Reading Film (Fall 2011)

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Eisenstein’s Essay on Cinematography

September 13th, 2011 by Tom Schalk · 5 Comments · ¶4 Eisenstein

The name Eisenstein triggers the thought that such a man with that name is perhaps a relative of Einstein, the scientific genius of our times, and Frankenstein, the creator of the famous monster. That might just be me. Observation’s aside, he just happens to be a writer with a good idea on the difference between cinema and cinematography.

Cinema is the homeland of the creation. The directors, the crew, cast, sponsors, movie ticket booths. That’s the industry making the film. Cinematography is the creation. It IS the making of the film. What Eisenstein spends a good time doing is delving into what makes cinematography the GOOD kind.

First, he goes into the history of it, which was actually very interesting since it apparently dates back to 2650 years before our time. A Chinese man named Ts’ang Cheih was known for writing stories using Hieroglyphics (Yes, the Chinese did it too. NOT just the Egyptians). What made his work so interesting was his use of ideograms, which are a set of at least two Hieroglyphs that brought together one idea. For example, a picture of a Horse and a Picture of a mouth indicate, “Horse Says.” I found it to be very interesting, because back when writing was in it’s early form, writers didn’t know how to bring to light the image of a talking horse (I’m guessing they were bad drawers). This system made that possible.

Where things get interesting is when he mentions a disagreement about the concept of a proper “Montage” with a friend of his. Some Russian guy. For now, we will call him Russian McMunchkin- LOL JK his name is Pudovkin.

Anyways, McMunchkin Pudovkin claims that a Montage in film is not unlike building a house of bricks. One block is placed and so on. Think of the training sequences from the Rocky movies.

Really thinking about it, you’ll notice that there’s no ideas beyond what is presented. Rocky is training. Drago is training. They are getting stronger. Starts and ends there.

However, Eisenstein argued that a montage should actually be a “collision” of sorts. A bunch of images that come together to create one massive idea. It’s about leaving a message that is bigger than what is presented. It’s best explained by the great Mr.Hitchcock:

So like you’d of seen, the image seen and the image of Albert’s reaction create a certain idea. Depending of the image going with his reaction, a new idea is seen. It works like a visual ideogram.

But here’s the question I have for you:

Who is right?

Here’s what I think: Both.

The montage is like a toolbox. You can use ’em like you want, and make things how you want with it. Some might just wanna make montages for the sake of condensing time. Watching Rocky train minute by minute would of taken 6 movies to do, and BOY, wouldn’t that be some Rocky saga. Others want to artistically introduce ideas for the sake of presenting an idea greater than the viewer can think of based on what they are seeing. The Hitchcock video you saw was merely an example.

If you want to see a more practical example, see the infamous “Stairs scene” from Battleship Potenkin. Look at the change of shots:

In the scene, you’ll notice a WHOLE bunch of ideas flowing around. Back and forth shots of soldiers shooting and people panicing in horror introduce the idea of chaos, pain, and even the loss of innocence. Violence through mercilessness killing + Panic and fear = Unlawful terror.

I hope I got most of the ideas right. Feel free to comment on what I may have missed.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • broncos007

    I agree with what you’re saying here. You are right on with Hieroglyphics expressing itself with the pictures. Cinema and Cinematography are nicely identified.

  • Daniel Min

    Awesome reference on the hieroglyphics, I completely agree with you on Eisenstein’s principle of ideogram, by combining two distinct symbols we can bring up one idea to express its meaning.

  • Kevin L. Ferguson

    I think “montage as a toolbox” is a useful way of thinking about it. Eisenstein would definitely HATE that–for him there was a right way (and thus a wrong way) to make movies. But that’s why he’s interesting–because he takes one extreme side and then today we can see how different versions of this theory are put into practice in Hollywood films.

  • Steven Rengifo

    What Professor Ferguson says is so true. Today, you rarely would see a movie like Odessa today. Most movies combine both of linkage and collision affects to films. But lets really think about it… would we really see a movie like Odessa in our current lives? I don’t think so. A movie completely filled with back and forth shots and montages of faces and other random stuff would be really annoying actually. My eyes would probably hurt by the end a 90 minute film like that.

  • allymunks

    i kept having to stop myself from saying eisenhower. steven’s totally right, we’ve been conditioned to have like 30 second attention spans unless its powerfully grasped. series of images like those in odessa couldnt keep us still in our seats for long.

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