In the 2002 film HERO, directed by Zhang Yimou, Jet Li plays a Nameless assassin who has come to the royal palace to claim reward for a bounty that was placed on several enemies of the Emperor. Upon entering the throne room the Nameless assassin is kept at a distance from the Emperor until he reveals how he destroyed each enemy. As each tale of death is told the Nameless assassin is permitted to proceed closer toward the throne. Little does the emperor know that the Nameless assassin has planned to dethrone him. Access to a seat of power is deftly used as a narrative tool by Zhang Yimou and screen writers Feng Li and Bin Yang (Yimou, 2002). Just as subtle are the directors and designers of the television series, The West Wing and Jonathan Demme in his role as director on The Silence of the Lambs.
With specific reference to notions of knowledge, power, reward and access to power, this article serves to explore the symbolic effect of the mis-en-scene upon lead characters in The West Wing and The Silence of the Lambs. Beginning with Josiah Bartlett and the Oval Office set, comparisons will be made to The Silence of the Lambs to contrast and/or highlight notions of knowledge, power and reward. Furthermore, this chapter serves to examine the filmic spaces that lead characters occupy in order to interpret the various metonymic signifiers and interrogate the symbolic effect of mis-en-scene upon their occupants.
Props, presidents and power
‘Oh Lord, my boat is so small and your sea is so great.’ So says the wood and brass plaque sitting on the desk of fictitious President Josiah Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen in The West Wing (Sorkin 1999). This old Breton fisherman’s prayer faces out toward anyone standing on set in front of the Presidents desk. While it may serve to signify the religious side of ‘Jed’ Bartlett, the plaque provides the television character with a direct link to an historical figure, the late John F Kennedy. A similar plaque with this quote was gifted to President Kennedy by Admiral Hyman Rickover and had pride of place on Kennedy’s desk (http://www.jfklibrary.org/). Just as significant in the opening credits of The West Wing, actor Martin Sheen is portrayed against a coloured backdrop of the US flag in a black and white photo, leaning on the Oval office desk in similar fashion to one of the most famously candid photos of Kennedy. In fact the opening credits of The West Wing are replete with metonymic symbols of American patriotism (Stadler 2009). The effect of prop placement, lighting and camera angle in these instances is to semiotically endow Josiah Bartlett with the qualities of one of the most revered presidential figures in history.
Apart from direct links to historical Presidents, Bartlett is afforded power by use of a crane shot of the Oval Office set. Whenever a national crisis occurs and President Bartlett has given his orders to senior staff one of two things will occur. The characters either remain in the Oval Office set or they collect their belongings and leave the set quickly. In either case, the direct overhead crane shot is used. This provides Bartlett with the semiotic assignation of the coach, the guy who sees the whole game plan. Not only does this give the viewer a visual cue that ‘the games is on’ and the play has been called, but that all the players are moving into place at the command of Bartlett. Symbolically, the shot is also noteworthy in that all the characters are moving while framed against the Presidential seal, embedded in carpet on the Oval Office floor. Aside from the opening sequence of Season 1: Episode 1 when Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spence) enters the White House lobby and walks across the presidential seal, no other characters office is afforded this rare camera angle. It is strictly used for Bartlett.
Cubicles, corridors and closed doors
Whether the character is a president or a paper distribution manager in Slough, England, office spaces on television shows are signifiers that carry semiotic meanings of power. In the real world office space is a physical expression of practicality, a specific space allocated to a specific person for a specific task. Offices can also express varying degrees of status that have been attained in an institution. In the television portrayal of White House administrative activity and office space, the Oval Office is the extreme signified example of a power base. Largely due to the cultural meaning that is given to it (Howells, 2003).
Actors on The West Wing move through corridors in fast paced style that was relatively new in late 1990s television. The camera style was parodied on Saturday Night Live and is now a feature on other US television dramas such as House. Hand-held cameras follow the busy West Wing characters through corridors. While this style of camera work does signify, in almost news like fashion, that these characters live lives of utmost importance, it is also a device to allow the audience to become familiar with the location of each characters office and their symbolic proximity to the Oval Office. Once invested in the character and their office space the audience is more likely to be emotionally invested in the mis-en-scene during periods of denied access. For one reason or another, lead characters on The West Wing may be out of favor with President Bartlett for several episodes. This denial of access to President Bartlett is often portrayed by the closing of a door. While it is no great leap to explain the semiotic meaning of a closed door, the idea that a political operative has been shut off from the President carries ramifications for plot, character development and continued story arcs. At some stage that lead character has ignored, abused or refused knowledge. They have not applied knowledge and are consequently denied access to power and reward.
The semiotic meaning of a closed door is starkly portrayed in Season 5: Episodes 5 through 8 when deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Brad Whitford) is denied access to the Oval Office as punishment for his lack of humility when dealing with a senior senator. Josh Lyman is on his way to the Oval Office when he is stopped by the Chief of Staff and told not to enter. The audience is given an over the shoulder wide shot of the Oval Office door closing. Several staff can be seen talking to the president beyond the door as it closes. This is immediately followed by a close up of Josh Lymans’ face. The symbolic effect of denied access on this particular lead character is driven home by the exacerbated sound of a door slamming shut. For all of his political prowess and knowledge, Josh Lyman is denied access.
Cells, cellars and quid pro quo
Long before The West Wing or Hero hit our screens, symbolic progression toward a seat of power was used by director Jonathan Demme in the movie The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991). As a hand-held camera follows Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) through various corridors the progression is made towards a very different category of power altogether. Unlike the responsible power and authority granted to an elected president, Clarice Starling comes face to face with the brutal power of a serial killer.
The first seat of power Clarice Starling must approach is that of FBI boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). On entering Crawford’s office at the FBI training facility at Quantico, Virginia, Starling scans his office briefly but fails to look over her left shoulder at the back wall. When she eventually turns she is shocked by a startling array of photographic violence on the wall. Violence perpetrated by the serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Later in the movie, as the camera follows Clarice through a training corridor into a simulated forced entry situation, she again fails to look back over her left shoulder. With gun pointed, an instructor steps out from behind a door and tells her she failed to ‘check her six’. Six being the position on a clock face if you are facing twelve. Jonathan Demme has used the mis-en-scene to highlight a character flaw.
Starling is sent to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to interview a serial killer housed in the basement there. She makes a brief stop at the office of Dr. Chilton (John Heald). This apparent acquiescence to another seat of power is actually a red herring. Power may be signified by Dr. Chilton sitting at his desk, in his own office. There may be close up shots of Chiltons’ face in contrast to the medium shots of Clarice, making her seem smaller and less powerful. But Dr. Chilton has no power to deny Clarice access. Clarice has been sent by Jack Crawford, carrying with her all the authority of the FBI.
In approaching the next seat of power, that of Hannibal ‘The cannibal’ Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), the hand-held camera does not follow Clarice but is positioned in front and moved in such a way that the point of view is one of wanting to escape. This gives the impression that whatever is waiting in the next seat of power is something or someone the character might choose to avoid. On The West Wing the hand-held camera is traveling with the lead characters, capturing their discussion. In The Silence of the Lambs the camera is more often ahead of the characters and moving towards them, against the flow of action. This creates dissonance of movement with the express intention of un-nerving the audience. Once Clarice gains access to Hannibal she offers up private knowledge in exchange for progression to the next seat of power.
Clarice Starling now progresses to the home of Jame Gumb in Belvedere, Ohio. Clarice is unaware that Gumb is Buffalo Bill and that the daughter of a senator is being held in the cellar of Jame Gumbs’ house. Here, the mis-en-scene has the most symbolic effect on Clarice Starling. Failing to ‘check her six’ after entering the home she also fails to notice the collection of rare butterflies mounted on a wall behind her, a critical clue to Buffalo Bills identity. By the time a stray moth has raised her suspicion Jame Gumb has backed away and flees to his seat of power. All of the knowledge Clarice has gained and shared must now come to bear on this final seat of power. Like the Nameless assassin, she must dethrone Jame Gumb. As Clarice searches the house, the full symbolic weight of the mis-en-scene is displayed. Implements of death, dark rooms and crawling moths all suggest that Clarice is in the lair of a killer, but symbolically in the slaughter house of a butcher in search of a lamb to rescue.
Presidents and predators
When compared to The West Wing, the mis-en-scene of The Silence of the Lambs reveals two striking similarities. Like Josiah Bartlett the only overhead crane shot afforded a character in The Silence of the Lambs is given to Hannibal Lecter after he subdues two guards. Like Bartlett, this shot gives the viewer a visual cue that ‘the game is on’ and Hannibal is now in charge. Secondly, Lecter and Bartlett share above average intellect as displayed in the books that adorn their shelves.
The conspicuous differences say more about mis-en-scene than not. Throughout the course of The West Wing, Bartlett has made critical military decisions sitting at his Oval Office desk. Both the desk and the plaque on his desk give symbolic meaning in that they speak directly to the ethical and volitional restraint of executive power. While the Oval Office might have doors that shut out prying eyes and ears, Lecters’ main cell wall is made of thick clear Perspex. Perhaps with any other character this may have suggested vulnerability, but with Hannibal Lecter the symbolic effect is also one of restrained power. Much like an animal exhibit, the transparent wall allows Clarice Starling a symbolic kind of open access to Lecter. A piece of dialogue about Lecter delivered by Dr Chilton offers a small hint to the mis-en-scene of Hannibal’s cell, ‘It is so rare to capture one alive’. Surprisingly, after Lecter has escaped and is afforded the opportunity to vent his power unrestrainedly, he makes an ethical choice to not pursue Clarice Starling.
The ultimate symbolic effect of mis-en-scene upon Clarice Starling is her own ascent to the final seat of power. After all the doors, corridors and cellars she emerges as a fully fledged FBI agent. Should she ever face Hannibal in the future she may not be so reticent to show her badge and approach when he again utters those symbolic words… ‘Closer, please….closer’.
Demme, J, 1991, The Silence of the Lambs, Special Ed, MGM Home Entertainment, U.S.
Howells, R, 2003, Visual culture, Polity Press , Cambridge.
Sorkin, A, 1999 , The West Wing , Distributed by Warner Bros. Entertainment Australia, Neutral Bay, N.S.W.
Stadler, J & McWilliam, K, 2009, Screen media: analysing film and television , Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, N.S.W.
Yimou, Z, 2002, Ying xiong: Hero, Miramax Home Entertainment, [Burbank, CA].
I haven’t read the script for Warwick Thornton’s upcoming project with Cate Blanchett, THE NEW BOY.
From what I have read, I’m guessing the plot goes something like this.
A young Aboriginal boy wanders into a monastery and is taken in by a renegade nun. The boy has escaped some type of disaster at his community. Maybe he’s escaped a massacre, maybe he’s escaped another attempt at being taken from his mother by the white constabulary. Whatever happened, he shows up.
Cate will play a nun that is already at odds with the Catholic church.
She has decided that she will seek God in her own way and there will be references to motherhood, Mary and orphans and widows etc. The nun will be all but apostate.
She will be the one that creates a bridge between white and black, Aboriginal tradition and the church. But ultimately she will lose.
The boy will go back to his mother or move on through the system.
But it will be HER pain the movie focuses on.
Wayne Blair and Deborah Mailman are touted to appear as co-stars.
I’m expecting the usual neutered black male trope.
Black ‘countrified’ accents will be laid on thick, but Cate the Nun will advocate and offer some speech about "Aborigines" being human as well.
It was the same in the movie AUSTRALIA and it will be the same here...except without all that “Over The Rainbow” crap that Baz Lurhman played with.
There’ll be a raising of temperatures in the monastery between Cate the Nun and the head of the order.
“We’ve destroyed their land and culture - the least we can do is give the boy some bread”.... Some crap like that.
The word 'Abo' will get another showing, because white actors in Australia love saying it.
And I’m sick of it.
I’m tired of Thornton’s films portraying us as a people with no agency. I’m tired of films that portray us as ‘BUSH’...’Desert’... backward... needy... unable to talk.
Samson and Delilah was a white audiences wet dream. It was a movie for white people of a certain age and political disposition, to sit in a cinema and get teary about Aboriginal teens... but do bugger all when they left the movie.
Did anybody who saw Samson and Delilah care that the young star went on to get into real trouble - in real life?
Blanchett and Thornton will no doubt get accolades for this project. Hell, it’s being talked up from the start.
What’s not being talked about is the ongoing tendency to offer movies that soften the past, via the relationship between main characters.
Just because you’re offering a cinematic universe where white women like Cate the Nun or Nicole as Lady Ashley get their rocks off by rescuing little black boys... It doesn’t change the truth of the past.
These films serve a very distinct purpose. Propaganda.
That message. Australian history is not murderous. Australian history is akin to the caring embrace of a Nun or a rich white woman.
In either case, the black voice is gone.
In the extreme case, the black male voice is silenced... In nearly every Australian movie dealing with Aboriginal males, they are either accused of something or are little boys.
The only other choice you have is the oft presented trope of mystical figure.
Eventually it boils down to those choices...a "SECRET RIVER, WE OF THE NEVER NEVER" type story or a story of being rescued by a white saviour.
I sought an audition for FIREBITE. I thought it would fun... I managed to get a time to audition, but then I was sent the series bible.
I was sickened by the premise.
"THE HISTORY BOOKS WOULD HAVE YOU BELIEVE IT WAS SMALLPOX THAT KILLED THE GADIGAL TRIBE OF THE SYDNEY AREA. IT WASN’T. IT WAS AN IMPORTED EVIL MORE DEADLY THAN ANY DISEASE"
"So in 1788, when the First Fleet ships docked in Sydney harbor, officers were shocked to discover a handful of vampire stow-aways on board. Within hours the vampires had escaped to freedom, and the future of Australia changed forever."
This might have been a great idea...but it softened the devastation that occurred. Blaming Aboriginal suffering on vampires for the sake of your TV show is simply detestable.
I emailed the casting director and gave my reason for saying no.
Speaking truth to power is very different than kissing arse.
Learn the difference, Warwick. Stop writing powerless black males.
As for Cate... well, I guess money needs to be made.
Thornton once told Australia to ‘grow up’ at an awards night.
Might be time for him to take his own advice.
It's tough to stay in business - especially in the theatre business.
My play SPIT HOOD would not progress in the Queensland Theatre Company Premier's Drama Award.
This came as no surprise to me. One of the judges on the QTC panel had assaulted me during a production of Louis Nowra's CROW in the 90s - when I found out she was on the judging panel, I immediately offered to pull my play from the award. I was asked not to. I left the play in. As one of the ten finalists I knew there was no chance of winning.
Unfortunately -The industry is mostly run by a small group of individuals who gather at festivals, conferences and other events to ensure their seasons are all in sync - making sure that the money, personnel and infrastructure are all used to tell stories that are palatable, lacking in strength and written by friends and adherents of the cause. That cause? To stay in business. To never challenge the status quo. To make spectacle...rather than testimony.
My testimony is this. That theatre should be a place where alternative and sometimes frightening ideas are presented...so as to awaken the sleeping giant in every audience member. Once awakened, that individual leaves the theatre with a new and invigorated outlook on their place in the world. I remember leaving the theatre at the end of Angels In America. Perturbed, grateful and with more compassion than I had walking in.
I once heard Stephen Sewell ( playwright of the New Internationalist fame ) remark on radio that theatre has become the plaything of the rich.
Of course it has - especially when our theatres are named after rich business families. Once Australia becomes a republic, I hope there are fewer theatres named "HER MAJESTY's".
Perhaps we could take a leaf out of Joe Papp's book and just have a PUBLIC THEATRE.
I still hope for the rise of a National Indigenous Theatre. But still... quite a few famous black faces blowing hot air and doing nothing. Lining their own pockets, pacifying white audiences and playing the "coon" will get us nowhere.
Fortunately there is a small set of writers and directors who aren't interested in staying in business - they are interested in the business of staying true to the defining trait of good theatre.
Good theatre is dangerous.
La Boite Theatre in Queensland is looking for a new artistic director... one of the questions they want applicants to answer is "What is the biggest opportunity in Australian theatre right now?"
For me...right now...The biggest opportunity in Australian theatre is to become an industry that the government no longer funds...but fears.
There are writers and artists in other places in the world who have been exiled, killed or 'disappeared' for their views against governments.
We don't have that in Australia. We haven't spoken truth to power..............IN YEARS.
Because instead of being dangerous, we want to stay in business.
I want to earn good money from what I do. But not at the expense of making my plays palatable.
Here's to the work!
I can now openly discuss the news that my play SPIT HOOD, has been shortlisted for The Queensland Theatre Company Premier's Drama Award.
It's been almost a year in the writing and I'm continuing to work on it as we move into 2022.
It is not my place to discuss the various cases that have led to the ban on spit hoods in Australia. Needless to say, It is an incredibly brave group of families that fight for justice every day.
I can only write from my experience as someone who worked briefly in the justice system, during the period when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was in its infancy. I make no claim of knowledge or expertise. I was a Field Officer, whose job was to visit those arrested, often being the first call they made to the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement here in SA..
I also write from the first hand experience of my own family and close friends who have fought and are still fighting for fairness in a system that is hell bent on destroying us.
To our nations eternal shame, not much has changed.
SPIT HOOD is about a mother and a son. It's a spiritual allegory and hopefully a clarion call to those in power.
One play will not make a difference. But it will add to the myriad of voices calling for change, equity and justice.
"He will make your innocence radiate like the dawn,
and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun."
As I step out into the next piece of writing, I thought I'd provide some context for those who are still asking questions about THE LONG FORGOTTEN DREAM.
This article from THE AUSTRALIAN was my only response in the media - cheers.
Directed by H Lawrence Sumner
A LOPPA read is not a word for word performance of the text. It is an expression of the internal drive of the character / figure. The notion of external ACTION as foundational to an internal desire or objective can be traced back to Stanislavski who believed that “...Every physical action must be dynamic and lead to the accomplishment of some goal...”, (Toporkov,1950).
In her discussion of using ACTION to build psycho-physical coordination, Bella Merlin places stronger emphasis on two key elements to map. These two elements are Logic and Coherence. Her concern is on action that is genuine and organic, (Merlin, 2007).
By examining the above references in consideration that a detailed understanding of the physical and psychological life of the figure must be created, the question arises ‘for what purpose?’ In Merlin’s text the Psycho Physical is discussed in relation to the figure. It is the use of Inner Monologue through the action of the scene. Interestingly, Jean Benedetti also uses the term organic when referring to the Method of Physical Actions described in his text(Benedetti, 1998). If something is organic I would dare to suggest that the growth and development of it has a Logic. The growth of the organic is easily accounted for, with every stage of growth in place.
I would offer, then, that a LOPPA reading facilitates the internal and external logic of a character within a scene, bringing the scene to its most human and organic state. In other words, there is an ORGANIC LOGIC to the scene which can be PLAYED by actors and READ by an audience.