The Power of Montage

What is it that makes a story interesting? The plot, of course, plays a fundamental role in any type of narrative. From the clever joke your heard last night at the pub to that bestseller everybody is talking about, it is often the sole reason for viewers, listeners and readers alike to forget for a while about the outside world and completely immerse themselves into the story. However, no matter how tremendous the plot is, it could still be threatened by failure if the way it is told is no good. Indeed, presentation could often turn out to be just as important as content, a fact proven by the use of different effects and techniques in filmmaking.

One of the best ways to enhance the visual experience of watching a movie is through the use of montage.  Almost a hundred years ago, the Soviet Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein, referred to as “The Father of Montage”, outlined five different types of editing a film: metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal and intellectual. What all these manage to achieve if used appropriately is affect the viewer by skillfully (and often – subconsciously) playing with their thoughts and feelings. For instance, tonal montage uses a sequence of shots in a certain context in order to provoke emotion, whereas intellectual montage can combine seemingly unrelated shots in order to communicate a deeper meaning. One of the final scenes in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” is a prime example of the latter – the death of Colonel Kurtz is shown simultaneously with the villagers ritually killing a buffalo.

Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein


‘Apocalypse Now’ killing the buffalo scene

Aside from Eisenstein’s five types of montage, a curious method of visually affecting the observer is the Kuleshov Effect, created by another Russian filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov, in the early 20th century.  Projecting to an audience one and the same expressionless photograph of a face right after various movie shots, he noticed that majority of the people believed the face was showing different emotions every time.  In fact, they were only attributing their own feelings to the photograph. This effect was later further developed by the great Alfred Hitchcock, credited for his innovative work with cinematic montage and editing.

Quite unfortunately, the visual representation of movie plots in our current century is too often concentrated on CGI effects rather than montage. More and more directors choose the use of eye-pleasing computer-generated images instead of good-old editing, which legends like Hitchcock developed to perfection. Indeed, montage remains the most intelligent way when it comes down to telling a story and is a technique that makes cinema worthy of the title “the seventh art”.

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