The history of the film montage is almost as long as the history of film itself. This multi- purpose editing tool is a familiar face in many of the films we know and love. Usually cut to a musical score, a montage is simply a series of short(er) clips, sequenced together in order to condense time. This might be when Eye of the Tiger starts playing in your head and you recall Sylvester Stallone running and sweating. But to fully understand how this famous training sequence came to be, we need to travel back 50 years to the days of silent films.
THE EARLY DAYS
While the word "montage" roots in French, meaning "assembly", the concept of a montage actually began in Russia during the early 1920s. A soviet film director and theorist, Sergei Eisenstein, was the first to realize that placing two images or film clips next to each other, inevitably creates a new meaning or "tertium quid" (third thing). This may seem like a terribly basic idea to us now, but you must keep in mind the impact of this theory at the time. Consider that people had only been introduced to the moving image about 15- 20 years prior to Eisenstein's theories in 1895. Up until the 1920s, most films did not last more than a few minutes. The ones that did, were structured linearly like theater- using long steady takes, no angle or distance variation, and still unaware of the full potential of the film medium.
When Eisenstein made his first feature film "Battleship Potemkin" in 1925, synchronized sound in film had not yet been introduced (not for another two years with "The Jazz Singer"), therefore title cards were being used abundantly to convey dialogue, thoughts, and introduce plot points. This film was a chance for Eisenstein to experiment with his new concept of editing images together to tell a story purely through visuals, and made "Battleship Potemkin" stand out in a major way against it's contemporaries.
Because of Eisenstein's history as a Bolshevik supporter (against his own family's values) he was inspired to create this revolutionary propaganda film about the 1905 mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin. This particular clip, from the fourth act called Odessa Steps, shows the soldiers of the battleship attacking the people of Odessa.
While we think of montages as being helpful in shortening time, notice how Eisenstein is using his montage to extend and exaggerate time by making the peoples' flight down the stairs take obscenely long. Towards the end of this clip, he experiments with using the montage to convey emotion as well, i.e. the baby carriage moving down the steps inter- spliced with a screaming man watching. Bold move Eisenstein!
This movie was the first time audiences had seen such rapid cutting, angle changes, and gratuitous violence on the big screen.
In the first and second acts of "Battleship Potemkin", Eisenstein also uses montage to heavily manipulate images. By quickly cutting between different angles of these statues, he is able to make the cherub look as if he's throwing a punch, or a lion awakening, as if to symbolize the awakening of the revolution.
As a contemporary Russian filmmaker to Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov was often criticizing Eisenstein's commitment to narrative storytelling. Instead, Vertov used Eisenstein's montage theories to create his own more stylized version of a montage which debuted in his 1929 film, "Man with a Movie Camera", a self reflexive documentary about daily life in Russia's metropolises. He created his montages to go beyond story telling by employing a method now called "graphic matching", which relates two images together only by their visual similarities. He was able to use this method to generate humor, make visual puns, and send a political message.
For example, in this clip, we see all different walks of life sleeping, and then starting their days. He purposely juxtaposes a woman with her arms spread on an elegant bed with a homeless person tightly curled on a bench to emphasize the spread of wealth in the USSR at this time. He also pushes the boundaries of cinema for this era by playing with reverse direction and super imposing images to make further tertium quids. Also, note how he sporadically intercuts clips of the move camera, or an eye through a lens. This is to remind the audience that he is there watching all of these different stories unfold.
*NOTE: The original musical score was never recorded, therefore when watching this film you are likely to hear many different versions of a soundtrack. This one is not my favorite, but does play to the mood of the visuals.
THE KULESHOV EFFECT
As you can already tell, the film montage is deeply rooted in psychology. In fact it was another Russian, a psychologist named Lev Kuleshov who performed visual experiments in the early 1920s that directly led to the implementation of the montage by our forefathers, Eisenstein and Vertov. Kuleshov discovered that people will assign meaning to an image based on the image that comes after it. He came to this conclusion by creating a visual test. He would show different people the same picture of a man with a different image preceeding it.
Notice how the same man looks hungry/ sad/ in love.
A man who once tried to make films with no editing at all ("Rope" and "Under Capricorn"), Alfred Hitchcock is mostly known for his brilliance in editing, especially for his use of montage.
For Hitchcock, montages were much more of a tool to be used towards storytelling, than for visual playfulness and creativity. He structured his montages around the emotions he wanted the audience to feel. He also did not rely fully on the musical background, often leaving a lot of diagetic sound (audio coming from within the scene). Hitchcock is wonderful at using minimal dialogue to portray large amounts of information all through the magic of montage.
Here is the man himself explaining the Kuleshov Effect:
In his iconic slasher scene of "Psycho", not how the absence of music actually adds to the tension of the scene. Even first time viewers could tell something was about to go down because of the pacing and eerie silence of this montage. Once Norman appears, Hitchcock reminds us of Eisenstein, cutting between the two faces of horror, similar to the people on the stairs in Odessa.
This next Hitchcock example is reminiscent of Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera" and it's focus on the small details of the characters that set them apart. We can tell from their shoes alone what social classes these men are in, and that they are both heading to the same place.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)
Once Hitchcock had helped introduce the western world to the montage, Hollywood became enchanted with this maneuver and utilized the montage frequently in films throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The usage of the montage has changed slightly by this time, cutting between different scenes in order to condense time- rather than it's original use for the Soviets, to cut between angles. There are more than enough great examples from this era, but I call on a late scene in "The Godfather" (1972) directed by Francis Ford Coppola, where the montage used introduces a second function- showing two simultaneous actions. Using the audio from the baptism of Michael and Kay's son, and holy and symbolic service acknowledging their first born, we also see the brutal and violent end to Michael's enemies establishing himself as the new patriarch without even getting his hands dirty.
Once again, we see a nod to Eisenstein and Vertov by Coppola with his decision to juxtapose such conflicting actions. Like in "Man with a Movie Camera" we see that showing good vs. bad only helps to strengthen the other's message. And like "Battleship Potemkin", the use of a baby helps to emphasize the horror being inflicted by the adults in charge.
Movie montages became redefined in the 1980s with the invention of the "Preparation Montage" which can be found in all feel good/ underdog movies from this time. There was a trend of popular films throughout the 80s where the main character is "pushing it to the limit" which requires a high energy song to pump you up as they prepare for their heroic undertaking. Preparation Montages can be split into 3 sub genres:
- Training Montage: most well known type of montage where we see the protagonist or hero gearing up for the main battle/ showdown. This type of montage is exclusive to action movies.
- Forming a Plan Montage: Similar to the Training Montage, this genre shows the hero plotting for the main event as well, but is particular to heist movies.
- Lock and Load Montage: Shows the hero taking action. In action movies, this could be the hero literally loading their weapon and collecting their arms.
Take a look at these different 80s montages and decide which genre YOU think they fall into!
ROCKY (1976) directed by: John G. Avildsen
One of the most iconic Training Montages of all time!
CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981) directed by: Hugh Hudson
PRETTY WOMAN (1990) directed by: Garry Marshall
However, let us not overlook an 80s montage made as it was originally intended- to capture a place/ event in a variety of angles. This touching scene was not created to consolidate their visit to the museum, but to illustrate the emotion felt in this place.
FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF (1986) directed by: John Hughes
A fantastic example of a montage made during this 80s and 90s time period that uses text, comes from a director famous for his recognizable style, Wes Anderson. In this clever montage from "Rushmore" Anderson uses the montage to show the main character Max's over involvement in after school school activities to juxtapose with his academic performance.
RUSHMORE (1998) directed by: Wes Anderson
After two decades of intense, over the top heroic montages, they began to feel over used and silly. The 2000s introduced a new era of parodying these montages, taking a more sarcastic approach and making them less serious. Most of the montages made throughout this time can be found in comedies such as "Wet Hot American Summer" who developed a hilarious parody of the Training Montage in the next example.
WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER (2001) directed by: David Wain
While the late 1990s and early 2000s felt the need to make fun of the montage, these days, the montage is making a subtle comeback. In these last two examples, we will see montages that make use of some new tactics to give the montage even more significance.
BATMAN BEGINS (2005) directed by: Christopher Nolan
In this example, the Training Montage is compiled of points from throughout Bruce Wayne's life- consolidating time in a major way compared to the other Training Montages we've seen. This example also uses voice over to motivate the clip changes, rather than the beat of song, or emotion, which we saw more often in our previous examples.
LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1999) directed by: Guy Ritchie
In this scene of drunken debauchery, we are seeing a play on the Training or Planning Montage, plus a reference to the early Vertov montages that cut between angles. Except now, the angles and camera movements that are being cut between, are far more advanced than anything Eisenstein or Vertov could have created with their enormous cameras. Therefore making this example, a true montage of the 21st century.
AND DON'T FORGET TO FEED THE FATCAT! LET US KNOW THE NAMES OF YOUR FAVORITE MONTAGES AND WHY!
- ELEMENTS OF CINEMA- http://www.elementsofcinema.com/editing/montage.html
- CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA- http://faculty.cua.edu/johnsong/hitchcock/pages/montage/montage-2.html
- ALFRED HITCHCOCK FILMS- http://www.alfred-hitchcock-films.net/Themes/Montage.htm
- MAIN VISION- http://www.main-vision.com/richard/montage.shtml