Posts Tagged ‘Eisenstein’


Editing to the Rhythms of Memory


I have recently read two books that have given me much thought on the subject of film editing. The first is In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch, who was an editor for Francis Coppola on “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now.” The second book is Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative Sculpting in Time.

They each pose two very different theories concerning the nature of editing and especially regarding the question of why cuts work in the first place, and when it is appropriate to employ them. Murch seems to come from the Soviet Montage camp, pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein and mastered by Alfred Hitchcock, where shots represents different pieces of information that the viewer must assemble imaginatively into a coherent whole. Whereas Tarkovsky explicitly describes his disagreement with that mentality, claiming that it is not true to the nature of what cinema is. Tarkovsky looks back to the original films of the Lumiere Brothers and reminds us of what was originally so fascinating about the cinema in the first place: that it was imprinted time.

At the beginning of his book, Walter Murch poses a question, “why do cuts work?” And by the end of his book he has given his answer. He recognizes that humans ought to be repelled by cuts, since our own personal experiences have no natural equivalent – something Tarkovsky also points out. But Murch noticed while editing “The Conversation” that his natural impulse for when to cut was directly correlated to Gene Hackman’s tendency to blink. Murch spends the rest of the book describing how he believes our blinking habits are the natural equivalent of cuts, because, in psychological terms, our eyes remain open when we are focused intently on something, and we blink when we are comfortable with our surroundings. In short, Murch believes that natural editing rhythm will always be similar to our natural blinking rhythm.

Tarkovsky extends out his metaphor of imprinted time in a few essays throughout his book. He compares the role of the artist to that of a prophet, saying that both find their purpose in the conveying of great truths. Tarkovsky believed that to interrupt time with an abrupt cut is to be dishonest to the medium, as the medium is the very record of time itself. Not a reenactment of time, as a play might be, but a genuine record of its passing. Tarkovsky strove always to stage his scenes in an unbroken way. He believed that to fracture temporal truth was to falsify it. Interstingly, many normal viewers think that Tarkovsky’s style feels decidedly unnatural because of his hesitancy to cut. It does seem to me that cutting into the scene (especially from wide shots to close ups) feels quite natural and normal, but maybe that’s why I have two essays on Eisenstein on this blog and none on Tarkovsky. Preference is not everything.

I do believe, however, that I have stumbled upon a deeper understanding of what cinema is and can be, at least as it pertains to the telling of a story. People that have heard me talk about film theory know that I tend to fall into the Eisenstein camp, and that I especially enjoy his famous quote that “language is much closer to the cinema than painting is.” But as much as I have enjoyed pondering the relationship between editing and grammar, I am now really considering the relationship between film editing and the priorities of human memory. This short essay is only a first draft of this theory, which I’m sure I will revise every few years. I suppose I should point out that while I have never heard the analogy of memory applied to film editing before, Robert McKee does use memory as an analogy for good screenwriting, so I’m not wholly original here.

Essentially my grand idea is this: suppose that edits in any film sequence work and feel natural to the viewer not because of some experience in our daily lives (such as blinking), but because of how we experience the world in our memory. Think about your day yesterday. What are the first few things that you recall? If you are like me, then the first priorities of your memory are based on two things: Geography and Will. When I think of the events of my life a day ago, the first image in my head is of my home, and specifically the room which I spent the most time in. This is what I call the “Geographical Priority”. The first thing my brain does when I reacquaint myself with yesterday is jump to the location I was most prominently in.

The second image in my head is of the documentary materials on my newly purchased Godfather Blu-Ray collection. That is what I call “Priority of the Will”. I made a unique choice to watch those documentaries, but I really don’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, as that was a mundane habit. It is more common for our memory to prioritize the choices we make than the habits we have. Conversely, we tend to have staggeringly good memories for times when we felt out of control, and incapable of making choices.
Have you ever been swimming underwater only to run out of air before you are anywhere near the surface? How clearly do you remember that feeling of suffocation? Now contrast that with how clearly you remember the mundane details that have nothing to do with your will, such as how many times your friend jumped off the diving board?

Doesn’t it seem true that the human memory really prioritizes geography and will? We remember where we were, and what we chose to do, and especially whether some obstacle prevented us from achieving our immediate goals in the situation, but we struggle to remember things that never engaged our attention in the first place.
Editing to this rhythm has already been stumbled upon. Think about how commonplace it is for scenes to open with wide shots of a location, only to move closer and closer to the decisions of the characters, right down to the individual muscles used in the carrying out of that decision. The eyes are especially important, since it is through the eyes that we each empathize with each other.

I also read Francois Truffaut’s book on Alfred Hitchcock recently, in which they frequently talk about the clarity of simplicity. In any Hitchcock film, during any great action sequence or chase sequence, the editing is so specific that it takes on a near primal quality. The audience is never confused, and yet, his films are filled with intimate close ups instead of big wide shots. I want to demonstrate the primal sensation of memory editing with a little experiment.

First, think about a time when you have expected to meet someone, but they never showed up, or perhaps they were very late. You stood there and politely waited. As a car drove toward you, you watched it closely to see if it belonged to the person you were expecting. If you thought it was that person then you probably leaned forward a little and started to take your hand out of your pocket to greet them. But the car drove past. Or perhaps someone did get out of it, but it wasn’t the person you were looking for. You attempted to inconspicuously return to your place, but you knew that you probably looked ridiculous if someone was watching you.

Now take the famous scene of the crop duster plane from “North by Northwest.” (Here is the scene, albeit with added music:
Watch how it begins with a great wide shot of the field (i.e. the Geographic Priority) and watch how the movement of Grant’s eyes represent the character’s first conscious choice in the scene. We know that he’s expecting to meet someone here. We project ourselves into his life through the natural phenomenon of empathy. So really, it is we (the Audience) who are looking for someone, and Cary Grant is just an extension of the audience’s motivation in the scene. Contrary to what some directors say, the audience does not project itself into the place of the camera, the audience projects itself into the place of the character. And so the actions and choices of the character are the most relevant part of the scene to the audience.

Watch how Hitchcock cuts in closer to Cary Grant’s face as the car comes closer along the road. Did you notice in that scene how Grant begins to take his hands out of his pockets when he sees the man get out of the car? That little character detail is a completely natural action given that he really expected this man to be the one he was waiting for. The audience, too, would have impulsively moved forward to meet the man. You can see how there is a perfect link in the scene between what Grant does and what the Audience would do in the same situation.

But back to the concept of memory editing. In this sequence, Hitchcock has prioritized the same two things that human memory prioritizes: that is Geography and Will, the combination of these two things is a major contributing factor to literally every human sensation. For instance, the geography of being underwater affects the will to breathe.
It has long been recognized that wide shots make characters seem alone. But only now do I understand exactly why this is. The geography of a wide shot will demonstrate the physical aloneness of the character, and the choices the character makes will by necessity be unbacked by society. The combination of physical aloneness and social aloneness creates the sensation of loneliness.

The geography of the open plain presents Cary Grant with a physical aloneness, and the bearing down of the crop duster against him presents an obstacle to his will. Notice that throughout the bulk of the scene (but especially the final two minutes) all of the shots either feature Grant balanced toward the middle of the frame, or they show what he is looking at when he adjusts his gaze. For instance, there is a moment right after the plane first flies overhead that Grant – now laying on the ground – looks beyond the frame of the camera. There is an immediate cut to some corn stalks a dozen yards away. The very next shot is of him running into those corn stalks.

Do you catch the significance there? These three shots (choosing to look, recognizing the new geography, then choosing to run) are perfectly harmonious with the pattern of memory (will, geography, will). His choice to run into the corn stalks only makes sense to us the audience because we know that the corn stalks are there. It is clear that geography (especially the spatial relationship between characters – in this case Grant and the Plane) contextualizes choice. And as you watch that scene, you may feel completely absorbed by it, precisely because of how natural the editing feels.

The impulse to cut on an eyeline change is a common editing technique, and is a big part of what Walter Murch’s book is about. But his explanation has more to do with the audience’s pursuit of new information. He has no real explanation for why or when to change from a wide shot to a close up. Sam Peckinpah was of the opinion that close ups are the director’s Ace up the sleeve, and should be used sparingly. But even that doesn’t really tell us why or when a close up should be used.

This is also a case where Tarkovsky’s emphasis on imprinted time would be completely unhelpful. He would show us merely the geography, as if we are a spectator to the action, when the audience is looking for sensation and participation. Tarkovsky would focus on recording the entire physical effort of fleeing the plane, without demonstrating a bias for either character. He used wide shots and long takes to clearly portray the physical relationship between persons and objects.

It is thought by some that by keeping the edits rare and the camera on wide shots, filmmakers like Tarkovsky force the audience to be more active participants, as the filmmaker does not explicitly control their viewing experience. But I disagree. If you were to compare a football player with a fan in the stadium, which would you say has the greatest participation in the game? It is clearly not the spectator.

Tarkovsky would put the camera in the bleachers and record the entire game in one uninterrupted take. Hitchcock would do multiple set-ups on the field using fast edits to put you in the mindset of the player. The first is certainly a valid record of the facts, but the second is a more powerful analogy to the feelings.

I really believe that great narrative editing is based on the relationship between Geography and Will, since the first contextualizes the second, and the second is the venue by which the audience participates. Tarkovsky believed that a film is at its truest when it purely imprints time. But I think that Pure Cinema does a much better job of recreating how the world exists in our memory than recreating how the world exists physically.

Hitchcock had a rule: the largest object in the frame has the most emotional weight. Doesn’t that sound just like your memory’s version of the world?

Think about the last time something scared you. Doesn’t it seem that the very object which so affected your emotional state overcame everything else in the world? Are you scared of snakes or spiders? When you see a snake or a spider that terrifies you, doesn’t it always seem much larger than it really is?

Film editing has the ability to recreate the experience of memory by prioritizing close ups for objects of tremendous emotional weight. You don’t remember what was on the wall behind the snake, you only remember the snake itself. Nothing else even came into your senses. A well-employed close up will focus your attention on the snake, and just like your experience in memory, you won’t even see the wall.


Film as Language: The Method and Form of Sergei Eisenstein


[Editor’s Note: This is another really long end-of-the-semester type papers.  But its worth the time if you’re interested in Sergei Eisenstein.]

   “Now why should the cinema follow the forms of theater and painting rather than the methodology of language, which allows wholly new concepts of ideas to arise from the combination of two concrete denotations of two concrete objects? Language is much closer to film than painting is.” – Sergei Eisenstein, A Dialectic Approach to Film Form (1949)

            Sergei Eisenstein considered the communicative power of film as a combination of previously established art forms to be the highest expression of human emotion.   It was his understanding that all human expression is born out of conflict.  Not aggravated conflict (as in one man murdering another) but in passive conflict (as in disunity, or spatial/temporal/auditory distinction).  For instance, a prerequisite for the articulation of human emotion is a clear personal distinction between emotions.  This distinction is only possible through process, i.e. a person is happy, and then the person is sad.  (Dialectic)

Emotions are non-tangible and non-rational, and are therefore not bound by logical laws such as the law of non-contradiction.  It is possible for two emotions to be experienced simultaneously because, conversely from popular belief, no two emotions are in contradiction to each other.  However, as concerns the communicative art form of film, it is only relevant to view each human emotion as a singular piece to be tantalized at a specific point in the process of a total emotional experience.  When attempting to understand the Soviet Montage, we must recognize that the technique refers as much to a sequence of emotions as it does to a succession of individual frames within a scene. (The Filmic Fourth Dimension)

In his essay A Dialectic Approach to Film Form, Eisenstein posits that the implied motion produced through successive frames in a given shot is by its nature a foundational montage, and that his juxtaposition of spatially dissimilar shots is merely a continuation of the same idea.  The audience sees an image of a horse, updated twenty-four times a second by other images of the same horse, albeit differentiated temporally.  Eisenstein is careful to point out that our minds do not see these images as following one after another, but rather superimposed, one on top of – and overriding – the previous in the same sequence.  Our minds infer that because of the geographical contradictions between the images (the horse has one foot on the ground, then two, then one again) the contents of the image must be moving.  This builds a rhythm that may or may not represent comparable and familiar rhythms in reality.  (Dialectic)

Now that is merely a complicated description of how the mind perceives motion within a single shot, but to understand the Soviet Montage, we must understand its artistic and linguistic DNA.  The human mind is trained through natural experience to connect correlated occurrences, and attempts to make sense out of those connections.  For instance, a child may learn very early to connect the optical observance of lightning with the aural perception of thunder – producing a rational understanding and expectation of the two pieces producing a full-sensory whole.  It is this type of mental process that creates the possibility of coherent cinematic montage.

Several still images of a horse running placed in correct sequence can be juxtaposed with images of a crowd cheering to produce in the rational audience’s mind an idea of a horse running in front of the cheering crowd.  We need not see the two together to unquestionably connect their geographical presence in our imaginations.

This whole routine is unreservedly dependent upon the audience’s emotional perception.  Art is a sensory experience.   Eisenstein once wrote of this saying, “because the limit of organic form (the passive principle of being) is Nature. The limit of rational form (the active principle of production) is Industry. At the intersection of Nature and Industry stands Art.  The logic of organic form vs. the logic of rational form yields, in collision, the dialectic of the art-form.” (Dialectic)

Any art form ought to be understood as a communicative medium in which the thing being communicated is not an idea, but an emotion.  Language communicates intellect, whereas art communicates sensation.  The two are certainly compatible, as in poetry, but also just as certainly inimitably unique.  And as communication requires the process of a message being sent and received, we must acknowledge that distinct communication is impossible without the process of time.  Thus, as words in a sentence are given meaning through context of contiguous words in the same sentence, and sentences are given sub-textual meaning through context of other sentences within a conversation, given shots within a scene will conform to an over-tonal meaning intrinsically contextualized by other shots within the same scene, and in a broader sense, other scenes throughout the film.

A single image has no more inherent meaning than a single letter of the alphabet.  Also, the constant presence of all images has no meaning because it is impossible for the human mind to perceive multiple images simultaneously.  We require chronological juxtaposition for context, and as proven above, context is required for the receiver/audience to deduce meaning.  That is not to say that the audience is incapable of discerning multiple layers of information simultaneously, but rather that such information must exist free from superimposition between parts.  (Film Form)

In the essay The Filmic Fourth Dimension, Eisenstein compares film to music thusly, “There, along with the vibration of a basic dominant tone, comes a whole series of similar vibrations . . . Their impacts against each other . . . envelop the basic tone in a whole host of secondary vibrations . . . We find the same thing in optics, as well. All sorts of aberrations, distortions, and other defects, which can be remedied by systems of lenses, can also be taken into account compositionally, providing a whole series of definite compositional effects.”  To simplify, he is describing the methods by which musicians and filmmakers are capable of manipulating audience emotion.  The interesting thing about this analogy is that film is not only comparable to music, it can also incorporate music into its own being.  The overtones and undertones of an operatic motif compliment the visual overtones and undertones of the cinematography and editing.  This is the heart of Soviet Montage theory: a non-meaningful point is complimented, supplemented, and superimposed by a carefully crafted selection of spatially related points to create a full-sensory emotional experience.  (Dialectic, The Filmic Fourth Dimension, Methods of Montage)

Let’s look at this in practice.  The prime example of Eisenstein’s technique is the famous Odessa Steps sequence from the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.  The scene begins with a crowd of peasants celebrating the bravery and sacrifice of the crew of the Battleship Potemkin.  “And suddenly,” they are attacked by militarized evil manifest as faceless troops opposed to the ideals of the people.  Though these troops march in unison, they do not march to the beat of the music.  This creates a sense of contradiction.  Our mind tries to make sense of what happens onscreen with what the musical overtones tell us.  But the obvious connection (marching to a beat) is skewed by this audio/visual contradiction.

The people scatter from the gunfire in a chaotic and brazenly anti-uniform fashion.  It could be said that the disharmony of the peasants’ flight is a spatial counterpoint to the geographical consistency of the military troops.  The troops do not waver.  Their murderous march is the most dependably predictable element of the entire movie.  Thus, what the audience would normally take comfort in (regularity) has become inimitably destructive and evil.

Where this scene excels is in its progression of devastation.  At first the audience feels uplifted at the peasants’ security and celebration.  Eisenstein could have interrupted this by abruptly cutting to the soldiers firing upon the civilians.  But instead he chose to prepare the way for this dramatic interruption through the use of an inter-title: “And suddenly . . . “  Had Eisenstein truly wanted to abrupt the ecstatic experience, he may have left this card out.  But instead he builds anticipation by queuing us in to the fact that there will be some sort of terrible change.  By starting a sentence with the words, “and suddenly,” Eisenstein has put the audience into a position of expectation.  These two words do not bear any meaning in themselves. The statement requires clarification, thus, as the audience is looking for an answer to the question of, “and suddenly what?” the answer is presented as an antithesis to the previous emotion felt.

The journey of the audience here is not as simple as directly transitioning from happiness to shock and awe.  The emotional curve actually has that subtle middle step of the inter-title, which puts the audience in the position of wanting to know how next to feel, only to be sorely disappointed by the onslaught of violence portrayed.  The audience then regrets demanding that the film clarify the ambiguous two-word sentence in the inter-titles.  We do not want to see our beloved “comrades” suffer.  And as the scene progresses, we continue to see things that further offend our moral senses.

“Is it not bad enough,” we ask, “for these innocent men and women to die?  Must the children and handicapped also be slaughtered?”  The film’s antagonists are clearly apathetic toward this dilemma.  They march over the body of a young boy, paying as little attention to his presence as that of the nearest flea.  At this our mind screams.  We think surely the worst has come.  But Eisenstein knew how much lower the human spirits could go.  Over the next six minutes, we are subjected to images of mayhem that knows neither boundaries of age, class, or intelligence.  It is not enough for a baby to be murdered.  We are subjected to the tension of watching it fall down steps for over a minute of screen time, only to be slashed by a military officer.

This sort of experience progresses from slight feeling to intense feeling by continually contradicting audience expectations.  As established earlier, we humans are trained to connect everything rationally.  But when some of the peasants attempt to speak with the troops to appeal to their reason, they are shot.  Everything the audience thinks of, the peasants also think of.  But according to Eisenstein’s design, none of these methods (fleeing, rationalizing, fighting) are strong enough to defeat this evil.  That is, until the arrival of the hero ship, the Battleship Potemkin.

There can be no doubt that the emotion received is that which Eisenstein intended to communicate, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt the power of film as a communicative medium.  This type of exercise has been imitated in many movies since, notably in the church-burning scene from Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot.  As the British lock these people in the building and set it ablaze, the townspeople attempt everything the audience wants them to.  Open the doors?  They’re locked.  Break through the windows?  There are bars along them.  The connection between audience and victim works because the audience naturally projects itself into the position of the protagonists.  Thus, the hero’s failures become our failures.

The film’s job is to make the audience ‘help itself,’ not to ‘entertain’ it.  To grip, not to amuse,” wrote Eisenstein in the essay A Course in Treatment.  The discussion at hand was whether or not it was the role of the filmmaker to entertain the masses.  He took the position that any communicative medium must not be held down by any such obligation to communicate a specific thing.  Instead, films ought to harness the very things that make up the psycho/physiological core of every person going to the cinema.

The linguistic possibilities of art have been explored since the beginnings of Creation.  Time allows for Process, and Process allows for temporal art forms such as music and film to harness emotional expression through the means of story.  As audience needs will change over time, the methods by which foundational human emotions are articulated may change with them.  But the potential for human expression concerning spiritual/emotional/psycho/physiological experiences will only grow.

Works Cited

Eisenstein, Sergei. “A Course in Treatment.” Online.

Eisenstein, Sergei. “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form.” (1945).  Online.

Eisenstein, Sergei.  “Film Form.” Online.

Eisenstein, Sergei.  “The Filmic Fourth Dimension.” Online.

Eisenstein, Sergei.  “Methods of Montage.” Online.


The Odessa Steps and the use of Montage (Battleship Potemkin)


Of the many pioneers of modern editing theory, one of the most important is Sergei Eisenstein.  Known for his use of montage, Eisenstein was capable of directing audience emotions through juxtaposition of images that would collectively bear a given meaning.  Much of this theory would later be pursued by Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, ultimately finding its most extreme form in the medium of Music Videos.  Eisenstein’s famous “Odessa Steps” sequence from The Battleship Potemkin is one of the most influential montages in film history, with references to it finding their way into The Untouchables and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

What makes this sequence so memorable?  Is it the content?  Or the cinematography?  Can editing alone be given credit for the end result?  I think it is all these things and more that makes this sequence work as it does.  The fact that the sequence takes place toward the end of the film, after we’ve already been introduced to a number of peasants that get murdered in the scene, helps give us a narrative context for how to feel.  The fact that the soldiers are on top of the stairs walking down imbues them with a sense of authority and power, making their slaughter of the poor masses seem that much more unnecessary.  The soldiers’ actions could have been portrayed as acceptable, or even heroic, had the civilians not been portrayed in such a miserable and sympathetic light.  Typically audiences are much more accepting of battles between equal opponents, and much less accepting of any powerful figure beating down a weaker one.  The only context in which we enjoy watching a stronger force defeat a weaker one is if it comes at the defense of weaker characters that we identify with, as is the case when the Potemkin comes to the rescue of the peasants.

In respect to the meaning and purpose of something being edited this way, it was Eisenstein’s belief that two images juxtaposed together would create a mental image greater than the individual parts.  By extension, this means that eighty shots put together will call for a uniquely strong response within the audience.  This is the heart of Eisenstein’s use of Montage.  To him, film is a language that communicates emotion, and having proper editing is the equivalent to having proper grammar.

In his essay, Film Form, Eisenstein describes the Odessa Steps sequence as a “Rhythmic Montage” where the film is cut to certain beat, giving a methodical impression of the scene.  But as the director points out, the marching of the soldiers and the beat of the drum consistently come in off-beat, creating a sensation that something is amiss, things are not as they ought to be.  The rhythm of the scene is transferred over from the soldiers marching to the baby in the carriage, garnering methodical sympathy from the audience.   This whole sequence causes something in the viewer to cry out at the tragedy.  We naturally try to make sense of the world and the things in it.  But there is no rationality here.  Just meaningless violence.  There is no rational response to this.  We only feel.  And what we feel is technically contrived, by the many tools at the filmmaker’s hand.

It is no surprise that this film (and the Odessa Steps sequence in particular) has gone on to influence a wealth of filmmakers around the world.  In some cases the homage is deliberate, as in The Untouchables or Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.  In other cases, it is implicitly felt, as in the various training montages in every movie ever made about an underground fighter going for the gold.  Is the montage an artistic tool, or a linguistic discover?  Or perhaps the real question is, is there a difference?