The life of mise-en-scène

Visual style and British film criticism, 1946–78

Author: John Gibbs

This book explores the role of mise-en-scene in melodrama criticism, and considers what happened to detailed criticism as major theoretical movements emerged in the 1970s. Mise-en-scene, and other ways of conceiving visual style, has been central to so many important debates that the writing examined in the book shaped the field in enduring ways. The book provides a cross-section of the British culture and its attitudes to film. It also considers a range of important contexts, from material conditions of film viewing (and therefore criticism) to the cultural and political shifts of 1956. The book further investigates the frequently asserted connection between literary criticism and the approaches developed in Movie. It identifies the range of different approaches to interpreting mise-en-scene advanced in Movie, drawing out sections on action, camera movement and placing, connections between different parts of the film, and a range of further debates. 'Tales of Sound and Fury' is an extraordinary article, and Elsaesser's appreciation of the plastic and expressive qualities of domestic melodrama and the broader melodramatic tradition is exemplary. In the early 1970s, writing on melodrama provided some of the richest expressions of mise-en-scene criticism. The book embodies a number of approaches which were to undermine the emergent interest in the interpretation of the film style. Melodrama criticism is a crucial focus for shifts in film criticism and theory, and for this history.

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‘Gibbs undertakes an ambitious, large-scale project of critical historiography that, despite its scope, nevertheless manifests a quality of attention to the fi ne grain of concrete detail befitting its primary subject: the best achievements of interpretive or expressive mise-en-scène criticism … Gibbs's book is one of major scope and historical ambition, covering half a century, the origins of and obstacles to the gradual invention of a critical practice, and key developments in an emerging academic discipline. Yet at every point, the book's insights achieve precision and nuance through the deft way Gibbs builds this history almost entirely by sustained, meticulous analysis of primary sources, in which the critical developments outlined above took shape. His work here thus needs to be recognized as an extraordinary feat of scholarship.'
Elliott Logan
Projections Volume 11, Issue 1

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