Written Assignment 2: Sergei Eisenstein: Formalism and Collision Montage

Wheeler C.J 920402233

Phyllis Dannhauser


15/ 05 / 2006

Table of Contents

1. Introduction 2. Formalism 3. Sergie Eisenstein: Theories and analysis 3.1 Battleship Potemkin 3.2 Eisenstein and the Mounting of shots 4. “Odessa Steps” and the Eisenstein’s Theories: An analysis 5. Conclusion 6. Bibliography

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1. Introduction Since the beginnings of film there have been two major directions in terms of production: realism and formalism. In 1895 the Lumiere brothers established revolutionary moving images with their primitive documentary of “The Arrival of a Train”(1895), only seven years later George Melies changed the oral and written tradition into a visual narrative with “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) that would establish film into the complex and highly cohesive medium that it is today. Therefore, “In many respects, the Lumieres can be regarded as the founders of the realist tradition of cinema, and Melies of the formalist tradition”(Giannetti, 2005:2). Over the past hundred years of film the term “realism” has remained relatively true to what was established in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers, it is however the development of the formalist approach that has captured the imagination of the filmmakers and theorists. Giannetti describes formalism as follows: “Film art doesn’t consist of a reproduction of reality, but a translation of observed characteristics into forms of the medium…Formalists are always concerned with patterns, methods of reconstructing reality into aesthetically appealing designs.”(Giannetti, 2005: 483, 487) From Italian neo-realism to German expressionism, filmmakers of the world have shaped and manipulated the form and function of film in order to satisfy the demand on the medium at that time. With the introduction of editing to film art, a new dimension to the creation and compilation of narrative was born. Sergei Eisenstein was part of the Soviet cinema era and was a true formalist with his theories of art and film form, and of collision montage in particular. This essay will discuss the above quotation (from Giannetti) regarding formalism and support the outlined elements of formalism with Eisenstein’s theories and film form in general. In addition to this, Eisenstein’s “Odessa Steps” sequence from Battleship Potemkin (Soviet Union, 1925) will be used in support of his formalist theories of collision montage. 2. Formalism The term “formalism” is often used in the same breath as expressionism, but as Fourie (2001: 197) explains the important difference between the two can be found in that although both are… “Capable of interpreting reality or an aspect thereof in specific ways…Formalism is more exact and pronounced in its description(s)…it gives a more concrete and “scientific” description of film’s codes (techniques) enabling film to be a unique form of expression.”(Fourie, 2001:197). The formalist approach adopts the view that the form of a film is in symbiosis with the medium, hence deliberate stylising and distortion is considered tools of the trade. With an accurate reproduction of reality left to the realists, formalist like Sergie Eisenstein are more concerned with how through the use of 3

cinematic elements (e.g. editing, composition, sound, perspective, etc.) the meaning of the film can be embedded within the very shape of the production with dramatic flair and style. In other words the form is favoured over the content with regards to the meaning of the film, therefore formalist value the canvas film offers and utilises this as a means to communicate a perspective of reality rather than reality its self. As Giannetti (2005) and Fourie (2001) indicate, formalism differs from expressionism in that formalist are more structured in their expression of thematic elements, and are therefore concerned with creating a sense of consistency with regards to form unique to the subjective interpretation of experience. These interpretations are at the forefront of achieving a visual matrix containing appealing designs that enhance (and for propaganda – distort) the content of the message communicated. The criticism that formalist have with regards to the realist approach is that even though realists attempt to imitate reality as closely as possible, this approach is fundamentally flawed due to the subject nature of experience, and denying or approximating this fact is too undermine cinema as a medium. According to the developmental psychologist David R. Shaffer, there are two processes at work when attempting to understand “reality”: Perception and Sensation. Sensations are generally universal, but sensations alone will not allow an understanding of reality, we need to categorize and interpret these sensory inputs. The enrichment theory specifies “we must add to sensory stimulation by drawing on stored knowledge in order to perceive a meaningful world” (Shaffer, 2002:181). Because each individual’s ability to exact information from sensory stimulation (e.g. any given film) differs as a result of experience, the realist tradition is by no means a “pure” approach, rather a loose term to approximate reality as objectively as possible. The formalist approach abandons such approximations and instead embraces the conventions of film as a means of projecting ideas, thoughts, and meanings to their viewers. The resultant production is consequently reinterpreted by the viewers and a new meaning is then created, therefore formalists deliberate stylising and distortion of their raw materials is justified in order to ensure the communicated message is received and understood in general terms.

3. Sergie Eisenstein: Theories and analysis Sergie Eisenstein was an intrinsic part of the soviet cinema era along with Vsevolod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko. Eisenstein’s work was influenced by the avant-garde film experiments at the time and that were accompanied by theoretical text that added to the complex and metaphorical meanings behind the visual array of juxtaposed images. Eisenstein’s work from the 1920’s to the mid-1940’s illustrated Eisenstein’s creative film theories and ability to manipulated time and space through the collision of pre4

planned images in order for the viewer to arrive at a new intellectual conclusion brought about by the juxtaposed images, rather than as a result of the images simply being paired together. Giannetti (2005:167) describes Eisenstein’s approach to editing in that it “{editing}…ought to be dialectical: The conflict of two shots (thesis and antithesis) produce a wholly new idea (synthesis)”. The process of contrasting two shot to arrive at a sense of synthesis is one example of how Eisenstein used the philosophical notion of constant change and the transference of energy to create the intellectual montage that could be used to portray meaningful messages with style and fluidity without being overtly perceived and questioned by the general public. Because of the emotional impact such an approach holds with regards to the ability of Eisenstein’s theories to induce “psychological guidance of the spectator”(Monaco, 2000:401), the Central Committee of the Communist party commissioned Eisenstein to produce the propagandistic film Potemkin (Soviet Union, 1925). 3.1 Battleship Potemkin The propagandist film was originally called “Year 1905” and involved the mass murder of Soviet citizens by the Cossacks, it was based on the unsuccessful revolution of 1905 and was titled “Potemkin” because of the mutiny on the battleship (Potemkin) that was a resultant factor in the many deaths that followed. The film is comprised of five acts: “Men and Maggots”, “Drama on the Quaterdeck”, “an Appeal from the Dead”, “The Odessa Steps” and “Meeting the Squadron”(Turning points in history: 73). The fourth act (“Odessa Steps”) is the famous montage of soviet civilians awaiting Potemkin, who are then trapped by Cossack soldiers marching down the stairs firing in unison and mounted Cossack soldiers whipping and beating civilians at the bottom of the steps at will. With Cossack soldiers approaching from above and below the steps served as a mass graveyard of innocent victims. Eisenstein’s reproduction of this event comes after only two-decades form the original happenings, therefore the events that unfolded were still fresh in the hearts and minds of soviet citizens, hence the pragmatic value of a stylised reproduction to the Communist party is evident. Despite the source of the commission and the small passage of time from the original event, Eisenstein remained true to his theories of film by emphasising and engaging his “{its}…audience in a dialectical process instead of overpowering them with a calculated emotional experience”(Monaco, 2000:403). Battleship Potemkin is a stylised reproduction of the revolution and is truly a formalist film in that the reality of the portrayed events is heavily distorted and manipulated in order to project a response that is above the predictable emotional responses. Eisenstein makes the audience draw on their visual cognition to interpret the events in such a way as to involve the viewer, not to the extent that audience would envision themselves at the battle but through the nature of causality and the resultant dialectical meaning. As


mentioned, Eisenstein presents his audience with a perspective that revolved around an emotional overtone that need little emphasis in order to capture the multi-dimensional way humans perceive the world. 3.2 Eisenstein and the Mounting of shots Eisenstein’s coined the term “montage” (“mounting of shots”) and in his theoretical essay “Methods of Montage” he concludes that there are five types of montage. The following table is taken from “Turning points in History” (p.g.72) on Eisenstein’s five types of Montage:
Metric Montage Rhythmic Montage Tonal Montage Overtonal Montage Intellectual Montage Determined solely by the lengths of shots. The cutting rate was based upon the rhythm of movement that occurs within the shot. Cutting determined by the emotional tone of the shots. A combination of Metric, Rhythmic and Tonal montage. Determined by the conflict-juxtaposition of accompanying intellectual affects.

Eisenstein believed that conflict and contrast is created in two ways: Conflict montage within a single shot and Conflict montage between different shots. When conflicts with a frame and juxtaposed with another shot that also has conflict within the frame, the resultant idea created is the aim of the Intellectual/attraction montage. Fourie (2001:203) highlights such a montage in Eisenstein’s “Strike” (Soviet union, 1925): “…the images of strikers who are pursued and shot down by soldiers…are alternated with images of oxen being slaughtered at an abattoir”, the resultant idea of such juxtaposing is that the workers are being slaughtered like animals. Fourie questions Eisenstein’s labelling of the “intellectual” Montage because he believes that the “conflict between two images which form an emotional rather than an intellectual association {that} gives rise to new meaning” (Fourie, 2001:203), however it is in the emotional content and conflict with the juxtaposed frames that when paired with a seemingly unrelated shot that one can then draw a (intellectual) conclusion. Despite the variety of terms, juxtaposing conflict shots in order to arrive at a new meaning is generally referred to as a collision montage or intellectual montage. Such techniques are a vivid example of how formalist distort and manipulated film as a medium “to create visually appealing designs”(Giannetti, 2005: 483, 487) that enhance the filmmakers ideas within any given shot or sequence. Fourie summarises Eisenstein’s approach to montage as follows… “Eisenstein…used montage techniques to ‘edit’ reality in a premeditated way. Apart from dialectical philosophy, the basis of his montage theory may be traced to the view that realism effects an artistic 6

experience which lulls the recipients: they can feel like heroes…without actually doing anything about it…Eisenstein sought to analyse and fully control the power that art exercises over the beholder, so as to harness art (images) in the advancement of a cause” (Fourie, 2001:203)

4. “Odessa Steps” and the Eisenstein’s Theories: An analysis The montage sequence of the “Odessa Steps” is the most significant example of a montage in Potemkin, in which Eisenstein makes use of his collision montage in which he “replaced the conventional logic of dramatic action by images arbitrarily chosen to create the maximum psychological impact on the audience” (Turning points in History: 75). Eisenstein also uses montage in this sequence to expand and compress time with dramatic results. The beginning of the sequence is marked by the civilians cheering the mutinous sailors, soon after which the massacre begins. In figure 1.1 a women stands with her dead son in her arms while the Cossack soldiers approach from the top of the stairs. The position of the women is centre screen with the Cossacks dominating the upper third, while murdered bodies litter the stairs between the two. This foreground, middle ground and background composition reveals what has happened (murdered bodies – middle ground), who is responsible (Cossack soldiers – background) and who might be next (women – foreground), this is referred to as conflict of planes (Fourie, 2001:202). The streak of light that emerges between the women and the soldiers separates the two sides of dead bodies (conflict of lighting) and create a sense of understanding between the women and her antagonist. The bodies that scatter the staircase represent a graphic contrast in that the horizontal lines created by the stairs and being “broken” by the lifeless figures that now lie there. This graphic conflict de-emphasise the stairs as a whole and singles out the path between the women and the approaching soldiers, again this creates a strong visual link between foreground and background. Through the elements described this shot creates a sense of hope as the women pleads with the soldiers to stop the bloodshed, while at the same time it still maintains a sense of inevitability about the women’s fate.

Figure 1.1. As the people of Odessa gather to hail the rebellious soldiers on


Potemkin, soldiers appear. The crowd runs down the steps in horror as the soldiers fire. A young boy is killed; his mother picks him up and turns to face the soldiers at the top of the steps.

In contrast, Figure 1.2 the women’s face is revealed only to be shadowed by the approach oppressors. Eisenstein placed emphasis on the off-screen presents of the soldiers as part of the wholeness captured in the shot. The women now stands alone in the frame with her dead son and the high camera angle emphasis her vulnerability and innocents as she passively stands her ground, hoping for the unlikely (they will spare her) and realising the probable (they will kill her). The graphic conflict of figure 1.1 now gives way to the smooth continuous shadows of the Cossacks, impeded only by the women and subsequently her will to represent the dead that have already fallen. When figure 1.1 and 1.2 are juxtaposes the dominating omnipresent Cossacks in the upper half of the frame (in figure 1.1) give way to more murdered bodies at the top of figure 1.2. At the same time in the first shot the women is surrounded by her fallen friends and family and in the second she is “surrounded” by the Cossack’s shadows. This contrast of positioning and closure suggest to the audience that despite the dramatic way in which the women is portrayed, her fate is part of a collective carnage and the use of an emotional plea is powerless against the unified oppressors.

Figure 1.2 As she advances, pleading with them, they prepared to fire. The officer lowers his sabre and a volley is fired, cutting down the mother and child.

To fully appreciate Eisenstein’s collision montage, one needs to understand why the shots were juxtaposed in such a fashion. Hypothetically, if figure 1.2 was placed first and then followed by figure 1.1 the viewer would arrive at a different emotional and intellectual conclusion. By showing Figure 1.2


first we would lose the slither of hope felt with figure 1.1. Even though by reversing the shot sequence the continuity of the shots would be better in terms of the presence of the Cossacks (shadow then soldiers). Eisenstein has placed the shots as they stand to create the tertiary idea of oppression, this is because the first shot represents innocence, hope, victimisation and sets up the confrontation, while through the eye-level camera the viewer is force to believe that there may be a chance that they will spare her for two reasons: firstly the eye-level camera associates the viewer with the women and hence we would want her (and our widow to the story) to survive, secondly the women is the only civilian in the frame who is alive and the pressing army that approaches seem overly powerful and unnecessary for dealing with a childless mother, hence the audience lingers with the thought of her survival. Because of the sense of hope and the empathetic camera of figure 1.1 and the omnipresent soldiers and intimidating unsympathetic camera in figure 1.2, the result causality of the two shots is known before the viewer is shown the women’s murder. When the shot of the women dying is shown the audience has already judged the emotional affect of the soldiers behaviour and instead the shot of the women being murdered is used simply for closure and continuity rather than to show the viewer what happened next. This editing style is the reason Pokemtin is a propagandist film and hence the above formalist elements are justified in enhancing the psychological pathway Eisenstein wants the audience to travel down. Throughout the sequence innocents is portrayed in a variety of forms. Most of the close-ups are of women and their suffering (i.e. crying women with their hands holding there faces, etc), mothers are divorced from the very life they gave, children’s lives are taken prematurely, and the elderly are put to sleep without dignity. These are part of the propaganda process designed to induce a sense of unjustified slaughter by the Cossacks. In one sequence a mother is shot while tending to her baby in a carriage, the mother’s uncontrollable limp body pushes over the edge, causing it to roll uncontrollable down the massive flight of stairs. The baby travels from being with its mother, past the dead bodies that litter the staircase, to eventually colliding with a fallen elderly man. This movement down the steps highlights the idea that the oppressors have stolen life from the masses. Eisenstein paired this image of the child rolling down the stairs (innocents) with close-ups of the suffering experienced by the civilians, in doing so Eisenstein has juxtaposed images of the beginning of life (the baby), the middle-aged (dying civilians) and ultimately the elderly (the dead man’s body) in an attempt to create the notion that within the context of the chaos a child was “accelerated” through life and ultimately to death. “Formalist are concerned with patterns and methods of reconstructing reality” (Gainnetti, 2005:483), in the given example there is a clear pattern of progression and interrupted innocents between the individual shots and the ones that follow. As the child plummets down the staircase, the strong horizontal vectors of the staircase are


broken as the wheels of the carriage roll over each step, when the carriage turns over there is no need to show the baby dead. Unlike the mother holding her dead child, the babies death would take the entire sequence into emotional territory that would distract from the impact the sequence as a whole, Eisenstein has already suggested the babies death from the carriage rolling down the stairs paired with the dying civilians, and in addition earlier in the sequence the audience was shown people getting trampled on – the chance of an infant surviving has already been indicated. The sequence is also a continuous comparison between the unified and emotional uninvolved Cossacks and the dispersed widespread panic of the civilians. The shots of the Cossack army is always shot from a distance and the odd occasion of a close-up is of the soldiers marching boots or aimed rifles, the camera perspective is clearly positioned to emotionally involve the viewer in the civilians struggle and not the war campaign of the Cossacks. Eisenstein cuts between these close-ups of the soldiers (boots or guns) and the extreme long shots of them invading the screen to create the idea of being trapped or enclosed, all that is left between these extreme jumps in camera distance is the dying and dead. Eisenstein also makes use of metaphors, near the end of the sequence there are three shots of a stone lion: one asleep, one awaking and one ready to pounce. These shots are in quick succession and Eisenstein considered the sequence an embodiment of a metaphor: “The very stones roar.” (Giannetti, 2005:170). Eisenstein manipulates time and space in order to bring the inanimate stone statue to life, again the shots of the lion itself and the resulted sequence are combined to symbolise the inhuman events that are taking place, the lion statue is almost like a guardian of the people that realised to late that its people are dead. This manipulation of time and space is fundamentally a formalist technique and is used to great affect with this famous “lion awakening” sequence 5. Conclusion The technical advancements (e.g. sound, wide screen, HDTV) have given rise to many new challenges and obstacles to film production; these advancements have dramatically increased the number of cinematic possibilities and enhanced the viewing experience as a whole. Audiences want to be moved and challenged to think about what they are being exposed to and the tools filmmakers use to communicate their message has a dramatic influence in how theses messages are portrayed and constructed. Realists would argue that to embrace such conventions (e.g. CGI) would be to undermine the role of the audience as an active participant in communication process. In other words, the audience


is merely exposed to the ideology of the production and is not given the “freedom” of interpretation that comes with realist methods of constructing films. The hypodermic needle theory would support the persuasive nature of the formalist approach, in that subjective interpretations are hindered by specific messages that result from the manipulation of form and function in cinema and other forms of visual media. As a result of this manipulation, propaganda has surfaced in film as a powerful and influential political tool for embedding desired emotions and ideologies into a mass audience. Editing, and the montage in particular, have allowed filmmakers to manipulate time and space with dramatic effect. In doing so, filmmakers like Sergie Eisenstein can create a visual array of meaningful spectacles that strongly suggest a specific emotion or idea (e.g. frequent or rapid cutting suggest a heightened sense of tension and action). Filmmakers of the world have shaped and manipulated the form and function of film in order to satisfy the demand on the medium at that time and Eisenstein’s Potemkin is no exception. Potemkin is a milestone in cinematic history, and with it Eisenstein has illustrated that his theories of montage are effective as a formalist convention of manipulation. As Giannetti (2005: 483, 487) suggests, formalist like Eisenstein have reconstructed reality (i.e. the events of the soviet revolution in 1905) in such a way as to emphasize the resultant/suggested ideas that arise when a specific patterns (e.g. Eisenstein’s collision montage) are presented to the audience. Therefore film art is a purposeful and intentional means of expression, rather than an objective approach of reproducing reality that is filled with an infinite number of interpretations.


6. Bibliography • • • • • ANONOMYS. Turning Points In History, 71-76. FOURIE, P. 2001. Media Studies Vol. 2: Content, Audience and Production, 1st ed. South Africa: Juta, 196-204. GIANNETTI, L. 2005. Understanding Movies, 10th ed. Case Western Reserve University: Pearson Education, 2-487. MONACO, J. 2000. How To Read A Film, 3rd ed. USA: Oxford University Press, 401-403. SHAFFER, D. 2002. Developmental Psychology, 6th ed. USA: Wadsworth, 180-182.