Mee Sup and Mise en Scène.
About four years ago, while shooting my first film “Rabun”, the phrase mise en scène, uttered by a young member of the crew, whizzed past my head and landed in a bowl of mee sup at the next table.
Luckily for me, the ever-informed Ho Yuhang was at hand.
One quizzical look from me, cast in his general direction, and he jumped to my rescue.
“Haiyya,” he began in true Yuhang form, “it literally means ‘putting into the scene’ or ‘setting the scene’ lah. When applied to filmmaking, it refers to everything that you put in front of the camera and its arrangement – props, actors, costumes, lighting.”
“Why such a fancy name for such a basic thing?” I asked.
“Faster to say mise en scène than the description I just gave you, mah?” he replied. “Besides, it gives the academics a reason to earn their salary lah.”
Two years later, I was sitting on a panel of discussion at FINAS. They had just finished playing “Rabun”, and some film academics were there to dissect my film like a frog.
A lecturer from some local university (apparently someone high up in the screenwriters’ association) leaned back when it was his turn to speak, and bellowed:
“Maybe it’s because Yasmin has never been formally-trained in script writing that she has made a film which deviates from the formal structures of cinema 1, cinema 2, and cinema 3.”
I remember thinking, “Yeah, I know cinemas 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. They’re at Mid-Valley.”
But I kept my lips well sealed.
“Yasmin has told one joke after another in this film,” he continued, looking rather pleased with himself, “and in the end, it all led to nothing. I came here expecting a tsunami of a film, but found a mere ripple.”
He had barely finished making this statement when a film student from the floor leapt anxiously to his feet and spoke:
“Puan Yasmin,” stammered the student nervously, “my father has just had a stroke. Paralyzed on one side of his body, he can no longer bathe himself. My mother has to do it for him. Every day, behind his back, she expresses her disgust at having to do it, because prior to the stroke, they had never bathed together in all their married life. Puan Yasmin, the old couple in your film bathed together and they looked very happy. After watching ‘Rabun’ I made a pledge that when I’m married, I shall make sure my wife and I bathe together every day. So that when one of us falls ill, the other person will not be disgusted to bathe them.”
Bingo, I thought. That’ll do me just fine. A 21-year old student showing up a middle-aged academic, by demonstrating that film is not about rules and structures, but the human condition.
I guess Abbas Kiarostami was right. Watching a film is like going to a supermarket. The bigger your shopping basket, the more you’ll be able to take home. The young man just had a bigger basket than the old one. That's all.
A year down the line, the academics were at it again. This time for “Sepet” and “Gubra”.
An angry man who claimed to have studied film in an American university (I’m told he failed and never finished the course) was waving his fist at me during a forum.
“To make a film, you have to understand philosophy and psychology,” he hissed, “otherwise you’ll make stupid films like ‘Sepet’ that show a grown man’s sarong falling off!”
“Funny he should say that,” I muttered to a friend. “He’s a film grad, but I’m the psychology grad with a philosophy minor, but hey, let’s hear him out, anyway.”
By the time his tirade was over, it became clear to everyone there that as far as this angry man was concerned, “Children of Heaven” was about shoes, and “The White Balloon” was about balloons. Small wonder then that he thought “Sepet” was about falling sarongs.
Not only did he not have a basket at a supermarket, the frustrated old geezer had brought a shopping cart to the dentist!
These forums are just two examples of what a new filmmaker has to go through in this industry. If some big time producer is not paying off some people to discredit every film you make (this is a fact, by the way), some angry academicians (read: failed filmmakers) will hurl phrases at you to discourage you. Phrases like mise en scène, sub-plots, subtexts, semiotics, signs, signifiers, structures, estetika makna, etc, ad nauseum.
And if you’re not old and stubborn like me, it can get pretty daunting and disheartening sometimes.
My advice is, don’t pay them no heed. If those old fogies really knew anything about filmmaking, they would have made at least one good film by now.
Besides, as I said, mise en scène is nothing more than what you place before the camera, to tell the story you want to tell, and to bring out the feeling that you desire.
And as for the rest of those phrases, I’ve been lucky enough to have academic friends like Hassan Muthalib who are genuinely educated in film, not merely well read. They tell me not to worry about those fancy phrases, it's just stuff you put in your film and how you play around with them, to achieve nothing other than to impart a feeling or an opinion you have about your life.
Although some academics will tell you that you must constantly think about the subtexts of every damned scene you stage, the truth is you just have to follow your instinct and not think so much.
The most beautiful subtexts give you a glimpse into the secret corners of a filmmaker's conscience. Places so secret that even the filmmakers themselves were not aware of them, until they appear, mysteriously, in the work.
If you force these things while shooting, the outcome will be fake, contrived, and insincere.
"The most essential element in all movies is true sentiments. Be it for blockbusters or low budget productions, the movie must convey real sentiments." - Zhang Yimou
All that obsession with film theories can also get really silly, sometimes. The human intellect is so limited that it can only go so far, and then it runs around in circles, gets dizzy, and suddenly black is white and white is black.
In an American interview, an academician who described a battle scene in “Ran” as perfect in a film aesthetic sense, complimented the late Akira Kurosawa. He asked Kurosawa how he could achieve such a perfect shot. Kurosawa replied that he had no choice; if he had turned the camera a little to the left, you would have seen a supermarket, and if he had shifted it to the right, you would have seen a parking lot.
Perhaps now you may understand what I meant when I said it can get really silly, sometimes.
Only theorists and academicians ever write about such things at great lengths. Pick up any book by film masters who have actually MADE good films (Sidney Lumet, Alfred Hitchcock, David Mamet, John Cassavettes, Francois Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, Lars von Trier, et al), and you’ll find they mostly talk about their feelings about humanity anyway.
I, for one, know I'm so dense that I don't usually bother to interpret anything in a film. I just look for aspects of humanity that may mirror me in some way.
In short, I just sit back and try to watch a film like a child would. I don't care how many subtexts or semiotics or foreshadowing or whatever the filmmaker pumped into his shot, if he failed to move or engage me, he failed.
Film students in Europe and America indulged in these academic navel-gazing from the 1960's to the 70's (a mindset some of our angry old academicians can never seem to shake off!), but they snapped out of that solemn foolery, when it became more and more obvious that the real geniuses to come out of that generation were not academics, but regular folks with a talent for observing humanity and recording their feelings down on film with great style and sensitivity.
In other words, you’re better off spending your time enriching your life by falling in love, getting hurt, observing people, reading poetry, watching films, painting, photographing, travelling, and just living life, rather than burying yourself too much in books on film theories and script writing.
As if to prove my point, here is a list of some of the greatest filmmakers in history and how they began:
D.W. Griffith - failed journalist
Charlie Chaplin - stage burlesque comedian
Yasujiro Ozu - village school teacher
Billy Wilder - university dropout, journalist
Alfred Hitchcock - title designer
Akira Kurosawa - unsuccessful painter
Satyajit Ray - book cover designer
Ermanno Olmi - company clerk
Ken Loach - qualified lawyer
Abbas Kiarostami - graphic artist designing children's books
Pedro Almodovar - jewellery maker, clerk at telephone company
Woody Allen - university dropout, philosophy major
Takeshi Kitano - thrown out of engineering college, worked as a liftboy at a nightclub, comedian
Zhang Yimou - farm hand turned photographer
Quentin Tarantino – high school dropout, video store clerk
Clint Eastwood - lumberjack and soldier
Finally, and most interesting of all for me, was this interview Peter Bogdanovich conducted with the late great John Ford.
Bogdanovich noted to Ford that his earlier films were about the great western frontier. That the heroes were clean-cut and invincible. Then he suggested that it all took a gradual turn towards darker themes in Ford’s later films. The lines of morality became more blurred than before, the heroes were visibly dirtier, and the work increasingly leaned towards film noir.
“Was this a conscious decision?” asked Bogdanovich.
To which Ford replied, “What the hell is film noir?”