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Early 20th-century Soviet Cinema: Montage as the Core of Cinematic Language

Early 20th-century Soviet Cinema: Montage as the Core of Cinematic Language
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   1 Early 20th-century Soviet Cinema: Montage as the Core of Cinematic Language The culture of the first decades of the 20th century was directly aimed at the exposure of the medium specificity of each art, such as painting, literature, and montage cinema, also called the “film of the short montage”. Gilles Deleuze distinguished between the approaches to cinematography in different countries (e.g., French or American cinematography). He described Soviet cinema as intellectual cinema. 1  Indeed, Russian filmmakers used the camera not as a passive recording instrument; for them, the camera functioned as a brain that darted surely and exactly from one vital thing to another, penetrating viewer s’  consciousness acutely and deeply. 2  The specificity of the cinematic medium consisted of the ability of cinema to precisely and realistically represent events as they unfolded. Cinema surpasses photography because a photo can only capture a moment, while cinema captures development and action in progress. 3  The core method of composing this action within the screen space was the montage. In its earliest articulation, montage was defined as film's basic structure, the one element that distinguishes it from the other arts. 4 Two prominent Soviet directors –  Eisenstein and Vertov –  both concur with this assumption, but differ significantly in other matters. For Eisenstein, cinema should be full of emotions. 5  This was achieved through montages that “ ploughed the viewer's psyche .”  With its help, the author rebelliously transformed reality. Dziga Vertov, who began his career editing and shooting newsreels, quickly realised that the right way for the agitation of the illiterate population in favour of the Soviet regime was so-called “unawares”   –  life, true reality, embodied on the screen. 6  This essay is not going to explore in detail the techniques and rules of montage. Instead, through an analysis of Eisenstein ’s  writings on montage and a comparison of his views with those of Vertov –  which will be supported by a more detailed discussion of their 1   Gilles Deleuze,“Cinema 1: TheMovement  - Image”, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. p. 31. 2 Caroline McLean. ‘That Magic Force that is Montage’: Eisenstein’s Filmic Fourth Dimension, Borderline and H. D.” from Literature & History, Volu me 21, Number 1 (Spring 2012), Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 44-60. Available at <>. Accessed: 12.12.2016. p.46. 3 Rudolf Arnheim, “Film as Art”. London: Faber and Faber, 1933.   4 Thomas W Sheehan. “Montage Joyce: Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and ‘Ulysses’”. James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 42/43, No. 1/4 (Fall, 2004 - Summer, 2006). p. 71.   5   Lebedev, Nikolai. “Chapter 3: Establishment of Soviet Cinematic Art (1921 - 1925)”, in “Essays on the History of USSR cinema. Silent Cinema, 1918 –   1934.” Moscow: Art, 1965. Available: at <>. Accessed: 7.12.2016.   6   Ibid.     2 works “Battleship Potemkin” (1925) and “Man with a Movie Camera”  (1929) –  I will argue that Vertov sought to show real life by emphasising the unique opportunities cinematic medium provided, mainly through montage. While Eisenstein used montage to manipulate viewer’s attention and consciousness.   Eisenstein’s approaches to montage developed throughout his career. Nevertheless, it is commonly agreed that he reached technological and ideological perfection in his famous “Battleship “Potemkin.”  Montage in this film was the core of the cinematic language, which should avail itself of the experience of literature for the purpose of working out its own speech, its own vocabulary, and its own imagery. 7  In 1923, t  wo years before “Potemkin” was released, he published an article titled “ Montage of Attractions .”  Here, the focus was not on what the director and writer experienced, but on influencing the psyche of the spectators, using a variety of circus and cinematic techniques. 8  Attraction is every aggressive moment of the theatre; every element that exposes the sensory or psychological pressure on the viewer s’ . 9  This was experimentally tested and mathematically calculated to bring about certain emotional turmoil in the viewer, which made the perception of the final ideological conclusion possible. 10  In 1930, more experienced and mature, Eisenstein had another idea that he employed in “Potemkin” : montage as a dynamic form that repeats the process of thinking. 11  Eisenstein thought he could use the mechanics of film to work directly on the minds and emotions of the audience. Many scholars agree that Eisenstein’s intellectual montage functioned as a Marxist dialectic between hypothesis and antithesis, producing a synthesis that alerts the audience to the values of communism. 12  Hence, the montage in “ Battleship Potemkin ”  (1925) was designed to push the perceptual boundaries of the audience to experience a higher reality. “ Battleship "Potemkin ” was a huge event in Soviet and world culture, and was called the greatest work that opened a new era in the history of cinema. Thematically and ideologically , “ Battleship "Potemkin ” was a film about a crucial social movement of the era of imperialism and 7   Sergey Eisenstein, ‘The New Language of Cinematography’, Close Up, 4:5 (1929), p. 11.   8   Sergey Eisenstein. “Montage of Attractions” in “Method”, volume 1. Moscow: Museum of Cinema, Eisenstein Centre, 2002. p. 57.   9   Ibid.   p. 57.   10   Ibid. p. 57.   11  Sheehan, p. 73.   12   McLean, p.45.     3 proletarian revolutions –  the revolutionary struggle against the power of the exploiters and oppressors. 13  This film was perfect for its time; the new, revolutionary content expressed the bold, innovative form that organically arose from its content. 14  The film is characterised by a remarkable compositional harmony. All its parts are harmonically related to each other and form a consistent whole. Each scene emerges from the previous one, and gives rise to the subsequent. Later, Eisenstein wrote that “ Potemkin ”  looks like a chronicle of events, but acts like a drama. 15   “ Potemkin ”  showcased a number of remarkable discoveries in his montage techniques. One important example is the famous “ revived ”  stone lion at the end of the fourth part. In response to the atrocities of the tsar, “ Potemkin ”  fires a volley at the headquarters of the generals; because of the explosion, the sculpture of a lion “ jumps ”  and “ roars ” . This effect was achieved by a montage of short pieces of consecutive images of three different stone lions from the Alupka Palace in the Crimea; a sleeping one, one that had raised its muzzle, and one that bared its teeth and stood up on its front paws. 16  The complete montage gave an impression that the sculpture had come to life. Another remarkable montage technique was the “ deceleration of time .”  Eisenstein applied this in the episodes of the shooting on the deck and a meeting with the squadron. In both episodes, during the climactic moments of conflict, with the help of the montage technique, the director slows down the passage of time and thus reaches an exceptional intensity in the attention of the viewer, who is waiting for the conflict to resolve. Therefore, here Eisenstein used montage to manipulate the viewer ’s  attention. It is not surprising that the viewer makes a definite conclusion when juxtaposing two glued pieces of film. Thus, one criticises not the facts and their remarkable nature and ubiquity, but the findings and conclusions that have been made. 17  One should appeal to the “main” that defines  both the content of the frame and the compositional juxtaposition of the separate contents; that is the content of the whole, the general. There were two extremes: enthusiasm for techniques of juxtaposition (montage methods), and the elements that were juxtaposed (content of the frame). 18   13   Lebedev.   14   Ibid. 15   Sergey Eisenstein . “Chosen Works in Six Volumes”, Volume 2. Moscow: Art, 1964. p. 290.   16   Lebedev.   17   Eisenstein . “Chosen Works in Six Volumes” . p. 290.   18   Ibid. p.290.     4 One can thus see that the perfection of “ Potemkin ”  lies in its unity of form and content. “ Potemkin ”  is not only a form; the content itself is cinematic, and the actual content of the frame develops and grows into a montage. Montage here consists of both form and content. Eisenstein understood the idea of montage not only as a specific mean of expression, but also a complex of compositional principles of film construction that form an ideological and stylistic system. 19  He was obsessed with the idea of the spectator forming an idea that was similar to his own. Here, he acted as a “dictator of art.”  Therefore, Eisenstein’s montage is  a gluing of frames in an order that the director wanted and that provided the viewer with a purely subjective intellectual and emotional impact. In fact, it was the subordination of the viewer’s  perception to the whim of the director. This is what Vertov rejected, as we will see later. At the beginning of 1920s, with the appearance of the term “Soviet Cinema , ”  Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein stood on opposite sides in the eternal dispute between documentary and fictional cinema. As mentioned previously , while Eisenstein’s experiments with montage directly aimed at the manipulation of the viewer's perception, for Vertov, the production of cinematic language based on the viewer's perception seemed an unacceptable regression. 20  Early Soviet cinema was based entirely on the pre-revolutionary experience. For Vertov, the documentary was the means to overthrow the past, using a new cinematic language which –  following the precepts of Lenin –  should have formed the Soviet man of the future. 21  A montage of separate fragments of life should have conveyed the idea of the author or, as Vertov said, “ the decoding of communist reality. ” 22  That is expressed in his iconic film “Man with a Movie Camera .”  He attempted to create an “ international absolute language of cinem a” and dreamed of a “ pure ” cinema, a cinema free from the influence of theatre and literature. 23  That is why he wanted no titles, script, or professional actors. Even the soundtrack for this film was superimposed later, while the job of the editor and cameraman was at the forefront. 24   19   McLean, p.45.   20   Lebedev.   21   Ibid.   22   Vertov, Dziga, ‘Kino -Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov', ed. Annette Michelson, trans. Kevin O’Brien. London: Pluto Press, 1984.   23   Ibid.   24 François Zourabichvili, “The Eye of Montage: Dziga Vertov and Bergsonian Materialism” in Gregory Flaxman (ed.) “The Brain Is the Screen  ”. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.  p. 146     5 The man, armed with a movie camera, boldly enters the thick of life. He has to exert every effort to keep up with the rapidly elusive phenomena of life. In the process of shooting, the streets and trams, crowds and individual people, and legs and smiles diverge and meet again in front of our eyes in the most bizarre way. Life unfolds in its essence in front of us. Millions of people are doing their jobs: miners, doctors, firefighters, signalmen, cigarette factory workers, and passport office workers, with shoe cleaners outside. “ Man with a Movie Camera ”  succeeds everywhere: walking on a busy street, in the midst of crowds, climbing the pipe, splashing on the beach, putting the camera on a tripod nearby …  the picture is full of continuous movement. The working day starts –  and everything comes to life, waking up: a woman gets up, puts on her stockings and bra; a homeless tramp on a bench frowns and smiles. One sees a whole cavalcade of cars on the streets –  a rapid, unstoppable flow. The movement is followed by the viewer until the very end of the film. After all, it is thanks to the “ Kino-eye ,”  which one sees in the impressive final credits, that the audience was able to experience itself and everyday life from the side. The experiment with the chaos in the film “ Man with a Movie Camera ”  showcases the key elements of Vertov’s montage aesthetics –  the rhythm and interval. 25  Vertov rejected traditional art primarily as a closed system of signs, and he made the movement the main principle of montage. 26  It is a short interval, a moment of variability, that is the key in the frame. The eventual reality, collected from numerous fragments of life, has more vital force than individual symbols woven into it. 27  The key to understanding the visual chaos of “ Man with a Movie Camera ”  is in the visual relations between the frames. The film is built on rhythmically tuned plans, chiaroscuro, shooting speed, angles, and intra-movement of shapes and volumes. For Vertov, the montage is the only way to find the most appropriate “route” for the viewer’s eyes amidst all these interactions and mutual attractions, and to bring the multitude of intervals to a simple visual equation, a visual formula. 28  The Vertovean montage “ leads out of  ”  something. There is an awareness of process beyond the frame, where Eisenstein is only concerned with the relation of frames and their contents with each other. 29  Nevertheless, some similarities between Eisenstein's and Vertov's montages can be traced. Vertov worked on a study of the emotional possibilities of montage. This unites him 25   Zourabichvili, p. 143   26   Ibid, p. 144   27   Ibid, p. 143   28   Vertov, 29   Sheehan, p. 78  
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