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Mise en Scene and a Mockumentary

Definition: Mise en Scène [mee zahn sen] French 1) the process of setting a stage, with regard to placement of actors, scenery, properties, etc 2) the stage setting or scenery of a play 3) surroundings; environment 4) literal translation: “setting the scene.”

In other words … everything we see on film. When we leave a film we do not think about all the details that went into the scene, we remember how they came out, what the end product was. The sets, the costumes, the actors, the props, all of these things are mise en scène.

Mise en scène is the culmination of everything working together. You can see this best in a mockumentary directed by Christopher Guest titled “Best in Show.” The film  follows five dogs, or more specifically, their owners (Harlan Pepper, Stefan Vanderhoof and Scott Donlan, the Swans’, the Flecks’, and the Ward-Cabots’), on a quest to be titled the “Best in Show” at a dog show in Philadelphia.

This film uses mise en scène very well to tell its narrative. In “Best in Show” you can see how three aspects of mise en scène (setting, costume, and staging) all combine to tell one cohesive story through five separate lives.

The setting that a scene takes place in can tell a lot about the character and the character’s history before a single word of dialog is spoken. In “Film Art” David Bordwell writes, “Cinema setting can come to the forefront; it need not be only a container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action.”

In the movie we start to identify them by the setting their in when we first see them. For example, when we meet Harlan Pepper he is working at a fishing shop in the country and later when we come back to him he is outside, in the woods.

From these two different settings we can get a sense of who Harlan is.  Each of our five main contestants is similarly shaped by their surroundings; whether it’s the Flecks’ backyard BBQ, the Swans’ psychiatrist’s office, or the Ward-Cabots’ mansion.

Directors can choose to use pre-existing locations or to construct sets. Best in Show was shot between British Columbia, Canada (dog show arena and other outdoor scenes) and Los Angeles, California.

Directors can also use stock footage from other films for establishing shots to introduce audiences to a setting. Here, the outdoor shot of the arena where the dog show is held is from the film “Sudden Death.”

Overall, setting helps establish the movies characters and “can significantly shape how we understand story action,” according to Bordwell.

Another important aspect of mise en scène is costume. There is an old saying that “the clothes make the man,” or in this case the character. Another important clue into the characters lives is there wardrobe. In Best in Show the Swans’ are portrayed through their costumes.

When we first see them they are wearing washed out colors and talk about clothing brands such as J. Crew and L.L. Bean. They are sometimes referred to as the “catalog” people.

This couple thinks a lot about the clothes they wear, for example, when getting ready for a party and Hamilton is worried about what top to wear, “Well, it’s breathing now, but it’ll be hot down there. I could go with the lamb’s wool, but then again, you’ll see a lot of khaki down there and this merlot looks good with the gray.”

The wardrobe is an extension of the character. In the end on the film, six months after the competition, we meet the Swans’ again in their psychiatrist’s office wearing bright “happy” colors straight out of an Old Navy commercial. Another example is in the character of Scott Donlan who loves kimonos and insists on packing eight of them for a two day trip.

Bordwell also notes that some costuming become props for the characters. In “Best in Show” it can be argued that the dogs are used in this context. The film is centered on the canines but it is really about the owners. Like the wardrobe, each dog is an extension of the character.

As the viewer we can assume what the person is going to be like by the breed of dog they own. For example, we know that Harlan Pepper likes the outdoors and it makes sense that he would have a hunting dog like the Bloodhound.

Also, Stefan Vanderhoof and Scott Donlan are a flamboyantly gay couple. You immediately picture a small little lapdog, enter the Shit Tzu Terrier. Likewise, the wealthy Ward-Cabots’ own a full size white poodle. These animals are used to establish character personalities, not as dogs.

Proof of this is in the film as you will only hear one bark, one unplanned off-screen bark; it’s in the background and not even acknowledged. Wardrobe and props help the viewer understand the scene along with the setting as mentioned earlier.

Staging is another important element of mise en scène. This entails the movement and the acting of the people on screen. In a mockumentary like this one the staging is very important. Largely because the film has to look like the documentary it is mocking and also because much of the film is improvised. Bordwell comments that, “acting is often approached as a question of realism.”

Especially in “Best in Show” is this important because half of the story is told through one-on-one interviews with the actors looking directly into camera. The viewer should believe that these people could really exist and that each one’s story matches the character and their personality.

You believe that Meg Swan would ransack a hotel room looking for her dog’s “busy bee;” you couldn’t picture Sherri Ann Ward-Cabot doing that. Each actor has to be true to their character.

The mise en scène is imperative to the actors of “Best in Show” because they don’t have a written script. They have to be able to speak like their characters would; their settings, wardrobes; and dogs help them establish who they are and make the world of the movie plausible.

Mise en scène encompasses everything we see on film, the setting, wardrobe, lighting, staging, make-up, props, camera angles, all of it. We have looked at four of these elements: setting, wardrobe, props, and staging.

“Best in Show” uses mise en scène to create characters and parallel their stories in order to follow each one’s path to a dog show. Christopher Guest layers different aspects of mise en scène to make one complete film. He weaves together five separate stories into one narrative.

Viewers get to see one event through five separate points-of-view and grasp a greater understanding of the film. Mise en scène is what makes a movie memorable, but we don’t realize it. We think of the actor, what they said or how they said it, or maybe the sword fight or the explosion. But what would those be without mise en scène?

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