In this post:
Overview of the history of montage and Soviet montage theory. In part two of this post I will detail a system of categorisation that can be used by modern storytellers for practical applications.
I’m writing this from the perspective of a filmmaker because montage studies falls under the aegis of film making studies and since I used to teach that, it is just catalogued this way I my brain. This applies to animators, comic artists, childrens book illustrators, packaging designers and visual storytellers of all kinds
Montage and the understanding of it are fundamental to how we tell stories with pictures. No matter what kind of story we are telling or what media, the relation of one image to another when presented in sequence is key. It is the very essence of our ability to sequence events and concepts and to craft them into a compelling story.
Montage: The magical effect of putting two images together in sequence such that they combine to create a greater whole.
All great storytellers have a sense of how to put images together. We develop a highly sophisticated instincts from a lifetime of absorbing story. But if you’re like me, you need more than a vague gestalt. For me, a detailed understanding of montage, that most esoteric of storytelling arts is the basis of all decisions.
It has been said that every edited scene is a montage. However, most storytellers make a distinction between a cut that changes our angle on an action in a continuous sequence and a cut that presents two different, separate elements of mise en scene that combine to create something that can’t be depicted visually.
This idea derives from the school of thought known as Soviet montage. After the revolution in Russia, film making was seen as a desirable outlet for state propaganda. It was the machine age, and the age of modernism and so a conceptualisation of film as an engineered construct appealed strongly to Soviet era film thinkers. Most famously this notion of the constructed nature of film was elaborated by Lev Kuleshov, an early experimenter in montage . By combining shots of a man with a neutral expression with, variously, a bowl of soup, a funeral and a woman, Kuleshov’s audience were made to feel that the character was hungry, sad, and desirous. Voila! The birth of montage. Two shots in sequence are combined in the mind of the viewer to create a depiction of something that isn’t depicted on screen. This bedrock of film gestalt is known as the Kuleshov effect to this day.
Another seminal figure in the development of montage theory was the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Building on Kuleshov’s experiments, Eisenstein elaborated a classification of montage. He elucidated five different types of montage and with these building blocks one could construct a film scene in a very dry, intellectual and mechanistic fashion. People were in love with sparse abstraction that had little to do with reality in the days of modernism. Despite this overly restrictive formula Eisenstein’s elaborated montage types are still an extremely influential system of categorisation to this day.
Eisenstein’s Montage Types
Rhythmic montage is the practice of editing according to music, SFX or some other action on screen. When an editor lays an action beat on a musical beat, or edits according to the marching of feet, you’re looking at a rhythmical montage. This is the heart of modern music video editing and is used in many modern films to give a pacey inevitable feel to the action. I won’t bother with an example. This technique is so commonplace it hardly bears mentioning.
Tonal montage is achieved when discontinuous images that share a similarity in emotion or theme or psychological meaning are edited together. A powerful tool used to build atmosphere to evoke an emotion or to set up a notional landscape of ideas. In this scene form Battleship Potemkin Eisenstein uses a variety of tonally linked montage shots to create the tension of an impending sea battle.
Metric montage is the practice of cutting according to an exact measurement of time despite the content of the shot. It can be used to create a sense of progress or of inevitability. It is often used to emphasise a feeling of of profound unease. When the metric edit clashes with the the score or sound effects or image rhythms it can be subtly disturbing to the audience.
The most famous example of this is of course the shower scene in Psycho. In this scene Hitchcock edits the to a predefined rhythm, ignoring the score and the action and privileging the artificial over the natural. In dropping from a a naturalistic cutting style to a mechanistic one he shifts gears and the audience feels it as a definite sense of unease. This use of the metric edit as a storytelling device lurks beneath the content, reinforcing and driving home the disquieting and shocking nature of the scene, quite apart from the content.
Overtonal is a case of combining metric, rhythmic and tonal montage to create a scene with a powerful, multi-layered gestalt. This prefigures modern editing styles which combine many types of montage together.
The famous final gunfight from the ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ is a great example There is a wonderful tonal unity in the mise en scene as the morally empty characters meet in a dead wasteland, their parched skins reflecting the dry dusty graveyard around them. There is nothing to suggest respite or solace or hope. Everything in the scene points to one thing: death. The film is cut closely to the score and is also aligned to a very tight metrical scheme that increases the pace and intensity as the scene builds to its climax. Much has been written about this fascinating masterwork of cinema and I recommend examining it in depth.
Intellectual montage is the king of montage types,. It is the one that conforms most closely to Eisenstein’s assertion that montage shots should be depictive, have a single meaning, and be neutral in context. It is the film grammar of abstraction and experimentation where the audience brings the meaning to the text. Intellectual montage is the purest expression of the Kuleshov effect.
A well known example of this is the baptism scene from the Godfather. By cutting together scenes of a the baptism and a series of bloody murders the audience is left to construct and make sense of the two disparate images. We are left with a grim sense of the ruthlessness and hypocrisy of the character Michael and of the the rules and conventions of the film world.
The End of Soviet Montage
With this articulation of a theory of montage in hand, the soviet film makers were able to move forward in the creation of a national cinema based on this rational, intellectualised and constructed film production. They were able to engineer films that could be used to bring people around to politically acceptable ways of thinking.
However by the height of Stalin’s power, more foreign films were entering Russia and the state began to cool towards this type of abstraction and experimentation. Socialist Realism was declared the official artistic style of the revolution and in line with painting, film too became highly naturalistic. Thus Russian film began to mimic world cinema practices. Rather than the Soviet originated discontinuity style of editing where the audience was expected to notice every cut and think about it, filmmakers started to work in what has come to be called the continuity style. In what has come to be called classical continuity editing the goal is to immerse the viewer in the story such that they should not notice the cuts.
In the final analysis, world cinema has moved irrevocably towards the continuity model. However montage techniques based on these early Soviet constructionist models of narrative are still widely used. In fact modern storytelling would not function without a range of montage tools which draw their lineage directly from these early pioneers.
How montage has changed and grown to become the tool set we use today is the subject of part two of this post.