Book Title: Eisenstein Rediscovered. Contributors: Ian Christie - editor, Richard Taylor - editor. Publisher: Routledge. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1993.
Chapter 14: The frame and montage in Eisenstein's 'later' aesthetics
The name of Eisenstein is synonymous with the montage film method. Unfortunately this seems to act as a barrier to understanding the full richness and complexity of his writings and films. There is, in truth, much to call the conventional view of montage into question and encourage us to return more open-mindedly to Eisenstein's work. However, part of the problem is the neglect of his later writings, due, it seems, to the lack of support they give to the view of their author as political revolutionary filmmaker par excellence. In fact, his later work, produced in the shadow of Stalinism, is treated with some suspicion, embodying as it does ideas and forms which do not rest easily beside the reasonably well-defined 'revolutionary' montage-based works, The upshot is that Eisenstein seems to divide too neatly into early and late, or montage and post-montage, or revolutionary and post-revolutionary. The lines of demarcation are many but inevitably cut across each other.
Eisenstein's work becomes more of a piece than is generally thought if we take seriously his own understanding of montage as a film construction necessarily involving a quite particular use of the film frame and its composition. This view undermines the idea of Eisenstein's later aesthetics being politically or aesthetically 'compromised' and, if true, the relationship proposed between shot and montage would apply to all montage film.
Eisenstein's later films, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, embraced historical and narrative tendencies, rejecting the montage method of The Strike, Potemkin, October and The General Line. The usual explanations for this transformation range from the effects of Stalinism and the broad tendency of Socialist Realism to Eisenstein's personal retreat from revolutionary to regressive artist. The identification of the historical subject-matter of the later films with ideological aspects of Soviet socialism at the time has of course been remarked upon, but the actual shift itself from the early montage-dominated theory to 'synthesisation' is very rarely discussed, let alone explained in any persuasive way.
Peter Wollen has suggested that Eisenstein's later writings were 'an attempt to shore up, scientifically and intellectually, an art increasingly
preoccupied with emotional saturation, ecstasy, the synchronisation of the senses, myth and primitive thought'. 1 Noël Burch, on the other hand, sees the work of the 1930s and 1940s as a result of the conflict between Eisenstein's own aesthetic and the historical-political demands of the Stalin period. For Burch, the consequence is an 'entirely imaginary cinema… ensconced a thousand leagues from the dialectical and materialist cinema he had experimented with and theorised about from 1924 to 1929'. 2 In a more theoretical vein, David Bordwell traces the difference in terms of an Althusserian epistemological shift marking the different ontological and epistemological tendencies in Soviet philosophy, namely between the behaviourist Pavlovism of the early Constructivist and Formalist period and what may be termed the Hegelian idealism and syntheticism of the 1930s and 1940s. 3 In all three interpretations, the conclusion is the same: Eisenstein is judged to have moved away from a progressive or revolutionary theory and practice towards one which was less so, or, at worst, regressive and reactionary. What I want to propose here is a link, albeit in very general terms, between the early and later writings and films. A symptom of the problem is the fact that it is the very concept for which Eisenstein is famous-montage-which he continually reworks throughout his life.
To a large extent, the above criticisms rest upon a certain idea of the Russian revolution and its aftermath, namely the assumption that the revolution was lost under Stalin. Two fairly obvious points need to be made here. First, a revolutionary art can be judged so according to either its context (a relativist view) or its intrinsic form (an essentialist view). 4 Second, revolutions make sense only as events within what is otherwise 'stable'. That is to say, most revolutions are followed, politically at least, by periods of attempted consolidation and stabilisation. Revolution for its own sake and as a permanent state is an extreme position and rarely if ever achieved in practice. The criticisms in question also imply that there was a revolutionary art in the 1920s (probably true prima facie) and that such art remains essentially revolutionary even when the political context in which it exists has ceased to be.
Eisenstein lived through the revolution and its cultural impact in the 1920s to witness the attempts of the 1930s and 1940s to transform the economy, come to terms with the Russian past and defeat the threat of Western European fascism. In the same period, ideas of revolution were replaced in the Soviet Union by a nationalist ideology promoted by Stalin. Inevitably, opposition to Stalinism has been conflated with the negation of socialism itself. But criticism of Eisenstein for producing work under Stalin, and with the latter's support, seems narrowly idealistic, implying that Soviet communism is to be equated with any other form of dictatorship and that its art is inferior to both 'revolutionary' art and 'progressive' art produced in bourgeois society. 5 The issues here are prickly, to say the
least, and judgements relating to the Stalin era are rarely detached and rational. Unavoidably, the morality of certain forms of social and political change besets most forms of analysis.
Eisenstein's later films did take on the character described above by Wollen. The two parts of Ivan the Terrible amount to a classic instance of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or 'total work of art', with an emphasis on the concepts of synchronisation of the senses, unity, excess and ecstasy. Their expressionist mise-en-scène, historical narrative as plot, compositional formalism, exaggerated acting style and what Eisenstein called 'vertical montage' are all features that demarcate these from the earlier films. Montage as the explosive perpetrator of meanings and as the means of constructing a cinematic language gives way to a different, seemingly more conservative, if not wholly conventional, form of editing. It is slower-paced, allowing development of action within the shot; and it rarely juxtaposes radically different images in metaphorical association. Such editing may, however, suggest a more complex notion of montage itself.
We must turn now to the shot considered in terms of its framing. There is a sense in which montage was originally called forth by a particular kind of framing, so meticulously composed that each shot could exist independently of any other. In these, the camera tends to be static and the image comprises a strong aesthetic structure which tolerates barely any unneccessary detail. The compositional precision and autonomy of individual shots lends them a photographic beauty quite distinct from the functionalism of, for example, Vertov's films.
Stanley Cavell takes Eisenstein's compositional formalism and 'saturation' of the frame as the determining factor for Eisensteinian montage. 6 The mode of shot framing and composition, Cavell argues, could not but result in the montage method, for there is no other means of merging or joining shots when the composition is so highly constructed and so aesthetically saturated. Cavell proposes that 'montage is necessary to film narrative only on the assumption that a certain species of frame is necessary'. Contrasting Dreyer's 'power with cinematic stillness, with the stasis of the frame' with Eisensteinian montage, Cavell is led into a fascinating discussion about how the frame, the shot's length and the discontinuity of shots might be determined by the mode of framing in much the same way that the size of the canvas is never arbitrary for a good painter, but is determined (and perhaps the determination works in both directions) by the compositional qualities of what the frame, so to speak, contains.
This view has at least the merit of breaking away from a purely intellectualist notion of montage. In other words, it sets out formal constraints and perhaps ultimately psychological ones, that are as determining of montage as are ideas about creating new meanings. Such an approach also suggests that Eisenstein's films are far from simply instantiations of a theory. It also seems to support the view that, whilst Eisenstein did radically qualify the
'explosion' view of montage in his later work, he seems never to have relinquished his commitment to the saturation of the frame. Cavell should be quoted more fully at this point, for his brief remarks on composition and montage include views which we will find echoed by Roland Barthes:
one significance of Eisensteinian montage may lie fundamentally not in the juxtaposition and counterpoint of images but in the fact which precedes that juxtaposition or counterpoint, viz. that it demands, and is demanded by, individual images which are themselves static or which contain and may compound movements that are simple or simply cumulative.… If, say, the design of light and shadow made by certain frames of the Odessa steps is less significant than the fact that this design fills and simplifies the entire frame, then the sense conveyed may be that any pose of nature or society is arbitrary and subject to human change, that no event is humanly ungraspable, and that none can determine the meaning that human beings who can grasp it are free to place upon it. 7
There are two points here. The first is a philosophical one about the conceptual relationship between montage and shot composition, when Cavell claims that primacy lies with the shot and not with montage. In other words, Eisenstein's fundamental commitment is to a type of shot and not to a means of concatenation of shots. Moreover, these two aspects are conceptually of a piece: the choice of one leads or is determined (and the choice of verb here is extremely important) by the other. Eisenstein understood this in some sense when he refused to allow the shot to be simply an element in montage, but spoke instead of it being a montage 'cell'. The biological vocabulary suggests that the connection he wanted was one of natural necessity, as in scientific law-likeness. At other times he spoke of the shot as the 'molecule' of montage. His desire to connect inseparably the shot and montage, refusing to allow them to be called elements, was an attempt to render them conceptual or theoretical terms. This reflects Eisenstein's embrace of dialectical materialism, characteristically using a physical science model as explanation in film theory. However, on Cavell's account, the link is a purely conceptual one and thus does not depend on the veracity of dialectical materialism; rather, it relies upon the idea of the static non-directional narrative quality of the Eisensteinian shot.
A second point arises from Cavell's observation that the overallness of the frame composition in the aesthetically saturated shot is crucial in how it imparts meaning. The shot's construction has an arbitrariness and thus an openness to interpretation of the real. It is on these grounds that Eisenstein's anti-realism is founded. And, paradoxically, the idea that reality is a social construction and as such indeterminable as meaning, rests on the highly determined construction of the shot and most importantly on the spectator's seeing it as construction. This amounts to an assertion of the
historical nature of society. Interestingly, Eisenstein assessed montage in similar terms as late as 1948 when, in Notes of a Film Director, he defined it as the
destruction of the indefinite and neutral, existing 'in itself, no matter whether it be an event or a phenomenon, and its reassembly in accordance with the idea dictated by attitude to this event or phenomenon, an attitude which, in turn, is determined by my ideology, my outlook, that is to say, our ideology, our outlook.… It is at that moment that a living dynamic image takes the place of passive reproduction. 8
This too is Cavell's point.
In his important 1944 essay 'Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today', Eisenstein touched on the same issue when discussing Dovzhenko's film The Earth. He remarks that the failure of the sequence with the naked woman owes something to
the oven, pots, towels, benches, tablecloths-all those details of everyday life, from which the woman's body could easily have been freed by the framing of the shot-so that representational naturalism would not interfere with the embodiment of the conveyed metaphorical task. 9
Eisenstein returns time and time again to this idea of the frame. For him, as he reveals in these remarks on The Earth, the notion of framing is a necessary aspect of the notion of montage. It is intrinsic to Eisenstein's concept, in order for it to function as montage in the strict sense, that framing is subservient to a metaphoricism. And this is perhaps the essential difference between expressive editing and Eisensteinian montage.
In his essay 'Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein', Barthes invokes the notion of the tableau. Diderot's aesthetic, he argues, rests upon the notion of the perfect theatrical play as being a 'succession of tableaux' each of which is a
pure cut-out segment with clearly defined edges, irreversible and incorruptible; everything that surrounds it is banished into nothingness, remains unnamed, while everything that it admits within its field is promoted into essence, into light, into view. 10
Moreover, for Barthes, Eisenstein's films are 'a contiguity of episodes, each one absolutely meaningful, aesthetically perfect'. These perfect frames become 'pregnant moments', according to Barthes, related to Brecht's 'social gesture'. Barthes asserts that 'the pregnant moment is just this presence of all the absences (memories, lessons, promises) to whose rhythm History becomes both intelligible and desirable'. 11
The points made by Barthes are somewhat different from Cavell's, but they share the same source-reflection on the nature of the shot and what
that implies. For Barthes, as for Cavell, there seems little doubt that montage flows from the demands of the shot, which in turn is related to the social and artistic construction of a representation, and the revelation in such a method that it is a construction.
On such a view, Eisenstein's later aesthetic becomes less problematic, largely because it does not depend on the rather superficial view of montage implied by some of Eisenstein's critics. So we find, in Ivan the Terrible for instance, the aesthetic excess of the frame and the highly composed, almost 'decadent', sensibility reinforce the notion of the 'pregnant moment' or tableau. Often in Ivan the montage is not at the level of the editing, or sequence of actual cuts between shots in the film, but in the shifting composition that occurs within the same static frame, where each shift is held as an aesthetic moment. The result is an attempt to shift and transform the representations more subtly perhaps than in the earlier, more violent, montage method. Equally important, the frame saturation found in the earlier films is not to be found in the same form in Ivan and Nevsky, at least not in the 'overall' form suggested by Cavell. The framing, composition and shot duration of Ivan preclude the explosive montage method being used; nevertheless, according to Eisenstein, the method is still montage, albeit 'vertical montage'.
Finally, in the section entitled 'The Music of Landscape' in Non-Indifferent Nature, Eisenstein makes a series of remarks which would seem to support the view being put forward here. He begins by speaking of sound:
The sphere of sound, of course, took upon itself the rhythmicisation of the screen event more easily and naturally, for under these conditions it was possible to achieve this even when the visual depiction itself was invariable and static!
But this changing situation, as we said above, could not help but influence fundamentally the very principles by which 'linear' montage is constructed-that is, the combination of visual depictions of passages within the actual visual components of the audiovisual construction.
The new position was expressed in the fact that under the new conditions the very centre of support of visual montage had to be moved to a new area and to new elements.
This support, as we have shown before, was, although often excessively 'aestheticised', the juncture between pieces, that is, the element lying outside of the depiction.
With the transition to audiovisual montage, the basic support of the montage of its visual components moves into the passage, into the elements within the visual depiction itself.
And the basic centre of support is no longer the element between the shots, the juncture, but the element within the shot, the accent within the
piece, that is, the constructive support of the actual structure of visual depiction. 12
Eisenstein is here referring to the shot and its internal construction: the 'visual depiction', as he calls it, 'the accent within the piece'. He cites the montage moment at the juncture, if we can call it that, between image and sound, so that the raw material of this dialectic is the shot as construction, plus the sound track. Attention is being drawn to montage understood in the vertical sense, where meaning is articulated in the interweaving of the shot's internal elements.
My intention has been to assert, in summary terms, the primacy of the shot in Eisenstein's theory. Whatever the changes in his conception of montage, there is a continued commitment in his writings to this notion of the shot and in many ways it provides the link between the early and the later aesthetics. There is nothing here that cannot be found in Eisenstein; all I have tried to do is to change the emphasis in our reading of his theory, against what is its more orthodox reading today.
The argument so far-or at least the attempt to set out the context or the elements for a future, more rigorous, argument-questions the view that there was a substantial break or difference between early and later Eisenstein (either in theory or in practice). This is not to say that there were no differences at all. Of course there were, but it now appears that these were shifts of emphasis rather than essence. Indeed in the final essays, particularly those on the synthesisation of the senses and pathos, Eisenstein seems to be moving towards the true centre of his aesthetic in a way that his early writings on montage did not. For it was always synchronisation-and here the difference with Brecht is crucial-that was at stake. His early montage theory was an attempt to establish a link between the cut-outs, the tableaux, the perfect aesthetic shots, and conjoin them within some overall idea or view. In synchronisation, that desire to provide each shot with the image that saturates each moment of the film, that gives the film its governing shape and idea is, in its embrace of aesthetic excess, a key not only to the later films but to the earlier ones as well. 13
In these endnotes Eisenstein is usually referred to as E, while works cited frequently or by several authors are abbreviated in accordance with the list below. References to archival sources held in the Central State Archive of Literature and the Arts, Moscow (TsGALI) are given in the following standard form of three numbers: fond, followed by opis' and then edinitsa khraneniya.
Barna / Y. Barna, Eisenstein (London and Bloomington, Ind.: 1973).
Christie and Elliott / I. Christie and D. Elliott (eds), Eisenstein at 90 (Oxford: 1988).
EAW / J.Leyda and Z. Voynow, Eisenstein at Work (New York: 1983).
ESW 1 / S.M. Eisenstein, Selected Works (ed. and trans. R. Taylor) Vol. 1: Writings 1922-34 (London and Bloomington, Ind.: 1988).
ESW 2 / S.M. Eisenstein, Selected Works (ed. M. Glenny and R. Taylor, trans. M. Glenny) Vol. 2: Towards A Theory of Montage (London and Bloomington, Ind.: 1991).
FF / R. Taylor and I. Christie (eds), The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939 (London and Cambridge, Mass.: 1988).
Film Form / S.M. Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (ed. and trans. J. Leyda) (New York: 1949).
IFF / R. Taylor and I. Christie (eds), Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema (London and New York: 1991).
IP / S.M. Eisenstein, Izbrannye proizvedeniya v shesti tomakh (Selected Works in Six Volumes) (Moscow: 1964-71). The numeral indicates the volume number: e.g. IP 1.
Leyda / J. Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (London: 1960).
Memories / Immoral Memories: An Autobiography by S.M. Eisenstein (trans. H. Marshall) (Boston, Massachusetts: 1983 and London: 1985).
NIN / S.M. Eisenstein, Non-Indifferent Nature (trans. H. Marshall) (New York: 1987).
Nizhny / V. Nizhny, Lessons with Eisenstein (ed. and trans. I. Montagu and J. Leyda) (London: 1962).
Seton / M. Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein: A Biography (New York: 1960).