Film History part II
written by J.A.Bohr
Today one can jump onto the internet and pull up images from throughout Film history. Thousands of web sites boast summaries of the "Top Ten" films of all-time. Listed near the top of almost every list is a film by Sergei Eisenstein, called Battleship Potemkin. Held together by its theme more than by its story, Battleship Potemkin chronicles the "ability of a single revolutionary action on a battleship to unite a whole people".1 Released in 1925, this film was banned in many countries because of its views on Workers vs. Establishment. Many leaders feared the reactions of their people after being exposed to Eisenstein's Bolshevik views. After viewing the film myself, I became intrigued at the style of editing which this film represents, Montage. I needed to understand why a style of editing could take a storyline which bored me through content and project it in such a way that I still wanted to watch the next scene, to experience how it worked with what I had just seen.
The Kuleshov Workshop
It was the shortage of raw undeveloped film stock that began the experiments in editing. In the Moscow Film School, Lev Kuleshov taught students on how to edit film for maximum effect. Edits could have three cinematic expressive functions; serving a Narrative function, an Intellectual response, or an Emotional response. A cut could be used as a Narrative device by answering a question the audience might ask from the scene. If a character in a film turns their head abruptly, an edit to the "object" our character "looked" at seems highly believable and is usually not questioned by the viewer. An Intellectual edit is where two scenes are cut into each other to give an unseen impression. An example of this comes from Eisenstein's first film, Strike, where a scene of an ox's slaughter is spliced between shots of soldiers being killed. This would leave the impression that the soldiers were caught in a slaughter. The last response an edit can have is Emotional. Kuleshov felt there were four ways of emotional affecting a scene; 1) rhythmically changing a scene through the use of gradually shorter or longer shots, 2) cutting a sequence tonally through darker or lighter scenes, 3) cutting between similar forms, circle to circle, square to square, 4) or through changes in directional movement, cutting right-to-left movement into left-to-right movement creating a feeling of collision. Even though Eisenstein did not attend these workshops, this is the attitude and approach that he used in editing his films and is considered "the greatest master of montage. Eisenstein's sense of cutting transformed his didactic lessons on the virtues of brotherhood and Marxism into dynamic, moving works of art".2
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Battleship Potemkin is not a film about individuals, but about the destructive (tsars) and constructive (sailors) power united masses can achieve. This is Eisenstein's values on the Russian Revolution, where the theme of the film over-shadows the narrative story-line. Very few faces are shown to us clearly, and most of these that we begin to relate to belong to people who will not live through the film's span of time. It is this lack of "main characters" that helps make this film feel so different from the American dribble being shown at this time.
But the script differences doesn't change the fact that this film centres on people. Eisenstein wanted to somehow portray all levels of Russians; from the aristocrat to the farmer, from the student to the worker, all should be represented in the revolution. This is where his "eye" for a shot/edit becomes crucial. Eisenstein explores the geometric forms of people used by German Expressionists like Fritz Lang (how the workers are betrayed in his film Metropolis, 1925, is a good comparative example), colliding the geometric masses with specific close-ups through the Emotion and drama of montage edits. "Like Lang, Eisenstein has the visual ability to convert huge groups of people into complex and striking geometric shapes. Unlike Lang, Eisenstein constantly reminds you that his subject is the dynamic human being, not the kaleidoscope pattern."3 Throughout this film, character development occurs through the masses and their reactions, not through individuals.
"Eisenstein defined his principle of montage as one of collusion, of conflict, of contrast. He does not simple build shots with particular meaning into the whole, but sees each shot, even each frame, as a unit with a dynamic visual charge of a particular kind."4 It is the conflict between the charges of his shots that drives the scenes onward. Who is seen in a shot usually has less to do with how they are shown (angle of shot, lighting, length of scene) but what happens before and after the shot. This is how the Narrative is told, with more emphasis on how, than what or who.
continued on Page Two