Cinema Is First And Foremost Montage Film Studies Essay
Explore Eisenstein’s claim with reference to one or more films on the course.
In this essay I will be examining the claims made by 20th century Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein surrounding his theories and methods of montage in cinema. Specific reference will be made to his 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin”. A detailed description of Eisenstein’s theories will be made along with an examination of their merits and an in depth analysis of their efficacy with regard to Battleship Potemkin. Finally an answer will be proposed to Eisenstein’s claim, and a reasoned argument put forward in an attempt to show that it tells only part of the truth, as montage, though essential, comprises but half the necessary skill set of great cinema editing.
Let us begin by gaining an understanding of what Eisenstein means by the sentence “Cinema is first and foremost montage”. This statement is taken from Eisenstein’s 1929 essay “Beyond the Shot”. In it he lays out his theory of montage and explains its five fold structure. According to Eisenstein the four methods of montage are metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal/associational and intellectual.
Metric montage is the technique of editing shots according to a set metre or time signature regardless of what is going on within the frame. This can be a static unchanging metre such as the beats of a heart or the ticking of a clock, or a dynamic metre which accelerates or decelerates according to strict mathematical intervals such as the bouncing of a ball or the sound of a train going over the breaks in a track as it accelerates at a steady pace. The important feature of metric montage which sets it apart from the others is that the logic of the editing is not dictated by the contents of the frame, and each shot will move on to the next shot according to the time signature alone. Eisenstein saw metric montage as the most primitive of the four kinds, suitable for provoking the most primal emotions within the viewer such as anxiety (shots edited together in rapidly gaining pace), or relief (shots lengthening as the danger subsides).
Rhythmic montage on the other hand does take into account the action within the shot. Editing is based on a movement in the frame or a phrase or beat in the soundtrack. This can be used to create montage of dance like harmony such as shots of a running horse cut with the sound of a train, or dissonant tension such as frames containing movements displaying a set tempo edited according to a metre which is at odds with that tempo.
Tonal montage is thematic, rather than time or event based. It involves the use of imagery to elicit certain reactions from the audience. A shot of a wilted flower could be used to invoke feelings of loss or decay while a dead bird might instil feelings of tragedy or sympathy. A dog lying asleep in the sun could be used to change the tone to one of relaxation, just as a close up of a dog bearing it’s teeth could be used to announce a scene with sinister overtones or ominous danger.
Overtonal or associational montage is the combination or synthesis of the three preceding categories. It can best be described as the overall “feeling” of the piece. Eisenstein described it as: "distinguishable from tonal montage by the collective calculation of all the piece's appeals" (Eisenstein, 1948, p.78). Overtonal montage is the essence of a piece, which is not immediately apparent and reveals itself to the viewer as the scene or film plays out. If we can imagine a montage sequence whereby an old woman collects water from a well in conditions of scorching heat, places the water on her back and proceeds to hike slowly up a steep hill to her home we can get a grasp for overtonal montage as the cumulative appreciation of tedium and drudgery of the scene.
Eisenstein’s final category of montage is Intellectual. This is the combination of shots to give rise to an intellectual conclusion within the viewer. This relies the audience making a cognitive leap and coming to a new idea or conclusion based on two or more juxtaposed shots. An example might be a shot of workers streaming into a factory in the morning followed by shots of ants leaving and entering an anthill. The viewer comes to the intellectual conclusion of the workers living like ants, servile and hive minded.
Each successive form of montage can build upon the ones preceding it (rhythmic necessarily involves elements of metric just as intellectual necessarily involves elements of overtonal). In order to gain a better understanding of the structure and meaning of montage let us examine their use in one particular scene: that of the Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin. Metric montage is employed as the editing tempo is increased during the massacre to heighten the audience’s sense of excitement and anxiety. Rhythmic montage is used as the shots of the soldiers marching down the steps are out of time with the editing rhythm, creating a sense of frenetic tension. The marching soldiers are juxtaposed with the fleeing crowd, chaotic and in disarray, and the image of the falling pram, which mirrors the soldiers march in its pace and direction. Tonal montage is displayed in the shots of the soldiers marching over the body of the murdered boy. Their polished boots march thoughtlessly across his fragile hands, conspiring to create an image of monstrous barbarism. Overtonal montage is the cumulative effect of the entire scene, which works together to leave the audience with a feelings of outrage, empathy and indignant anger at the callous and needless slaughter which the people have been subjected to. Finally, Intellectual montage is clearly displayed at the end of the sequence where the guns of the Potemkin are levelled and fired at the Tsarist Headquarters in Odessa. Close ups of three stone lions are shown one after the other: a lion sleeping, a lion waking, and a lion standing, creating a metaphor for the awakening of revolution within the people.
Central to Eisenstein’s theory are the Hegelian notions of thesis and antithesis. According to this philosophical view, it is the synthesis of two conflicting modes of thought which give rise to new knowledge, conclusions and insights. This dialectical approach is reflected in the Marxist view of history, whereby the working class (thesis), and the bourgeoisie (antithesis), give rise through their conflict to the synthesis of both and the necessary realisation of communist society. The notion of dialectics is central to Eisenstein’s theory of montage, where one image (thesis), is placed beside another (antithesis), and their conflict gives rise to a new meaning in the viewer. It was this power of montage to create new meanings within the mind of the audience which made it such an exciting artistic and political tool for Eisenstein. It is conflict that is the necessary nature of the dialectical approach, and conflict that so well serves montage as a cinematic device. Here we find one of the greatest shortcomings of montage as a cinematic technique, just how useful is it as a means of expressing feelings of introspection, harmony, contemplation and beauty. Eisenstein frequently expressed his desire to shock the audience into thinking or feeling a certain way through the careful conspiracy of montage sequences. It could be argued that this amounts to a kind of tyranny, the employment of effective propagandist techniques in an artistic sphere, where the merit of the film rest entirely on the directors successful manipulation of thought and emotion through provocative and appropriately arranged montage. Control then, is Eisenstein’s modus operandi and it may come as little surprise to find that this is entirely in line with the Hegelian view of the role of the artist. Eisenstein made this explicit in his book ‘Film Form’:
“The idea satiation of the author, his subjection to prejudice by the idea, must determine actually the whole course of the art-work, and if the art-work does not represent an embodiment of the original idea, we shall never have as result an art-work realized to its utmost fullness”. (Eisenstein, 1949)
To say then that “cinema is first and foremost montage” is to say that it is a highly wrought, authorial art form which allows little for ambiguity, subtlety or personal interpretation. The dialectical nature of montage depends on the success of certain visual signs to communicate logical syllogisms to the audience. This necessarily excludes any chance of ambiguity as the meaning is the result of the conflict between two or more concrete premises. The higher the form of the montage the more that this becomes so- overtonal montage, as the synthesis of metric, rhythmic and tonal, depends on the success of its constituent parts to provoke the desired reaction for it to deliver its meaning, a much larger network of associations than any of its constituent parts.
What Eisenstein’s assertion amounts to then, is a definition of Cinema whereby all artistic merit is a deliberate consequence of the authors hand (be that the director or editor or both). It is a transparent, objective, and unambiguous method of film making. The problem is that not all cinema is of this kind, and thusly not all cinema can be first and foremost montage. No account is given for realist techniques admired by theorists such as Andre Bazin: long and revealing shots, mis en scene and in- depth focus. Eisenstein’s theory of montage is not erroneous, it is an accurate description of the manner in which meaning is derived from the conflict of adjacent images; the problem is that it is an incomplete view of cinema. The theory of montage forms a manual of one specific type of film making, while even one of Eisenstein’s own films may contain elements of other, less formalist approaches. For example the sequence in Battleship Potempkin where the citizens of Odessa sail out in small boats to give food to the sailors onboard. This sequence is comprised of reasonably long takes of sail boats leisurely making their way across the harbour in the sunshine. The camera remains static as they sail past, each shot leading incongruously to the next until they reach their destination. Though this sequence is a vital part of the films narrative and beautiful in its own right, it is interesting to think in what way it satisfies Eisenstein’s own requirements for conflict or montage. At a nearly three minutes in length the scene is hardly insignificant yet there is little element of montage displayed whatsoever. The shots largely follow one after the other in a logical manner to construct the narrative of the boats reaching the Potemkin; the only montage apparent is the alternating shots of the people of Odessa waving from the steps, and this hardly lends any sense of tension in the audience. It is a straightforward piece of traditional continuity editing. The question this raises is that if Eisenstein acknowledges the occasional necessity of this form of editing through its use in his films, why is no account given as to its merits nor any theory of methodology put forward. This is the essence of the argument against the claim that cinema is first and foremost montage, it only accounts for one aspect of film, the other aspect of film which concerns what is in the shot and how it relates to the other elements in the frame is omitted, when it is these individual frames that comprise the very building blocks of montage.
In conclusion we see that while Eisenstein’s definition of cinema as montage accurately describes the dynamic of juxtaposed shots, it goes no way towards accounting for what is contained within them. Therefore while the merits of Eisenstein’s theories on montage are without question, it is wholly inadequate as an all encompassing theory of cinema. Conflict, and it’s relations, drama and tension are first and foremost montage, cinema however, is not.
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