Early Soviet Cinema and Eisenstein’s theory of Montage

Been thinking about my video interface where editing structure is of critical importance, decided to re-examine some of the theories of montage that I learnt in film school and have been looking at some Soviet directors namely; Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Vertov who were all pioneering in the area of filmic montage.
Apart from montage another thing I find interesting about these directors specifically is the optimism and revolutionary spirit that they convey. People are often talking about a digital revolution, personally I am not sure I would use the term revolution in any greater sense than a massive shift in preference for digital over analogue technology, I can’t see the so called ‘digital revolution’ as having any real bearing on the political and social values of an advanced capitalist society. Yet it is easy to understand why many people who are exploring the potentialities of our new technologies do so with an optimism that they are part of something bigger, that technical innovation can inspire social change. In this respect I find it interesting to watch Soviet films from the early era of cinema, as for me they share a similar ideology with much New media art of today, that being a belief that the world is about to change forever and that this new medium is the face of a new era, and a crack in the veneer of the old one. Certainly in the case of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Vertov it was this romantic relationship with new technology that motivated such innovation.
Quoting from the book ‘The Technique of Film and Video Editing’ by Ken Dancyger – I will present Eisenstein’s five methods of montage, which interest me from both a technical and an ideological perspective.

Metric Montage

Refers to the length of the shots relative to one another. Regardless of their content, shortening the shots abbreviates the time the audience has to absorb the information in each shot. This increases the tension resulting from the scene. The use of close-ups with shorter shots creates a more intense sequence.

Rhythmic Montage

Refers to continuity arising from the visual pattern within the shots. Continuity based on matching action and screen direction are examples of rhythmic montage. This type of montage has considerable potential for portraying conflict because opposing forces can be presented in terms of opposing screen directions as well as parts of the frame. For example in the Odessa Steps sequence of Potemkin (1925), soldiers march down the steps from one quadrant of the frame, followed by people attempting to escape from the opposite side of the frame.

Tonal Montage

Refers to editing decisions made to establish the emotional character of a scene. Tone or mood is used as a guideline for interpreting tonal montage, and although the theory begins to sound intellectual, it is no different from Ingmar Bergman’s suggestion that editing is akin to music, the playing of the emotions. Emotions change and so too can the tone of a different scene. In the Odessa steps sequence, the death of a young mother on the steps and the following baby carriage sequence highlight the depth of the tragedy of the massacre.

Overtonal Montage

Is the interplay between of metric, rhythmic and tonal montages. That interplay mixes pace, ideas and emotions to induce the desired effect from the audience. In the Odessa steps sequence, the outcome of the massacre should be the outrage of the audience. Shots that emphasise the abuse of the army’s overwhelming power and the exploitation of the citizens powerlessness punctuate the message.

Intellectual Montage

Refers to the introduction of ideas into a highly charged and emotionalized sequence. An example of intellectual is a sequence in October (1928). George Kerensky, the Menshevik leader of the first Russian revolution, climbs the stairs just as quickly as he ascends to power after the czar’s fall. Intercut with his ascent are shots of a mechanical peacock preening itself. Eisenstein is making a point about Kerensky as politician this one of many examples in October. ‘ pg 17 -20.

Odessa Steps Sequence

October (the mechanical peacock scene is about 25 mins into the film)


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