Lasting images

Print edition : December 21, 2007

Stills from "Battleship Potemkin". -

The unique brand of montage that Sergei Eisenstein developed was an eclectic and organic tool to design a new cinematic ethos and aesthetic.

IN much the same manner as Che Guevara, uprooted from the cause of his struggle and the context of his death, has been suborned by market capitalism to become a fetishised commodity and an iconised brand as an aspirational romantic rebel hero of our times, montage a product of the first flush of the October Revolution has, over the decades, been appropriated and vulgarised by commercial advertisement and publicity films and videos to serve precisely the opposite artistic and ideological purpose. In the space between what montage promised and what it has been reduced to lies the story of the loss of a seminal concept of cinema.

The loss is felt even more acutely today because had montage matured into its fullness and taken hold of cinematic imagination and method, the excesses of the present star system, where the star holds singular sway over the plot, the economics and the box-office fate of the film, and where an obsequious viewership lays its sensibilities supine before these screen demigods, may not have come to be. Montage, then, was not all about cutting and a quick succession of shots as applied in breathless advertisement shorts or MTV imagery today.

It had the power to subvert the stardom of individuated heroics and position in its stead, or against it, a collective heroism that was more empowering and transformative. It had the potential to counter the prescriptive story line with a constructive non-linear narrative of dialectic progression that was as emotively compelling as it was intellectually stimulating. It had the striving to make cinema the synthesis of all arts. It was Hollywood, or Bollywood, stood on its head.

Although most discussions on montage tend to begin and end with Sergei Eisenstein and his Battleship Potemkin, the film-maker and the film really exemplify a movement that was rather short-lived but intense in the exultant decade of the 1920s following the Revolution. Cinema emerged as the vehicle of a new artistic consciousness so that even by 1922, Vladimir Lenin was telling Anatoly Lunacharsky, that of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important. Already the typical psychological dramas of pre-revolutionary Russian cinema were being jettisoned and a new aesthetic was being conceived and put together by a process of collective authorship. It was a phase of rejection of the old and experimentation with the new.

True, the shortage economy of the war also provided a fillip to montage. Raw film stock was scarce and dear and some film-makers busied themselves with innovatively re-editing old footage of pre-revolutionary cinema to make new sense of it. The scale of this operation was such that a separate Re-Editing Department of the Moscow Film Committee came into being. Indeed, it was in an address to this department in February 1919 that Vladimir Gardin heralded the concept of montage as the quintessence of new cinema. But the first clear demonstration of montage, based on Gardins ideas, came with the Kuleshov Effect.

Lev Kuleshov juxtaposed the same static close-up of Ivan Mozzukhin, a star of Tsarist cinema, with stock shots of a plate of soup, an old woman in a coffin, and a child playing, respectively, and found the net result, in terms of construed meaning and emotive response, different in each version.

In another experiment, The Earths Surface Created, Kuleshov showed how splicing together disparate shots can achieve bold geographical shifts characters walking up the Gogol Boulevard in Moscow in one shot appeared on the steps of the Capitol in Washington in the next. Shots, for Kuleshov, were building blocks which could be arranged any way to convey or evoke different messages or effects each time. The viewer provided the connection and inferred a narrative. This was montage in its infancy a product of pure editing. The camera hardly figured a priori in any of this.

But the idea grew beyond the cutting room and evolved in many directions. Different schools of film-making were soon contending with one another and montage was deployed by them to serve quite different, often contradictory, ends. There was a broad stand-off between Eisenstein, to whom montage was all about conflict and progression (or progression through conflict), and Vsevolod Pudovkin, who saw it as a means of linkage and transition.

The montage-ists generally rejected the Stanislavsky school of method acting; and the Pudovkin group, which included Kuleshov and Vladimir Fogel among others, came up with a counter model which entailed a clinical study of reflexes and automated acting. Both actor and story line were suspect before the camera eye, or Kino-eye as he called it, of Dziga Vertov, whose The Man with a Movie Camera was the precursor of the camera verite style of the French New Wave of the 1960s.

It was in this ferment of avant gardism that Eisenstein developed his own unique brand of montage as an eclectic and organic tool to design a new cinematic ethos and aesthetic. He drew from a variety of forms such as Japanese and Chinese poetry and ideograms, Kabuki theatre, and Joycean stream of consciousness, and integrated them into a polyphonic effect that was at once intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging. The part subsumed the whole, the instant moment contained the chronological scale. Shots were for association, not representation.

Eisensteins insight into Japanese and Chinese culture enabled him to set his template of the montage on the model of the ideogram and haiku poetry. The associative principles were somewhat self-evident, as in:

Child + mouth = cry Bird + mouth = sing Dog + mouth = bark Or, evoked through pithy haiku abstraction: A lonely crow On leafless bough One autumn eve.

Or, in ideogrammic terms: A lonely crow + leafless bough = autumn

Montage, for Eisenstein, had a lot to do with biomechanics, but this did not by any means suggest a reificatory approach. As he himself notes, the distinctive twin traits of his Battleship Potemkin are the organic unity of its composition and its pathos pathos described as being enabled to partake of a moment of historic culmination or, in this context, feeling oneself part of the collective waging of a fight for a bright future. And pathos, he says, cannot but fill us to the highest point with emotional sensation.

The organic unity he held dear was, again, an evolved concept, drawn from Engels definition of the organism as a higher unity. It was not the mere sum of its parts, but the product of its constituents. He cites Lenin to point out that the particular does not exist outside that relationship which leads to the general. The general exists only in the particular, through the particular. He was fascinated by what he called the disintegrated acting of Japanese Kabuki theatre. It opened up the possibility of dispersal of action and of atomised time and space. He was acutely aware of the time element, not only in terms of rhythmic or metric cutting, but in the creation and rendition of shots. Working up a frenetic multi-track pace with rapid cutting, he could, it would seem, select and stare an aspect of the action into slowness. My attention, he realised early on in life, was fixed permanently on the second hand. Pudovkin called Eisensteins montage a close-up of time.

The dialectical conflict that drove Eisensteins material on screen was structured as a series of collisions posed by camera angle and shot size, lighting, editing, contrapuntal sound track and music. Montage, for him, was about all of this; he likened it to the explosions in an internal combustion engine that propelled the vehicle forward. The disparate elements he dispersed across his scenario were, however, energised and calibrated to serve the meaning he sought to invest them with. They succumbed and subscribed to his unified vision. His text, in this sense, was not open-ended, polyvalent or polysemic, but determined and closed as by a consummate auteur.

The first two of his revolution trilogy, Strike (1924) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), bear the stamp of his full authorship. By the third, October, made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Revolution, he had begun to run into bureaucratic impatience and interference and to compromise his style. He had to remove almost a third of the film to cleanse it of Trotsky and, paradoxically, of a speech by Lenin because Stalin, who ordered the cut, felt that Lenins liberalism is no longer valid today.

By the end of the 1920s, formalism itself was under attack with the 1928 All Union Party Conference on cinema calling, instead, for a form which the millions can understand. That was the beginning of the end of the search for an alternative cinematic idiom, which the Revolution itself had unleashed. Montage was just about coming into its own as a viable instrument of a new revolutionary screen consciousness when it became a casualty to political expediency and ideological compulsions of the moment.

But by then what Charlie Chaplin called the greatest film ever made had been made. Battleship Potemkin was sheer sleight of montage. Unlike Strike in which, by Eisensteins own admission, some gimmicks of collage intruded on his montage, Battleship Potemkin was the fulsome realisation of the device and its best expression in Eisensteins uneven oeuvre.

Evoking and celebrating the failed revolution of 1905, the film is cast not so much as a retelling as an investigation of events in keeping with Marxs definition of the course of genuine investigation, where not only the result but the road to it is also a part of truth. The investigation of truth must itself be true, true investigation is unfolded truth, the disjuncted members of which unite in the result. It takes a non-linear, multi-track, simultaneous and multi-layered approach to investigate these disjuncted members and bring them together.

The various elements and dimensions of montage come to a head in Battleship Potemkins Odessa steps sequence, which has become part of film folklore. The perambulator of that scene has morphed into various versions in various genres and languages of cinema across the world. To get a feel of what elements of montage heighten emotion, and how, we can do no better than listen in as Eisenstein describes the steps sequence himself:

Sergei Eisenstein, auteur of the iconic film `Battleship Potemkin'.-

First, there are close-ups of human figures rushing chaotically. Then long shots of the same scene. The chaotic movement is next superseded by shots showing the feet of soldiers as they march rhythmically down the steps.Tempo increases. Rhythm accelerates. And then, as the downward movement reaches its culmination, the movement is suddenly reversed: instead of the headlong rush of the crowd down the steps we see a solitary figure of a mother carrying her dead son, slowly and solemnly going up the stairs.

The shot of the rushing crowd is suddenly followed by one showing a perambulator hurtling down the steps. This is more than just different tempos. This is a leap in the method of representation from the abstract to the physical.

Close-ups... give way to long shots. The chaotic rush (of the mass) is succeeded by the rhythmic march of soldiers. One aspect of movement (people running, falling, stumbling down the steps) gives way to another (rolling perambulator). Descent gives place to ascent. Many volleys of many rifles give place to one shot from one of the battleships guns. At each step there is a leap from one dimension to another, from one quality to another, until, finally, the change affects not one individual episode (the perambulator) but the whole of the method: the risen lions mark the point where the narrative turns into a presentation through images.

For the 1920s, montage was perhaps ahead of its time. Eisensteins prescience strikes us from the vantage point of the present, when we are at the cusp of a changeover from analogue modes of perception and representation to the dispersed sensibility of the digital technology. The modern television screen typifies this shift as a site where montage and collage conflate all at once. The viewer is expected to, and does, multi-task, taking in several elements and actions simultaneously the talking heads, the intervening visuals, the text scrolls, the flash news, the sensex bar in a corner, the advertisement pop-ups and so on.

Unilinear attentiveness and experience of the media are being replaced by a non-linear grasp of the clutter. True, the average mainstream star-strapped cinema, with its iconising impulse, yet uses this digital possibility very superficially. But already with digital surround sound in cinema theatres, the sound track is an experience of severalness. What montage might do to deconstruct the conventional rectangular screen we are riveted to and similarly unbundle and disperse our viewing experience is a fascinating thought.

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