Soviet Russian film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein is the father of montage. He is best known for creating one of the most memorable moments in cinema history: the heart-wrenching “Odessa Steps” sequence in The Battleship Potemkin (1925), in which soldiers emerge from the Tsar’s palace and rain death upon civilians. A child is shot and trampled; a mother is gunned down; a baby carriage careens down the staircase. Soldiers march down the stairs and shoot into the fleeing crowd. It’s a horrible scene, a nerve-wracking one, and its musical score certainly contributes: Violins climb upward, drums imitate a death march, the violins mellow as the violence becomes less shocking, more numbing. But the scene’s key feature is its then-revolutionary use of montage, which Eisenstein implemented to test his theory that rapid-fire cuts in a short timespan would produce the greatest psychological reaction in viewers.
Montage is present early in the Odessa Steps sequence, as it is throughout the film. Odessans had congregated on the steps in a good mood, celebrating the return of the successfully mutinied Potemkin ship. A shot of a woman opening umbrella–of the ship’s flag fluttering in the breeze–of children waving: Montage conveys all sentiments–joy here, before the massacre–drawing us in by mimicking what film theorist J. J. Gibson once called “ecological vision,” or the instinct of our eyes to take in all aspects of something, disparate though related, which help us reach an overall judgement. But it must be asked, then: Is this not what all film does, simply by virtue of being film? Montage is often trumpeted as a technique of rare force and, these days, rarer appearance–dusted off and removed from its place in the holy filmic pantheon by super-serious directors who like to play mind games, or by artsy-fartsy types who aim to stick it to convention, or by amateurs who think they’re being bold and different. In reality, though, montage is unavoidable, and Eisenstein himself can bring us to this conclusion.
Consider Eisenstein’s seminal essay “Film Form,” in which he discusses the relationship between montage and “ideograms” and “laconism.” An ideogram, to quote Wikipedia, “is a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept.” Eisenstein explains ideograms in the context of the Japanese writing system, which is composed of individual symbols, simple in meaning, that become intricate when merged with other symbols. When the ideogram for “mouth” combines with the ideogram for “dog,” for example, an ideogram with a new and more complex concept emerges: “bark.” This type of “collision” and “conflict” was the beating heart of montage, said Eisenstein. While there’s nothing inherently oppositional about the concepts “mouth” and “dog,” because they don’t mean the same thing, mashing them together is a necessarily violent act that produces a hybrid-word. The hybrid-word might not be harder to depict or say than its parents, but it invariably means something more complex than its parents did. Thus, the new ideogram is laconic: It implies much while saying little. This is montage. Montage is laconic ideogram. Shots in a film necessarily mean more when they are viewed in the context of the shots that preceded them. Shots as individual frames necessarily mean less than shots in a series.
Another recurring metaphor in “Film Form” makes the case even more clearly: the shot as not a characteristic of cinema, but as its organic building block. “The shot is by no means an element of montage. The shot is a montage cell,” Eisenstein says (emphasis mine). Indeed, a film is a living body. While I’m sure a biologist would disagree, individual cells on their own within an organism are not much to write home about–it is only when cells begin to divide and multiply and interact with each other that something as intricate as a higher-order animal can exist. The greater the number of cells present, the less they are parts of a “sum,” as Eisenstein points out, and the more they are parts of a “product.” Just as “mouth” and “dog” do not combine to mean “dog mouth” or, even more generously, “a dog’s mouth,” 50 trillion cells are more than 50 trillion singular cells. Under the right conditions, those cells are a human body. Likewise, the thousand or so shots that make up a standard movie are inevitably more complex as members in a series–chains in a link–than they are as individual frames of arrested motion, moments in a vacuum.
A body is necessarily composed of cells. A complex or hybrid ideogram is necessarily composed of simpler parent ideograms. And every movie that has ever been made can be called a montage, from start to finish–special scenes (that may or may not involve staircases) not required.