The Idea of a Series: Energy Vectors in Montage

Review by Ivan Pintor Iranzo

Jean-Luc Godard has often remarked that the purpose of cinema is not so much to order as to disorder the world. Through montage, Godard believes that it is possible to pick apart highly entrenched forms of historical expression in order to better understand both the past and present in relation to the very act of viewing (Bohler, 2012). In their visual essay, ‘The Idea of a Series’, through sequences of serial montage in films by Ulrike Ottinger, Léos Carax, Marcel Hanoun and Carmelo Bene, Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin revisit the fundamental issue explored by Sergei Eisenstein in his key works expounding his theory on montage: the tension between the sequential nature of film viewing and the possibility offered by the juxtaposition of images to articulate concepts. If organised in a collage of still images on a large panel, the different shots constituting a sequence could result in clashes, rhythms, ideas and cadences that the cinematic montage has to recreate through duration and movement, without being able at the same time to appreciate—as, for example, is possible in the comic strip format—the overall scheme of the montage.

‘In Winter, two filmmakers seek to portray the city of Bruges. Each thing they depict, and their way of depicting it, splits and multiplies into a potentially endless series of experiments or “failures”’, suggest Álvarez and Martin, referring to Marcel Hanoun’s Winter (1969), while they analyse the coexistence of structures of progression and variation with ecstatic ruptures and breakdowns—at times resembling the films of José Val del Omar—that help create a participatory experience for the spectator. Ultimately, it is in the distance between the materiality of the successive shots and the overall scheme of the montage shared by editor and filmmaker that the different methods of montage identified by Eisenstein—metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal (Eisenstein, 1929), and vertical (Eisenstein, 1940)—reveal a point that transcends any of the objections raised against Eisenstein’s theory by Adorno and Eisler (1947): the central importance of the imagination in serial montage.

On the one hand, according to Eisenstein montage needs to be viewed in its political dimension and in relation to contemporaneous artistic and intellectual experiences in the context of juxtaposition, like Bataille’s Documents (1929-1930), Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-werk (1927-1940), and Aby Warburg’s visual atlas Mnemosyne (1924-1929). In Warburg’s work, the montage allows us to trace the historical transmissions of body language in art and to rearticulate the intervals that mark those transmissions, with the aim of rendering the movements of the historical material itself explicit (Didi-Huberman, 2011). But on the other hand, and more significantly for this monumental visual essay, what emerges as the ‘graphic’ and ‘disintegrative montage’ of the editor Nelly Quettier for Léos Carax’s Les Amants del Pont-Neuf (1991), Hanoun’s ‘heterogeneous textures’ in Winter and Mauro Contini’s ‘surgically imprecise montage’ for Carmelo Bene’s film Don Giovanni (1970) is what occurs in the dynamic hiatus between images and the ‘delay between our perception that there is a series, and our ability to identify exactly what comprises it.’

In different ways, Álvarez and Martin explore what happens in light of what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (2013) has called the phantasmata. With this term, taken from the 15th century choreographer Fray Domenico de Piacenza, Agamben refers to the image temporalised by the pathos of sensation, through which the imagination can project the spectator onto the mental diagram of the montage structure itself. The disguised cuts of the sequence in which Don Giovanni’s various lovers are seated at the same table, evoking the experimentations of Italian comic illustrators of the same period, like Guido Crepax and Gianni de Luca, suggest the idea of a pathological memory and the simultaneous menace of the void. The tension between the continuity and discontinuity of montage brings out a void conceived of as a trace, as a counter-image or vestige (vestigium), something that James Joyce was able to transcribe in Ulysses (1922) when Stephen Dedalus is confronted by a long broken series of signs (‘signatures of all things’) and primordial materials (‘seaspawn’, ‘seawrack’) possessed by the gaze of his dead mother, before the famous passage of the third chapter concludes with the sentence: ‘Shut your eyes and see.’

In this paragraph on the ‘ineluctable modality of the visible’, on the inevitable separation between what we see and what looks at us, Joyce seems to assert that we should close our eyes to see when the act of seeing opens a void that calls to us (Didi-Huberman, 1992, 14), and this overflow is the point at which the series analysed by Álvarez and Martin begin. All these series underscore the separation of the two fundamental questions that link Eisenstein, Joyce, Warburg, Benjamin and Godard: How do we see? How do we imagine? And at the same time, they reveal the emotional potential of an incantation on the visible aimed at the spectator: ‘Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door,’ wrote Joyce, as an invocation, at the end of his most celebrated serial passage.

Works cited

Theodoro Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947).

Giorgio Agamben,  Nymphs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Olivier Bohler and Céline Gailleurd, Jean-Luc Godard, Le Désordre Exposé / Jean-Luc Godard, Disorder Exposed (Francia / Suiza: INA/Nocurnes Productions-Imagia, 2012)

Georges Didi-Huberman, Ce que nous voyons, ce que nous regarde  (París: Minuit, 1992).

Georges Didi-Huberman, Atlas ou le gai savoir inquiet. L'Œil de l'histoire, 3 (París: Minuit, 2011).

Sergei Eisenstein, 1929. “Methods of Montage” in Jay Leyda (ed.), Film Form (New York: Harnoncourt, 1949), 72-83.

Sergei Eisenstein, 1940. “Vertical Montage” in Michael Glenny and Richard Taylor (eds.) S. M. Eisenstein Selected Works: Towards a Theory of Montage, Vol. 2, trans. Michael Glenny. (London: BFI Publishing, 2010), 327-99.

James Joyce, Ulysses (Paris: Shakespeare & Company, 1922).

Bio Ivan Pintor Iranzo is senior lecturer at Universidad Pompeu Fabra (UPF) in Barcelona. He has pursued research and teaching activities at different universities in Italy, Argentina and Colombia. He has published articles in journals and contributed to more than 40 books, including Figuras del comic. Forma, tiempo y narración secuencial (2017), I riflessi di Black Mirror (2018), La estética televisiva en las series contemporáneas (2018), Regreso a Twin Peaks (2017), Motivos visuales del cine (2015), Endoapocalisse: The Walking Dead (2015), On the Edge of the Panel:  Essays on Comics Criticism  (2015), La Strada di Fellini (2013) and Poéticas del gesto en el cine europeo contemporáneo (2013). His lines of research are: gestures in film, iconology and iconography, hermeneutics and myth criticism in film, comparative film studies, television series, sequential narrative, transmedia and intertextuality.