What's Going On? Cinematic Montage and Televisual Narrative

Curator's Note

In an increasingly unsupportable opposition, television offers “live” broadcast whereas cinema edits prerecorded footage: television is a feed, or flow, while cinema is montage, fragmented even when serving continuity.  Montage remains central to definitions of and fascination with cinema, but has seemed of little interest to television scholars, often concerned with the large juxtapositions of programming schedules and narrative seriality.

Although multiple-camera setups in television production motivated basic editing patterns, “cinematic” montage, foregrounding cuts and shots, characterizes a great deal of contemporary “quality television,” especially in genres that follow multiple timelines and even employ time travel (FringeOutlander), intertwined past and present actions (True DetectiveStranger Things), or the blurring of reality, memory, dream, and fantasy (Twin PeaksMr. Robot).  Indeed, contemporary television seems less indebted to Hollywood continuity editing (once a dominant influence) than to the audaciously intersecting threads of Griffith’s Intolerance or Eisenstein’s October.

A case in point is the Netflix series Sense8 (2015-2018), created by The Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski, that joins eight “sensates” from across the globe through ostentatious editing designed to demonstrate their affective and telepathic synchronicity even as they remain spatially apart in their global dispersion.  The series relentlessly cuts between its multiple characters and locations, often in tour de force sequences that collapse all of the boundaries (including bodies) that separate them.  These moments highlight the emphatic queerness of the series by blurring genders, sexualities, races, and nationalities, in intimate sex scenes that become global orgies, or action scenes that expand into international incidents.  The series also often relies upon the connective thread of music, most prominently in the 4thepisode of the 1stseason, directed by Tom Tykwer, best known for his film Run Lola Run (1998).

The sequence is sonically coherent due to its uninterrupted play of the 1992 hit “What’s Up?” (aka “What’s Going On?”) by 4 Non Blondes, but visually fragmented as the song “moves” between the eight spatially isolated characters and locations of the narrative. Space limitations preclude a full analysis, but a basic description of the beginning of the sequence may suffice. It moves via straight cuts from (1) Riley in London, beginning to play the song on her phone to (2) Wolfgang hearing the song begin at a karaoke bar in Berlin to (3) Lito in bed in Mexico City moving his toes to the song’s beat, to (4) Capheus rocking to the song as he drives in Nairobi.  The sequence returns to Wolfgang before cutting to (5) Sun dancing to the song as she showers in Seoul, and then back to Riley.  After Wolfgang begins to sing, a cut to (6) Will quietly singing in Chicago precedes a shot of (7) Kala singing more loudly on a rooftop in Mumbai.  We return to Wolfgang, Capheus, Kala, Lito, Riley, and Will before picking up (8) Nomi in San Francisco, mouthing the lyrics while being prepped for a possible lobotomy to “cure” her trans identity.  As the sequence continues, it will continue to move between the eight characters and cities, but also begin to incorporate flashbacks as well as “visits” between characters who begin to view one another, “crossing over” from the shots that initially isolate them to shots where they share screen space.   Overall, the sequence, like a modernist poem, is held together by the vivid demonstration of its construction out of shards.

What’s going on?  Television viewers are increasingly expected to easily navigate nonlinear temporalities and spatial discontinuity as the common narrative devices of popular entertainment, including queer science fiction.  The jagged fragments of modernist cinema are now the building blocks of serial narration, and montage, once virtually a definition of avant-garde cinema, has reemerged at the center of the current intersection of pulp and “quality” television.


Lots of interesting things here; and I'm thinking after tomorrow there may be some discussion about music video as a kind of genealogy here.

But what struck me here is a kind of slippage going on between what we could call "lip sync" and actual vocalization. In other words, the guy in Berlin is supposed to be at a karaoke bar, so he'd presumably be actually singing to a track without voices; but we don't get that, we get the recording (if I'm seeing this correctly). It's almost like the recording is a kind of "implant"... but circulating.

I kept thinking of the great final shot of Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," when Pam Greer is somewhere between lip-syncing and voicing the words to "Across 110th Street."

Alas, the linked video here is misleading: it's the visual sequence from the episode, but with the original song only as the soundtrack: the sound in the actual episode is more complex, and a mix of the continuous songs and sounds from the various locations.  This was the best I could do, given that (for unclear reasons) SENSE8 has never been released on any home video format.  (My guess is that some fan put the original song and clip together, removing the actual soundtrack of the series.)

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