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].
Directing Experience Methodology – DE
Line of Psycho-Physical Action, or LOPPA.
Main Event – or scene – ME
In attempting to create a detailed understanding of the physical and psychological life of the Scene or Main Event (ME), the untested DE theory behind the LOPPA offers that …
”The Line of Physical Actions was an early Active Analysis method where the actors traced the physical movement that the script required them to undertake in every event. With the physical life imprinted they would continue with rehearsals. The LOPPA is adapted and extended from that idea.”(Kipste, 2012).
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 and combining the above references in consideration that a detailed understanding of the physical and psychological life of the ME must be created, the question arises ‘for what purpose?’ In DE methodology the LOPPA is found under the category of Visuality of the scene (ME). In Merlin’s text the Psycho Physical is discussed in relation to the figure. Both require 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 Actionsdescribed 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 facilitates the internal and external logic of a character within a Scene or Main Event, 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 (figure exploration) and read by an audience (Visuality).
It is the Organic Logic that began to manifest in this LOPPA for 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. As we began to step through the visualised scene with each figure conducting their own normal voice inner monologue, we found that, along with the normal mode of reporting action, the actors were announcing quite profound insights intowhy the figure was doing the action. More sub-text was uncovered in our LOPPA than was uncovered in the sub-text etude.
This shouldn’t have been surprising had we been fully cognisant that Bella Merlin links it to sub-text, in that figures justify their actions by internally agreeing or disagreeing with other figures almost 100 percent of the time. The cast were able to quickly relate inner monologue thoughts with actions that came out in the sub-text etudes. The silent, primal, inner monolog had now found a logical place in the ME.
One of the potent characteristics of the LOPPA is the way it can reinforce or negate visual choices. On two occasions we found that the inner monologue of a figure was not matching the physical placement of a flicker, or a succinct moment in time of the play. It was easy to adjust the physicality of moment once we had the LOPPA to verify it was in it’s correct place. The first occasion had to do with finding a reason to place one male figure so close behind the female. Rather than just ‘block’ as a moment for the audience to see that the female figure is vulnerable, it became obvious that the position had more to do with sex than with vulnerability.
The second occasion was a straight forward matter of the actor working out why the figure would kneel down to feed someone else’s chickens. As the actor physicalized the moment with the inner monolog a moment of illumination occurred for the actor and the figure. The figure wasn’t simply kneeling to feed a chicken – he was kneeling to ascertain the distance of his farm to his neighbor’s porch.
Self reflection and innovationAt NIDA, I found the LOPPA my most useful tool for clarifying my own directorial choices, in spite of being told that those choices were incorrect.
While the silent and verbal etudes were focused on the figures discovering their objectives, strategies and inner motivations, there seemed little opportunity to clarify why I was choosing certain visual moments over others. I simply knew that they struck a chord with me. It wasn’t until our first quiet voice Inner Monologue LOPPA that I felt completely comfortable with my choices. The choices I had made concerning the figure’s external journey through the ME were validated by the figure’s journey through their own internal landscape.
There arose one innovation that appeared during our LOPPA explorations. We decided to work backwards and take away the voices and the text, also completely removing the actors from the stage. In place of the stage was a white board with cardboard shapes on it representing a Gods eye view of the set. Each actor had a different coloured marker and they were instructed to trace their journey through each ME without speaking. The result was a visual map detailing the physical movement of each figure. Trails, if you will. I also used this ‘map’ in my graduation piece, WASP.
The actors would then step away and discuss any patterns that emerged. This led to several observations including why a certain figure kept retreating behind a chair. We hadn’t seen this on the floor during the LOPPA. But with our Whiteboard LOPPA we were able to see patterns, trails, repetitive retreat behaviours and sloppy entrances and exits.
The LOPPA is an invaluable part of my directorial toolkit. I use it now with cameras running and include some of the footage from our rehearsal of 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Here, the actors attempted to layer their accents. I am still undecided as to whether an inner monologue with the accent is necessary, but it was great to hear.
With each actor running their inner dialogue and physical movements it can get messy and appear haphazard. But insightful drama can be drawn from the chaos.
After a year of reviewing my writings and disengaging my own directorial choices from those that were suggested by the DE methodology, I present these thoughts and video to the public.
My heartfelt thanks to the actors from ACA, Lukasz Embart, David Bruce and Anna Phillips.
References:Benedetti, J. Stanislavksi & The Actor, 1998.
Kipste, E. Directing Experience Handbook, 2012.
Merlin, B. The Complete Stanislavski Toolkit, 2007
Toporkov, V. Stanislavski in Rehearsal, 1949, Translation by Jean Benedetti, 2001.