Review of Movement, Action, Image, Montage: Sergei Eisenstein and the Cinema in Crisis
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2018
280 pp., illus. 104 b/w.
In an extraordinary work of cinema scholarship, Movement, Action, Image, Montage: Sergei Eisenstein and the Cinema in Crisis, Luka Arsenjuk aims to recover Eisenstein’s method of “thinking cinema” from the obscurity of classical film studies. Arsenjuk’s thorough and well-illustrated treatment of Eisenstein’s ideas, drawn from recent archival material, brings out a complexity and plurality that challenges some commonly held assumptions that the famous teacher/theorist/director is too systematic, totalizing, teleological and formalist for the post-everything age. Eisenstein did conceive of cinema as a “synthesizing machine”, the realized telos of all arts, but he understood that cinema pursues this unity through the principle of montage; a principle described by Arsenjuk as “contradiction, conflict, splitting, doubling, recoil and negation.”
The collision of two shots, a splicing together of fragments ripped from their spatial and temporal contexts, produces new contexts. Cinema is a destructive force that makes for new unities, new possibilities for thinking, new connections between media, genres and forms. After cinema, the other arts begin to “divide, and depart from themselves.” Eisenstein’s voracious study of other art forms (Noh, comics, cartoons, slapstick, poetry, grotesque theater, renaissance and baroque painting, modernist art and literature) is not an attempt to tame them under the unifying tent of cinema, but rather to open paths of inquiry through the past of art in order to challenge a limited and homogenous understanding of cinema’s future. This is a filmmaker who pursued film treatments of Marx’s Das Capital and Joyce’s Ulysses. According to Arsenjuk, Eisenstein was not interested in the essence of cinematic representation. He was more concerned with “strategies of material construction”; the more practical, “operational” approach to creating pathos. He studied the “formula for pathos” in other art forms – their patterned compositions, tonality, measure and rhythm for emotional effect– not to entertain audiences better, but to communicate revolutionary ideas.
Arsenjuk looks closely at this “dialectic of division” across Eisenstein’s main concepts of cinema: movement, action, image and montage; and pursues his subject through this same dialectic. Each chapter treats the four concepts as a crisis or rupture of traditional notions. The author writes, “the idea of cinema emerges when we are able to grasp the determinate shape of the crisis that traverse the set of its conceptual conditions.” In cinema’s illusion of movement, Eisenstein sees a crisis of the figure. The perception of a man running across the screen is disfigured and disturbed by the thought of his movement. Cinematic movement is experienced as a division between a nonfigurative force (movement made visible) and a figurative appearance (the distinct form of a body, interrupted by movement).
Cinematic action, the clear depiction of events, brings a crisis of form. Theater of the grotesque, in which action is broken down into anti-naturalistic gestures and designed movements, is divided from epic form, in which naturalistic action builds and accumulates as a continuous, singular event. Eisenstein’s massacre sequence in Strike! demonstrates this dialectical approach to dramatic action. An historical event, worthy of epic and heroic depiction, is built from a montage of minor gestures and movements. The “schematic reduction” that only hints at the actual massacre, has the effect of magnifying the event in the mind of the viewer.
The image is also put into crisis in Eisenstein’s thinking. “An image is a cut that discloses,” write Eisenstein. The multiplying of cuts through montage, problematizes the idea of image as singular. The cinematic image undergoes a division into two distinct and incompatible forms: the “symbolic image” and the “symptom-image.” A painting of a mother and child may signify the intended idea of maternal love. A film of a mother and child may signify the same idea, but there is always an excess, produced by time, that resists iconic representation. The symptom-image, the image in cinema that does not carry meaning or that has become incomprehensible, is the ground for unconscious fantasy.
In Arsenjuk’s final chapter on montage, the concept that permeates all the other concepts, he asks rhetorically if there exists a unifying concept of Eisensteinian montage. The word “montage”, appropriated from engineering, implies division and calls into question any unifying principles of aesthetics. Montage is simply the juxtaposition of two heterogeneous elements that can potentially become “productive of a mental continuity.” In the montage practiced by Eisenstein, it is the essential incommensurability of two shots, the leaving out, that causes a bifurcation in thought and sets cinema on the way to language-like possibilities. “Cognition is construction,” is Eisenstein’s revolutionary lesson from cinema. The world–its poetry and its meaning–is actively built out of fragments and “ceaseless division.” Given the proliferation of cinematic forms in the digital age, this is a vital lesson.