it was always identifiable. Such as with "A Fistful of Dynamite" aka "Duck You Sucker" aka "Once upon a time...The Revolution", which had a much more playful design. It has always been one of my favourite Leone films, and has a sense of melancholy. Just like how he contrasted long slow silent buildups with burst of action and sound, Leone contrasted depression visuals and settings with quirky music and character theme songs. The "Dollars trilogy" was much more of a playful mood or take off aspect in regards to the typical western compared to the "Once Upon a Time" trilogy.  The Dollars films were more up tempo whereas the "Once upon a time "films were more story like and observatory, living up to their name.

The trailer for Duck, You Sucker manages to capture the quirkiness

Leone was always looking to do something different or unique. It can be surprising how much an audience is shocked when they see something done slightly differently to usual (ie the horses shot from behind instead of from the side). He managed to capture the anxieties of society and tell epic story lines at the same time, while being unique and distinctly creative without fault. His films were a complete work of art and nothing less. They often referenced other films and played homage to historical figures. A single film would often involve multiple time lines or flashbacks and dream sequences, he was a master of the medium of film itself and never failed to make the most of its limits, that being the frame.

Scenes stay in your mind for years after watching them, due to careful placement of elements in the frame. The edges are pushed as wide as possible, characters eyes are pushed in upon as close as physically able, movements are slow and climaxes are swift, faces are hidden and yet eyes are seen, this is a Leone film. I am the moderator and creator of Claudia Cardinale's facebook fan page, which now numbers 9,000 strong. A woman who has been directed by the likes of Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog, George P Cosmatos, Franco Zeffirelli, Philippe de Broca, Richard Brooks and Blake Edwards, but never has she compelled as she did under Leone. Cardinale's voice is not even used in prints of "Once Upon a Time in the West", but the way Leone dresses, stages and directs her she completely hypnotices, which is a key point for the audience understanding her relationship to Bronson and Robards.

Mise en scene can be a powerful tool if used properly and thoroughly thought out, and Leone was a prime example of this. Sound, pacing, set design, staging, blocking, speech, casting, costume, framing and performance were always considered in a Leone film, and not just considered but addressed in reference to character and story and to how they could improve upon them, and that is why they are so distinct.

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