As you read in your texbook and in my blog entries on Giant, one of the functions of mise-en-scene, and acting, is the placement of the actor as a figure within the frame, to create a meaningful composition. This involves blocking (defined in your textbook), and basically using the actor as a prop.
The placement of the actor in the shot can mean many things. Often times, when the shot involves the placement of more than one actor, the figures in the frame can suggest power arrangements.
I’m going to look at a scene that does this in Giant. This scene occurs near the 1/3 mark, on the day of the older Luz’s funeral, and it involves Jordan “Bick” Benedict and his business associates trying to buy some land from Jett Rink, which had been bequeathed to Jett by Luz, in her will. At this point, Bick is a powerful and rich cattle baron, while Jett is a impoverished field hand at Bick’s ranch, Reata.
Bick and associates characterize the proposed purchase of Jett’s “worthless” land as an act of charity on their part. If you’ve seen the film, I don’t need to tell you that the land is not worthless, which Jett suspects, and thus refuses to sell. This refusal plays on on screen, in the frame, via the placement of actors.
The scene begins with Bick and his business associates in the room where Bick does business (it’s also the room where Luz recently died) (Fig. 1). Judge Whiteside stands in the room, looking out at Bick through the window. The window frame isolates Jett, and makes this dangerous figure a passive object of observation and surveillance. It also places Jett outside the center of power.
In this shot, we see Bick outside the room talking with Jett (Fig. 2). Jett, who thinks he’s going to be fired but intends to quit first, is in the background. Bick dominates the foreground, and the shot.
In Figure 3, we see a shot of Bick and his business associates in the room. Jett is outside the shot, which signifies his insignificance at this juncture.
Here Jett finally enters the shot inside the room (Figure 4). He is at the far right, in the margins. He is still a marginal person, particularly in the eyes of Bick and Co.
Now Jett sits in the chair at the far right, where he spends most of the scene. We see him there in Figure 5, with bowed head, showing his inferiority vis-a-vis the other people in the shot. Note that Bick is in the foreground, dominating the shot.
In this shot, Bick has returned to the desk. He fidgets and does a number of things in the shot to show how he is half-hearted about doing business with Jett, while at the same time he tries to intimidate Jett by playing around with symbols of his power. Here we see Bick taking out the strongbox, from which he will take money to pay off Jett (Fig. 6). Note that Jett is penned in by the judge and by Bick. The figures will remain in this arrangement for quite a bit during the scene.
Now we see Bick play around with the deed to the property, while Jett decides whether he will sell his tiny plot of land to a man who already owns five hundred thousand acres (Fig. 7). Again, it’s an intimidation move. Bick has the deed and Jett doesn’t.
Now it is Jett who plays with Bick and his associates, rather than the other way around (Fig. 8). Jett has not immediately jumped at Bick’s “generous” offer. Jett plays around with the money on the desk next to him but doesn’t pick it up. Now he is the one in control. He never does pick up the money.
The power dynamic changes as we watch. Jett stands up, leaving his marginal position at the right, and takes center stage (Fig. 9). He is now the central figure in the shot.
Here Jett not only commands the center of the shot; he commands the foreground (Fig. 10). He has taken the position of Bick in Figure 5. In both cases, the head of the actor is cut off. The figure becomes monumental, even abstract, which projects power. The fact that Jett stands there, darkly dominating the center and foreground of the shot, with his back to the audience, suggests that he has power over the film viewer. We can’t see his face and his figure blocks much of the shot.
In this shot, we see Jett from the front, standing by the closed door (Fig. 11). He still dominates the center of the shot. And while earlier we saw Bick fidgets around with symbols of his power (the strongbox, the money, the deed), now it is Jett fidgeting with props – in this case with his lasso, which he brought into the room with him. Here at the end of the scene, the lasso means something quite different than the barely-noticed lasso at the beginning of the scene. Before it was a sign of Jett’s trade as cowboy and field-hand, and a symbol of Jett’s inferiority when compared to Bick. Now it’s a symbol of the life Jett is leaving behind; he plays with it ironically and it is meant to be seen that way by the film viewer. Jett is now a person with land, in a tiny way a member of the local gentry. This might seem a pitiful conceit at this point, but when he strikes oil he becomes gentry for real, as he is now the owner of many thousands of acres himself.
Here we see Jett turn his back on Bick and his associates, asserting his power over them (Fig. 12).
Jett opens the door and makes a few more snide remarks (Fig. 13). He has rejected Bick’s offer, has decided to “gamble on” the tiny plot of land he’s been bequeathed.
Finally, Jett goes through the door (the first thing he hears when coming out is someone saying, basically, “the only thing as important as money is land”). The shot of the closed door is conspicuous for the absence of the human figure, in this case Jett (Fig. 14). No longer there, he still dominates the shot. Once he strikes oil, Jett is conspicuous in his absence throughout the rest of the film. He is often the center of conversation among Bick and his associates and Bick’s family in the second half of the film, even though he is not shown in the shot. Even when invisible, he is still powerful – perhaps more so.
You could look at other, similar figure placement in the second half of the film which represent Jett’s power, vis-a-vis other people and, especially, Bick.
You could also see similar scenes with other characters, illustrating other power arrangements. For instance, there is the scene where Leslie Benedict attempts to insinuate herself into the conversation between Bick and his associates, is rejected, and makes her “cave men” speech. But in this case, the power dynamics are based on gender, not on who owns land and who doesn’t.