Lesson 2: The Language of Film

Since history books are made from language, we can assume that history movies are made from images. In other words, just as history books communicate their messages using words strung together into meaningful sentences and paragraphs, movies communicate their messages using images strung together into meaningful scenes and sequences. We tend to watch movies and intuitively grasp their meaning through these visual cues. But unlike language, we rarely take the time to try to understand the syntax of movie images. What are the structures and visual cues that movies use to communicate? How do different images impact our understanding of the movie? How do those fit into larger scenes and sequences to give us a broader picture? That is what this lesson will address.

The first technical idea to get a grasp of is also one of the most difficult (though, like so much in movies, it seems simple on the surface). That is the mise en scene, or production values, associated with the movie, and with individual scenes within the movie. Below is a really good video clip that explains mise en scene. It is also explained in Ch. 2 of your Corrigan book. Please be sure to read that as, or after, you watch this video clip.

So Mise en scene consists of setting, costumes & makeup, lighting, and acting. Manipulating these things can change the way we view a scene. The use of setting can, for example, communicate multiple messages to the audience. It is often by the setting that we know roughly when, in history, the events in a film are supposed to have taken place. But there can be much more than just chronology packed into a setting. A film like Dangerous Liaisons (1988, dir. Stephen Frears), for example, can show the era just before the French Revolution in terms of the opulence and dissipation of the French Aristocracy with costumes, makeup, and setting, while another, such as Les Miserables (2012, dir. Tom Hooper) can show the same period in squalor and desperation just by changing these elements.

To see how a recent director thinks about mise en scene, view the part of the video clip below (starting at time counter point 31:53) in which Selma (2014) director Ava DuVernay talks about her favorite scene in the film. Pay particular attention to how she characterizes setting, costume, lighting and acting. Try to recognize that what she put in the scene probably comes from both conscious choice, and her own vision of what this real even may have looked like (even though she did not see the actual event, but only learned of it through recorded history). This is how mise en scene becomes part of the narrative, conveying a tremendous amount of information beyond just the words. All of it is loaded with content, and we can look at it as deeply as we want.