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].