Our presentation at the Eisenstein for the Twenty First Century conference had two main parts: a spoken text and an audiovisual essay, each about fifteen minutes long. As a whole, our title was “The Idea of a Series: Energy Vectors in Montage”. Contrary to our normal practice, the audiovisual section, titled The Idea of a Series (Post-Eisenstein), is not constructed as a fully autonomous, self-explanatory, ‘stand-alone’ piece; rather, it picks up from and extends the spoken section, taking it into four scene analyses. So what we will provide here is a brief summary of the text that preceded the audiovisual essay.
A major legacy of Sergei Eisenstein’s theory and practice in the 20th and 21st centuries is the montage sequence. It has evolved in some fascinating (and sometimes reductively stereotypical) directions, across many kinds of cinema, video and digital media. In our work, we have been trying to understand the energy and intensity of particular montage sequences in cinema and (more generally) audiovisual history. As a hunch, we figured from the outset that a particularly affecting type of montage is one in which a mounting rhythm creates a special kind of ‘high’ — or, in Eisenstein’s term, an ecstasy — for the spectator. Montage that seems, in a complex process, to ‘take flight’, lyrically or violently, and takes spectators along with it.
In her 2013 book Théorie du montage. Énergies, forces et fluides, Térésa Faucon investigates the ways in which a sequence of images in montage can be vectorised, chained together to form a forceful impression. In our view, a crucial aspect of this vectorisation is aesthetic seriality. We intend this term not in the sense of narrative episodes and seasons in a television series, but to refer to the more graphic and cinematic image of a serial line of more-or-less identical or very similar people or objects; this can be a line, a mass, a configuration. In 1960, Jean-Paul Sartre theorised the serial idea for our modern times in his massive Critique of Dialectical Reason, where he vividly evoked the example of the individual waiting in the line-up of a bus queue, melting into the mass and becoming part of an “abstract generality”, a mere instance of a type, a function. This process of massification, writes Sartre, constitutes people in a queue “in their interchangeability: each of them is effectively produced by the social ensemble as united with his neighbor, in so far as he is strictly identical with them” (Sartre 1982, 259).
Cinema loves (often ambivalently) these lines of identical types — sometimes static, sometimes in motion. The series arrives in force with the modernity of industry, architecture and technology — and what Sartre underlines as “the medium of the city” itself (257). In an excellent audiovisual essay, Patrick Keating (2017) has usefully traced motifs of “movement and modernity”, including he calls the “seriality shot”, in a group of (predominantly) 1930s films.
What are the relations between montage and seriality? For the serial chain can exist in film space or film time, or both in concert. In Eisenstein’s theoretical writings, seriality takes various forms, and wears many guises. He frequently described serial phenomena — “rhythmical repetitiveness”, as he called it (2016, 232) — at various levels of aesthetic and conceptual construction: from graphic motifs in ancient art, to the constitution of the celluloid strip. This phenomenon is never only visual for Eisenstein, since he equally cites “the rhythmic organisation of the procession and sequence of sounds in city ceremonies” (2016, 146).
On a higher level of aesthetic elaboration comes Eisenstein’s late theory of montage as a process central to what he terms “advanced art” (i.e., cinema), as well as to real-life perceptual and psychic processes. This theory is articulated at length in “Montage 1938” and “Montage and Architecture”. Here, montage is that which offers the diverse aspects or “particular representation[s]” of something (an object, gesture, event) to arrive first at an “integrated image”, and then ultimately at the formation, in the spectator’s mind, of an idea — or what Eisenstein calls the “unifying factor” of a “general theme” (1970, 65).
What we are terming post-Eisensteinian developments in the practice of the montage sequence go in at least two directions that we wish to highlight and analyse in our audiovisual essay — both of which are latent in Eisenstein’s own cinema. On the one hand, there is a drive toward unity and coherence (homogeneity) — a general (and often ecstatic) ‘binding’ impression. On the other hand, there is an exaggeration of what Marie-Claire Ropars (1978) and others discerned as the perturbations within Eisensteinian montage, necessarily heterogeneous in nature — a drive to complex disunity, self-deconstruction, and even (at the furthest extreme) a kind of willful, staged disintegration.
These are the tendencies we underline in our analytical presentation and re-montage of scenes from films by Ulrike Ottinger, Leos Carax, Marcel Hanoun and Carmelo Bene — all examples taken from a era of audiovisual production (1960s to early 1990s) that is ‘pre-digital’: after the widespread adoption of digital technology, the techniques, forms and affects of montage receive another, thorough-going shake-up that is beyond the scope of this present investigation.
Sergei Eisenstein, Notes of a Film Director (New York: Dover, 1970).
Sergei Eisenstein, Notes for a General History of Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016).
Sergei Eisenstein, “Montage and Architecture”. Assemblage, no. 10, 1989.
Térésa Faucon, Théorie du montage. Énergies, forces et fluides (Paris: Armand Colin, 2013).
Keating, Patrick. “Motifs of Movement and Modernity”. Movie, no. 7, 2017.
Marie-Claire Ropars, “The Overture of October”. Enclitic, Vol. 2 No. 2, 1978.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason (London: Verso, 1982).
Bios Cristina Álvarez López, based in Vilassar de Mar, is a film critic and teacher at the EQZE Film School (Spain). She was co-founder of the Spanish online film journal Transit: Cine y otros desvíos, and has written for Sight and Sound, MUBI Notebook, Shangri-la, LOLA, Screening the Past, and Screen Education, and in books on Chantal Akerman, Bong Joon-ho, Philippe Garrel and Paul Schrader. Her solo audiovisual essays have appeared in The Third Rail, the ICA (London) website, and Indicator DVD/Blu-ray releases.
Adrian Martin, based in Vilassar de Mar, is Adjunct Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Monash University (Australia) and a teacher at the EQZE Film School (Spain). He is the author of eight books, most recently Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016 (Amsterdam University Press, 2018). His audio commentaries appear on BFI, Arrow, Masters of Cinema and Indicator releases; and he writes for Trafic, Metro, Sight and Sound and Caiman, among others.
Álvarez López & Martin's collaborative audiovisual essays appear regularly in De Filmkrant (Holland) and MUBI Notebook (USA); as well as in Sight and Sound, The Third Rail, [in]Transition and 16:9; on DVD/Blu-ray releases from Criterion, BFI, Kino Lorber, Carlotta, Masters of Cinema and Belgian Cinematek; and online commissions for Queensland Art Gallery and Australian Centre for the Moving Image.