Montage and/as Relation

Curator's Note

The following is an excerpt from Between Images: Montage and the Problem of Relation (Oxford University Press, 2023).


What there would be between man and man if there were nothing but the interval represented by the word “between”—an empty space all the more empty as it cannot be confused with pure nothingness—is an infinite separation, but offering itself as a relation in the exigency that is speech.

     - Maurice Blanchot, “The Relation of the Third Kind”


Shrouded in shadow, he resembles a human-shaped cutout from a black-and-white picture of a sundrenched Sicilian port. “But why?” he wonders aloud in deliberately rhythmic Italian, directing his attention from the rolling water to a yet unseen presence off-screen. “Is it so difficult to sell oranges?” Then the scene freezes, falling into a state of eerie repose. Emanating from somewhere beyond the scene in front of us but close by, we hear the clicking and humming of a machine that is presumably the agent of all this change. The scene snaps back into motion again, this time in the opposite direction. The man sucks words back into his body. The waves gently retreat, flowing away from the seawall. Amid all this intermittent seizure and resumption of movement, the world in front of us assumes an almost plastic character. Even the man’s body appears to decamp from meaning before our eyes, dissolving, and in turn reconstituting itself as pure form (line, shape, contrast) amid this alien movement. Distended and swollen across this spatiotemporal canvas, matter itself takes flight.

This is no hallucination, but an up-close encounter with the spooky space-time of montage. To be clear, we are in the editing studio of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet during the cutting of their 1999 film Sicilia!, as observed in Pedro Costa’s Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Où gît votre sourire enfoui?, 2001). Incidentally, there are many great montage films, but the great films on montage—Costa’s film surely makes the cut—would make for a much shorter list. Hidden Smile takes place almost entirely in an editing suite, and this fact alone would distinguish it even among movies about editing. But what I love about Costa’s film is that it dares to capture the editing process at its most demonically involved. It does so, improbably enough, through a sequence of languorous, uninterrupted shots, revealing the cut at the height of its powers not simply to shape a film spatiotemporally but as a kind of structure of feeling, which sets viewers, producers, and critics in relation to cinema more broadly.

Behold Huillet as she rolls the footage back and forth as if to home in on an almost imperceptible detail, buried beneath the many folds of material at hand. Though we may not know where any of this is headed, it is difficult not to get caught up in the intrigue. The footage again halts as Straub exclaims, “There.”

A beat.

A single frame suspended as if in midair, the camera remains affixed to the Steenbeck viewing monitor. There, or rather here before us, is a decisive moment in time, a unique configuration of visual information within the space of a frame, marking the precise point at which this shot must terminate so that another might take its place in the visual field. Here is where the cut intervenes.

At this juncture, we see the countershot corresponding to the previous one from Sicilia!, which reveals the orange-peddling interlocutor of the man we saw earlier. He, too, is subject to this foreign discourse, this winding backward and forward at erratic intervals, as he stutters along a turbulent chain of articulation. Notwithstanding the precise narrative details of this encounter, it takes the unmistakable form of relation, which is to say that an otherwise ordinary exchange between two men is in this instance lent an almost cosmic significance. The filmmakers engage in verbal handwringing before this image, laboring over it with the gravity of two surgeons determining the apposite point of incision. As the film advances and reverses, the figure onscreen blinks his eyes in uncannily slow motion as though caught in a purgatorial state between flesh and plastic. “He already has his mouth open, but it should work,” Huillet remarks.

“It’s better with his mouth open,” concurs Straub, “just this once.” And so we have the potential site of a cut. Huillet marks the frame as an in-point and continues driving the footage forward. The figure on screen replies, “The oranges do not sell very well,” and again freezes in place, arrested once more in an interval between speech and motion. Straub and Huillet continue to spar. Huillet believes she has found a way of editing around the figure’s blinking eyes, but Straub worries that this would “cut out some preliminary harmonies of the ‘N’.” As the monteurs huff and puff at each other, each insisting on the virtue of their respective theories, the figure continues his macabre dance, spewing out words in slow motion and drawing them back in at the behest of this morcellating dispositif.

The machine hums, clicks, and sputters along, until it again pauses at a particular point. “This is you,” Huillet notes, indicating a point in the footage where Straub would have his cut. “This here.”

A beat. The black-and-white figure, at once a docile ghost and the very measure of what is possible when two human beings communicate, hangs in suspense on the monitor.

Huillet carefully drives the footage backward and forward before stopping at another point. In any other place, this frame would appear utterly indistinguishable from the other, and yet it is here that Huillet quite decisively marks her place in contradistinction to her interlocutor: “And this is me.”

“What?” Straub asks.

“A difference of a single frame [photogram],” Huillet replies. Something dialectical would seem at hand. It extends from the space between two people relating their shared struggles, to that of their corresponding cinematic images, to that between the producers (Straub and Huillet) of those images, all the way to us, the viewers, and to how we relate to all that the screen relates to us.

Reflecting on this single-frame difference, Straub clarifies, “Between us?”

Dispassionately, Huillet confirms, as if this were foretold. Straub breaks the ensuing silence: “Alors.”

“Don’t spend a hundred years on it,” warns Huillet.

“I don’t need a hundred years,” Straub insists. “Just seventy.”


Montage and Relation

This study is animated by my longstanding fascination with one of the most basic operations of cinema, cutting, which encompasses a repertoire of strategies for linking, or augmenting the duration of, distinct shots. There are many variants of the cut, from dissolves and wipes to hard cuts and fades, and each of these brings a unique set of limitations and possibilities to production and reception. But even in this broad sense of the term, the cut is merely the faint shadow of a much larger ensemble of cultural, technological, and psychic operations at once nonspecific to cinema but unthinkable without it. In my view, the word that best captures that discursive ensemble is montage, and its animating principle is relation. This book begins from a basic mandate: to think montage through relation, and relation through montage. Before I address the conjunction of these two words—of what it means to bring them together and what is at stake in doing so—it is worth provisionally outlining each term.

We can define montage broadly as how shots are cut up, separated, and assembled. The word itself derives from the French monter (to put together), the suffix -age giving it a procedural sense, suggesting a larger apparatus of assembly.[1] In film discourse, montage describes a range of audiovisual phenomena, but to a degree is context-dependent. In the parlance of mainstream cinema, and especially in North America, montage refers to a section in a movie featuring jumps in time and space. These are most often developmental, as in the famous training sequence from Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976) or the sublimely metacinematic “We’re gonna need a montage” sequence from Team America: World Police (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, 2004). By this sense of montage as a unitary object—as in a montage—the proliferation of cuts becomes a visual signpost of narrative denouement, as in the late third act sequences of Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999) and Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001). Another sense of montage is more closely aligned with global film movements such as interwar Soviet cinema, French impressionist cinema, global new wave cinemas of the post-World War II era, and Third Cinema. This sense of montage carries with it a modernist sensibility, where editing is akin to Roland Barthes’s characterization of literary writing (écriture) as a “morality of form.”[2]

This book’s allegiances, such as they exist, fall more on the avant-gardist side of montage, and indeed this is a book concerned primarily with filmmakers working in independent and experimental modes—at the very least, in production scenarios minimally constrained by industrial and commercial norms. I do not wish to foreclose any specific understanding or context, however, and we will not precisely adhere to any one word or discursive lexicon in accounting for the relations between images, which, to echo Blanchot’s sentiment from the epigraph, I want to maintain as a kind of irreducible and exigent expression of cinema’s conjunctive agency. Still, the word “editing” in my view is too utilitarian, too clinical, having become practically synonymous with the system of continuity and (by association) an industrial logic of production. In this milieu, montage is part of a film’s production infrastructure that is largely unremarked on by the film itself—hence the widespread designation of film editing as the invisible art. Here, in an elegant act of self-negation it is made to repeat ad infinitum, the cut forecloses its own expressive capacity in order to preserve the viewer’s immersion in the story-world. As we will discuss at greater length in Chapter 3, this reification of image relations at the level of film language also applies to production relations, where montage is circumscribed temporally to the postproduction stage and spatially to the editing suite, the commercial film production’s provincial outpost.

Just as the word “editing” has its own constraints, the word “montage” is perhaps too affixed to the discourse of European art cinema, which in the first half of the twentieth century signified a broader modernist embargo on techniques and terminology tied to the classical arts. This ostensible novelty of montage, and its allegiance to avant-garde practices of shock and detournement, can be equally hobbling, for it risks taking for granted that the cut has an inherently subversive or critical function, as if it somehow transcended the demands of commerce and popular entertainment. This is of course not the case. History has shown repeatedly that once-revolutionary aesthetic devices can swiftly and easily be repurposed for spectacle. Despite these and other perils, I find the word “montage” to be the most useful shorthand for the sheer variety of techniques and effects I want to foreground in this book.

Montage is, in any event, so pervasive and so essential to moving image media that it is virtually unavoidable as a topic. And yet it is perhaps that very pervasiveness of montage that accounts for its being seldom the subject of rigorous and sustained treatment in film scholarship. Despite the historical centrality of editing to film discourse, and despite significant theoretical advances in the field over the past several decades, there have been relatively few studies devoted to the topic of montage. There are naturally exceptions to this trend, one especially curious instance being Jacques Aumont’s slim monograph first published in English in 2013 under the title Montage. Arguably the thinker most attentive to the topic since Sergei Eisenstein, Aumont furnishes an analysis that reads more like a postmortem on montage, as he contends that the cinematic cut “can no longer be thought of a gesture as decisive, as definitive, as profoundly ethical as it once was.”[3] What accounts for this diminished status of montage? For Aumont (and this is a common theme in contemporary film and media discourse), the rise of the internet and the increasingly digitized and automated ways in which information circulates today means that images are no longer obliged, as it were, to any precise form of relation. As Aumont asserts, “Editing in all this becomes a tool if not useless then at least without effect: images freed in this sense from any bond can no longer be truly connected to one another.”[4] For Aumont, it no longer makes sense to speak of the cut as a decisive act, since any act of montage—any means of correlating or disjoining images—will inevitably be crowded out by the sheer number of image relations possible within our present media landscape. Indeed, for Aumont, montage has generally been usurped, its rhetorical decisiveness undermined by the vicissitudes of a digital image culture so unruly, saturated, and modular as to blunt any incisiveness the cut may have once had. Further complicating this is the fact that the creative capacities of montage have been overshadowed by an aesthetics of “slowness” that has become virtually hegemonic in contemporary art cinema.

I am sympathetic to many of Aumont’s claims regarding the shifting technological and aesthetic conditions of montage, but not where the politics of the cut is concerned. I do not see a manifest or necessarily causal relation between any of these developments and some fundamental (in)capacity of montage at the level of either politics or aesthetics. To assume that the technological and political operations underlying the circulation of images have set us on an ineluctable course toward a terminus of hypervisibility, awash in an infinitely mutable and remixable field of visual noise that evades any attempt to cut through it—this seems, to put it bluntly, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why should the cultural, political, or technological horizon of a given moment in history dictate what something like the cut can or cannot do? Understood properly as an agent of change, is the cut not precisely our most indispensable tool? Our study maintains the abiding capacity of montage to bring images into meaningful and politically salient forms of relation. Indeed, the concept of relation functions on the most basic level in this book as short-hand for cinema’s ability to work against global capital’s seemingly closed circuit of image operations, to counteract something like spectacle, which Guy Debord characterized in a formulation that has lost none of its elaborative capacity to time, not as “a collection of images but [as] a social relation among people mediated by images.”[5]


[1] Monter has an array of meanings in French: spatial ascension, as in climbing a mountain or stairs (monter les escaliers); a constructive or schematic sense, as in starting a business or building a legal case (monte une boîte); creative production, as in staging a play (monter un spectacle); transportation, as in boarding a vessel or riding a horse (monter à cheval); a legal (du montage juridique) or economic (du montage financier) state of affairs. We will tap into nearly all these strata of meaning, but it is naturally the sense of assembly or arrangement that will be most pertinent.

[2] Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 15.

[3] Jacques Aumont, Montage, trans. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose Books, 2013), 39

[4] Aumont, Montage, 42, emphasis mine.

[5] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black and White Press, 1970), unpaginated, emphasis mine.

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