Friday, December 18, 2009

Mise-en-scène in "Black Rider"

Mise-en-scène is a phrase often used to describe film production. It translates to “setting the stage” or “setting the scene”. It describes the elements within a frame of film that affect the look and feel of the movie. When mise-en-scène is used correctly, a movie appears to have continuity and the world portrayed within the film is believable. This paper will describe the mise-en-scène of Black Rider’s opening sequence, which lasts for 1 minute and 43 seconds. The opening sequence ends when the train arrives at the station.
The setting of a movie shows the viewer the world that the story will take place in. Shooting the film in a natural location, such as the city of Berlin, adds realism, while shooting on a studio set is perceived as less realistic. Studio sets require stronger artistic direction to increase their level of believability.
In Black Rider, the setting of the movie is described in a series of opening shots that are set to music. These shots depict a light rail commuter train as it travels through the city. The audience sees close-ups of trains passing each other, passengers disembarking, close up shots of feet, and customers heading toward the train. These opening shots also depict city life by using jazz music that evokes the dreariness and angst of the city.
Key props support the film’s authenticity and enhance its believability. The key props shown in the opening sequence are the train and the décor of the train station. The train is the most important prop in the opening sequence, while the décor of the train station supports the films believability. The train comes toward the camera in the first frames of the film. The train is also seen rushing past the camera and “snaking” through the city. The shots of the train used in the opening sequence portray it as enormous and dominant. The life of the city seems to flow in, out, and around the train.
Actors create believable characters that the audience can relate to or follow. This is done through acting and directing. The role casting plays is subtle, but important. Black Rider had a diverse cast of unknown character actors and a talented director who worked together to support its realistic tone. The director's role is to help the actors navigate the screenwriter's vision.
If Tom Cruise had been cast as the biker and Denzel Washington as The Black Guy (that's the actual name of the character), this would be a very different movie. No matter how hard Washington or Cruise would try to sink into their roles, the audience would relate Black Rider to their previous films.
A film that excels in all other aspects of mise-en-scène but neglects acting is not perceived as believable. Black Rider’s actors do a fantastic job. They make us believe that they inhabit the cityscape that the audience was introduced to in the opening sequence.
The film frame registers smaller movements than the theater stage. As a result, actors who are versed in theater’s broad movement style train to use small gestures and micro-expressions for film. At the train stop, two girls are talking and laughing. When one of them looks up at a boy who is standing nearby, her expression informs the audience that she has a crush on him. Her head movement and facial expression portrays joy, infatuation, and embarrassment. The actress was able to communicate three emotions in a scene that lasted for two seconds.
Actors wear costumes that match the culture and roles of their characters. In a 10-minute short film, there is no time to learn each characters background. The costumes, culture, and preferences of the characters are “coded” into their costumes.
At the train stop, several types of characters are introduced. The boy wearing a soccer jacket is a student athlete or sports fan. A grey haired man wears a golf cap, casual shirt, and thick glasses. This costume identifies him as a retiree. He stands near a woman in a business suit who holds a briefcase. Her earrings are tightly wound hoops that match her tense expression. The audience can infer that she is both impatient and unapproachable. Her costume and acting combine to enhance the impersonal “feel” of the city that is being communicated throughout the opening sequence.
In the film noir genre, makeup was often used to express the nature of a characters personality. A nervous or unbalanced character would appear to be greasy or unshaven while a femme fatale would wear noticeable makeup that would express her devious intentions and her beauty. A movie that places a high priority on realism uses makeup that is “invisible” to the audience. This is the type of makeup used in Black Rider.
Lighting is one of the most important aspects of mise-en-scène. Expressionistic films use lighting to express a character’s internal mood. Realistic films such as Black Rider use lighting to communicate the “reality” of the setting and characters to the audience. The lighting in the opening sequence is bright, with hot spots and minimal shadows. The audience will believe that they are seeing a bright, sunlit day. This is because they see hot spots, which come from a bright key light (the sun) with a minimal amount of shadows. The shadows that do exist are cast by outdoor structures such as the train stop.
Composition is the method that filmmakers and photographers use to arrange subjects and key props within the frame. To compose the frame correctly, the cinematographer and director must coordinate character blocking and camera angles.             
Pepe Danquart and his cinematographer, Ciro Cappellari, carefully crafted the composition of Black Rider to match the themes and focus of the film. When the characters are shown at the train stop for the first time, the businessmen appear in a low-to-high angle medium close up shot. From this angle they appear to be dominant figures within the city.
The Black Guy and his white friend appear to be equals when they are shown at a table near the train stop. A closer look reveals that the shot is angled so that the white character is closer to the camera and The Black Guy is further away and therefore smaller within the frame. The composition of this shot also favors the white character since he is closer to the camera, and therefore larger than The Black Guy.
In conclusion, mise-en-scène is important because it maintain audience interest in the film and in the world it depicts. In Black Rider, the length of the film increased the importance of cohesiveness and believability because there was no time for flashback scenes or expository dialogue that would have described character motivations and attitudes.

Works Cited
Black Rider. By Pepe Danquart. Dir. Pepe Danquart. Perf. Paul Outlaw. 1993.
Kasdan, Margo. The Critical Eye. (pages 69-96)
Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 2008

Saturday, August 8, 2009

3 Women Critique

3 Women is an experimental movie based on a dream. (Criterion Commentary, 2004) As such, it is open to multiple interpretations. This essay will attempt to show that 3 Women is an artistic work by describing the feel of the movie, the technique used to create the film, and its separation from story driven films. One possible interpretation of the film will be presented.

The opening shots are composed of slow dissolves and extreme close-ups of young maidens attending to old men and women at Desert Springs. This geriatric spa introduces the elements of water and loneliness to 3 Women. Secondary characters in Desert Springs are either bland or two-dimensional. They exclude Millie (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek) from the workplace social scene and ridicule them.

The Purple Sage Apartments is the second of 3 Women’s settings. The apartments are built around a large pool, which contains one of the three reptilian frescoes used throughout the movie. These frescoes, painted by Willie (Janice Rule), represent the struggle for identity shared by the three women. The pool is used as a gathering place for the Purple Sage residents, who also exclude Millie and Pinky. Their ridicule of Millie is a cruel rebuttal to her attempts at gaining their acceptance.

The only place the two main characters are accepted is Dodge City, a saloon/racetrack/shooting range owned by Edgar and Willie. Dodge City is the only one the three settings that does not contain water. It is here that Edgar (Robert Fortier), the only male main character, is introduced. His character is a feminist’s worst nightmare. He swaggers drunkenly through the film, womanizing both Millie and Pinky and abandoning Willie during labor. (3 Women, Roger Ebert, 2004) He is represented on Willie’s frescoes as the lone oppressive male.

The second half of the movie begins after Pinky falls into the pool. The heavy symbolism of the pool sequence implies a birth, rather than a death. Roger Ebert describes this scene as a “tear in the structure of the film”. (3 Women, Roger Ebert, 2004) The pool scene has an emotional, rather than logical, impact on the viewer. It is best described through shot by shot analysis.

The camera shows a pregnant belly on the pool fresco. It cuts to a reflection of Pinky falling upwards toward the surface of the pool and crashing into it. The water explodes as she breaches its surface. In the last shot, Pinky is floating facedown, as if dead. Her position and the blue lighting imply that the birth is stillborn. The Mother, Willie, and one of the apartment males wade into the pool to deliver her to the outside world.

After her rebirth through this near-death experience, Pinky is a changed person. No longer introverted and childish, she is outgoing and flirtatious. She pushes Millie from her role as Maiden and exerts her sexuality on the males at the Purple Sage and Dodge City. Confused and humiliated by her loss of identity, Millie withdraws into herself. The banal façade of the first half falls away into a string of dreamlike scenes that lead to the film’s finale.

As the ending nears, she gradually takes on the role of Mother. When Willie becomes the Crone, after the stillbirth scene, Millie’s transformation is complete. Having claimed identities and independence from Edgar, the three women form a family unit and move into Edgar’s house. Their family unit is as barren as the arid landscape around them. It has no men, and therefore no children or future will be produced. The final shot is of a pile of discarded tires, which Altman jokingly refers to as Edgar’s grave. (Criterion Commentary, 2004)

3 Women does not resemble a typical Altman film. Shots are understated during the first half of the film, which is concerned with banality and un-fulfillment. (A Cinema Of Loneliness, 1988) Active zoom shots are slow or barely noticeable. Long pans accentuate the dreariness of Desert Springs and long shots are used to accentuate Millie’s confusion. Overlapping audio, Altman’s signature technique, is used sparingly. Altman uses mirrors and expressionistic framing techniques to reduce or split his medium and close-up shots.

3 Women is an unusual, interpretive film that premiered in a year that would define the blockbuster era. Experimentation, and Robert Altman, would soon be pushed out of mainstream American cinema. (3 Women, David Sterritt, 2004) Altman’s 3 Women won awards from the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, L.A. Film Critics Association, and New York Film Critics Circle. ( It currently stands as one of Altman’s most unique works and is being rediscovered by modern audiences.



Altman, Robert commentary. 3 Women. Dir Robert Altman, produced by Scott Bushnell. Perf. Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek. 1977. Criterion Collection, 2004


Ebert, Roger

3 Women, 2004

Chicago Sun-Times, c2004

Reprinted on


Kolker, Robert Phillip

A Cinema Of Loneliness: Second Edition, 1988

[Oxford, N.Y.]: Oxford University Press, c1988 (pages 372-378)


Sterritt, David

3 Women, 2004

Reprinted by the authors permission on


“3 Women”, 3 Women: Awards Tab

Robert Altman: Director / Producer / Screenwriter

Scott Bushnell: Producer

Charles Rosher Jr.: Cinematographer

Dennis M. Hill : Editor

James D. Vance: Art Director

Chris McLaughlin: Sound/Sound Designer

Richard Portman: Sound/Sound Designer

Jim Webb: Sound/Sound Designer

Monty Westmore: Makeup

Tommy Thompson: First Assistant Director

J. Allen Highfill: Consultant/advisor

Bodhi Wind: Mural Art

Performers: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier

© Howard DiNatale II 2009