Monday, March 5, 2012

Book Review: The Film Sense

Sergei Eisenstein's The Film Sense is a great, although at times uneven, book that takes an intellectual, super-analytical approach to film and art.  Sergei Eisenstein was the prime proponent of Soviet montage style filmmaking.  The first section of the book, Word and Image, compares examples from literature to montage filmmaking and in some cases, imagines scenes from literature as movie scenes. He begins this section by looking at montage editing and the associational power of the images within. He then moves to a practical theory of acting.  Last in this section, he looks at poetry and montage and creates shooting scripts from sections of poems. The second section, Synchronization of the Senses, largely deals with bringing together picture and sound as well as even adding the illusion of other senses.  The first part begins with basic montage ideas.  He then applies these ideas to sound and music.  He makes an attempt at matching abstract ideas in finding an exact musical "equivalent" to an image.  In the section Color and Meaning, he looks at the history of associations with the color yellow in search of an abstract Yellow full of meaning. He closes with a look at music and correspondences with image and an analysis of one of his own film scenes.  The Film Sense is a very intense and clinical, yet interesting read on film aesthetics. 

Eisenstein's look at literature, film and montage is very neat.  His knowledge of classic, especially 19th century, literature is impressive and gives the book a wider artistic base than one might not expect.  It made me wish I had known more about these topics or had read more famous literature. Eisenstein gets into a discussion of part and whole which leaves room for more extreme montage techniques, but can also be used to explain more basic continuity editing.  Essentially two or more shots juxtaposed with each other, whether in contrast or in continuity, lead to a third perception which is the whole.  He then moves on to a discussion of representation and image using the example of a clock.  The representation is the objective visual reality of the shapes, but the image is their underlying meaning and its various associations.  This distinction is very important to montage because the individual images must carry such a heavy archetypal weight for the juxtapositions to pack a punch or for the film to have any meaning to its audience, especially when a film moves beyond the literal representation of events.  This also brings the spectator into the movie as an agent of giving meaning to it through their own experiences. All vital images, in Eisenstein's opinion, are based on a process of recollections and associations.  It is a meeting of creator and audience in which the audience process of perceiving the work is very similar to the creator's thought process in making it.  The images need not merely play out the facts of a scene, but they also create emotion and lead to wider, almost unrelated associations.  In an example from his film October, he mentions a palace that had multiple clocks in one place, each showing the time in different parts of the world.  During a climactic scene, he juxtaposed all the clocks separately to give it a "shot heard 'round the world" feel, going beyond bare-bones, realist information-giving and creating something bigger.  Eisenstein's approach to filmmaking here strikes me as very poetic and necessarily very thoughtful because every image and edit has to not merely tell a story, but to engage a collective subconscious in an emotional and intellectual way.

Eisenstein moves on in this section to look at "montage" acting.  He first goes into the mindset of an actor playing a part and analyzes the process, seeming to endorse the acting style known as method acting, later made famous by Marlon Brando, among others, or something very similar.  He makes the sensible claim that an actor tries to put himself in the shoes of his role rather than act out the signifiers of a part or an emotion.  In acting a part, an actor does many or all of the same things that they would do if actually going through said events.  He brings up the ingenious example of a man who has committed a crime and is about to get caught.  An actor playing this part would think about all the situations leading up to and flowing from this situation, creating an inner montage, thus being able to express all the clashing feelings of that moment.  This style of acting seems the most sensible to me, as long as the search for back story does not become over the top, although some directors hate method acting, most notably Alfred Hitchcock.  This is similar to what a director and editor do before creating a scene because our imaginations are cinematic.

Eisenstein proceeds to take his poetic sensibility one step further by analyzing actual poetry and creating a shooting script.  He takes a battle scene from John Milton's Paradise Lost and turns it into a movie scene with the lines of the poem first and his shooting script second. strength each armed hand
I. A Legion, led in fight, yet leader seemd
II. Each Warrior single as in Chief, expert
III. When to advance, or stand, or turn the sway
IV. Of Battel, open when, and when to close
V. The ridges of grim Warr; no thought of flight
VI. None of retreat, no unbecoming deed
VII. That argu'd fear; each on himself reli'd
VIII. As onely in his arm the moment lay
IX. Of victorie; deeds of eternal fame
X. Were don, but infinite: for wide was spred
XI. That Warr and various; somtimes on firm ground
XII. A standing fight, then soaring on main wing
XIII. Tormented all the Air; all Air seemd then
XIV. Conflicting Fire; long time in eeven scale
XV. The Battel hung...
1. led in fight, yet Leader seemd each Warrior single as in Chief,
2. expert when to advance
3. or stand,
4. or turn the sway of Battel
5. open when
6. and when to close the ridges of grim Warr;
7. no thought of flight,
8. none of retreat, no unbecoming deed that argu'd fear;
9. each on himself reli'd, as onely in his arm the moment lay of victorie;
10. deeds of eternal fame were don, but infinite:
11. for wide was spred that Warr and various;
12. somtimes on firm ground a standing fight,
13. then soaring on main wing tormented all the Air;
14. all Air seemd then conflicting Fire
15. long time in eeven scale the Battel hung...
Eisenstein makes interesting examples like this involving numerous poems throughout the end of this section.  It makes one want to read his sources and film them for oneself.

The second section begins with a look at the basic ideas of montage.  Piece A is taken from all the possible elements used for a theme and likewise piece B so that their juxtaposition and not the juxtaposition of any other elements will "evoke in the perception and feelings of the spectator the most complete image of the theme itself."  He notes that his definition also applies to film sound.

He moves on to cover music and vertical montage.  Vertical montage involves montage techniques and theories applied to sound.  An orchestration is compared to montage filmmaking.  The mixing of different "lines," the changes in tempo, etc.  Individual music pieces relate horizontally to what comes next and vertically to what they play over and the film artist must keep track of both levels.  Eisenstein brings an interesting scene from his silent film Strike in which an accordion being played is showed from multiple angles one after the other to give the illusion of sound.  His example here, and this is my observation, ends up proving one of the problems of soundtracks added to silent films.  In this case, a soundtrack renders his effect redundant, possibly ineffective and, at the very least, unappreciated.

Eisenstein is searching for the music soundtrack abstract analog of a synchronous sound effect.  He is an analytical theorist trying to find direct correspondences between abstracts that are only vaguely matchable.  The first means he brings up to make this connection is movement and rhythm.  He looks at the back and forth of subjects, shot lengths and other details.  He then moves on to find a line of "melody" in images.  We do not "hear" a melody, but only the notes and we create a unity in our minds.  He finds that color is the equivalent to a tone in music.  This analogy, while quite interesting, places no absolute rules to the reader's intellect.  In my opinion, it is merely interesting.  He then moves on to the final form of synchronization, the synchronization of the inner meaning of the images and the music.

Eisenstein moves on to look at ocular music.  He says that colors should correspond to notes, but notes should also correspond to words.  He does work with a poem he wrote.
WORDS: Sadly she wandered, loveliest of maidens...
MUSIC: The notes of a flute , plaintive.
COLOR: Olive mixed with pink and white.
He moves on to proclaim that letters also have color correspondences.   The citations he brings up from different writers and poets are interesting, but I still feel that the whole exercise is finding arbitrary direct connections between things that either have no direct connection or their direct connections are unknowable.  He looks at Chinese culture on correspondences between sounds, colors, seasons and more, thus only showing us another arbitrary system.  

James Whitney's experimental film Yantra is considered ocular music.  

Eisenstein Then moves on to look at unity and disunity in art.  He ties it to cultural ideas of individualism.  In "decadent" periods of individualism, disunified music such as jazz has had more prominence.  This makes sense to me.  With the decline of power of different institutions of authority, such as the Catholic Church, we have seen the rise of modern art with its lack of rules and unity.  This may or may not be coincidental, and would thus need more research than I intend to do.

In the next section, Color and Meaning, which I will skim over briefly, Eisenstein tries to find relationships between color and emotion.  He does this in regards to the color yellow, looking for the abstract archetypal yellow.  He goes through a number of historical examples, some interesting but eventually tiresome, of associations with the color yellow.  He also notes that in many cases a color can mean one thing and its opposite.  By the end of it, he is forced to finally admit that there are no a priori connections with yellow and that everything he has brought up is a cultural construct.

His last section, Form and Content: Practice, is very interesting because it analyzes his ideas being put to work in a practical setting.  He first mentions that all previously mentioned methods were used to create his film Alexander Nevsky.  They had been tried both frontwards and backwards, with soundtrack created first and music made to fit and vice versa.  He admits that the pictures that music creates in the mind are so varied by person that one can not expect correspondence of picture content with music.  The correspondences can only come from compositional and structural elements.  This is true not only because the "understanding of regulated movement is 'materialized' in equal measure through the specifics of any art," but because a structural law is the first step towards the embodiment of a theme through an image of the created work.

He moves on to look at the visualization of music.  He makes a very true point that when we listen to music, often we create lines in our head of where the music went, however vague these lines may be.  He also mentions the urge to move our hands in a musical way as we hear a piece.  He naturally finds this sense of movement in poetry, too.  Understanding the line of music allows us to create its correspondent in image.  We must understand this line in the overall, in the case of individual edits and in the case of individual shots.

He finishes off the writings with an analysis of a scene from Alexander Nevsky.  He follows lines in the music and how they correspond to lines in the image.  While the lines of the written notes do match up with the lines created in his images, it is tough to say if the sound of the music will actually have a feeling of correspondence with the image.  He deeply analyzes the music vis-à-vis the image track with the claim that the line of the music follows the visual lines created on the screen against the sky.  He also follows the change in themes for subjects and a number of other elements.  He looks at the first twelve shots on the video below.  I like the music but I don't know if I get the linear correspondence.  Perhaps if I knew more about music I might.

The book ends with a few other short writings of Eisenstein which are not particularly of note which a reader may or may not enjoy.

In the end, Sergei Eisenstein's The Film Sense is an interesting book on film theory, analysis and aesthetics. The biggest thing I took away from it is the relationship between film and other arts and the prefigurement of different techniques.

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