Lesson Plan: Cinematic Editing—from Bricks to Collisions to Un-linkage

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Ian here—

When teaching cinema studies at a whirlwind pace, my next stop after the lesson plan on basic terms I posted a few weeks ago is to devote a class to montage. The particular lesson plan here is one I used in my Avant-Garde Film and Video Art class, so it’s geared toward giving students a vocabulary for digesting for some of the more striking forms of associative cutting we’ll see over the course of the class.

This particular permutation on my usual lecture occurred following a screening rich with films composed either in whole or in part from found footage: Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (Bruce Conner, 1976), The Exquisite Hour (Phil Solomon, 1994) and Is This What You Were Born For?, pt 7: Mercy (Abigail Child, 1989). The readings I had students do were “Montage as the Foundation of Cinematography,” a chapter from Lev Kuleshov’s The Art of Cinema, Sergei Eisenstein’s “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram,” and Abigail Child’s “Locales” interview with Michael Amnasan, reproduced in her book This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film.

My lecture here is mainly focused on untangling the Kuleshov and Eisenstein, geared especially toward making the latter more approachable. To this end, I start with simple historical background. (My visual presentation for this part is available here.)

Prezi_Screenshot-montage_week-01.jpgWithout getting into the complexities of the multi-stage revolution that oversaw Russia’s transition to the Soviet Union in the early 20th century (which, I have to admit, I don’t have a completely firm grasp of), I set the scene, generally: Russia’s leadership was changing. The Tsarist government collapsed. The Bolsheviks were amassing power, even if they hadn’t fully transformed established the Soviet government. And Russia’s economy was in dire straights, gripped by revolutionary strikes.

But something was happening in the realm of Russian cinema. Although pre-revolutionary Russia had a film industry, it wasn’t the finely-tuned operation that the US’s film industry was. The system of rising through the ranks through apprenticeship and promotion was less regimented, and was falling apart through this transition period. So Russia did something radical: it instituted a film school.

The result was something that was completely different from what was happening in the American industry. In place of a studio system with craftsmen learning the ropes as they rose through the ranks (and conforming to the norms of classical style as they did so), here you had a large number of young people looking to study, to experiment, to create a new, revolutionary film industry from scratch. And, in place of the vast resources of Hollywood, you had filmmakers stuck in a situation where they could barely afford any film stock to shoot on. This created a situation in which shooting new footage took a backseat to editing pre-existing footage, theorizing about editing strategy, and then re-editing based on said theorizing.

Despite the gulf between the State Film School environment and the US film industry, though, the Russians loved American film. Lev Kuleshov, in particular, placed in charge of a large portion of this operation, spent a lot of his energy watching American films and trying to figure out what made their editing better than their pre-revolutionary Russian counterparts.

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As he taught a new generation of filmmakers, Kuleshov undertook several legendary experiments, discovering what we now refer to as the Kuleshov effect. Basically, this has to do with the assumptions created by an eyeline match cut: if we see someone in a movie looking off-screen, we are psychological predisposed to assume that the next think we see is what they’re looking at. In this way, filmmakers can manipulate the audience’s understanding of space. In the “Montage as the Foundation of Cinematography” chapter, Kuleshov details his “Created Surface of the Earth” project, in which students stitched together several locales to create the illusion of a location that contained the landmarks of multiple Russian cities.

What Kuleshov doesn’t detail in that chapter are his most famous experiments, conducted with footage of the actor Ivan Mosjoukine. This presents the opportunity for me to have some fun with the lecture.

Mosjoukine was known for his soulful, piercing gaze. Supposedly, Kuleshov marshaled footage of Mosjoukine displaying a neutral or ambiguous expression, intercutting the footage with footage of things such as soup, a child, a naked woman, and a dead body to take advantage of the psychological presumptions of the eyeline match. The experiment worked: audiences accepted the editing’s suggestion that Mosjoukine was looking at these things, and went further to assume that he was reacting to them. In the audience’s perception, his ambiguous expression suddenly turned into hunger, or grief, or sexual interest. The praises Mosjoukine won for his “subtle acting” in these scenes convinced Kuleshov that, in cinema, performance could be constructed through editing.[i]

In teaching this experiment, I like to turn to the thespian of our current moment who perhaps best exemplifies Mosjoukine’s ability to use subtle, ambiguous, or “blank” facial expressions to express in for a vast array of human emotions: Kristen Stewart(Yes, it’s an easy joke—but I’ve found it’s also an effective teaching tool!)

So, now to set up a few Kuleshovian diptychs. First: How subtle the realization of our mortality registers in Kristen Stewart’s eyes as she gazes upon this body in a coffin!

Or, wait—no! It’s not the end of life she’s gazing at. It’s the beginning: a young child. She looks sort of … annoyed … I guess …

Or is she eyeing a bowl of soup? Oh, yes! I see the pangs of hunger in her eyes …

Oh, wait, no! That’s not hunger … that’s her desire for Edward!

Or, no … is she really looking at … Jacob?!

Now that students have had an easy laugh (and, hopefully, grasped something in the process), I’m all set up to pivot to Sergei Eisenstein. I’ve found that first-year college students find Eisenstein’s “Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” to be difficult to digest, so it’s nice to set it up with a non-threatening intro.

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Like several famous Russian filmmakers of his generation, Eisenstein worked alongside Kuleshov, and absorbed and/or generally agreed with Kuleshov’s ideas about the importance of film editing. Eisenstein, though, broke with Kuleshov on some of the specifics of the psychological mechanics of editing. We could say, broadly, that he offered up a more radical theory of montage.

The Kuleshov school proposed that individual shots of a film are “bricks” or “elements,” which are then assembled into a whole in which certain linkages are established. Eisenstein, by contrast, was more interested in conflict. The theory of montage, he contended, shouldn’t be a theory of how the components of a film are assembled together. Instead, it should be a theory of how the viewer’s mind makes sense of disparate images—a process that sometimes entails the overcoming of significant conflict. I pull out a few choice quotes from the essay (easily the most famous bits).

First:

“The shot is an element of montage. Montage is an assembly of these elements.” This is a most pernicious make-shift analysis.

Here the understanding of the process as a whole (connection, shot-montage) derives only from the external indications of its flow (a piece cemented to another piece).[ii]

Second:

The shot is by no means an element of montage.

The shot is a montage cell.

Just as cells in their division form a phenomenon of another order, the organism or embryo, so, on the other side of the dialectical leap from the shot, there is montage.

By what, then, is montage characterized and, consequently, its cell-the shot?

By collision. By the conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other. By conflict. By collision.[iii]

Here, I stress that Eisenstein was not just a filmmaker who happened to be making films under a communist regime. He was a committed communist, and an erudite, autodidactic one, at that. He was well-read is not only Marx and Engles, but also in Marx’s teacher Hegel, and the concept of dialectical thinking that animates both Hegel’s and Marx’s work.

It is precisely this interest in and commitment to dialectical thought that explains why it’s not the shots that are obviously linked (in time, or in space) that interest Eisenstein. Eisenstein is interested in the shots that, on first glance, don’t seem to be linked. He’s interested in those juxtapositions that throw us for a moment, make us think about what we’re looking at. Eisenstein wanted to make communist propaganda that was truly effective, and he thought that the best way to do this was to make films that didn’t just treat viewers as vessels for ideas, but as thinkers. Having viewers read an intertitle that says “communism is good” is one thing. Assembling a string of images that abstractly associate capitalism with violence and injustice is quite another. In the latter, the the viewer’s own thought process is involved, as they struggle to make sense of the conflicting images in front of them. This means that it is in the viewer’s mind that the film’s ideas are gestated, and take root. For Eisenstein, this is the best use of cinema’s possibilities: “from the collision of two factors arises a concept,” not immediately present in each individual factor.[iv]

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Here, I show a lengthy clip from Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928): the “ascent of Kerensky” sequence and the “God and Country” sequence that immediately follows. Yes, yes, it’s so obvious and cliché that it borders on cheating. But it works so well. Although October is, in my opinion, terrible to show a class as an entire feature film (it’s long, confusing, and frankly boring in sections), it works so well as a film to show clips of.

By this point, I have exhausted the “canonical” reading for the day, and I move on to the Abigail Child interview. I ask students: How could we conceptualize Child’s conception of montage, and how does it depart from Eisenstein’s in the way that it relates to the human mind?

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This seems like a really broad question, but the interview is short enough that even students who didn’t do the reading and are frantically leaving through the PDF to find whatever passages might be relevant tend to gravitate toward the answer I’m looking for. Child has this to say about her approach to montage:

Narrative moves throughout my work. I think it is hard to remove narrative. Think of Duchamp and his word poems, trying not to make sense. It’s extremely hard to do. The mind wants to link. I want to unlink.[v]

Although both Child and Eisenstein could be characterized as experimental filmmakers, working in two very different eras and contexts to explore the possibilities of montage, it’s striking how different Child’s stated purpose is from Eisenstein’s. It is, in effect, Eisenstein’s principle made more radical, until it turns into its inversion.

Eisenstein is interested in collision and conflict because he wants to stimulate the pattern-recognition capabilities of his viewers’ minds. He creates juxtapositions that are difficult, yes, because he respects his viewers. He thinks we’ll ultimately be able to make sense of things, and he thinks that the propagandistic effect of his films will be all the more effective if the conclusions he’s aiming for are ones that are brought forth by viewers’ own mental processes.

Child, too, is interested in collision and conflict, but to the point where she actively wants to break her viewers’ pattern-recognition capabilities. Child is not interested in delivering messages; she’s interested in charting the outer limits our our minds’ sense-making capabilities. She wants to push her collisions so far that she denies us the satisfaction of minding meaning in them.

From here, I segued into a general discussion of the films viewed, with a particular focus on Mercy. This is a difficult film, but students had a lot of good things to say about it!

Of central concern to many students were the games the film seems to be playing with us, coaxing us in only to deliberately dash our hopes of meaningfulness. One of my students described this as a process of “assembly vs. disassembly.” Another one characterized it as “serendipity vs. frustration.”

Once this had been laid out, I pulled students’ attention to the role of the soundtrack. The found it quite clear how this coaxing/frustration dynamic worked in sound/image relationships. The film will often coax us into discerning a connection between sound and image: a flexing bicep paired with a creaky door, for instance, or a man with a tube in his mouth paired with the sound of a harmonium. But then, just as our minds have been suckered in to link, Child will violently unlink, through a cut to another image that radically denies our attempts to make sense of the juxtaposition. The soundtrack and the image track both have their role in this sadistic cycle. I pointed out that we could consider the film as having two axes: the “x” axis of the imagery spaced out in time, and the “y” axis of the imagery as considered alongside the soundtrack. The “y” axis will present us with just enough synchronicity, of happy accident, of moments of serendipity, that we’ll be lulled into a sense-making mood, only to be violently upset by the refusal of meaning along the “x” axis.

From here, we moved on to the Conner, and finally the Solomon. I’ve written up lesson plans on both Conner and Solomon before, so I won’t go into too much detail on those here. Suffice to say, though, I think that this unconventional mixture of canonical Soviet montage theory and the descriptions offered by one American avant-garde filmmaker of her work served its purpose in giving students a vocabulary to discuss the editing strategies of a wide range of experimental cinema … a vocabulary that would prove useful when we moved on to the class’ next big step, analyzing the compositional strategies of Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970).

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[i]. I say “supposedly,” because historical accounts on this experiment vary, so we should be appropriately skeptical towards some of the finer details, even if we accept the general premise. One problem is that the shots Mosjoukine was reacting to change depending on where the story’s being told. Another problem is that “neutral” and “ambiguous” facial expressions aren’t really the same thing, which has lead to some difficulties in recreating the experiment in more controlled circumstances.

[ii]. Eisenstein, Sergei. “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram.” In Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Edited and translated by Jay Leyda. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1949. Pg 36.

[iii]. Ibid, pg 37.

[iv]. Ibid.

[v]. Child, Abigail. “Locales Interview (with Michael Amnasan). In This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2005. Pg 207.

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