Montage is the French word for “editing,” (as I understand). Just as montage theory was born from the formative tendencies of French directors such as Georges Méliès, it began to spread throughout the cinematic world. Lang, Wiene, and Muranu in Germany; Griffith and Keaton in the United States; Eistenstein, Vertov and Pudovkin in the USSR; and even Alfred Hitchcock in Great Britain, were making silent masterpieces by learning how—through montage—to best manipulate the medium before them: the film itself. If learning how to manipulate the film was the true “problem of cinema,” the solution to the problem lay in montage, or the ability to edit clips together to create synergistic energy. What resulted from proper manipulation was imagery independent of time or space. The incorporation of montage became the burden of the director, and the more telling the incorporation, the better the film. Remember that there was little to do with real, theatrical style acting, no need whatsoever for music or sound effects, and special effects were not fully realized. What these movies dealt with was film, independent of all other things (sometimes even story). Therefore, I feel that it is not much of an overstatement to assert that the skill a director had over montage (combined, of course, with proper photography) determined the quality of his film. But, soon, all that would change. Soon, a movie called The Jazz Singer would be released that would forever challenge the essence of film.
The Perpetuators (Part One): Ford, Hitchcock, and Coppola
The advent of sound was a disturbing one for film purists (the competent movie-connoisseurs of the 1920s, we’ll say), but not so much for the more casual movie-goer. Production companies sensed the excitement that surrounded “talkies,” and soon, Hollywood would take the reins of the film industry…never to let go, as it were.
In Part I of this two-part chapter on montage theory, I postulated the emergence of the montage theory from a predominately Soviet/Marxist philosophy rooted in dialectics. This contributed to the Soviet’s profound role in early cinema. Was there any deep-rooted ideology that may have contributed to the United States taking advantage of cinema during the sound era (and onward)? Well, I think there is. Amid all the vast pros that are born from capitalism and a free market, one intellectual con is that products, particularly artistic ones, are perpetuated only through an appeal to the lowest common denominator. The pace is set, as it were, by what is most popular, and that often (but certainly not always) means that the stuff with the most substance doesn’t survive the public litmus test. For example, I once attended a Matt Costa concert at the student center of my university. He was absolutely spectacular, a real talent with a penchant for song-writing. I also remember seeing a local blues band called The Legendary Porch-Pounders at a barbeque joint. I might as well have gone to a Stevie Ray Vaughan concert in the 1970s. It was so riveting and fun. Both of these concerts were simple, low-key and lacking in glamor. Yet, the entire crowd was honed in, focused and amazed. Absolutely superb. And then, I remember flipping through the channels and seeing Billy Ray Cyrus’ less-than-attractive, and WAY-less-than-skilled daughter twerking Alan Thicke’s thirty-something-year-old son. (I must admit realizing that Mr. Thicke had done a much better job with Kirk Cameron than with his own boy). Do we all see the comparison? Somewhere along the line, mass interest stepped in and boxed out the likes of Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan to make way for Nicki Minaj. Even urban talents like Rakim get cast aside by paparazzi-inclined miscreants like Lil’ Wayne. I think I’ve proved my point: the masses will always pick the side of overtness and explicitness (in the form of sex, violence, or dialogue that isn’t too difficult to follow), and with deadlines fast approaching, there is no time to include anything good. This is an inherent “downside,” as it were, to a free market.
Now, with the advent of sound, film would be more sell-able, and, hence, the surge of power in the southern-California town called Hollywood. Wherein materialist dialectics provided the philosophical motivation for film in its infancy, materialist market economics provided a business-like approach to the industry. While some purists still lament this development, I for one, am grateful for it. Were it not for this shift in dynamic westward, much of the films that we so much enjoy today would never have been born.
Among those films, the works of John Ford stand out triumphantly. Among them, the best are The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers. Why is Ford so significant? Because of his appeal to the purity of film while taking the best advantage of the new sound movement. In the works of John Ford, montage is not lost, but is, rather, redeemed. The best instance of this is in his original masterpiece, Stagecoach. Few movies are as fun to watch for the casual movie-goer as this John Wayne classic, but as the casual becomes competent, even more can be offered from this wonderful film. I do not intend to write a full review here, but check out this montage from the movie (the famous Indian assault):
Ford broke a lot of rules in making this scene happen, but the precision in editing made what was originally problematic in space workable in time and conscience. For example, the Indians are seen charging from screen left, and then from screen right in a different take. This could never happen within the confines of time and space in an isolated environment. Instead, multiple takes were required to show the variance of direction. But, in any other context, this would not be appropriate. Take for example, a scene wherein a man is walking to a center-point on the screen from the left side of the room. All of a sudden, a jump-cut is inserted, and he’s walking towards this point from the other side. That would not be permissible due to its obvious lack of continuity. But montage, when properly developed, defies much of the continuity limits that regular time and space create. In essence, proper montage develops aesthetics outside the influence of time and space, which is a superb demonstration of the opportunity good editing provides.
Another perpetuator of montage theory was none other than the Master himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Just as Ford was able to overcome confines of time and space to manipulate film on a pure level, even in the sound era, Hitchcock realized the ability montage could provide in formulating his own masterworks. In my review of Notorious, I called Hitchcock the “Master Manipulator” as well as the “Master of Suspense.” To manipulate the characters (and even the actors) was to create suspense, so also was to manipulate the film. Take the carousel scene in Strangers on a Train. This is not the pinnacle Hitchcock example (I’m saving that for my next review), but it is certainly a good example of Hitchcock’s manipulation of character, film, and (consequently) audience:
Take also this example from Spellbound:
In both of these Hitchcock demonstrates manipulation of character through this close-ups, and his manipulation of time through flashbacks (Spellbound) or suspension of time itself (notice how long it takes to get down the mountainside in Spellbound or how short a time it takes for the carousel to reach full-speed in Strangers on a Train). This suspension of time was also used beautifully in Notorious, when Cary Grant carries Ingrid Bergman down the stairs. You’ll remember this isn’t the first time a scene about people descending down a flight of stairs is stretched out to be way longer than it should be. (Potemkin!!!) This suspension of time was an important facet of Hitchcockian montage. After all, “suspension” and “suspense” share the same root meaning.
Hitchcock’s creation of suspense was violently driven. He explained it thus: “There’s no question that for any kind of violence that you want to portray on the screen, that’s the way it can be done best. Let me see if I can give you a comparison. If you stand in a field and you see a train going by half a mile away, you look at it and it speeds by. Now go within six feet of the train going by; think of the difference in its effect. So what you are doing is you are taking the audience right close up into the scene, and the montage of the various effects gets the audience involved. That’s its purpose. It becomes much more powerful than if you sit back and look. Say you are at a boxing match and you are eight or ten rows back: well, you get a very dfferent effect if you are in the first row, looking up under those ropes. . . .
“At the moment of contact, then you are into your pieces of film. You involve the audience right in the sense of the violence. . . . The distance of the figures, you see. That’s why I think barroom brawls in Westerns are always a bore for me. . . . If they would only do a few big close-ups here and there, it would be much more exciting, instead of looking at it from a distance. . . . They think it creates a greater air of reality by seeing it at a distance and in fact they are doing the wrong thing.”
Battleship Potemkin was given a little (possibly unintentional) homage in Notorious, but another director gave it direct homage in one of the most famous montage sequences in history: the baptism massacre in The Godfather. The scene is very long, but here are some snippets:
Francis Ford Coppola certainly played his part in re-establishing the every-important duty of a good director to listen to Sergei Eisenstein and the lessons of the past. He never ignored the important quality of good montage. In my review of The Godfather, I referred to Wagnerian “Gesamtkunstwerks,” and how the film acts as the one of the best examples in movie-dom as a composite art-piece. Obviously, that is not only great praise, but great motivation to watch the film, as elements of sound, music, acting, dialogue, story, art, and cinema come together to form a perfectly composite whole. However, it can also be problematical in attempting to qualify it alongside the early pictures of Chaplin, Dreyer, Griffith and von Stroheim, because these men weren’t creating “composite pieces,” the were making and manipulating film. When it comes to The Godfather, though, Coppola pulled out all the stops. Here, we have an example of a true Gesamtkunstwerk of film that not only appeases the film purists, but re-introduces the founding elements of pure film through montage. This deserves a lot of real credit. In this regard, Coppola is of paramount importance in examining the roles played by key directors in the evolution of montage concepts.
Perpetuators (Part Two), or, “Time Out of Mind”: Welles, Hitchcock (again), and Nolan
Ford manipulated space in Stagecoach. Hitchcock manipulated time in Spellbound. These points are important in understanding this next subsection, which I have given a secondary title: “Time Out of Mind,” named for the Bob Dylan album of a few years ago. Wherein the last section focused on the utilization of montage to create images and emotions of suspense and excitement, this section will discuss the use of montage to make images, emotions, and even plots, that are independent of the confines of “real time.” These next examples, in all reality, really come to cast time aside—completely out of mind.
Recall the example of D. W. Griffith in Intolerance. He used, in that movie, coloration techniques to give a different hue of black-and-white to various sets in order to tell four different stories at once. He used cross-cutting techniques to tell these stories at the same time. His mastery lay in the fact that he was able to span over two thousand years of intolerance while making, at the same time, close-ups worthwhile. That is a difficult endeavor. What Griffith did was establish that chronology was not important in delivery, so long as a montage was done with proper elements to aid in the differentiation of these time periods one from the other. It was a film about continuity of ideas, not necessarily one using continuity of time.
As if in homage to Intolerance, many directors have played with this ability to manipulate time, usually through flashbacks. Perhaps the most significant of these movies is none other than the greatest movie of all time, Citizen Kane. Told almost entirely in retrospect, this fictional biopic chronicles the complex life of Charles Foster Kane through the lens of those people who were closest to him, and the necessity of good montage technique was paramount in the delivery of the film. The audience needed to recognize the perspective in which each story was being told. They also needed to be able to tell conclusively who was doing the telling and what was being told versus what was being shown in real time. In order to do this, Welles utilized all the tricks in the book. I will do a full, multi-page review of Citizen Kane at a future date, wherein I’ll go over most of those tricks in detail, but for the purpose of this chapter, I will only focus on a couple.
Welles needed to go back and forth in time, the same way that Griffith needed to in Intolerance. Already at his aid was the fact that a superb costume and make-up team would help to delineate time variance merely by making characters older and younger. Disadvantages, however, included his inability to do what other directors had done. Ford’s manipulation of space in Stagecoach (a movie which Welles watched over 40 times in preparation for Kane) could not be copied, because discontinuity of that type would distort the image in this context of tight rooms and stage-like sets, rather than contribute to it. Use of color gradient techniques, like those used in Intolerance, would also be out of the question; originality required that. Also, the technique used previously to stage a flashback was to blur the edges of the frame in order to create a kind of dreamlike state. These scenes, however, were often brief, and inherently took out half of the viewable picture. Welles depended on the complete “Academy Ratio,” the whole 1.37:1, of the frame to create his images. Furthermore, he would tell long, exhaustive stories in his flashbacks, and that would cause most of the movie—therefore most of the sets, which were already innovative—to be blurred.
Welles’ solution was utilization of the “dissolve.” Sometimes we refer to this as the “fade-in” or “fade-out”, but that is inappropriate as those refer to fading into or from a blank screen. A dissolve, as was used in Kane, involves fading from one filmed image to another. Here’s an example of dissolve in Citizen Kane. Now, examine the speed in these two examples (the death of Kane and the “News on the March” newsreel that directly follows). Notice how the first uses long, slow dissolves to indicate morbidity while the second uses quick dissolves to symbolize vitality. While this technology was not new (check out Lang’s Metropolis), it certainly had never been used to such a thorough extent: the dissolve not only contributed to the image, it created the image. Its use as a montage technique is stunning, particularly in the death and obituary segments.
This premise of telling a perspective-driven, retroactive story (which is technically called “non-linear film”) was later recycled in many, many films, including such masterpieces as Rashomon by Japan’s Akira Kurosawa and Annie Hall by New York’s Woody Allen.
Hitchcock never worked in purely non-linear film, but would, every now and again, dabble in non-linear techniques within singular scenes. In A Shadow of a Doubt (a movie which many a movie critic has dubbed his first masterpiece), starring Joseph Cotton of Citizen Kane fame and Teresa Wright of Pride of the Yankees fame, Hitchcock used non-linearism to introduce his main characters. Notice the use of parallel montage in this opening sequence, where Cotton wakes up in Philadelphia and where Wright wakes up in Santa Rosa:
(The Santa Rosa sequence)
(The Philadelphia Sequence)
Notice how both montages introduce a connection between the characters by showing the same approach from long to close shots in the same basic pattern. First, we see a couple long shots of the respective cities, then a ground-level shot of prominent landmarks in these cities. Then a pair of street shots are shown, demonstrating the mundane in the cities that Cotton and Wright’s characters inhabit. Then, come shots of their respective homes. In Wright’s case, it is a quaint but fancy suburban house. In Cotton’s case, it is an apartment complex. Next, there are close up shots (angled ever-so-conspicuously) of their bedroom windows, and then there are shots of them both in their beds. The angle of these shots is also important. In the case of Wright, the angle with the bed is more acute, making her seem shorter and more girl-like. In Cotton’s case, the angle is more obtuse, his feet barely making the edge of the frame. Size is implied.
The reason why this montage is included in this section on manipulation of time in montage is because there is no real reason to assume that these two scenes are in chronological order. Nor is there any real reason to assume that they are not actually occurring at the same time. The introduction of the characters casts time aside, out of mind. In this situation, the non-linear plot element is that Cotton and Wright’s characters (both named Charlie) are somehow intertwined, not just in name and familial background. They are very much two equals. Time is unneeded in the delivery of this fact. Instead, montage casts time aside and goes straight to the heart of the issue.
The focus of this two-part series on montage has been to demonstrate the evolution of montage in film. This is clearly not a dead issue, as montage has become the most important aspect of movies (particularly of the more action-driven nature) in the last few decades. One of the best perpetuators of montage theory in this instance (the instance of non-linearism) is Christopher Nolan. The two movies that will be examined here are The Prestige and Memento. The consensus favorite of all Nolan films is The Dark Knight, and I recognize that as a superb film, but The Prestige and Memento are probably the two best examples of cinematic montage theory in action that can be found since the mid-90s.
Take the following examples from the two films:
Take a minute to consider one theory I have, which is highlighted pretty well in the scene from The Prestige. The dilemma which faced many film purists following the emergence of sound in film was how to maintain an approach through utilization of the seventh art without sacrificing the very nature of the art to other, more “primitive” (less technological) art forms like music and dialogue. Obviously these film purists didn’t recognize that in many films this phenomenon had already taken place, as was explained in my two-part explanation on acting, in that performance as an art form was already a facet in movies. Pantomime was predominant in films, but for some reason it was immune to the criticism. That being said, the dilemma was legitimate. Was it possible to preserve film as an art while all these other arts would certainly come in and defile it? I submit that they did not, in that perpetuators like Christopher Nolan chose to utilize montage—inherently a form of cinema-art—even in his incorporation of other art forms. Notice how the dialogue covers multiple frames? It does not cut out with the cross-cut. Narration, therefore, did not come to act as a constraint to montage theory, but rather a contributor the theory’s strength.
Montage as Marketing: The Movie Trailer and the Ultimate Fate of Eisenstein’s Theories
In referencing thus far in the two-part series such films as Deconstructing Harry, The Prestige and Memento I have highlighted the fact that montage is still a prevalent concept in filmography today. Obviously, this case should be self-evident. Montage is editing. Never at any time has the gist of all popular films been so keenly focused on good editing: storyboards, computer editing and cross-cutting. The use of digital film has made editing less of a time constraint in post-production, and now films can be edited on a more overarching level than ever before. This advance in montage technique is the direct result of capitalist ideology. While the film purist bemoans this, I must say that this has resulted in a more exciting, more popular style of film, one which has, in turn, directly resulted in widening the viewing audience, making more genres more available for more people. While the nature of modern montage has become more vast, it has also become more general. The downside to this is that editing techniques begin to stray from the symbolic or intellectual (like those found in the Soviet masterpieces) and more towards the active or surreal. This is inherently less artistic, and therefore damaging to the purity of the seventh art, but is also more fantastic, contributing, therefore, to the Gesamtkunstwerk, or the composite picture.
Montage today is far more emotional than intellectual. It has been no secret (particularly in the first “perpetuators” section of this page) that montage acts as the synergistic improvement of two unrelated parts to create an emotional aura. Even amid all those motifs of intellect, tonality, rhythm, and meter, Eistenstein still wanted to make people sad when he filmed the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Emotion is the paramount event of art. In that regard, the recent movement is great for film. The downside to this movement is that it comes to cast aside all the other complex elements of the art form. Also, it can become a cop-out for most directors to take advantage of montage elements: its really easy to make people happy or sad, but it takes a little more work to make people think. That’s why Woody Allen movies still do so well: they perform both tasks through good use of montage.
Perhaps the most predominant emotions that these films like to conjure through montage are suspense, arousal, sadness and surprise. Here are some frame-by-frame examples of these. Notice in this instance, from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers how Peter Jackson takes Alfred Hitchcock’s advice to heart and brings the audience into the middle of the fight (which brings about a purer form of violence and its resulting feelings of suspense and excitement): view the clip here.
Here is another example from Star Wars III: The Revenge of the Sith, a montage which is one of the better sequences in the film, called “Anakin’s Dark Deeds,” or “Order 66.” This is designed to evoke Hitchcockian appeals to violence as well, but this time in order to bring about feelings of sadness and loss: view the clip here. (This scene takes a lot from Coppola’s The Godfather)
In Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, montage is used in much the same way that Nolan uses it in The Prestige. In order to evoke feelings of surprise and mystery, the film coalesces on faces and expressions that once seemed to denote one meaning and are now denoting something new: view the clip here (note that it is for mature audiences, you’ll have to confirm your birth date).
I can continue with examples of other emotions, such as youth, love, levity or horror, but I feel like these are significant. I would like to close on a last note: the movie trailer. One reason why films are more available to the public is because the movie trailer has succeeded in becoming the number one marketing tool for a given film. All movie trailers are built off of concepts of montage, and they often utilize the same basic structure (or rhythm, maybe?) to better deliver their movies. The need to have footage available in order to make for a good trailer post-production is key to most producers. Often, traditionalists decry the overabundance of sex in movies. Yet, I recently read an article stating that sexual content in film is on the decline in the last few years. Why is that? It’s because of the nature of the movie trailer. Often, sex scenes were included in movies so that snippets of those scenes could be included in the trailer, thus intriguing the man of the flesh and taking him into the dark theater on a later date to gorge himself on the promiscuity of actors. Now, however, those scenes aren’t necessary in order to provide a marketable trailer. Why? Because special effects have become advanced enough that it is now a visual spectacle, not so much an emotional or hormonal one. Inclusion of superfluous love scenes is now just what it seems to have been all along: superfluous. The reason why this phenomenon is important to explain in this page is to demonstrate the important connection between trailers and the films they are marketing. Even content in the film is determined by what the trailer can provide.
In a lot of ways, this comes to vindicate and laud men such as Vertov, Griffith, Lang, and Eistenstein. These forerunners formed and perpetuated the notion that various, non-directly related sequences could be edited together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. These montage sequences—from the cabin raid in Birth of a Nation, to the transformation sequence in Metropolis, to the massacre of Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin, to the Man With a Movie Camera himself—all hinged on this idea that the entire gist, crux and nature of a given plot or thought could be summed up most efficiently in the unification of different frames. A movie trailer (or at least a good movie trailer) is exactly that: all the emotion, plot, and imagery of the film is compounded into a short but complex montage. This montage uses rhythm and tonality, a la Eisenstein. It often fosters up feelings of suspense, a la Hitchcock. The movement of the characters takes no respect for space, a la Ford, and is completely non-linear, taking no respect for time, a la Welles and Griffith.
What do you think? Has the recent evolution of montage and why it is used beneficial for film? Or should traditional approaches be maintained? Or, as I have attempted to postulate to some extent, are these two trends reconciled in ways we may not have considered? Has there really been much change at all? As one examines montage in film—as a competent movie-connoisseur—he or she will be better capable of determining the answers to these questions, as well as the exceptions to those answers, for surely there will be some of those. This two-part chapter, when understood, can help the casual movie-goer recognize the dexterity of a good director, and how even the order in which that director puts the images can provide the demise or the success of the film as a whole. It is a laborious and calculated process, not just a random one. This realization, I guarantee, will make your movie-going experience more active and more rewarding. It will also help to contextualize the creations of the past, to understand and appreciate (and even enjoy) what the directors were trying to accomplish using the technology they had. This will open up the world of cinema to an even greater extent, as you are able to discuss the premises and ideas postulated by various films on a more intellectual level.