Content Over Aesthetic

by | A Film Sense

I have recently been studying the works of the early Soviet film pioneers and their respective texts. While Sergei Eisenstein is the most remembered today, it’s important not to forget that he was but one member of an entire movement in world cinema history that took place in the USSR from 1910 to the mid-1930s. Among these minds were Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov. These four pioneers founded an approach to understanding and creating cinema that relies heavily upon editing which we call Soviet Montage Theory. While Kuleshov, Pudovkin and Vertov put forth explanations of what constitutes the montage effect, Eisenstein’s view that “montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots” wherein “each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other” has become most widely accepted.

According to Eisenstein, there are five METHODS OF MONTAGE.

1.Metric: Basic cutting from one moment to the next (based purely on the physical nature of time) no matter what is happening in the image.
2.Rhythmic: Cutting based on time, but using the visual composition of the shots — along with a change in the speed of the metric cuts — to induce more complex meanings than what is possible with metric montage. It’s about how the movement in one image affects the movement of the next. Here, movement takes precedence over length. Once sound was introduced, rhythmic montage also included audial elements (music, dialogue, sounds). The most famous use of Rhythmic Montage is the climax to “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly”. Watch Clint Eastwood’s eyes move back and forth, dictating where the shot cuts to next. Watch Lee Van Cleef’s fingers inch closer and closer to his gun, dictating a cut back to Eastwood’s reacting eyes.
3.Tonal: Cutting based on the emotional meaning of the shots – not just manipulating the temporal length of the cuts or its rhythmic characteristics — to elicit a reaction from the audience even more complex than from the metric or rhythmic montage. For example, a sleeping baby would emote calmness and relaxation. At first, this method may seem to fly in the face of Soviet Montage Theory, given that it acknowledges the possibility of individual meaning within the shot, outside of the cut. But the idea here is that you can create a stronger meaning by cutting images together with the same or conflicting tones. Imagine a scene in which you cut between a loud, crazy party on the first floor of a house and the quiet, secluded loneliness of a boy in his room upstairs. Two shots with two tones cut together to create a third tone/meaning.
4.Overtonal: Combining Metric, Rhythmic and Tonal cutting together creates Overtonal Montage. It took me a while to understand the difference between Overtonal and Tonal, and I’m not sure I fully get it yet, but I believe Overtonal Montage simply stands for the feeling the viewer has after watching the film. A writing analogy would probably be the “Spine” of a story. Yes, there are beats (metric), there are scenes (rhythmic) and there are sequences (tonal), but put them all together and you have your Spine (overtonal).
5.Intellectual: When done correctly, Intellectual Montage might be the most exciting form of cutting. This method is the END ALL, BE ALL of Soviet Montage Theory – cutting two images together to create a third meaning. The most famous use of this method may also be the single most famous cut in cinema history: when the ape throws up a bone in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, then cutting to a bone-shaped spacecraft in the distant future (idea: the dawn of man). Another example would be the intercutting of a soldier’s murder with the slaughtering of a water buffalo in “Apocalypse Now” (idea: the soldier’s life must be sacrificed for the war just as the buffalo must be sacrificed for the tribe), or the cut from Lenny Bruce’s courtroom plea to an image of his dead body at the climax of “Lenny” (idea: the court killed Lenny when they censored him).
Ever since learning about Soviet Montage Theory, I have been a huge believer in it. I even went as far as to say that the very definition of a movie is two images cut together to give a third meaning.

“The idea is in the cut!” I would say. The Soviet pioneers, along with other filmmakers such as David Mamet and Alfred Hitchcock had convinced me of this. I would quote Pudovkin: “The image itself is meaningless! The meaning is within the cut!” This made sense to me. Artistic breakthrough! I’d figured out what makes a movie a movie! Through all my independent study and reading I had discovered the essence of great visual storytelling! It’s the end-all, be-all! Surely, this is the only way one should make a movie!

But I love Quentin Tarantino. And Paul Thomas Anderson. And Martin Scorsese. These filmmakers don’t always rely on the cut. All three of these filmmakers have made a name for themselves with long, extended takes and flashy steadicam shots. Did this mean that their films were overpraised? Were they missing the point of a movie, as I had discovered it to be “within the cut”? David Mamet always spoke out against the very invention of the steadicam, arguing that it was like following around your actors, which isn’t visual storytelling.

Then I saw Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and my world really came crashing down. The ballet scene between Chaplin and the floating globe has instantly become one of my favorite scenes in cinema history, and the CUTS MEAN NOTHING. It was all about content!

Another one of my favorite scenes in cinema history is the begging scene in Vittorio De Sica’s “Umberto D.” This scene is also all about content. The method of montage never raises beyond metric or potentially rhythmic. Why, then did I love it so much? Did I just have incredibly bad taste?

Then I remembered a quote from my favorite director of all time, Stanley Kubrick, from a rare interview taken in 1969 as he was promoting “2001”:

“I’ve always said the two people who are worthy of film study are Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles as representing the two most diverse approaches to filmmaking. Charlie Chaplin must have had the crudest, simplest lack of interest in cinematics. Just get the image on the screen; it’s the content of the shot that matters. Welles is probably, at his best, the most baroque kind of stylist in the conventional film-telling style. I think perhaps Eisenstein might be a better example because where Chaplin had all content and no style, Eisenstein had all style and no content. Alexander Nevsky stylistically is possibly one of the most beautiful movies ever made; it’s content to me is a moronic story, moronically told, full of lies. It’s the most dishonest kind of film. And I would have thought that perhaps a study of Chaplin’s greatest films and Alexander Nevsky would be worthwhile, because somewhere within that you’d see how two completely diverse approaches can make a fascinating film.” – Stanley Kubrick

And therein, in a quote from the great Kubrick himself, lies the great debate between Montage and Mise en scène!

But without cuts, where is the conflict of ideas? With intellectual montage, I can cut between a shot of ants climbing up a branch and a shot of people crossing a busy Manhattan intersection to create the third idea of “we people are just like ants.” It’s meaning is contained in the “conflict” of these two drastic images.

So where is the conflict in the scene from “The Great Dictator”? It’s within the CONTENT. Look at the content of the scene. Chaplin is playing a character based on Adolph Hitler, arguably the single most universally hated man of the 20th century. He is the very personification of evil…

… and he’s performing a ballet.

WHAM! Conflict! An evil dictator (negative element) is performing a ballet with the world (positive element) creating the third idea of “Hitler wants the whole world in his hands. He wants to become emperor of the world.”

As a filmmaker, when you are writing or directing a scene, ask yourself: What is the idea I’m trying to get across? How can I express that idea through conflict? What are my two conflicting elements/images? And then ask yourself the most important question: Is it best to represent this idea through conflict WITHIN THE CUT (Soviet Montage Theory) or WITHIN THE CONTENT (Chaplin)? One is not better than the other. The two can coexist in the same film.

For more writings on Soviet Montage Theory, read the following books: FILM FORM by Sergei Eisenstein, FILM SENSE by Sergei Eisenstein, KULESHOV ON FILM: THE WRITINGS OF LEV KULESHOV by Lev Kuleshov, FILM TECHNIQUE & FILM ACTING by V.I. Pudovkin, and KINO EYE: THE WRITINGS OF DZIGA VERTOV by Dziga Vertov.

For more on the idea of “content”, check out the cinema writings of André Bazin, one of the founders of French film magazine “Cahiers du cinema” in 1951. He preferred what he referred to as “true continuity” through mise en scène over experiments in editing and visual effects. And wouldn’t you know it… he championed both Charlie Chaplin and Vittorio De Sica!