Montage (Cinema Aesthetics)

Sam Rohdie,
Montage (Cinema Aesthetics).
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006.
ISBN-13: 978-0719070396
US$19.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Manchester University Press)

This book treats of montage much as Eisenstein described cinematography at the outset of his chapter on the ideogram in The Film Form. For its author montage is cinema itself. Rather than laboring through the definitions it carries under the names of celebrated theorists and historians, Sam Rohdie first locates its origins in Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic experiments, in “the gaps between the still images” of moving figures and the “real” that the spectator takes these images to represent. When read sequentially the images of galloping horses or, more tellingly (because she figures on the attractive cover of the book) a nude descending a staircase, an “illusion of movement and of reality” (p. 4) is obtained. Rohdie calls Muybridge a “narrator of subjects” in motion or of “characters in action” who offered pictures that could be read in a glance, separately and consecutively, or even diagonally as well as horizontally. Prior to his mention of Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier shown based on Muybridge (noted on pp. 111-12), Rohdie situates the most recent manifestation of an open-ended montage in Takeshi Kitano’s 69 photographs with which the editors of Cahiers du cinema celebrated its 600th number in April 2005. Arranged horizontally on two folios, each is a fragment drawn from everyday life and numbered consecutively with respect to the others. The photos comprise an assemblage from which a variety of mini-narratives can be deduced. The play of chance and necessity occasioned the editors to put the work under title of La Règle du jeu, thus to project the relation of arbitrariness and form to Renoir’s masterpiece of 1939. Kitano, like Renoir, creates a palette of multiple possibilities on which the eye and the mind sense “the true fullness of going nowhere in particular” (p. 12).

The open-ended character of montage that Rohdie identifies is embodied in the form of the book. Composed of a short introduction and twenty-five ‘takes’ or unnumbered chapters (or, better, 24 + 1, if each segment is comparable to a photogram in an arbitrarily drawn series), the book examines montage through sixteen auteurs. Muybridge and Kitano stand on one end and Etienne-Jules Marey on the other. Between them are found, outside of any chronological order, intensely reflective studies of Pasolini, Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Griffith, Rohmer, Hitchcock, Fuller, Vertov, Hawks, Renoir, Rivette, Antonioni and Resnais. The aim is to crack open the parochial definition of montage so as to bring its theoretical and analytical potential to a higher and more effective plane of analysis and appreciation. The effect is one in which each section, as in the tradition of parataxis, reinvents the concept as it leads along a line of inquiry of its own. The auteurs are treated with such precision and care that the analyses apply at once to whatever films are taken up (Vertigo [USA 1958]for Hitchcock, Red River [USA 1948] for Hawks, for Rivette La Belle Noiseuse [France/Switzerland 1991], Fuller Forty Guns [USA 1957], Resnais La Guerre est finie [France/Sweden 1966…), to the ways they bring a signature to montage, and to its process in their collective works.

The historical crux of the book is discerned in the sequence of chapters on Kuleshov, Eisenstein and Griffith (pp. 27-59) that relate to the segments on Vertov and Renoir. Kuleshov’s experiments pointed to what could be done with junctures and juxtapositions of images. “Not only were the joins and continuities revealed as fictive (…), but the real space of which the shot was only a fragment was equally fictive” (p. 28). His work yields an intensely fictive reality from which the spectator is excluded. By contrast Eisenstein links shots in order to efface the presence of the juncture and to emphasize natural progressions that “create relations of tempo, rhythm and rhyming” (p. 33) and generate associations or correspondences (as in Baudelaire’s eponymous sonnet) “whereby elements distant in time and space and from different realities are brought together” (p. 36), congealed and often dispersed. Griffith (shown following Eisenstein), makes of montage a form of writing that scripts “a story with images of absent realities” (p. 43). He causes space to contract in narratives of trauma, such as The Birth of a Nation (USA 1915) in which a density of associations exceeds the narrative from which they emerge. In a lucid comparison in the vein of The Film Form Rohdie notes that Eisenstein’s aim was to refashion and transform reality through montage whereas for Griffith it based its narrative compositions on pregiven reality, with the difference that (even with films reaching back to the Biograph years) montage causes the world to run out of time. The chapter on Vertov adumbrates further: his films are shot “in reality,” with raw material that becomes visible through editing. Shots do not correspond with one another but underscore the gaps between them, the sum of them becoming “an open rather than a closed construction” (p. 83).

Throughout the book Bazin’s embrace of the long take stands both as a counterpoint and an affirmation of the virtue of montage. The founding father of the French New Wave tested the principles of editing and composition through his work on Renoir, for whom the inherent theatricality of any and every situation comes forward when the personages are shown playing at playing various roles in precarious existential moments. The reading of La Règle du jeu confirms the point, as does also, in a different way, that of L’Avventura (Italy/France 1960), in which both the personages and the images wander without aim or end. Enthusiasts of American cinema will welcome the work on Howard Hawks. Red River and Rio Bravo (USA 1959) yield an equilibrium of mise en scène (narrative staging) and montage insofar as style, the pertinent trait of the latter, dramatizes and carries the former. When the same director films The Land of the Pharaohs (USA 1955) in cinemascope the new breadth of the frame draws attention to the elements of the shot that cause narrative to be less visibly manifest. The sequence-shot (plan-séquence), unlike traditional montage, brings to the visual plane new and unforeseen ambiguity and uncertainty. In its “lack of finish, occasional obscurity, and disjunctiveness” (p. 73) Samuel Fuller’s cinema stands in strong contrast. Objects in frame are multiplied from different points of view so as to underscore a cinema tending to a “juxtaposition of differences” (p. 75) in which visual “battleground” (to which he alludes in Pierrot le fou [France/Italy 1965]) takes precedence over mise en scène.

The commanding virtue of Montage is found in its montage. Each unit, in itself a clear and incisive treatment of a director’s form, can be juxtaposed to any of the others. Students of the great auteurs of the seventh art will find readings that equate the art of composition that gives rise to the medium with that of a variety of styles and signatures. The great films and filmmakers that readers know by heart will find in Rohdie’s elegantly written monograph a forum in which films are seen and read afresh, anew, with care, force and, above all, with pleasure.

Tom Conley,
Harvard University, USA.

Created on: Thursday, 17 July 2008

About the Author

Tom Conley

About the Author

Tom Conley

Tom Conley is the author of The self-made map and Film hieroglyphs, and is currently writing a study of cinema and cartography.View all posts by Tom Conley →