Soviet Montage cinema

If German Expressionism was to influence the mise en scène of later Hollywood films, the other major European film movement of the 1920s set itself up in opposition to Hollywood. The aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution saw years of struggle before the noble aims of communism were extinguished under the tyranny of Stalin in the 1930s. What is of interest here is the political and intellectual struggle of the 1920s over the forms and uses of 'art' (including cinema). By 1934 Stalin's support had ensured that the 'realist' tendency became official policy (though Soviet Socialist Realism was a very strange kind of 'realism'), but in the more open and stimulating 1920s, the 'realist' camp had to compete with two other strong tendencies: those who argued that art had to be directly at the service of the workers (the proletariat), and should be a tool of education and propaganda, and those who argued that the very nature of art had to be transformed before new revolutionary ways of seeing the world could be produced. This latter argument has usually gone under the umbrella term of Formalism (see also pp. 112-13 above), and in its effect on film it is perhaps best remembered for Soviet Montage theory.

The five names most attached to Soviet Montage (though there were several others) were Lev Kuleshov, Alexander Dovzhenko, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, but it is the last of these who produced by far the most comprehensive writing on theories of montage and whose films are best known.

Indeed, it was a time of excitement and experiment (see Further Reading) and there was little clear agreement among the Formalists. While Kuleshov was an important and dynamic teacher about film (at the time, between 1919 and 1924, material shortages in the Soviet Union were so severe that students at the new Film School had to make films in their heads, without any film), he made few films and disagreed strongly with Eisenstein. His approach was closer to that of Pudovkin (Mother, 1926), for whom montage and editing in films had to remain at the service of the narrative: an approach rather closer to the 'classical narrative' of Hollywood. Dziga Vertov was a documentary film-maker who dismissed entertainment narratives as 'cine-nicotine' and for whom the camera and the lens (the 'film-eye') should be instruments of 'kino pravda': 'film truth'. When lighter cameras and better sound recording equipment later revolutionized documentary film-making in the early 1960s, the new methods were called cinéma vérité in honour of Vertov, who himself glorified the camera and made it a 'star' in his films (most famously in Man With a Movie Camera, 1929).

The most influential figure, however, was Sergei Eisenstein (Strike, 1925; Battleship Potemkin, 1925; October, 1928). While Pudovkin (and Kuleshov) spoke of shots in terms of 'elements' or 'building bricks' which could be linked or built into a text, Eisenstein spoke of shots as 'cells', and saw the potential relationships between shots in terms of conflict and collision. For Eisenstein the arrangement of shots into narrative sequence was only one special case (and a not very interesting one at that). In his theoretical writing, eventually published as Film Sense (1942) and Film Form (1949), he explores the various ways in which pairs of shots can 'collide' to create new meaning: the dialectical process we mentioned in Chapter 8.

The 'conflict' between shots could, for example, be graphic or geometric: Eisenstein recognized that shots with similar diagonal lines in the frame or with similar lighting would fit together harmoniously (the common Hollywood approach), while what interested him more was the sense of conflict or unease which could result from deliberately jarring juxtapositions of diagonals, of patterns of light or of the balance of objects in the frame (see Figure 14.2).

Montage could also create the illusion or sense of movement or change of some sort (Eisenstein would have been aware that this was an extension of the illusion of movement on which cinema itself is based). In Battleship Potemkin, for example, a shot of a woman with pince-nez glasses is soon followed by a shot of her screaming with blood running down her face: she has been shot. Less 'logically', more metaphorically, soon after this there are three consecutive shots of different statues of lions who appear to 'rise' from sleep to a roaring posture: here Eisenstein symbolizes the awakening of the sailors of the Potemkin to revolutionary action.

Through most of his discussion of montage, Eisenstein stresses the importance of graphic matches between shots in achieving montage 'effects' (for example, direction of movement, shapes in the frame, patterns of light and shade). He was not afraid of fragmenting time and space, of sacrificing the continuity editing being developed in Hollywood to create new kinds of meanings. The famed Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin thus takes rather longer (some 55 minutes) than it would take the soldiers to march down the steps: events overlap, different shots of the same event are juxtaposed, and a variety

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