One of the most significant works on the history of philosophy is Aristotle’s Metaphysica, wherein he states that “… the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts …”; in other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. At least, that is how we have often come to understand the phrase, and that is how the phrase has become perpetuated in our society—an explanation of emergence and synergy. In reality, the synergistic product is not one necessarily better, but rather completely different: “something besides the parts.” To document an elk hunt from a single camera or from multiple cameras is, in essence, provision of an elk hunt. But properly splicing the images from the various images in a calculated and proper way will provide a different an often better film product. That is the essence of montage: a synergistic phenomenon of cinema resulting in the splicing and alternating of filmed image that produces not only a plot element, but a contributory “language of film” that brings emotion and pace to the film as a whole. In its most simple definition, montage is editing. The point of this chapter is to explain the origins and manifestations of montage in popular film and help the casual film-goer obtain greater analytic appreciation for good cinema. This will be accomplished by explaining the history of montage and its use simultaneously with the study of various directors who have influenced it.
The Instigators: Méliès, Griffith, and Lang
Early use of the camera was purely documentary: Eadweard Muybridge’s horse, or Roundhay Garden Scene from le Prince, are solid examples of this. As the artistic potential of the medium began to be realized, particularly in France, constructionist tendencies developed to provide ideal scenes, in other words, people started to create film to reproduce a specific instance or make a certain, artistic image come to life. This tendency, as highlighted by Seigfried Kracauer in his book Film Theory, was primarily “realistic.” The foremost example of this realism remains, to this day, the Lumière brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (though many others were also made, even several that preceded this one). These movies were what the French called actualités, or “actuality films,” the primitive documentary. In these films, careful attention was given to camera placement and techniques that would enhance the viewing experience—including early attempts at 3D. But, film as an art form needed a formative approach—as opposed to a realistic one—to really get it going.
Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, or “Georges,” was the ultimate pioneer of the formative approach to film, and unbeknownst to him, the first instigator of montage theory (insofar as I am concerned). In his films, the most significant being Voyage dan la Lune, or A Trip to the Moon, Méliès created his own images, based off his own mental pre-constructions and artistic ambitions. What inevitably came from this fascination with image and plot was the need to form—hence “formative”—his own setting, and allow that setting to evolve with the story. Taking the set change aspect of theater, Méliès and his team created superb set pieces. Some of those are included below:
Méliès could accomplish this change of scene over the course of the 10-minute short film the way they do in theater: just keep the camera (like the audience in a theater) rolling while the curtains close and a new set is put up. But we know that a better option was available: merely stop the film, set up all the new backdrops and stage placements and start the film up again. And if a scene didn’t work well, then re-film it and put it all together again anew. While Méliès certainly had his contemporaries, no one demonstrated the complete attention to detail that he had, and in so doing, no one contributed to film with the formative movement like he did. In making A Trip to the Moon, Méliès contributed to the understanding that film reels could be spliced together to provide continuity of plot with discontinuity on the screen. Furthermore, Méliès discovered the primitive “jump cut” which he used to create “magic tricks” on film (he was a magician by trade). A jump cut is a splicing of an identical scene from two cameras—used most often in conversation in today’s films. Méliès’ discovery of the jump cut can be seen below, in a scene from his The Temptation of St. Anthony from 1898:
Here, you can see the priest bow before the Crucifix in prayer, then before him appears, out of nowhere, a maiden, then, another. The means for creating this phenomenon is simple enough to fathom now, but consider it in the time of the Lumières; this was taking a medium to all new levels. And, from the editing of scene change and the instigation of the jump cut, Méliès provided the foundation for montage theory.
Perhaps the ultimate instigator of montage in film was D. W. Griffith, who utilized this new editing technique to tell complex, multi-layered stories in simplicity. The influence of theater and literature is clear in this development; consider the “jump” from character and setting to character and setting in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as opposed to the focus on a single character moving from place to place and jumping forward in time from scene to scene Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The latter incorporated what Méliès would later incorporate in his films: “jumps” from scene to scene by proper editing. But, to move from scene back to scene, and also incorporate various personalities in those scenes (the way Tolstoy did) required even more dexterity, and that’s where Griffith excelled. Take the battle sequences in Birth of a Nation, recently named the most important film ever made in my list of important films:
In these clips, Griffith jumps from image to image to describe not only the conflict, but also to personalize said conflict though focusing on the emotions of the characters involved. The back and forth also comes to provide a pace to the scene.
The innovations of Méliès and the Lumières can be seen in more ways than just the jumping from clip to clip (which is referred to in cinema as “cross-cutting”). For example, one important thing that the Lumière brothers provided—and this may account for way Arrival of a Train is considered their most important work—was the premise of long-, medium-, and close-shots. While the camera in Arrival of a Train was sedentary, the movement of the object (the train itself) demonstrated depth of dimension as it started out far away and, as it moved—and as the film progressed—it got closer. This led to the use of depth in cinema, everything from super close-up face shots to panorama-style shots of an entire town, mountain range or battlefield. Consider Griffith’s juxtaposition of long-, medium-, and close-up shots in Birth of a Nation (notice also the color filtering technique):
While montage was finding itself in the works of Edwin Porter and Robert Wiene, Griffith was taking it to new places. If montage could be used to deepen moral commitment in the context of a single scene or set of scenes, and the scene was, as is currently understood, the basic building block of a single film, would the film deepen further if the blocks were changed from individual scenes to entire segments? This is what Griffith accomplished in Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages. This “montage of plot” as I’ll call it was contextualized by use of a perfected method of color filtration, various hues were used to help remind the viewer which story was being seen: the stories of the Jacobin persecution, the crucifixion of Christ, the destruction of Babylon and the struggling American family. Griffith bounces back and forth between these stories with dexterity due to his perfection of montage technique. Examples of individual shots using this coloration method are shown below (notice also the variation of long-shot and closer ones):
Another technique utilized by Griffith was later made common practice in the films of Fritz Lang, another director (this time a German one) who revolutionized montage concepts. That technique was focused on the use of “insert images”—famously diagonal in nature in the case of Lang. In his pictures, Lang spent what has been estimated to be up to 10% of the total film length on a scattering of random “inserts,” close-ups on non-living (or, if living, unassociated with the face) objects that provided depth to the picture and were spread throughout the scenes in a montage style. While Lang was doing this, other directors, including Kirsanov and Man Ray, were taking advantage of this practice in new, avant-garde ways in the development of what we today call the “art film.” In essence, they simply used more inserts than Lang did. Perhaps in response to these, Lang began to use more of these insert shots around 1928, when close to 20% of his films were spent on them. His differentiation from the art films, though, was his attempt to stay away from “montage pieces” or “montage sequences” and place these shots at random points throughout his scenes. While the attempt created uniqueness in his films, it continued to spawn the perpetuation of montage in that it still fell under the umbrella of montage theory, which is, simply, editing. Examples of Lang-ian inserts (notice the diagonal motif) are included below:
These early instigators of montage created their own masterpieces in their own respective way. But established theory to surround the practice was yet to be determined, at least in the global West. “Montage,” as it is officially known as a theory and a study, would be inexistent without the Soviets.
The Pioneers: Kuleshov, Eisenstein and Vertov
In 1920, everyone in the civilized world was hopping on the cinema bandwagon, and the effects of film anthropologically, sociologically, and psychologically were intriguing. Take for example, the incredible psychological insight D. W. Griffith must have had to create his storyboards the way he did during the raid on the cabin in Birth of a Nation. A now-renowned Russian psychologist decided to use film to determine the reaction of an audience to a single, controlled variable (in the form of visible stimulus) as paired with other variables. All this is also anthropologically significant in the case of “sympathetic magic,” the topic of learned and inherent aversions and attractions based on inter-related stimuli. In his experiment, the psychologist, Lev Kuleshov, presented what was, in essence, a six-frame montage, where every second frame was the same image. The audience was asked to determine the emotion or expression of the actor in the second, fourth and sixth frames based off the stimuli in the first, third and fifth frames, respectively. What do you think? What is the actor (on the right) expressing in each instance?
If you said hunger, mourning and arousal, in that order, then you were in line with the overall consensus. This theory of montage was fundamental in the development of film in that it asserted that there is a proper order to the editing of various frames that needs be taken into consideration in film. Many different varieties of reality can be provided when considering a given frame independently; the preceding and succeeding frames inform our understanding of the events on the screen. Alfred Hitchcock explained this phenomenon in a famous (and very Hitchcock-ian) way, in a 1970 interview when he said, “What I’m concerned with is the manner of telling the story and how you put your scenes together, and in consequence create an emotion in an audience.
“That’s what I mean by pure film. The way you put it together to create an emotion. Let me give you an example. . . . We take a closeup of [a] man and cut to what he sees. And what do we show? A woman nursing a baby. You cut back to your face reaction and he smiles. Now what is he? He’s a benevolent, nice gentleman.
“Take away the middle piece of film (the mother and the baby) and substitute a girl in a bikini. Now he’s a dirty old man. That’s what I mean by the purity of montage and the control of film.”
This appeal to “pure film” is exactly what I referenced in my review of Battleship Potemkin: using the actual filmstrip as an art medium, independent of score, plot, set or acting to send a message or point. It’s referred to as “language of film,” and the predominant language of film was montage. There is an aspect of art criticism called “medium specificity,” which basically lays out this point: that the most important “area of competence” is in the artist’s manipulation of the unique aspects of the medium he or she is utilizing. To not only manipulate these unique features, but to determine what those features were altogether was the very “problem of cinema” Sergei Eisenstein referred to when he said “to determine the nature of montage is to solve the specific problem of cinema.” This “specific” language of cinema was institutionalized by further Soviet developments in montage theory, and the paramount examples of this lie in the works of Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov.
Eisenstein developed a multi-layered definition for montage that followed certain criteria and categories. The various forms of montage that Eisenstein theorized are explained below (because these selections are primarily based on pacing, I will provide the actual film clip as opposed to frame-by-frame pictorial evidence):
Metric montage: the most popular example of metric montage is in his October, as shown below. The theory goes that the dispersing crowd segment is a very specific length. Then the scene cuts to the man with the gun. When the scene cross-cuts back to the crowd, it does not leave them were they were, but rather, the distance they traveled in the meantime is implied. The cross-cuts do not imply simultaneity, but rather true chronology. Notice that the expelling bullets also do not “pause” the action of the gunman. See the Clip from October Here.
Rhythmic montage: the procession of clips is musical in that it can follow a particular rhythm. Notice these clips from Deconstructing Harry and Cries and Whispers. Watch Woody Allen’s use of jump cuts to create speed and tension, which contributes to a feeling of uneasiness, but is made sincere and hopeful in the establishment of their close proximity; a feeling of desperation is almost created. Then, watch Ingmar Bergman’s pacing, which clips are slow, and which ones are fast. In pacing the breaking of the glass with the slow pace of the rest of the scene, the moment seems frightening, while the rest of the scene is haunting, and the immediacy of their fracturing relationship is shown. The most famous use of rhythmic montage in film is probably the final showdown in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, when the pace of cross-cutting determines the building moment when someone will finally pull out their gun.
Tonal montage: This uses manipulation of image as opposed to pace. The Kuleshov experiment may be the best example of this.
Overtonal montage: Instead of merely manipulating a single scene to elicit a specific emotional reaction, like tonal montage would imply (Hitchcock’s “dirty old man” for example), overtonal montage is used to foreshadow or typify the film as a composite whole. Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother is a good example of this: notice the ice and cold that is juxtaposed with the march to the factory. This ice will play an important role in the film’s resolution. This clip from Eisenstein’s Strike also utilizes this concept, as the images provoke an overall motif of the entire film.
Intellectual montage: juxtaposing certain images makes the imagery that much more real by virtue of association. Recall the scene in Apocalypse Now which juxtaposes the assassination of Col. Kurtz with the slaughtering of a water buffalo (a direct homage to Strike). These images would function independently of each other in a much different way than the alternative, when they are spliced together.
What makes the “Odessa Steps” sequence in Battleship Potemkin so famous and renowned is because of Eistenstein’s incorporation of all these five types; metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual montage. This was the ultimate expression of Eisenstein’s approach to filmmaking by utilizing the language of the cinema as his primary tool. Look at all the emotions, ideas, and images that are provoked in his calculated rendering of the “Odessa Steps” sequence.
Several clip interchanges demonstrate his use of rapidly alternating images to create deepened intrinsic effect:
One example is the metric montage in describing the terrified mother:
Another example is his use of intellectual montage. Notice the image of the lion statue that is scattered (or, “inserted” remember Lang!) throughout the scene. What does the lion do?
Even the most casual observer can see that the lion is “rising up,” a symbol of the revolution. Just as a side note, this can be seen as a quick (and most probably unintentional) “shout-out,” as it were, to Lev Kuleshov, for “Lev” in Russian means “lion.” Some may be thinking that maybe the image of the lion was just thrown in, and that maybe, just maybe, I’m reading to deep into all this. If that’s the case, check out the other inanimate object that is incorporated into the montage, an angel:
I have heard two interpretations of this one. First, it seems the angel might be shading his eyes, which would elicit a different interpretation than that of the lion and his raising up to look. However, common consensus says, and this makes the angel much more in line with the movements of the lion, that the cherub is, instead, throwing a punch. Amid this massacre, he is demonstrating the arising conscience of the proletariat and their destined revolution. It is important to recognize that when dealing with genius like Eisenstein, to realize that his montage is calculated, not just random and pointless.
What Eisenstein brought to the table was an application of montage to improve on the early innovations of Georges Méliès and his formative tendency. But could the more realist notions of the Lumière brothers also find their fulfillment in divergence with montage theory? Another Soviet would revolutionize this concept; and his theories, while they wouldn’t stick quite as well as Eistenstein’s did, they certainly were the source for the creation of one of the most beautiful and fantastic movies ever recorded to celluloid: Man With a Movie Camera.
Dziga Vertov believed that the camera was to become an improvement of the human eye. While everyone else was busy trying to provide the proper representation of the human eye as it related to human perception, Vertov thought he could give even more, providing new perceptions of reality itself through associative imagery and obscure angles. Because of this, Vertov’s masterpiece did not focus on usual perception, and therefore ignored the premise of plot and character. In essence, this was a documentary picture, with some formative tendency, but not enough to change its true genre. It was a representation of “life caught unaware.”
Some examples of his associative imagery include:
Notice how the circle on the left that creates the column wherein the arms of the revolving door are able to move and then how the circle on the right also has “arms”, like the spokes of a wagon wheel? These images are shown in progression in that they are related visually, but in no other way are they similar. This is not a symbol of anything deep or moral, but rather an examination of continuity in the world.
Above, there is another example, this time of association of manner. The movie poster encourages us to be quiet, and then we see a girl waking up from a deep sleep.
Here (above) is what I simply understand as Vertov just having some fun. We see the film of the “Man” with a movie camera, then we see the audience watching the film, which is the exact same film we just saw first hand. At what point in this montage are we in the audience, or we the audience of the audience? And if that isn’t confusing enough, stop and realize that you are being filmed…the man on the bike has the movie camera.
What caused this movement of film theory? And why did it materialize so profoundly in the Soviet Union (alongside Kuleshov, Vertov, Eisenstein and Pudovkin, movie-makers like Barnet, Protozanov and Dovzhenko also highlighted this Golden Age of Soviet cinema)? The answer to both questions, in my opinion, is rooted in the Marxist conception of dialectics.
When Karl Marx, the man most responsible for the ideologies that perpetuated the revolutions of 1917, wrote his magnum opus, Das Capital, he referred from the outset to the philosophical underpinnings of understanding using a popular method of the day, called “dialectics.” Idealistic dialectics were studied and theorized by a German named George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Associated mostly with the mind, Hegel created the “dialectic triad,” a means to recognize reality of circumstance through an analytical method called “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.” At its most simple, thesis-antithesis-synthesis refers to argument-counterargument-resolution. This is used to help find social roles and metaphysical perception; for example, in Faust, Faust represents the entire phenomenon in his relationship with Gretchen, which can be seen as predatory, and Mephistopheles, which can be seen as victimized. If victim provides the counter to predator, than Faust’s synthesis is the existence of predator and victim. Using this method can also, as was stated, provide metaphysical—or spiritual—understanding. Hegel stated thesis, man, paired with antithesis, God, would lead to synthesis that man was God. In this, Hegel could justify his own atheism in a Christian world. This philosophy was used by Karl Marx on a new—and what Marx saw as more accurate—level. His variance with Hegelian dialectics focused on the material, as opposed to the spiritual or intellectual. Marx used historical concepts to represent a divergence in economic systems: thesis=communal origins of poverty; antithesis=capitalistic societies of wealth; and synthesis=communal organizations of wealth. Elsewhere, in his understanding of class, thesis=classless societies of poverty; antithesis=class societies of wealth; and eventual synthesis=classless societies of wealth. Marx’s understanding of this synthesis and its eventual culmination was focused on the ideas of revolution.
That this was the foundation of Soviet ideology is no small feature of the Soviet artistic dynamic. Notice that a lot of these films, Potemkin especially, were used as propaganda films, exactly for the fact that they embodied the Marxist philosophy of class and wealth synthesis. Each clip of film was a thesis, and its accompanying (or juxtaposed) image was an antithesis. Together, the two contrasting images—argument and counter-argument—made synthesis. I consider this parallel of political ideology and its concurrent artistic trend is no coincidence and brings light to the relationship between culture and art.
But montage could do even more than what these early Soviet directors intended. Eventually, montage would become a technical paramount in filmmaking, and this would occur as the Soviet montage theory came to meld with the mammoth montage endeavors of directors such as D. W. Griffith. The result was an influx of primarily Western perpetuators.
But we can talk about them later.