Eisenstein, Griffith and the film class today

In the essay “Dickens, Griffith and the film today”, Eisenstein’s conception of montage can be resumed as follows:
First, the montage is the “expansion of intra-shot conflict” (236). When a filmmaker juxtaposes two montage cells, he is concerned with the intensity of the conflict.
Second, a montage gathers its cells to form a new “organic unity”, a “qualitative fusion”, which is not merely a “contrast between the haves and the have-nots”. (234)
Third, a montage should liberates itself from the “limits of situation” in order to arrive at an “ideological conception.” (239)
It is especially upon the third point that Eisenstein believes that Intolerance signifies a heroic yet failed attempt on the part of Griffith. Incontestably, there is in Intolerance, “a desire to get away from the limits of story towards the region of generalization and metaphorical allegory” (241). The reason of this failure, Eisenstein believes, lies in Griffith’s misunderstanding of an essential principle that “the region of metaphorical and imagist writing appears in the sphere of montage juxtaposition, not of representational montage pieces.” (241) To evaluate Eisenstein’s critique on Griffith, I will first take the example Eisenstein gives, Lilian Gish rocking a cradle, which is probably the most important shot of the film. This shot, which appears in manner of refrain throughout the film, shows that Griffith tries to establish an abstract idea from an “isolated” image (if isolate means non-diegetic). According to Eisenstein, this is impossible because without montage, a catalyzing effect, an isolated image remains a lifelike representation. What Eisenstein means by “lifelike”? It seems to me that Eisenstein’s montage can be regarded, at least at this stage, as an effort to analogize a maximum cinema to language, to make image work like word. In order to do so, he needs to narrativize the image, and reduces it to abstraction, which is a condensation of its possible meanings. What is important is that, Eisenstein’s montage trope, when it works in a way like a sentence does—it is intended to work this way, as Eisenstein purposefully selects a rhetoric term to illustrate its effect—tries to eliminate as much as possible the inherent multiplicity of the image. In this sense an Eisensteinian montage is closer to prose than poetic writing. Eisenstein’s criticism of The Earth is such a case. He argues that instead of showing the peasant woman in a long shot, a human being in all his natural surroundings, we should use a close-up of her body, where the notion of “life” can spring up effortlessly, juxtaposing with that of the “death”. In a similar line of argument, Eisenstein would believe, it seems to me, that Griffith’s image of woman-rocking-the-cradle is wrong because not only it has no conceptual opposition, but also it uses a long shot where a close up is more desirable. But would a close up of the baby, the cradle, or the face of Gish be better off? It will, to a certain extent, reduce the multiplicity of the original image (Maternity? Innocence? Vulnerability?). But it will probably never arrive at a univocal quality that Eisenstein had wanted. In this sense, such an image will remain ineffective to its audience.
While this criticism points to ways in which Eisenstein would have moved in order to make Intolerance work, I do believe there is a little misunderstanding. Griffith, after all, could not have subscribed to Eisenstein’s idea of montage. This is not only a chronological impossibility, but also implies that there are other ways to conceive montage than Eisenstein. In Eisenstein’s mind, montage shapes the images that constitute it. But do these images have to be arranged in a consecutive order? Is there any reason to believe that images won’t affect each other if they are not in an immediate proximity? And besides being transformed by its adjacent element, could an image be transformed by our understanding of the plot, of the character, or anything else in the filmic world? If the image of rocking cradle appears only once, we may say, with full confidence, that it is indeed an isolated image. But when it is repeated as in Intolerance, many times, punctuating the narrative, it is hardly isolated at all. I concede that this image is problematic: it does not do what it should do. But what is problematic is rather the way this image is composed of: in order to weave the parallel narratives together, this image ought to have some sort of associations with them. There should be recognizable echoes in this image, so to speak, for all the stories unfolded. This image, then, will become THE image of the film, and establishes a “region of generalization and metaphorical allegory.” In other words, while Eisenstein argues that this image is too complex, or “lifelike” to be effective, I would say it is too simple, or too “conceptual” to be effective. The situation demands that I produce an example, and here it is. In an early paragraph of the very same article, Eisenstein passionately describes his memory of “Griffith’s inimitable bit-characters who seem to have run straight from life onto the screen.” He writes,
I can’t recall who speaks with whom in one of the street scenes of the modern story of Intolerance. But I shall never forget the mask of the passer-by with nose pointed forward between spectacles and straggly beard, walking with hands behind his back as if he were manacled. As he passes he interrupts the most pathetic moment in the conversation of the suffering boy and girl. I can remember next to nothing of the couple, but this passer-by, who is visible in the shot for only a flashing of glimpse, stands alive before me now—and I haven’t seen the film for twenty years! (Eisenstein 199)
Here “life” does not appear to have a derogative sense. Inadvertently contradicting himself (we know Eisenstein’s preference of typage), this paragraph has a definite Bazinian smell. If we concede that what makes this image so memorable is not montage, let us at least acknowledge that montage is not the only way to make an image memorable. I agree with Eisenstein when he believes that an image has to be simple to read in order to have an immediate impact. But I cannot agree with Eisenstein the cine-agitor who believes that an image has to amount to an ideological highland in order to be effective. In fact, in Eisenstein’s own practice, whenever he tries to convey a simple expression such as “wonder” or “joy” (e.g., the “cream separator sequence” in The General Line ), he is perfectly legible; but whenever it comes to an abstract notion as vague as intolerance (the “god and country” sequence in October ), Eisenstein has not done better than Griffith. 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 disagrees 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 to 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 the cross does not invoke the general notion of God, but instead, calls for various digressive notions such as suffering, redemption, personal guilt, or even sexuality. As for pagan gods, I wonder if for a western viewer these deities are immediately recognizable at all, let alone to calculate a conceptual distance there. The sequence is more likely to be perceived as a showcase of statuettes contained in a diegetic space or in an imaginary museum.
Eisenstein’s essay echoes a prevailing notion that Intolerance is a “magnificent failure”. Yet it would be wrong to assume that the film totally fails in its montage. In fact, some are of the opinion that it is otherwise. Miriam Hansen describes the end of the film as “a visionary epilogue of about twenty shots presenting images of warfare and oppression that dissolve into images of harmony, bliss, and millennial peace.” (Hansen 134) Christian Metz also remarks that “the rapid unfolding of the four images gives one the feeling of an almost physical interpenetration among the four different historical epochs, and the acceleration in the periodicity of the visual breaks slowly exalts this interpenetration to the point of conferring upon it the affective status of a fusion,[…]” (Metz 107-8) From these two descriptions, one can sense that Griffith almost successfully created the effect that Eisenstein had envisioned: isn’t “physical interpenetration” or ‘fusion” an ideal transformation of montage cells? Isn’t “oppression”, “harmony” or “millennial peace” in the “region of generalization and metaphorical allegory”?
Eisenstein made further effort in the latter part of the essay not only in explaining what is a better definition/usage of montage, on which point he constantly improvises and improves himself, but also, why the great Griffith failed to see it. It could be said that Dickens, who inspired Griffith, ultimately restrained Griffith to a Victorian sensibility that is not suitable to our modern age. But maybe provinciality is not the best word to describe this fatal weakness in both Dickens and Griffith. According to Eisenstein’s understanding of historical materialism, Griffith has such a naïve and “dualistic picture of the world, running in two parallel lines of poor and rich towards some hypothetical ‘reconciliation’ where the parallel lines would cross, that is, in that infinity, just as inaccessible as that ‘reconciliation’”. (235) In other words, Griffith’s view of the society, as well as that of Dickens, stays unfortunately in a rather primitive stage before the advent of Marxism, which happens to be a rather scientific knowledge, or proposition, of the social evolution. Dickens and Griffith believe in, perhaps because they want to, a class reconciliation. Griffith’s type of montage, therefore, forever oscillates between a de facto duality and its final, imaginary reconciliation. Similarly, Pudovkin conceives montage as a sort of linkage. Eisenstein, on the other hand, always values conflict more. If Eisenstein’s method of tracing Griffith’s aesthetics back to his ideological stance is a plausible practice, then probably we can do the same to him. Is the montage of conflict a result of Eisenstein’s total subscription to class struggle theory?
Works Cited
Eisenstein, S. (1949). Film Form. New York: Harcourt.
Hansen, M. (1991). Babel and Babylon. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Metz, C. (1974). Language and Cinema. The Hague: Mouton.


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