Notes On Eisensteinian Montage

It is possible to dismiss Eisenstein as an autodidact, to slight him for his lack of serious academic training—or rather training in the wrong subject—but few are now willing to take the risk. It is quite clear that, despite his own lack of rigor and the difficult circumstances in which he worked, Eisenstein was the first, and probably still the most important, major theorist of the cinema. The main task now is to reassess his voluminous writings, to insert them into a critical frame of reference and to sift the central problematic and conceptual apparatus from the alarms and diversions.

Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (9)

The whole analogy of cinema to linguistic resides on the very fact that film uses montage.

Is montage an essential aspect of cinema? People tend to believe so before they see works that demonstrate otherwise (e.g., Russian Ark). But if montage is not absolutely presented in every instance of filmmaking, does it make it automatically disqualify for an “inherently filmic” technique? Likewise, if we safely observe that most films are shot through a camera, through optical mechanism that captures the real world, does it mean that what McLaren, Brakhage are producing is not cinema? Or if they are, what about Disney cartoons?

If we give up the somehow “natural” tendency to fit cinema into rigid categories, one or another, and if we admit that montage is present in most films where semiotics can be helpful towards a textual analysis, what are the benefits and pitfalls that we can predict in this application?

Montage became what it is understood today mainly through the early pioneers effort both in theory and practice. But if in Méliès, cuts are already used, it is generally understood that they do not create meaning out of the simple displacement of action. Montage came to create meaning only through significant associations. In the Kuleshov experiment, when the shot of Mozhukhin looking is connected with the shot of a naked woman, we effortlessly interpret a mere juxtaposition as “the man desires the woman” And despite strong evidence of improbability, we feel the same impulse watching a shot of officer peeping through a periscope immediately followed by another shot of a coquettish woman in Bruce Conner’s A Movie. Would an uninitiated child readily make such an inference? Man projects his own image onto the screen, and this is probably the only way he can understand what is being projected there. An adult understand the signification of such a sequence since it recalls for him the same experience. In other words, the Kuleshov effect is based on concrete facts of human behavior. The image provokes a certain idea already formed and the emotion connected to it. What we observe in the first place from such a looking/being looked at juxtaposition is naturally the idea of looking. Consequently the objects of looking then lead to different emotional responses: woman/sexual desire, food/hunger, corpse/fear, etc.

If montage is indeed a powerful tool to evoke associations already present in human mind, why in many cases they are perceived as ineffective and why Eisenstein is criticized as making excessive generalizations? The accusation is based on the premise that montage’s primary responsibility in a film is to construct a narrative flow in a rhythm that is proper to its content.

Pudovkin observes montage as a linkage of pieces whereas Eisenstein confronts him with the notion of conflict. What linkage? And what conflict? Talking about linkage, Pudovkin probably refers to the linkage of narrative, in other words, the continuum of space, time and causality. Eisenstein, on the other hand, talks about the conflict of abstract notions and kinetic impression.

But these are not two incompatible modes. The semantic connection established by two consecutive shots are multifaceted. The more unambiguous cases (such as the looking/being looked at one discussed above) are only one end of the spectrum. There are plenty shots in any film, even those of Eisenstein, do not necessarily generate any signification, but rather, as we have already claimed, serve as a way of constructing the narrative and its required pace. Moreover, the association is normally more perceivable only if the shot is rather singular in its meaning. Close-up, obviously, is the best candidate for this purpose. In fact, it is customary in Eisenstein to sacrifice the integrity of the action in a scene into many close-ups, in order to stress a certain emotional response that he intend to evoke from the audience. In the “cream separator sequence” in The General Line for instance, the specific parts of the apparatus in action, as well as the faces of the peasants, are magnified, in order to convey a sense of “wonder” and “joy”. Same can be said for Vertov, in his The Man with a Moving Camera, where children are supposed to be amused by street artists, although we never see them both in the same frame.

Why this is problematic? Because the validity of such a looking/being looked at connection arises from the very fact that both the subject and object of the action must exist in the same time and space. And if it is proved otherwise, our experience is betrayed, the signification itself becomes suspicious.

Now the “God and Country” sequence in October. According to Eisenstein, the sequence is meant to discredit the idea of God and to demonstrate the futility of the concept. How does he do it? By showing successively a Baroque Christ, ancient Greek Gods, Hindu, Mexican, African etc. he argued,

While idea and image appear to accord completely in the first statue shown, the two elements move further from each other with each successive image. Maintaining the denotation of ‘God’, the image increasingly disagree with our concept of God, inevitably leading to individual conclusions about the true nature of all deities.

The discrepancy between his intention and the actual effect (it is fair the say that few would be able to decipher this message upon first viewing) lies on the fact that in spite of Eisenstein’s belief that an image of God (no matter which) is singular in its meaning, and thus can be manipulated as such, it is in fact highly ambiguous. As a matter of fact, an image of Christ on cross does not invoke the general notion of God, but instead, abstract feelings like suffering, redemptions, and more substantially, personal guilt, or even sexual desire, etc. As for the pagan gods, if indeed the sequence addresses to a western mind, they are not immediately recognizable at all. The sequence is more likely to be perceived as show a collection of statuettes that is contained in a same space (the immediate perception) or, at its best, an imaginary museum.

What we propose to draw from this instance is that, if a verbal list of Gods does indeed accentuate their common denominator—the concept of God—a display of statues brings in first their attribute of being concrete objects in space. Shots are not equivalent to words in that we recognize them first not as concept, but as object. If somehow these objects acquire a symbolic dimension, it is only because they are based on common and concrete experience.

Another famous example is from Strike, where the suppression of rebellious workers is juxtaposed with the butchering of a bull. It is not so much because the narrative logic is distorted and an alien event is inserted arbitrarily into the scene that the symbolic expression becomes ineffective. On the contrary, what we perceive in this scene is that the arbitrariness is not enough to justify a symbolic expression. Hora de los hornos by Getino and Solanas provides a counterexample where a similar juxtaposition involving abattoir is effective exactly because it is completely arbitrary. In this instance, a cinéma-vérité style depiction of the grimy slaughterhouse where the bulls are brutally hammered down are put side-by-side with a bursting slideshow of glossy fashion magazine photos. The concrete act of hammering of bulls is associated with a more metaphorically visual “hammering” of the capitalist consumerism towards proletarian reality.

Yet another similar example is also from October, where Eisenstein intercuts Prime Minister Kerensky with shots of a mechanical peacock. In regard to this association, Bordwell argues:

Eisenstein pictorializes a figure of speech: Kerensky is as vain as a peacock. But the sequence triggers other implications as well. The peacock is mechanical, and it enables Eisenstein to reiterate the artificial pose and gesture of the man. Like motifs elsewhere in the film, the peacock’s sparkling highlights and suggestion of precious metals associate Kerensky with a static opulence due to be overturned by revolutionary energy. The whirling of the bird and the spreading of its tail coincide with Kerensky’s standing at the door that will not open, suggesting that the mechanical toy works better than the government. Moreover, the bird’s spinning is edited so that it seems to control the door’s swinging open; a toy becomes the mainspring of the palace. The peacock’s mechanical dance also suggests an empty ritual, like Kerensky’s grand march up the stairs and the flunkies’s insincere greetings. (45)

Applying the same logic, one can argue that the thaw sequence in the end of Pudovkin’s Mother is also goes “beyond one-for-one comparisons and acquires the penumbra of connotation that distinguishes a rich poetic metaphor.” We could argue that Pudovkin believes that ice (the mass) is in itself a passive substance whose form is always dictated by external climate, that thawing (revolution) is merely a stage in the perennial cycle of transformations, just as freezing up is.

Such anti-revolutionary implications are obviously against Pudovkin’s intentions. This case illustrates how over-interpretations are whimsical and unsubstantiated.

This method—likening bad guys to animals—is already used in Strike where the factory director is intercut with a crow and a cat, and police spies are identified as bulldog, fox, owl or monkey. While these analogies are clearly understood as derogatory, the same likening of workers as bulls waiting to be slaughtered is nevertheless “heroic”.


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