“Cinema is Montage.”—Sergei Eisenstein
While cinema was still only a toddler in the artworld, Sergei Eisenstein wrote several essays on his seminal theoretical concern: Montage Theory, and while he wasn’t the first to write about montage—Kuleshov had demonstrated his “effect” by at least 1921 and Pudovkin wrote about it in the mid-20s—Eisenstein’s definition of montage as a dialectical “collision of independent shots—shots even opposite to one another” has become the most influential concept in all of Film Theory. Montage is cinema’s unique formal quality. Cubism in painting and Imagism in poetry were moving toward similar aesthetic goals, but the limitations of their mediums prevented the revolutionary principles of montage to be fully realized. Montage isn’t about seeing the totality of an object and its contradictions (like Cubism) or showing concrete images in non-metrical rhythms (like Imagism)—it’s about bringing forth an uncontained and brand new concept out of a succession of contradictory images. As montage “becomes,” each passing image dies, replaced by an abstract concept created through poetic juxtaposition. At the end of the movie the emotional impact is not based on any one particular image or even the final image—its the alchemical product of the entire film’s collective montage.
Eisenstein not only described montage’s fundamental quality—it’s ability to generate new ideas—he also defined five specific “methods of montage” that could be employed to specifically generate certain emotional and intellectual states. During his career as film theorist he used several different metaphors to define montage, but it was his famous essay from 1929—Methods of Montage—that set out his clearest explanation of montage’s different forms. For me, Methods of Montage is an absolutely critical introduction to the entire concept of “film language;” for what is film language but montage and the syntactical structures it follows? In his essay, Eisenstein lays out five ambiguous, overlapping, yet still distinct methods:
Each method builds successively on the last—incorporating the former’s function as a “secondary-dominant.” Thus within Intellectual montage you can see metered patterns, on-screen rhythmic variation, emotionally charged images, and unexpected emotional subtexts—all in the service of generating new intellectual concepts.
Montage itself is a fairly simple concept to grasp—two different pictures held next to each other will create a unique emotional response in the viewer. However, Eisenstein’s five methods are not simple at all, and I’ve been struggling to figure out just where the borderlines between his methods are. To help us both better understand Eisenstein’s definitions of each method of montage I want to look at their use in a film by a director whose appreciation for Eisenstein and his theories is extensive and well documented.
“Film is violence.”—Brian De Palma
While his theories have been influential to every filmmaker who started making movies after 1929, certain auteurs have placed a greater deal of credit at Eisenstein’s feet than others. Brian De Palma, in particular, has repeatedly spoken of his debt to the famous Soviet theorist—modeling a sequence from The Untouchables on Eisenstein’s own “Odessa steps sequence” and even justifying his prediliction for violent themes by invoking Eisenstein’s famous “film is conflict” maxim; so it is in light of this artistic lineage that I look at the various Methods of Montage in De Palma’s most critically revered film, Blow Out.
Metric, the first and simplest montage strategy, also renders the simplest emotional effect. Metric montage cuts are made based on “the absolute lengths of the pieces…tension is obtained by the effect of mechanical acceleration by shortening the pieces while preserving the original proportions.” According to Eisenstein the cuts should be arranged like music, repeating phrases according to a preestablished rhythm. The goal of Metric montage is a “physiological effect…bring[ing] into unison the “pulsing” of the film and the “pulsing” of the audience” without arousing a significant emotional or intellectual response. In fact, Eisenstein mentions that “only the broadly dominant content-character of the piece is regarded.” In Metric montage the cut is made to make the shot a certain length, not to create a certain poetic juxtaposition or leave the viewer with a particular resonant image.
In Blow Out Metric montage is only used in a few scenes of action. De Palma is far too conscious of his film’s subtext to avoid metaphoric associations altogether, and for the most part he has little use for cutting between shots with “synonymous content.” However, he is first and foremost a visual stylist, and he never avoids any cinematic techniques entirely. So there is some Metric montage during moments of fairly extreme tension. When Jack dives into the lake to save Sally, there is a tense underwater Metric sequence.
Rhythmic montage is undoubtedly the most paradoxical of Eisenstein’s methods because it seems to embody conflicting functions, but the main thrust of its definition is always the same—cuts based on the movement-in-frame as opposed to the predetermined length of the shot. Now, the primary example Eisenstein gives in his essay utilizes what I’ll call arrhythmic montage. Here, images of a clear rhythm (i.e., drum beat, clock ticking) are inserted which conflict with the set meter of the montage. For example, at the climax of Blow Out, Sally is being murdered in front of a large American flag while Jack runs through a crowd—in slow motion—to save her. De Palma intersplices images of the Liberty Bell ringing in real time which clash with the motion of both Sally’s attack and Jack’s run. This creates an intense feeling of suspense, bordering on chaos.
As far as I can tell, this use of conflicting on-screen rhythms is Eisenstein’s main thrust in defining Rhythmic montage; however, Eisenstein also seems to imply, in a way, that almost all Classical editing is rhythmic in nature.
Here the actual length does not coincide with the mathematically determined length of the piece according to a metric formula. Here its practical length derives from the specifics of the piece, and from its planned length according to the structure of the sequence.
and later, in his chapter on Tonal montage…
In rhythmic montage it is movement within the frame that impels the montage movement from frame to frame. Such movements within the frame may be of objects in motion, or of the spectator’s eye directed along the lines of some immoble object.
So he’s basically just saying that when something moves in the frame, it “impels the montage movement” forward to the next frame. Presumably it could correlate or clash with the movement in the previous frame, depending on the desired emotional effect.
My example from Blow Out—indeed most of the movie—employs this sort of Rhythmic effect, also. For instance, as Sally lunges forward, the film cuts in the same direction she’s moving. As she’s jerked backward we cut to a reaction shot of Jack—practically lost in the crowd. As the bell swings back and forth, the camera jumps from Sally to Jack—the camera moves according to the action. This sort of rhythmic continuity is part-and-parcel with traditional Hollywood editing—the entire concept of “cutting-on-action” is essentially a form of simple Rhythmic montage.
Tonal montage is by far my favorite, and its also one of the easiest to recognize. Many of the most intense moments in movie history are the products of clever tonal montage. “Here montage is based on the characteristic emotional sound of the piece—of its dominant. The general tone…” of each shot is the determining factor in the cut. Blow Out abounds with such juxtapositions, but none are more resonant than the resolution of its thunderous climax. The transition from orgasmic fireworks to bleak winter sky describes Jack’s transition from possible glory to permanent despair better than any passage of dialogue or heavyweight acting ever could have.
Overtonal montage is the most difficult method in Eisenstein’s essay. The problem with “Overtonal” montage is first in understanding what a musical overtone is.
Overtones are all the frequencies of a sound above the “fundamental frequency.” So, when you play an instrument it creates a sound—a certain pitch like middle C, but in addition to the frequencies that create that C are dozens of other, quieter frequencies created unintentionally by the vibration of the instrument’s body. Most instruments are designed to keep these overtones pleasing to the ear, but they are different nonetheless—they’ll always have a hint of dissonance.
Overtonal montage [comes] from the conflict between the principal tone of the piece (its dominant) and the overtone…The fourth category [Overtonal]—a fresh flood of pure physiologism…acquiring a degree of intensification by direct motive force.
Earlier I mentioned that each montage method builds on the last—Tonal montage on top of Rhythmic on top of Metric. Overtonal montage is, by definition, montage that draws its power from the conflict between these co-existing montage styles. The sequence cited for Rhythmic montage perfectly describes this intense affect.
As Jack heroically sprints through the crowd, the Rhythmic cuts increase dramatic tension—will he save her? This is the “principal tone of the piece”—excitement. In conflict with this messianic emotional investment in Jack’s heroism is an extremely detached poetic voice questioning the nature of Sally’s death and Jack’s role in it—Intellectual montage, which we will talk about next. The juxtaposition of the American flag with Sally’s death culminating in the instant of the ringing of the Liberty Bell creates a quite undisguised Intellectual metaphor—America itself is literally killing Sally. The tension between these two montage goals creates overtones—”a fresh flood of pure physiologism.”
Metric montage engages the body physically—quickening the pulse. Rhythmic engages the body emotionally by bringing that pulse in tune with the on-screen movement. Tonal engages the emotions directly, and Overtonal brings the body’s full range of physiological responses to life.
Intellectual montage is montage not of generally physiological overtonal sounds, but of sounds and overtones of an intellectual sort: i.e., conflict-juxtaposition of accompanying intellectual affects.—Eisenstein on Intellectual Montage
Early in Blow Out, there’s a part where Jack is recording sounds for his upcoming film while he listens to the news. The sequence does two things: it foreshadows the rest of the film, and it creates a distinctly “intellectual” (rational rather than emotional) idea. By juxtaposing Jack’s prophetic recordings with details concerning later events in the plot, De Palma is implicating Jack in Sally’s demise and the movie’s shocking ending. One of De Palma’s major themes in general—and in this film in particular—is the way that technology can manipulate the media. This intense split screen poetry suggests, to me, that Jack is literally recording the news itself, Phantastically creating the later events of the film which deliver the “perfect scream” needed to round out this very sound library.
Though, judged as “phenomena” (appearances), they seem in fact different, yet from the point of view of “essence” (process), they are undoubtedly identical.—Eisenstein on Intellectual Montage
“To determine the nature of montage is to solve the specific problem of cinema.”—Eisenstein
Montage is something I sometimes take for granted. I find that as the images float by particular frames often stand out as beautiful, but the intention behind the “cut” often goes unquestioned. Sometimes its unmistakable—like shock cuts. Cutting from a child dying to the children’s parents laughing with a cop (Sabotage, Hitchcock—1936) is an extremely transparent example of Tonal montage, but most of the time it’s more ambiguous. A reading can be enriched by looking at the simple differences between frames and questioning their subtextual significance. Blow Out—with its elliptical narrative, political intent, and aesthetic greatness—makes a perfect case study in montage, but I, by no means, feel like the case is closed. Eisenstein’s definitions are nothing if not obscure, and while I’ve read dozens of articles and explanations, watched countless examples, and fretted over the intricacies of Soviet Montage Theory for a few months now, I really don’t feel like there is one specific application of his words. If anything they can be interpreted numerous, contradictory ways—some of which I’ve tried to highlight here. Eisenstein himself saw montage as not only the single most unique and defining aspect of cinema, but also the best chance the human race had at reaching an understanding of the realities of the modern world. Today, in the era of Fox News, CNN, and their ilk, Blow Out‘s paranoid fantasies have come to life, and our need to understand the ways in which images affect us is more important than ever.
In my opinion, the question of the overtone is of vast significance for our film future. All the more attentively should we study its methodology and conduct investigation into it.—Sergei Eisenstein