Related to collage Soviet montage theory is an approach to understanding and creating cinema that relies heavily upon editing (montage is French for “assembly” or “editing”).
Eisenstein’s view that “montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots” wherein “each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other” has become most widely accepted.
Montage Theory, in its rudimentary form, asserts that a series of connected images allows for complex ideas to be extracted from a sequence and, when strung together, constitute the entirety of a film’s ideological and intellectual power. In other words, the editing of shots rather than the content of the shot alone constitutes the force of a film. Many directors still believe that montage is what defines cinema against other specific media. Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, for example, claimed that words were themeatically inadequate, despite silent cinema’s use of intertitles to make narrative connections between shots. Steve Odin traces montage back to Charles Dickens’ use of the concept to track parallel action across a narrative.
The Kuleshov Effect – Lev Kuleshov’s work is largely considered the basis from which all montage theory is derived. The Kuleshov Group, composed of Kuleshov and his students, set out to determine the essence of cinema. Rote repetition of the components of the cinema plagued their initial findings: competent acting, provocative lighting and elaborate scenery were not intrinsic to the filmic form. In a study of two films- “an American and a comparable Russian one”- the group identified the American film as extraordinary given the short average shot time. They then inferred that the American organization of shots was perceptually appealing to audiences. Lengthy shots, as seen in the Russian film, make the task of mentally interpreting a pattern difficult. In an essay published in Vestnik Kinematografii in 1916, Kuleshov first coined the term montage to explain the phenomena of shot succession. In a pinnacle experiment, Kuleshov combined independent shots of Ivan Mosjoukine, a bowl of soup, a woman in a coffin, and a woman on a sofa. The strategic ordering of the shots had a marked effect on audience interpretation of the Mosjoukine’s neutral expression. This experiment demonstrated cinema’s unique capacity as an art form to conjure specific reactions from the relationship between indexical images. It further demonstrated that montage is dialectical in nature, and that the synthesis of images creates unique political meanings. Recently, Kuleshov’s conclusions have been brought into question. In The Kuleshov Effect: Recreating the Classic Experiment, Stephen Prince and Wayne E. Hensley contest Kuleshov’s findings as unscientific and merely a product of cinematic myth. They conclude that “Kuleshov’s effect- understood in terms of shot juxtapositions rather than associational cues- may tell us little about film or visual communication, but its lingering power tells us a lot about the symbolic uses of the past.”
In his later writings, Eisenstein argues that montage, especially intellectual montage, is an alternative system to continuity editing. He argued that “Montage is conflict” (dialectical) where new ideas, emerge from the collision of the montage sequence (synthesis) and where the new emerging ideas are not innate in any of the images of the edited sequence. A new concept explodes into being. His understanding of montage, thus, illustrates Marxist dialectics.
Compare Koestler and Freud
Concepts similar to intellectual montage would arise during the first half of the 20th century, such as Imagism in poetry (specifically Pound’s Ideogrammic Method), orCubism’s attempt at synthesizing multiple perspectives into one painting. The idea of associated concrete images creating a new (often abstract) image was an important aspect of much early Modernist art.
The Ideogrammic Method was a technique expounded by Ezra Pound which allowed poetry to deal with abstract content through concrete images. The idea was based on Pound’s reading of the work of Ernest Fenollosa, especially The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, composed by Fenollosa but edited by Pound after the author’s death, 1908.
Pound gives a brief account of it in his book The ABC of Reading (1934). He explains his understanding of the way Chinese characters were formed, with the example of the character ‘East’ (東) being essentially a superposition of the characters for ‘tree’ (木) and ‘sun’ (日); that is, a picture of the sun tangled in a tree’s branches, suggesting a sunrise (which occurs in the East). He then suggests how, with such a system where concepts are built up from concrete instances, the (abstract) concept of ‘red’ might be presented by putting together the (concrete) pictures of:
Eisenstein relates this to non-literary “writing” in pre-literate societies, such as the ancient use of pictures and images in sequence, that are therefore in “conflict”. Because the pictures are relating to each other, their collision creates the meaning of the “writing”. Similarly, he describes this phenomenon as dialectical materialism.
The third Mind
Though montage was widely acknowledged in principle as the mechanism that constitutes cinema, it was not universally believed as cinema’s essence. Lev Kuleshov, for example, expressed that though montage makes cinema possible, it does not hold as much significance as performance, a type of internal montage. Additionally, Kuleshov expressed the subservience of montage to the will of those who deploy it. In his comparisons between Russian, European, and American cinema prior to the Russian Revolution, Kuleshov could not identify a unifying theory between them and concluded a relativistic approach to filmmaking, opting for something similar to later auteur theories. The implication of an exclusive focus on montage is one in which performances become unconvincing given the actors jilted belief in his/her own significance.