Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Review: Film Form: Essays in Film Theory

Film Form: Essays in Film Theory is, in my opinion, the better of the two major books of Sergei Eisenstein's writing.  It is filled with a number of essays that deal with Eisenstein's aesthetics and ideas on film.  In the essay "Through Film to Theater", Eisenstein looks at the differences of film and theater and the "evolution" of his own career.  Secondly, there is a very interesting essay on Japanese culture and art, especially Kabuki theater, tying it into montage.  The next essay looks at Japanese poetry and other forms in this light.  In the essay, "A Dialectic Approach to Film Form", Eisenstein looks at the basic ideas of montage.  "Methods of Montage" goes into detail over the five types of montage which I will suffice this link to summarize.  In the essay "Film Language", Eisenstein looks at literature and history building forms, and claims that film should move forward with this task.  In "Film Form: New Problems", changes in Soviet cinema coming into the 1930's are explored.  In "The Structure of the Film", Eisenstein looks at how composition can be used to create meaning.  The final essay, "Dickens, Griffith and Film Today" explores the journey of montage structures from literature, specifically Charles Dickens, to American film, specifically D.W. Griffith, to the Soviet cinema of the 1920's.  Lastly, the "Statement on Sound" is a call to use sound for montage methods and not mere natural playback.  Sergei Eisenstein is an editing montage purist who knows a lot about his medium and is the greatest representative of the montage path.  Film Form is a great book for those who wish to follow his ideas in-depth.

In the first essay, "Through Film to Theater", Eisenstein looks at the deficiencies of the stage that he tried to overcome and eventually lead him to film.  The first problem is that on stage, many of the most climactic moments happen offstage.  He writes of a boxing match he staged and the power it had within a play.  He also looks at typage and stock characters.  He shows how montage and cross-cutting scenes existed on stage.  He briefly looks at montage structure in literature and moves on to mise-en-scene, both as setting and in its ability to direct attention, a characteristic better found through editing.

The second essay, "The Unexpected", deals with Japanese art and culture and its relation to montage.  He praises the conventions of Japanese Kabuki theater.  He praises Kabuki for its monistic ensemble, meaning all the parts, sound, movement, space, and voice, all function as "elements of equal significance."  He writes of a single, theatrical provocation of the whole brain.  Kabuki theater also utilizes scenery changes just to break up the action like a cut-away shot.  He also explores Japanese hieroglyphs and tanka and haiku poetry as obvious parallels to montage.

Eisentstein moves beyond Kabuki to other Japanese "montage" forms.  First is the hieroglyph, which he calls an ideogram.  In Japanese writing, glyphs and letters operate together.  The combination of two pictures, such as eye plus water drop to make crying, is an obvious parallel to montage.  The next obvious connection is haiku poetry, which he praises for its laconism and combination of images:
A lonely crow
One leafless bough
One autumn eve.
Eisenstein pictures this a shot list for a film, coming together for a unified feeling.  It does seem to be three singular shots that the mind can make into more.  He moves on to look at Japanese non-naturalistic drawing and how it is a mix of parts, each with its own size and finally to return to Kabuki theater in which acting is a combination of elements.  Japanese Kabuki theater also makes using of quick changes on stage, covering actors while they change outfits, similar to a shot which does this seamlessly.  Kabuki theater also uses slow-motion.  Eisenstein's look into Japanese culture and art vis-a-vis montage is quite interesting and illuminating for both.

The next essay, "A Dialectic Approach to Film Form," jumps directly into his ideas of montage.  He first looks into dialectical thought where thesis and antithesis are brought into synthesis.  Montage is about the conflict of images.  According to Eisenstein, art is always conflict.  Art is conflict according to its mission because the mission of art is to make manifest the conflicts of being.  Art is conflict according to its nature because "its nature is conflict between natural existence and creative tendency."  Art is the meeting of nature and reason.  Art is also conflict in its methodology.  Montage is not, as Eisenstein's intellectual opponent V.I. Pudovkin says, a series of building blocks adding to each other.  Eisenstein goes on to say irregularity, and not a slavishly-followed set of rules, is what makes great art in general.  He goes on to note the different types of conflict within a shot and between shots:
1. Graphic Conflict
2. Conflict of planes (distances)
3. Conflict of Volumes
4. Spatial Conflict
5. Light Conflict
6. Tempo Conflict
He moves on to look at other types of conflict and what can be done artistically with these conflicts, bringing up examples from his own work.  I find Eisenstein's ideas in this chapter to be largely correct and usable.  I also enjoy following a stringent, aesthetically pure mind down a certain path.  On the other hand, this is not the only path and so many great movies have been made on other terms using different aesthetic systems.  I also appreciate the realism of the long take and the opportunity to ponder reality without a director grabbing me so forcefully.

The essay "Film Form: New Problems" explores changes in Soviet cinema in the 1930's.  The first is the change from doing more epic movies involving masses of people and archetypes to doing movies about well-rounded singular protagonists.  He goes on to explore how the new approach more common elsewhere can be used toward communist ideological ends.  He then turns back toward history and explores, with examples, the idea that one generations notions of science get toppled but trickle down into the art of future generations.  One example is the Greek notion of gods controlling the universe.  He compares montage to an inner monologue, capturing the process of inner thoughts rather than spoken words.  He sees this as some kind of early thought process, although his ideas are unproven theories.  He goes off into long, esoteric paragraphs on the history of thought and speech, some of it more definite and some of it mostly theoretical.  Ultimately, art is a psychological retrogression towards earlier thought processes.  Eisenstein notes:
The affectiveness of a work of art is built upon the fact that there takes place in it a dual process: an impetuous progressive rise along the lines of the highest explicit steps of consciousness and a simultaneous penetration by means of the structure of the form into the layers of profoundest sensual thinking.
He speaks very rightly of the unity of form and content and that a movie is a balance of the higher and the lower levels of thought.  According to Eisenstein, Soviet cinema, and I would say cinema as a whole, was still finding itself and its rules, as Soviet cinema moved into socialist realism, which I would consider a contradiction in terms.

"The Structure of the Film" is an essay dealing with composition and how it creates meaning.  He sees good composition, meaning within the shot and between shots, as following the emotional structure of man, once again coming back to the idea of inner process.  Thus, composition engages man emotionally.  Eisenstein moves on to explore a "life-affirming death" which is an instance of the emotional tone of a piece going against the natural reaction.  An author must invite us into his relationship to the subject matter.  A work should have two types of organic-ness.  The first is organic-ness of a general kind which seems to mean a unified aesthetic pervading the entire work.  In the example of his own film, Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein notes a newsreel quality integrated with the narrative structure of tragedy.  There are also many part/ whole dichotomies present throughout the film and other motifs.  Composition creates empathy with characters on screen.  Montage and change create pathos.  Battleship Potemkin is exhaustively explored in its montage relationships. 

"Dickens, Griffith and Film Today" explores the relationship of Charles Dickens to D.W. Griffith and then to Soviet filmmakers.  The line, of course, that connects them all is montage.  He looks at how Griffith was inspired by Dickens, in the content of his work, in his dynamic characterizations, and in the pacing and imagery.  Griffith is the beginning of film montage, but much of his work was inspired by the writing style of Dickens which brings to us a series of written images, much like a shot-list.  Here is a brief example from a market scene in Oliver Twist, broken up to further prove the point:
It was market morning.
The ground was covered, nearly ankle deep, with filth and mire;
and a thick stream perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle.
and mingling with the fog
which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. . . .
and vagabonds of every low grade,
were mingled together in a dense mass;
Eisenstein also looks at the way cross-cutting of scenes, which is mainly used to build tension, works in pretty much the exact same way in both Dickens and Griffith.  Eisenstein makes extremely important note, once again, that the cinema is not some alien medium come out of thin air, but that so much of what it is is built on a wide artistic heritage. Eisenstein finishes with comparisons of Soviet and Hollywood films.  The Soviets differ mainly in that they took montage to conceptual ground and "above" mere materialist realism.  It is about the juxtaposition of imagery to show ideas.  Having seen Eisenstein's work, I would say sometimes this works very beautifully and sometimes it's corny.  I also believe that materialist realism is capable of inspiring intellectual thought processes just as life itself sometimes inspires higher thinking.

Eisenstein's Film Form is an interesting, if at times long-winded and esoteric look at film theory.  I recommend it to those who feel interested from the outset.

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