"Let us retrace, more slowly and gradually this time, the step that Patrice Blouin made in his Shirin pan from classical mise en scène to the modern dispositif. It is not a matter of declaring, in this progression, that mise en scène is dead, whether as a mode of filmmaking or of film criticism. Perfectly fine classical films are still made today (whether by Clint Eastwood or Lone Scherfig), and mise en scène criticism, as we have known and loved it, is far from exhausting the field, historical or contemporary, of its research (see Gibbs 2006, McElhaney 2009, Perkins 2009). Rather, the question is: has there been a certain tendency in cinema (and audiovisual production more generally), not necessarily only an invention of recent times, that has been marginalised or literally undetected by the protocols of mise en scène critique, with its inevitable, in-built biases and exclusions? A tendency which is not the opposite of mise en scène or its negation, but a particular, pointed mutation of it? (Indeed, many auteur signatures—those of Bresson, Ozu, Angelopoulos, to take only a few classic art cinema examples—resemble the structure of a dispositif, even though auteurism, with its Romanticist attachment to a creed of unfettered creativity, has long fought shy of apprehending this intuition.)
"Or—the most radical notion—does the notion of the dispositif name or point to something that is and has always been inherent in mise en scène—maybe even larger or greater than it, as an overall formal category? This is what Raymond Bellour suggested in 1997 when he proposed that la-mise-en-scène (as, with a literary flourish, he dubs it) is a classical approach that corresponds “to both an age and a vision of cinema, a certain kind of belief in the story and the shot”, but is ultimately only one of the available “modes of organising images” in cinema (Bellour 2003: 29). And if the dispositif idea should rivet our attention to anything, it is the modes of organising filmic materials: Christa Blümlinger, for instance, defines a dispositif as the “spatial or symbolic disposition of gazes characterising a medium” (Blumlinger 2010), where gaze refers to all manner of looks, orientations and perspectives (fictive, technological, spectatorial)—and this is a matter not only of our eyes but also our ears. Naturally, within an art gallery—where directors including Akerman and Pedro Costa have literally disassembled some of their feature films and spatialised them across several screens in an architectural arrangement—the idea of dispositif as installation (and this can serve as yet another possible English translation of the term) is obvious enough. But can we also project the concept, and everything it raises, back into the single-screen medium of cinema, illuminating this medium in a new way?
"A key thrust of the machinic or systematic side of the dispositif concept is to remind us—a 1970s notion too quickly forgotten or repressed since then—that a dispositif is heterogeneous, that it is truly a matter of bits and pieces of very different substances brought into an often volatile working relation. For the great German critic Frieda Grafe (who died in 2002), all cinema—no matter how seemingly neutral or classical—came down to something resembling this: “Only the calculated mingling of formative elements originating in various media, each with its own relative autonomy, generates the tension that gives the film life” (Grafe 1996: 56). And she was, on this occasion, speaking not of any conceptual art installation but Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)!"