Pretty Pictures: Production Design and the History Film – capsule

C. S. Tashiro’s Pretty Pictures: Production Design and the History Film isn’t really about production design – at least not like some of the other texts I’ve reviewed here. While the term “production design” clearly features in the title, and the monograph features rich formal analysis of the design of several historical films (see below), the book seems to be more about mise-en-scène analysis than about the practice of designing films. Its visual analysis attends to cinematography – including framing, lighting, and issues of perspective – costume design, and performance in addition to production design.

However, this isn’t to say that the text isn’t rich with a visual analysis that students of production design will benefit from. Tashiro’s writing is at its best when it draws inferences from his subject’s mise-en-scène about viewer expectation and satisfaction. He’s particularly strong in differentiating between design in European and Hollywood production, even if some of the conclusions he draws somewhat predictably valorize European art film design sensibilities.

Tashiro’s approach is Marxist (or perhaps neo-Marxist, as there are moments when he attempts to shirk off more traditional Marxist approaches), and having been published in 1998, the book draws some of that decade’s ideologically laden battle lines. I don’t find this problematic; his arguments are forcefully deployed and while they do make some assumptions about the correctness of his approach, the remain well-grounded in formal and stylistic analysis throughout. Although there’s a bit of an irony here as well, in that his analysis is auteurist throughout, with hardly a mention of any actual production designers or cinematographers, which replicates one of the more romantically bourgeois aspects of 20th-century film studies. 

For me, his discussion and deployment throughout of “closed frame” and “open frame” design approaches and how they interplay with viewer expectations is one of the book’s most effective threads.

There is a lot more to the text, including, at its conclusion a manifesto-like call for a new, more authentic and less industrialized approach to film design (one that may have manifest itself in movements and quasi-movements like Dogme 95 or even mumblecore, but certainly hasn’t come to fruition in Hollywood or other national cinemas). While it might not have as much to say about the practical nature of production design or what production designers do, it does offer an intriguing and thought-provoking example of mise-en-scène analysis in practice.

(Films discussed: Barry Lyndon; Batman; Doctor Zhivago; McCabe and Mrs. Miller; Nicholas and Alexandra; The Leopard; Stavisky; Henry V (Olivier); The Rise to Power of Louis XIV; Edvard Munch.)

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