Published on April 17th, 2014 | by SgtKaiju0
The Craft Service – The Montage
In this ongoing series, The Craft Service, I’m going to be looking at films but from a view behind the camera, looking at the people and techniques that make the films we all know. This week, the ever-present montage…
Montage is a well known and often derided film technique. In it’s purest form it is the use of a series of connected images to tell a long story in a short period of time, a way for the filmmakers to gloss over the more boring or repetitive parts of a story. There is no need to show the entire of a drive across america if you can simply show bits to make the whole.
But where did this filmic meme arrive from and where is it going?
To trace it’s roots we need to go back to 1920s Russia and to man called Sergei Eisenstein. Sergei was the first person to attempt to codify what montage was, the differing forms of montage and what they all mean. A lot of this is academic but the five distinctions are: Metric, Rhythmic, Tonal, Overtonal and Intellectual. It is worth noting that none of these individually refer to what we now consider a montage.
Metric is the cutting of shots based entirely on their length. There is no concern for context and shots will often cut mid-action, but the use of time patterns builds that tension within a scene, going from longer shots to faster and faster shots will ramp that up. You can see this idea of editing used today in any number of fight and chase scenes, the use of cut length giving a scene tension when the action does not. Also there is a whole world of music videos built on this style of editing, the beat of the music driving the cuts, regardless of narrative flow.
Next up is Rhythmic. This method is to cut based on visual continuity. Think of 2001 and the cut from a bone to a spaceship, the cuts in any Spagetti Western from eye to eye. The undercurrent of the scene is told via the visual framing choices, the link is drawn between two disparate images by their similarity.
Tonal Montage is the cutting together of seemingly unconnected images that emotionally link together. So a first kiss, cut to shots of birds singing, cut to sunrise, cut to fireworks. You get the gist. Wonderfully used for comic effect in Naked Gun 2 1/2:
Overtonal is the merging of all three of these, shots of a metric length, with similar rhythmic style, but tied together with an overarching tonal feel. Great example from Eisenstein himself:
The fifth and final style is Intellectual Montage. This is what is most often referred to when people talk about Soviet Montage or Eisenstein Editing and it the posing (or juxtaposing) of two images to say something intellectual that neither image says by themselves. One of the greatest examples of this is the death of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. His death is intercut with footage of the villages sacrificing a cow, the film-maker attempting to say something about the role of killer and victim that the visual images themselves can’t say.
Once these ideas crossed the shores and ended up in Hollywood, they lost a lot of their intellectual rigour in the face of industrialised movie making. The distinctions became blurred as editing became a more practised art and the term ‘montage’ became much more specialized. Nowhere is this more evident that in the case of Metric Montage. There are example of this in almost every modern day action film, from sublime of the showdown in the House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill, to the bombastic and confused Transformers films. But, crucially, no one considers these to be montages, merely pacing and editing. Slowly the ideas of Sergei became folded into the general language of film editing.
This, inexorably, gave rise to what is affectionately know as the 80s Montage. As various forms of montage were folded away into the general realm of editing, a particular form of overtonal montage rose to the fore, The Training Montage. And, like soviet montage before it, this era of montage came with it’s own set of rules.
Rule 1: Learning A New Skill.
The prevalent use of the 80s montage was to show the sped up process of a learning something new or the honing of a new skill.
No where is this better show than in Rocky. In prep for his big fight, the montage format allows for a short hand of his training. We get the message that he has ‘put in the hours’ without having to show us all the details and all the time.
Rule 2: Rinse And Repeat.
This clip from Rocky leads us nicely into the second rule, and this frankly brilliant montage from Back To School.
Repetition is the key here, Roddy is show to be reading over and over again, the montage showing us another shorthand. The combination of the Metric cutting and the Rhythmic use of the book image tells us of his study.
Rule 3: Location, Location, Location
Another key element of the 80s Montage was the use of locations. As show in the two above clips and the excellent Footloose, different locations would be used to highlight the lengths gone to learn this new skill.
In many ways it is this third rule that marks the dividing line between 80s Montage and mere editing. A montage of a man researching in the library for a crime movie does not convey the same level of dedication. By moving their training from place to place we are told of the lengths and breadth of the training.
But, nothing gold can last, and soon these rules became as much a shortcut as montage itself, allowing filmmakers to think that it would allow them to tell their stories easier, rather than better. Nowhere is this more evident in this clip from the 1984 film, The Jigsaw Man.
Filmmakers became lazy, the montage changed from being a powerful tool to simply being a quick-fix for when you’d paint yourself into a corner.
Soon the 80s Montage became as clichéd as the 80s itself, leading to the well known Team America: World Police scene….
So where does this leave us know? Montage has seemed to fade away from the modern film vocabulary, being relegated to the world of faux-retro from Wes Anderson or the comic-book antics of Marvel and DC. But it’s power is still there, the power to tell us so much more that the simple visuals will allow, to give the filmmakers to power to evoke emotions far beyond what simply telling the story would allow.
Yeah, I cried too…