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)


Psycho Driving Montage

This is one of my favourite scenes amoung Hitchcock’s films and a big influence on my own work (see ‘Waterloo Sunset’ project). So have written a short study of the scene. This study might be extended to form part of my essay about Split Screen Cinema and screens within screens, in which case I will start to consider the relationship between the windscreen of Marion’s car and the Cinema screen.

The Scene which leads Marion into the Bates motel, uses montage to represent Marion’s passage through time and space, while as viewers we simultaneously travel through Marion’s metal state.  Point of view shots depicting Marion driving  motorways are intercut with close ups of Marion’s face, while through the sound track we hear an imaginary testimony from several male authority figures, starting with a traffic cop and a used car sales man that Marion has encountered on her travels and finally Marion’s employer and his business associate from which Marion has stolen 40,000 dollars. These voices in Marion’s head expose both Marion’s paranoid mental state and also give us some background information on her position. The sound montage and Marion’s journey concludes with a darker more violent remark from Mr Cassady( the sleazy businessman who’s deposit Marion has stolen) ‘Well I ain’t about to kiss of 40,000 dollars I’ll get it back and if any of it’s missing I’ll replace it with her fine, soft flesh’.

It has turned from day to night, it is pouring with rain and there is little visibility through the windscreen, we just see the lights of oncoming traffic and the poor driving conditions force Marion of the main road, she pulls into the Bates Motel. Thus Marion stops driving and becomes passive and submissive to her environment.

It is important to remember that these voices are presented as Marion’s imagining of the kind of thing these people might be saying about her, rather than as being words actually spoken; the sound montage exists inside Marion’s head, and we as audience are then provided information about a dimension both belonging to and removed and isolated from the overall reality presented by the films narrative.

A kind of alternative reality thus emerges that occupies a privileged space between the occurrences of the film, our engagement with the character of Marion and our unique position as passive spectators. 

This last remark differs from the rest of the voices we have heard which were incidental and matter of fact in their tone, the fierce weather and the aggressive rush of oncoming traffic function as a kind of impressionistic landscape communicating Marion’s psychological disquiet while the functional screen of the Cinema and Marion’s car, begin to lose their illustrative qualities and start to take on a more expressionist charechter.  

What is interesting about the remark from Mr Cassady is that it makes most explicit the connection between Money, Power, Violence, and Sex, and how these are the real factors which constitute the motivational, ‘driving’ complexes of our Character and are simultaneously the themes which keep us engaged as viewers and are thus fueling the journey upon which we are collectively embarked.

Thus during this scene the being of Marion dissolves into the greater cosmos of our viewing experience, as the entity of Marion becomes forced of the road by the weather, she in turn becomes over- powered by her unconscious; both Marion’s journey and our journey through this narrative suddenly become overpowered; overpowered by elements beyond our control, the forces of the world become explicit and Nature, Money, Sex, Gender all emerge from this scene and force us of the road of civilization into a scary, irrational, nightmare, primordial world, The Bates Motel. The montage illustrating a mechanized, passage of time and movement thus malfunctions, we are then suspended, though time has not stopped, it has in fact caught up with us, we are no longer in transit through time, we are firmly attached to it, ruled or governed by it once again, and so as the forces of nature overpower our mechanical, empirical assertion over it we become suspended, impotent and passive.