Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Splice Of Life

If you're looking for a Russia connection, here it is: this week would have been Sergei Eisenstein's one hundred twentieth birthday. If you never managed to find time in your collegiate experience to squeeze in a film study class, that name may not sound familiar to you. If you did, then you probably recognize Sergei as the father of montage. If you didn't, then you are still scratching your head waiting for some quick explanation for montage.

Ready? Here goes: Montage is the collecting and ordering of shots of film that are then spliced together to create a more meaningful projection. It is something we take for granted these days, since we have lived a life being bombarded by edits that come at us in a blur. In the 1980s there was a second revolution, of sorts, brought about with the advent of MTV. Instead of watching one steady image of someone doing one thing, we were treated to a buzzsaw flurry of pictures that may or may not have anything to do with what we thought we were watching. Sequences were fast and furious, meant to trick our brains into being entertained or excited.

That's not exactly what Eisenstein was about. His idea was to put images together that would create the most psychological impact. He wrote that there were five different forms of montage: metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual. If you are interested in finding out what all that means, I encourage you to read the books that Sergei wrote himself rather than relying on my undergraduate understanding. The most important thing to take away from all this is that he discovered that you could assign meaning to a series of pictures just by putting them in a particular order.

And now I will give you the Eisenstein short course that will allow you to appear clever at parties. In 1925, he made a film called Battleship Potemkin. If you must know, the story concerns a mutiny that occurred twenty years before that on a Russian ship, where the officers were overrun by their crew. It was made as an allegory to the 1917 revolution in Russia. It was then and continues to be a proud piece of propaganda. But the takeaway you need to appear clever is this: The Odessa Steps Sequence. Any time you see a baby carriage, or a broken pair of glasses, or stairs, you can claim that whatever film or television show you are watching was made by communists. Or communist sympathizers. Or film students. And you get big cocktail party points for recognizing it. Without any collusion.

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