IT IS interesting to retrace the different paths of today's cinema workers to their creative beginnings, which together compose the multi-colored background of the Soviet cinema. In the early 1920's we all came to the Soviet cinema as something not yet existent. We came upon no ready-built city; there were no squares, no streets laid out; not even little crooked lanes and blind alleys, such as we may find in the cinemetropolis of our day. We came like bedouins or goldseekers to a place with unimaginably great possibilities, only a small section of which has even now been developed.
We pitched our tents and dragged into camp our experiences in varied fields. Private activities, accidental past professions, unguessed crafts, unsuspected eruditions-all were pooled and went into the building of something that had, as yet, no written traditions, no exact stylistic requirements, nor even formulated demands.
Without going too far into the theoretical debris of the specifics of cinema, I want here to discuss two of its features. These are features of other arts as well, but the film is particularly accountable to them. Primo: photo-fragments of nature are recorded; secundo: these fragments are combined in various ways. Thus, the shot (or frame), and thus, montage.
Photography is a system of reproduction to fix real events and elements of actuality. These reproductions, or photoreflections, may be combined in various ways. Both as reflections and in the manner of their combination, they permit any degree of distortion-either technically unavoidable or deliberately calculated. The results fluctuate from exact naturalistic combinations of visual, interrelated experiences to complete alterations, arrangements unforeseen by nature, and even to abstract formalism, with remnants of reality.
The apparent arbitrariness of matter, in its relation to the status quo of nature, is much less arbitrary than it seems. The final order is inevitably determined, consciously or unconsciously, by the social premises of the maker of the filmcomposition. His class-determined tendency is the basis of what seems to be an arbitrary cinematographic relation to the object placed, or found, before the camera.
We should like to find in this two-fold process (the fragment and its relationships) a hint as to the specifics of cinema, but we cannot deny that this process is to be found in other art mediums, whether close to cinema or not (and which art is not close to cinema?). Nevertheless, it is possible to insist that these features are specific to the film, because film-specifics lie not in the process itself but in the degree to which these features are intensified.
The musician uses a scale of sounds; the painter, a scale of tones; the writer, a row of sounds and words-and these are all taken to an equal degree from nature. But the immutable fragment of actual reality in these cases is narrower and more neutral in meaning, and therefore more flexible in combination, so that when they are put together they lose all visible signs of being combined, appearing as one organic unit. A chord, or even three successive notes, seems to be an organic unit. Why should the combination of three pieces of film in montage be considered as a three-fold collision, as impulses of three successive images?
A blue tone is mixed with a red tone, and the result is thought of as violet, and not as a "double exposure" of red and blue. The same unity of word fragments makes all sorts of expressive variations possible. How easily three shades of meaning can be distinguished in language-for example: "a window without light," "a dark window," and "an unlit window."
Now try to express these various nuances in the composition of the frame. Is it at all possible?
If it is, then what complicated context will be needed in order to string the film-pieces onto the film-thread so that the black shape on the wall will begin to show either as a "dark" or as an "unlit" window? How much wit and ingenuity will be expended in order to reach an effect that words achieve so simply?
The frame is much less independently workable than the word or the sound. Therefore the mutual work of frame and montage is really an enlargement in scale of a process microscopically inherent in all arts. However, in the film this process is raised to such a degree that it seems to acquire a new quality.
The shot, considered as material f or the purpose of composition, is more resistant than granite. This resistance is specific to it. The shot's tendency toward complete factual immutability is rooted in its nature. This resistance has largely determined the richness and variety of montage forms and styles-for montage becomes the mightiest means for a really important creative remolding of nature.
Thus the cinema is able, more than any other art, to disclose the process that goes on microscopically in all other arts.
The minimum "distortable" fragment of nature is the shot; ingenuity in its combinations is montage.
Analysis of this problem received the closest attention during the second half-decade of Soviet cinema (1925 - 1930), an attention often carried to excess. Any infinitesimal alteration of a fact or event before the camera grew, beyond all lawful limit, into whole theories of documentalism. The lawful necessity of combining these fragments of reality grew into montage conceptions which presumed to supplant all other elements of film-expression.
Within normal limits these features enter, as elements, into any style of cinematography. But they are not opposed to nor can they replace other problems-for instance, the problem of story.
To return to the double process indicated at the beginning of these notes: if this process is characteristic of cinema, finding its fullest expression during the second stage of Soviet cinema, it will be rewarding to investigate the creative biographies of film-workers of that period, seeing how these features emerged, how they developed in pre-cinema work. All the roads of that period led towards one Rome. I shall try to describe the path that carried me to cinema principles.
Usually my film career is said to have begun with my production of Ostrovsky's play, Enough Simplicity in Every Sage, at the Proletcult Theatre (Moscow, March 1923). This is both true and untrue. It is not true if it is based solely on the fact that this production contained a short comic film made especially for it (not separate, but included in the montage plan of the spectacle). It is more nearly true if it is based on the character of the production, for even then the elements of the specifics mentioned above could be detected.
We have agreed that the first sign of a cinema tendency is one showing events with the least distortion, aiming at the factual reality of the fragments.
A search in this direction shows my film tendencies beginning three years earlier, in the production of The Mexican (from Jack London's story). Here, my participation brought into the theater "events" themselves-a purely cinematographic element, as distinguished from "reactions to events"-which is a purely theatrical element.
This is the plot: A Mexican revolutionary group needs money for its activities. A boy, a Mexican, offers to find the money. He trains for boxing, and contracts to let the champion beat him for a fraction of the prize. Instead he beats up the champion, winning the entire prize. Now that I am better acquainted with the specifics of the Mexican revolutionary struggle, not to mention the technique of boxing, I would not think of interpreting this material as we did in 1920, let alone using so unconvincing a plot.
The play's climax is the prize-fight. In accordance with the most hallowed Art Theatre traditions, this was to take place backstage (like the bull-fight in Carmen), while the actors on stage were to show excitement in the fight only they can see, as well as to portray the various emoti?ns of the persons concerned in the outcome.
My first move (trespassing upon the director's job, since I was there in the official capacity of designer only) was to propose that the fight be brought into view. Moreover I suggested that the scene be staged in the center of the auditorium to re-create the same circumstances under which a real boxing match takes place. Thus we dared the concreteness of factual events. The fight was to be carefully planned in advance but was to be utterly realistic.
The playing of our young worker-actors in the fight scene differed radically from their acting elsewhere in the production. In every other scene, one emotion gave rise to a further emotion (they were working in the Stanislavsky system), which in turn was used as a means to affect the audience; but in the fight scene the audience was excited directly.
While the other scenes influenced the audience through intonation, gestures, and mimicry, our scene employed realistic, even textural means-real fighting, bodies crashing to the ring floor, panting, the shine of sweat on torsos, and finally, the unforgettable smacking of gloves against taut skin and strained muscles. Illusionary scenery gave way to a realistic ring (though not in the center of the hall, thanks to that plague of every theatrical enterprise, the fireman) and extras closed the circle around the ring.
Thus my realization that I had struck new ore, an actualmaterialistic element in theater. In The Sage, this element appeared on a new and clearer level. The eccentricity of the production exposed this same line, through fantastic contrasts. The tendency developed not only from illusionary acting movement, but from the physical fact of acrobatics. A gesture expands into gymnastics, rage is expressed through a somersault, exaltation through a salto-mortale, lyricism on "the mast of death." The grotesque of this style permitted leaps from one type of expression to another, as well as unexpected intertwinings of the two expressions. In a later production, Listen, Moscow (summer 1923), these two separate lines of "real doing" and "pictorial imagination" went through a synthesis expressed in a specific technique of acting.
These two principles appeared again in Tretiakov's Gas Masks (1923-24), with still sharper irreconcilability, broken so noticeably that had this been a film it would have remained, as we say, "on the shelf."
What was the matter? The conflict between materialpractical and fictitious-descriptive principles was somehow patched up in the melodrama, but here they-broke up and we failed completely. The cart dropped to pieces, and its driver dropped into the cinema.
This all happened because one day the director had the marvelous idea of producing this play about a gas factory in a real gas factory.
As we realized later, the real interiors of the factory had nothing to do with our theatrical fiction. At the same time the plastic chaml of reality in the factory became so strong that the element of actuality rose with fresh strength-took things into its own hands-and finally had to leave an art where it could not command.
Thereby bringing us to the brink of cinema. But this is not the end of our adventures with theater work. Having come to the screen, this other tendency flourished, and became known as "typage." This "typage" is just as typical a feature of this cinema period as "montage." And be it known that I do not want to limit the concept of "typage" or "montage" to my own works.
I want to point out that "typage" must be understood as broader than merely a face without make-up, or a substitution of "naturally expressive" types for actors. In my opinion, "typage" included a specific approach to the events embraced by the content of the fihn. Here again was the method of least interference with the natural course and combinations of events. In concept, from beginning to end, October is pure "typage."
A typage tendency may be rooted in theater; gro\ving out of the theater into film, it presents possibilities for excellent stylistic growth, in a broad sense-as an indicator of definite affinities to real life through the camera.
And now let us examine the second feature of film-specifics, the principles of montage. How was this expressed and shaped in my work before joining the cinema?
In the midst of the flood of eccentricity in The Sage, including a short film comedy, we can find the first hints of a sharply expressed montage.
The action moves through an elaborate tissue of intrigue. Mamayev sends his nephew, Glumov, to his wife as guardian. Glumov takes liberties beyond his uncle's instructions and his aunt takes the courtship seriously. At the same time Glumov begins to negotiate for a marriage with Mamayev's niece, Turussina, but conceals these intentions from the aunt, Mamayeva. Courting the aunt, Glumov deceives the uncle; flattering the uncle, Glumov arranges with him the deception of the aunt.
Glumov, on a comic plane, echoes the situations, the overwhelming passions, the thunder of finance, that his French prototype, Balzac's Rastignac, experiences. Rastignac's type in Russia was still in the cradle. Money-making was still a sort of child's game between uncles and nephews, aunts and their gallants. It remains in the family, and remains trivial. Hence, the comedy. But the intrigue and entanglements are already present, playing on two fronts at the same time-with both hands-with dual characters . . . and we showed all this with an intertwined montage of two different scenes (of Mamayev giving his instructions, and of Glumov putting them into execution). The surprising intersections of the two dialogues sharpen the characters and the play, quicken the tempo, and multiply the comic possibilities.
For the production of The Sage the stage was shaped like a circus arena, edged with a red barrier, and three-quarters surrounded by the audience. The other quarter was hung with a striped curtain, in front of which stood a small raised platform, several steps high. The scene with Mamayev (Shtraukh) took place downstage while the Mamayeva (Yanukova) fragments occurred on the platform. Instead of changing scenes, Glumov (Yezikanov) ran from one scene to the other and back-taking a fragment of dialogue from one scene, interrupting it with a fragment from the other scene-the dialogue thus colliding, creating new meanings and sometimes wordplays. Glumov's leaps acted as caesurae between the dialogue fragments.
And the "cutting" increased in tempo. What was most interesting was that the extreme sharpness of the eccentricity was not torn from the context of this part of the play; it never became comical just for comedy's sake, but stuck to its theme, sharpened by its scenic embodiment.
Another distinct film feature at work here was the new meaning acquired by common phrases in a new environment.
Everyone who has had in his hands a piece of film to be edited knows by experience how neutral it remains, even though a part of a planned sequence, until it is joined with another piece, when it suddenly acquires and conveys a sharper and quite different meaning than that planned for it at the time of filming.
This was the foundation of that wise and wicked art of reediting the work of others, the most profound examples of which can be found during the dawn of our cinematography, when all the master film-editors-Esther Schub, the Vassiliyev brothers, Benjamin Boitler, and Birrois - were engaged in reworking ingeniously the films imported after the revolution.
I cannot resist the pleasure of citing here one montage tour de force of this sort, executed by Boitler. One film bought from Germany was Danton, with Emil Jannings. As released on our screens, this scene was shown: Camille Desmoulins is condemned to the guillotine. Greatly agitated, Danton rushes to Robespierre, who turns aside and slowly wipes away a tear. The sub-title said, approximately, "In the name of freedom I had to sacrifice a friend..." Fine.
But who could have guessed that in the German original, Danton, represented as an idler, a petticoat-chaser, a splendid chap and the only positive figure in the midst of evil characters, that this Danton ran to the evil Robespierre and ...spat in his face? And that it was this spit that Robespierre wiped from his face with a handkerchief? And that the title indicated Robespierre's hatred of Danton, a hate that in the end of the film motivates the condemnation of Jannings-Danton to the guillotine?!
Two tiny cuts reversed the entire significance of this scene!
Where did my montage experiment in these scenes of The Sage come from?
There was already an "aroma" of montage in the new "left" cinema, particularly among the documentalists. Our replacement of Glumov's diary in Ostrovsky's text with a short "film-diary" was itself a parody on the first experiments with newsreels.
I think that first and foremost we must give the credit to the basic principles of the circus and the music-hall-for which I had had a passionate love since childhood. Under the influence of the French comedians, and of Chaplin (of whom we had only heard), and the first news of the fox-trot and jazz, this early love thrived.
The music-hall element was obviously needed at the time for the emergence of a "montage" form of thought. Harlequin's parti-colored costume grew and spread, first over the structure of the program, and finally into the method of the whole production.
But the background extended more deeply into tradition. Strangely enough, it was Flaubert who gave us one of the finest examples of cross-montage of dialogues, used with the same intention of expressive sharpening of idea. This is the scene in Madame Bovary where Emma and Rodolphe grow more intimate. Two lines of speech are interlaced: the speech of the orator in the square below, and the conversation of the future lovers:
Monsieur Derozerays got up, beginning another speech . .. praise of the Government took up less space in it; religion and agriculture more. He showed in it the relations of these two, and how they had always contributed to civilization. Rodolphe with Madame Bovary was talking dreams, presentiments, magnetism. Going back to the cradle of society, the orator painted those fierce times when men lived on acorns in the heart of woods. Then they had left off the skins of beasts, had put on cloth, tilled the soil, planted the vine. Was this a good, and in this discovery was there not more of injury than of gain? Monsieur Derozerays set himself this problem. From magnetism little by little Rodolphe had come to affinities, and while the president was citing Cincinnatus and his plough, Diocletian planting his cabbages, and the Emperors of China inaugurating the year by the sowing of seed, the young man was explaining to the young woman that these irresistible attractions find their cause in some previous state of experience.
"Thus we," he said, "why did we come to know one another?
What chance willed it? It was because across the infinite, like two streams that flow but to unite, our special bents of mind had driven us towards each others."
And he seized her hand; she did not withdraw it.
"For good farming generally!" cried the president.
"Just now, for example, when I went to your house."
"To Monsieur Bizat of Quincampoix."
"Did I know I should accompany you? "
"A hundred times I wished to go; and I followed you-I remained."
"And I shall remam to-night, to-morrow, all other days, all my life!"
And so on, with the "pieces" developing increasing tension.
As we can see, this is an interweaving of two lines, thematically identical, equally trivial. The matter is sublimated to a monumental triviality, whose climax is reached through a continuation of this cross-cutting and word-play, with the significance always dependent on the juxtaposition of the two lines.
Literature is full of such examples. This method is used with increasing popularity by Flaubert's artistic heirs.
Our pranks in regard to Ostrovsky remained on an "avant garde" level of an indubitable nakedness. But this seed of montage tendencies grew quickly and splendidly in P atatra, which remained a project through lack of an adequate hall and technical possibilities. The production was planned with "chase tempos," quick changes of action, scene intersections, and simultaneous playing of several scenes on a stage that surrounded an auditorium of revolving seats. Another even earlier project attempted to embrace the entire theater building in its composition. This was broken up during rehearsals and later produced by other hands as a purely theatrical conception. It was the Pletnev play, Precipice, which Smishlayev and I ,vorked on, following The Mexican, until we disagreed on principles and dissolved our partnership. (When I returned to Proletcult a year later, to do The Sage, it was as a director, although I continued to design my own productions.)
Precipice contains a scene where an inventor, thrilled by his new invention, runs, like Archimedes, about the city (or perhaps he was being chased by gangsters-I don't remember exactly). The task was to solve the dynamics of city streets, as well as to show the helplessness of an individual at the mercy of the "big city." (Our mistaken imaginings about Europe naturally led us to the false concept of "urbanism.")
An amusing conlbination occurred to me, not only to use running scenery-pieces of buildings and details ( Meyerhold had not yet worked out, for his Trust D. E., the neutral polished shields, murs mobiles, to unify several places of action)-but also, possibly under the demands of shifting scenery, to connect these moving decorations with people. The actors on roller skates carried not only themselves about the stage, but also their "piece of city." Our solution of the problem-the intersection of man and milieu-was undoubtedly influenced by the principles of the cubists. But the "urbanistic" paintings of Picasso were of less importance here than the need to express the dynamics of the city-glimpses of facades, hands, legs, pillars, heads, domes. All of this can be found in Gogol's work, but we did not notice that until Andrei Belyi enlightened us about the special cubism of Gogol. I still remember the four legs of two bankers, supporting the facade of the stock-exchange, with two top-hats crowning the whole. There was also a policeman, sliced and quartered with traffic. Costumes blazing with perspectives of twirling lights, with only great rouged lips visible above. These all remained on paper-and now that even the paper has gone, we may become quite pathetically lyrical in our reminiscences.
These close-ups cut into views of a city become another link in our analysis, a film element that tried to fit itself into the stubborn stage. Here are also elements of double and multiple exposure-"superimposing" images of man onto images of buildings-all an attempt to interrelate man and his milieu in a single complicated display. (The fact that the film Strike was full of this sort of complexity proves the "infantile malady of leftism" existing in these first steps of cinema.)
Out of mechanical fusion, from plastic synthesis, the attempt evolves into thematic synthesis. In Strike, there is more than a transformation into the technique of the camera. The composition and structure of the film as a whole achieves the effect and sensation of uninterrupted unity between the collective and the milieu that creates the collective. And the organic unity of sailors, battleships, and sea that is shown in plastic and thematic cross-section in Potemkin is not by trickery or double-exposure or mechanical intersection, but by the general structure of the composition. But in the theater, the impossibility of the mise-en-scene unfolding throughout the auditorium, fusing stage and audience in a developing pattern, was the reason for the concentrated absorption of the mise-en-scene problems within the scenic action.
The almost geometrically conventional mise-en-scene of The Sage and its formal sequel, Listen, Moscow, becomes one of the basic elements of expression. The montage intersection eventually became too emphatically exact. The composition singled out groups, shifted the spectator's attention from one point to another, presented close-ups, a hand holding a letter, the play of eyebrows, a glance. The technique of genuine mise-en-scene composition was being mastered-and approaching its limits. It was already threatened with becoming the knight'S move in chess, the shift of purely plastic contours in the already non-theatrical outlines of detailed drawings.
Sculptural details seen through the frame of the cadre, or shot, transitions from shot to shot, appeared to be the logical way out for the threatened hypertrophy of the mise-en-scene. Theoretically it established our dependence on mise-en-scene and montage. Pedagogically, it determined, for the future, the approaches to montage and cinema, arrived at through the mastering of theatrical construction and through the art of mise-en-scene. Thus was born the concept of mise-en-cadre. As the mise-en-scene is an interrelation of people in action, so the mise-en-cadre is the pictorial composition of mutually dependent cadres (shots) in a montage sequence.
In Gas Masks we see all the elements of film tendencies meeting. The turbines, the factory background, negated the last remnants of make-up and theatrical costumes, and all elements appeared as independently fused. Theater accessories in the midst of real factory plastics appeared ridiculous. The element of "play" was incompatible with the acrid smell of gas. The pitiful platform kept getting lost among the real platforms of labor activity. In short, the production was a failure. And we found ourselves in the cinema.
Our first film opus, Strike [1924-25], reflected, as in a mirror, in reverse, our production of Gas Masks. But the film floundered about in the flotsam of a rank theatricality that had become alien to it.
At the same time, the break with the theater in principle was so sharp that in my "revolt against the theater" I did away with a very vital element of theater-the story.
At that time this seemed natural. We brought collective and mass action onto the screen, in contrast to individualism and the "triangle" drama of the bourgeois cinema. Discarding the individualist conception of the bourgeois hero, our films of this period made an abrupt deviation-insisting on an understanding of the mass as hero.
No screen had ever before reflected an image of collective action. Now the conception of "collectivity" was to be pictured. But our enthusiasm produced a one-sided representation of the masses and the collective; one-sided because collectivism means the maximum development of the individual within the collective, a conception irreconcilably opposed to bourgeois individualism. Our first mass films missed this deeper meaning.
Still, I am sure that for its period this deviation was not only natural but necessary. It was important that the screen be first penetrated by the general image, the collective united and propelled by one wish. "Individuality within the collective," the deeper meaning, demanded of cinema today, would have found entrance almost impossible if the way had not been cleared by the general concept.
In 1924 I wrote, with intense zeal: "Down with the story and the plot!" Today, the story, which then seemed to be almost "an attack of individualism" upon our revolutionary cinema, returns in a fresh form, to its proper place. In this tum towards the story lies the historical importance of the third half-decade of Soviet cinematography (1930-1935).
And here, as we begin our fourth five-year period of cinema, when abstract discussions of the epigones of the "story" film and the embryones of the "plotless" film are calming down, it is time to take an inventory of our credits and debits.
I consider that besides mastering the elements of filmic diction, the technique of the frame, and the theory of montage, we have another credit to list-the value of profound ties with the traditions and methodology of literature. Not in vain, during this period, was the new concept of film-language born, film-language not as the language of the film-critic, but as an expression of cinema thinking, when the cinema was called upon to embody the philosophy and ideology of the victorious proletariat.
Stretching out its hand to the new quality of literature-the dramatics of subject-the cinema cannot forget the tremendous experience of its earlier periods. But the way is not back to them, but forward to the synthesis of all the best that has been done by our silent cinematography, towards a synthesis of these with the demands of today, along the lines of story and Marxist-Leninist ideological analysis. The phase of monumental synthesis in the images of the people of the epoch of socialism-the phase of socialist realism.
SERGEI EISENSTEIN/Film Form: Essays in Film Theory/Through Theater To Cinema
Copyright 1949 by Harcourt, Brace & Horld, Inc.
Copyright renewed 1977 by Jay Leyda