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Exercise: Film as Theater (Mise-en-scene)

Most of you have seen the opening shot to Ferris Bueller's Day Off. To give us information about the film's main character, even before we see him, the camera pans and tracks, showing us Ferris' bedroom. We see all kinds of stuff, and this stuff is arranged in telling ways. There's a similar shot in Silence of the Lambs, when Clarice Starling (Jody Foster) inspects items in the bedroom of a murdered girl.

The point: We notice that character (what we might label "personality" in real life) is constructed through elements of the mise-en-scene: in this case, out of the collage of stuff that the set designer arranged for the camera. We in the audience create or, better, we project a personality onto the screen based on what we see (and also by what we do not see). If you call this process of generalization "stereotyping," you are right. The fact is, without culturally shared stereotypes, films probably wouldn't make sense to us. Conversely, different sets of stereotypes yield "different" movies. Stereotyping, I want to emphasize, is a lot more subtle than assuming that if a cowboy is wearing a white outfit, he must be the hero. There are students, right now in college, who can and do size up people in seconds based on, say, the shoes that they wear or by the way t-shirts hang on bodies.

Tackle the following assignment as a way to experiment with mise-en-scene. I want you to choose a character, any character. He or she can be "real" or "invented." S/he could be a student (of any age), a business person (any job), a criminal (any sort), an alien (any nationality or species). And then, I want you to try out the role of set designer. Your task is to create a very detailed description of this character's bedroom. You can do this in the form of a list, an inventory of the stuff you'd bring onto the set and arrange for the camera.

Paragraphs aren't necessary. A list will work. But your goal is simple. We in the film crew have to be able to shoot this room using your instructions, your list. And we have to be certain that the film audience will have a certain sense of the inhabitant's personality. In effect, it's your job to construct a personality for the film's character through staging. In other words, we want the audience to feel like they anticipated the character's personality, even though they actually invented this personality (granted, with a lot of cues from you).

Note: We're not hiring a star who brings to the film a whole set of personality traits acquired from other films and through stories found in the media. (Or think of this point: Stars allow directors to get by with less exposition. Why? Because the audience feels that it already knows them, even if it has never actually met the star.)

Got it? In your journal entry, give readers a complete inventory or an in-depth description of a bedroom--list or paragraphs, your choice. Do not--that's do not--tell us anything about the character that inhabits this room. For example, don't say, "This is the room of a kindergarten student, a girl, living in a town somewhere in central Pennsylvania. Her mother is a real estate agent; her father is a civil engineer." I would like for your classmates to guess the character you've invented based on what you give us. In other words, I want you to approach the work of your classmates inductively--like detectives, scientists, and FBI agents. Finally, do be as subtle and as stereotypical as the films you are used to seeing (there's a tension here). Bad guys aren't just bad guys in the films we love. They are bad, sure, and we know that, but they often have personality traits that make them "three dimensional."

After you submit your work, we'll begin to theorize it. I want to teach you something about semiotics.

You can contact Michael Jarrett at jmj3@psu.edu.