The Idea of a Series: Energy Vectors in Montage

Creator's Statement

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.

Works cited

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 SoundMUBI NotebookShangri-laLOLAScreening 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 SoundThe 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.

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, Leos 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 Leos 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.