Montage Opaque

Curator's Note

There is something, ultimately, opaque about cinematic montage—and I mean this in reference to both the most ordinary editing assemblage of images, and the most elaborate theory of radical montage. It’s visible and invisible, something and nothing, at the same time. Neither prohibited (André Bazin’s montage interdit) [1] nor obligatory (Serge Daney’s montage obligé) [2] but opaque: it’s there and it’s not there to our spectating eye.

I retain a vivid memory from my earliest teaching days, 42 years ago. I had a student who, for the life of her, just could not grasp the most basic concept of what editing is in cinema. She was bewildered whenever, in class, I’d say things like: “The film cuts from him to her … .” She would come to me after every session and sweetly inquire: “What do you mean by cut?” I tried everything in my (then precocious) pedagogical power. I would hold up drawings and talk her through the process: “First the screen is filled with this image … and then it’s filled with that image, right?”. “Yes,” she would obediently nod. “But what do you mean by cut?”

I can sympathize with this poor student. Because a cut is a nothing, it literally can’t be seen. It’s an invisible action that brings together and joins things. The student could see the separate images, but she couldn’t see the cut. It eluded her, as—in the flow of spectatorship—it eludes so many of us, so much of the time. Fancy terms like Dziga Vertov’s interval don’t make that paradox any clearer. If you can’t see a cut, you have absolutely no chance of seeing an interval!

Of course, many “professionals of the profession” (as Jean-Luc Godard liked to say), past and present, would be mighty happy to hear this tale. Again and again they tell us, in their interviews and memoirs, that editing (like every other formal level of cinema) should not be noticed: the point is to be immersed in the flow of story, involved with the fictional characters, imaginatively embedded into the conjured world. The moment you notice the cuts—so this logic goes—you’re thrown out of the screen experience. Bad move!

But how can anybody really believe or accept this professional justification? We (educated and naïve spectator alike) don’t actively see the dynamic editing in the movies of Godard, Samuel Fuller, Martin Scorsese, or Kathryn Bigelow? Impossible! Seeing precisely that, at least intermittently, is a big part of the experience and pleasure of watching these films.

But hold on. Knowing what we see as editing, and how we know it—what we perceive, what we process—is not easy to circumscribe. Cognitive film theories tend to dodge the questions, ambiguities, and aesthetic mysteries that attend cinematic montage.

It is sometimes proposed that images in cinema—I speak here of their projected/screened essence “in performance,” as it were, rather than their technological materiality, analog or digital—are fundamentally ungraspable, ephemeral: the moment they appear, they are gone, phantasmic, projected light, available only to constructions of memory. [3] What’s montage, then? Cuts are doubly ungraspable. They exist only as articulations—and how do you manage to see or process those?

In regard to articulation, I recall an especially suggestive commentary in Jacques Aumont’s classic 1970s text Montage Eisenstein. Analyzing a sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944), Aumont sizes up the play of raccords, or matches of various sorts, between the shots. “The looks exchanged” between characters “articulate the discourse at the same time that they disarticulate the space.” With this double-layer effect: “The contradictory but perfectly clear result of all this is that it is impossible to get one’s bearings in the space represented, and impossible not to get one’s bearings with respect to the meaning.” [4] Along these same lines, Cristina Álvarez López and I devoted a short 2018 audiovisual essay (see above—scroll to the bottom of the page for the moving image part) to a scene from Alexander Nevsky (1938).

So, something is perturbing (the word insists in montage theories, such as by Marie-Claire Ropars), [5] even grating, in the succession of Eisenstein’s shots, thus their montage process is evident and visible; yet, simultaneously, something knits together and flows beautifully—a meaning, an organic idea. We lose our bearings and get our bearings at the same time: how can this be? Don’t underestimate the ideal of fusion—and even of ecstasy—that increasingly came to underwrite Eisenstein’s theoretical formulations. [6]

Fusion and ecstasy are often, however, far from the minds of montage champions. The radical theories of progressive, political, modernist montage, in many of their historic forms, have bet on its grandstanding visibility. Montage is dialectics, shock, jagged intersection, crashing and clashing images. This has its roots in the early praxis of Eisenstein in the 1920s, but truly revs up in the 1960s. In one of the most famous statements of this position, the 1969 “Montage” roundtable led by Jacques Rivette for Cahiers du cinéma, the positive language to describe the action of montage is unfailingly brutal: tearing, defacing, erasing, shredding … and we all know how determining metaphor-choice can be over sensibilities, ideologies, and cultural programs. [7]

But there’s a counter-tendency to that, and not only in the later Eisenstein. The past 20 years have witnessed a massive and wholly justified revival of interest in the films and writings of Jean Epstein. The editing in his own work is, by any estimation, fantastic (just watch Le Tempestaire [1947] with its montage rhythms and sound design matched to the rotation of a lighthouse). Yet he was almost indifferent to this particular facet of cinema aesthetics in his voluminous writings—Eisenstein and his buddies scarcely (if ever) rate a mention. Everything was geared, rather, to the image in the heyday of photogénie and also well beyond it, all the way to Epstein’s death: the image’s look, texture, composition, rhythm, movement, flow … .

Insofar as editing was discussed at all by Epstein, it was linked, in his mind too, to the experience of fusion and ecstasy—via, rather than colliding and shredding, the metaphors of tissue and weaving. In the 1947 essay “Visual Fabric” (rather misleadingly titled, in its initial magazine version, as a study of technical découpage), [8] republished posthumously within the 1955 collection Esprit de cinéma, Epstein decreed the existence of:

… a paralogical continuity, a visual or visual-sound image, which demands to be followed […]. In order for the spell within which the spectator lives another existence to persist, unbroken, the look should be allowed to move from one image to another smoothly, without even being aware of the cut. It is a question of harmony between the dimensions, angles, directions, and speeds of juxtaposed movements. [9]

Epstein referred to this paralogical continuity as “a guardrail suited to dreaming,” or a “dream-guard,” We are not far, here, from the valuable idea of vectorization that Térésa Faucon has more recently applied to cinematic montage. [10] We slip along the montage rails so quickly, so seductively, that those rails themselves seem to disappear … even though, in reality, they never do.

Guardrail. It’s a different ambience for montage than the prevalent talk of cuts and intervals, shocks and collisions. And once again, the professionals can happily set up shop inside the idea: ah yes, seamless editing, easy flow, even suture! Walter Murch’s well-known bible of film editing, In the Blink of an Eye, links up the cutting and arranging of shots to biological and perceptual processes of the human being: breathing, blinking, natural and organic rhythms. [11] For him, too, editing must flow and (more or less) disappear in that “natural” movement.

Except that there’s nothing natural about it at all. I am currently reading the wonderful English translation of Shiguéhiko Hasumi’s book Directed by Yasujiro Ozu. [12] It contains this compelling idea: that Ozu stylized his “eyeline matches” (raccords) and related formal manœuvres in an almost infinitely variable (rather than rigidly systematic) way because, fundamentally, he was led to confront the very limit of cinema as a representational medium – the human thing which is, when all is said and done, literally impossible to show is the intersubjective act of one person looking into the eyes of another. A film can only give us the approximation, the paraphrase, the rhetorical reconstruction, the fiction of that most basic exchange.

Montage, like every other aspect of cinematic form, cannot escape or transcend that limit— as much as it will try, in certain genres and under particular conditions, to disintegrate itself, either in a pure vector of sensation and speed (Hong Kong action, for example, or avant-garde elaboration of frame-by-frame imagery), or within the protean blurrings of the edge of the cut now possible within digital software. [13]

In a founding post-WWII text of montage speculation, Godard mused on the necessary interrelation of editing and mise en scène in a certain regime of classical cinema. [14] (In the 60s, Glauber Rocha “dialectisized” that model into the back-and-forth of “full” images and busy, disruptive editing.) [15] The young Godard conjured his 1956 reverie as the interplay of chance and destiny, free inventiveness and gradually shaped structure. Some 30 years later, in a very different phase of his career, Godard sat at an old-fashioned Moviola for a TV segment and resurrected exactly the same terms in a new way, relative now solely to the montage part of cinema: you play and experiment with the cut at whichever point you’ve reached in the film (that’s the realm of chance); but you look at the strip of film celluloid literally trailing on ahead, and know you have an ultimate, finite, teleological goal (destiny).

The coming of digital has changed many things in filmmaking, but this dual structure of chance and destiny sticks around: it remains enshrined in the editing program timeline, as teleological as you could possibly wish it to be, no matter how much wild, magical tinkering is possible in the immediate image/sound conjunction before you. Destiny (in this sense) is an inherently cohering factor.

Limits are important entities to ponder (if not necessarily to accept). I was recently invited, thanks to the University of Granada, to rethink aspects of 20th- and 21st-century film theory through a comparison with the concept of postdramatic theatre, particularly as that has been formulated in the writings of Hans-Thies Lehmann in Germany. [16] It was an instructive exercise. Much of Lehmann’s discourse is entirely congenial to and in sync with modernist film theories. The postdramatic theatre must, in short order, escape the prison-house of narrative, break the bond between actor and character, and detonate the illusion of a coherent, integral, fictional world.

While all those elements are being dissolved, another principle—Lehmann refers to it, interchangeably, as collage or montage—comes to the fore: heterogeneous pieces (texts, spectacles, décors, gestures/postures, media screens) are arranged in an evident, open, shifting manner. We can easily apply this concept of the postdramatic to the mosaic of discrete parts and levels in films by Dušan Makavejev, Yvonne Rainer, or Radu Jude. That’s our bread and butter as film scholars.

Cinema, however, imposes a formidable limit on theatre’s postdramatic ideal. It is extremely difficult, in fact, to do in film what is so easy on the modern or postmodern stage: to assemble diverse pieces that remain entirely apart in their functioning and reference. If I place, on the right of the theatrical space, Willem Dafoe in some semblance of period costume reading aloud from a copy of Madame Bovary in his hands, and then bring on Shakira to do a dance to her latest hit on the left of the space, no spectator is going to assume: “Ah, this is a time travel narrative, these two characters are about to meet and interrelate … .”

In movies, however, something of this sort will automatically be assumed by the vast majority of viewers whenever two things are connected by a cut, no matter how apparently different in every way they are: the assumed framework of a world, a “time-space continuum,” holds, no matter what logical torsion is required to sew it together. The supposedly self-evident heterogeneity of montage constructions finds itself menaced, if not snuffed out, by the inevitable homogeneity imposed by any time-based, start-and-end filmic artifact with a more-or-less singular look, sheen, or texture (it is hard to avoid coherence at that basic, technological level). Just look at the many reviews and commentaries on Jerzy Skolimowski’s Eo (2022) which automatically interpret an interpolated, speculative scene of primitive robot motion as the central donkey’s subjective fever-dream!

Where am I with this to-and-fro consideration of montage? I often find myself returning to a passage in the work of Paul Willemen (1944-2012). Considering cinephilia, he mused that “it may well be that the very notion” is “a displacement, a smokescreen for something else. After all, that has been the case for most widely-used terms in the film-critical vocabulary.” Pressed for other examples, he cites montage: “It’s such a vague concept.”

These are all displacement terms which link into a lot of different, sometimes mutually exclusive preoccupations. A particular term is widely circulated, widely taken up, and then someone comes along and tries to give it an essential definition, which is not the point because the whole reason for the term being in circulation in the first place is that it can cover different fields without specifying what is meant. As soon as you look at it more closely, it vanishes, like sand between your fingers. [17]

And there it is, vanishing as we speak of it: montage opaque.



[1] André Bazin (trans. Timothy Barnard), “Editing Prohibited,” in What is Cinema? (Montreal: Caboose, 2009), pp. 73-86. This essay (in an inferior translation) is also known in English as “Forbidden Montage.”

[2] Serge Daney (trans. Laurent Kretschmar & A. Martin), “Montage Obligatory: The War, the Gulf and the Small Screen,” Rouge, no. 8 (2006),

[3] See especially Raymond Bellour (trans. A. Martin), “The Cinema Spectator: A Special Memory,” in Ian Christie (ed.), Audiences (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), pp. 206-217.

[4] Jacques Aumont (trans. Lee Hildreth, Constance Penley & Andrew Ross), Montage Eisenstein (Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 127.

[5] The vast majority of Marie-Claire Ropars’s voluminous work remains, to date, untranslated in English, and little of what has been translated is readily accessible. For a classic example of her discussion of filmic editing (or writing, as she often calls it) as perturbation, seek out “The Overture of October” (trans. Larry Crawford & Kimball Lockhart), Enclitic, Vol. 2 No. 2 (Fall 1978), pp. 50-72.

[6] See, in particular, the remarkable work left unfinished at his death: Sergei Eisenstein, Notes for a General History of Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2016).

[7] Jacques Rivette et al (trans. Tom Milne), “Montage,” Order of the Exile,

[8] Découpage has become, in recent screen studies scholarship, an increasingly and needlessly mystified term. Yet it means nothing more (and nothing less) than a previsualized shot breakdown, or a basic plan of camera positions, which the director and crew bring with them onto the shoot. Epstein, for his part, resisted the conventionalized schema of most découpages, which he regarded as a form of hyperrational prelogic or overarching superlogic inadequate to the task of capturing the authentic, unfolding, “organized dreaming” logic of cinema.

[9] Jean Epstein, “Visual Fabric” (trans. Franck Le Gac), in Sarah Keller & Jason N. Paul (eds.), Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), pp. 354-355. The discussion of prelogic (see previous note) occurs on p. 353.

[10] Térésa Faucon, Théorie du montage. Énergie des images (Paris: Armand Colin, 2017); her reflection on vectors and seriality inspired an audiovisual investigation by Cristina Álvarez López and myself into “post-Eisensteinian” works by Leos Carax, Ulrike Ottinger, Marcel Hanoun, and Carmelo Bene – see “The Idea of a Series: Energy Vectors in Montage,” [in]Transition, Vol. 6 No. 4 (2019),

Faucon is the author of two further books that are also of far-reaching significance: Penser et expérimenter le montage (Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2010) and Gestes contemporains du montage, Entre médium et performance (Naima, 2017).

[11] Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2001). Be aware that the 2021 Spanish edition of this book, En el momento del parpadeo (DAMA/ECAM), surpasses all other versions in its updated and expanded content.

[12] Shiguéhiko Hasumi (trans. Ryan Cook), Directed by Yasujirō Ozu (Oakland: University of California Press, 2024).

[13] I have explored the concept of the cut’s edge in my book The Mad Max Movies (updated & expanded edition forthcoming) and “At the Edge of the Cut: An Encounter with the Hong Kong Style in Contemporary Action Cinema,” in Meaghan Morris, Siu Leung Li & Stephen Chan Ching-kiu (eds), Hong Kong Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema (Hong Kong University Press/Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 175-188 & 311-312.

[14] Jean-Luc Godard, “Montage my Fine Care,” in Tom Milne (ed. & trans.), Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), pp. 39-41. See also my commentaries on this essay in Mise en scène and Film Style (London: Palgrave, 2014), pp. 54-57; and Filmmakers Thinking (San Sebastián: EQZE, 2022), pp. 61-67.

[15] See Glauber Rocha (trans. Charlotte Smith, Stephanie Dennison & Cecília Mello), On Cinema (London: Bloomsbury, 2022).

[16] Hans-Thies Lehmann (trans. Karen Jürs-Munby), Postdramatic Theatre (London: Routledge, 2006). The original German edition is from 1999.

[17] Paul Willemen, Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory (London: British Film Institute, 1994), pp. 226-227.

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