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Intellectual Montage – some thoughts

Was Kuleshov right in claiming new meaning from the clash of unrelated images? To put it another way, does montage have any relevance to the contemporary cinephile or scholar?

Rewind: Like other Russian formalists of the era, Lev Kuleshov was looking at unveiling the formal properties of the moving image. Okay! so you have heard this argument before. Or have you? For most intellectual montage is nothing but old Soviet skullduggery in its primal forms. Afterall, Kuleshov and co wanted to give big brother a leg up for the cause of the revolution (which the bosses in Kremlin after much initial enthusiasm gave a quiet burial). Many critical film scholars in the West set up experiments to prove that Kuleshov was wrong after all. And so contemporary film theory has virtually written off montage. Summing it up, is it possible to argue for Intellectual Montage? Here is an attempt at reopening the debate and the argument goes like this…

The human mind constantly seeks to make meaning of what it perceives. Would we only make sense of data we can relate to, or does unrelated data force us to think and come up with meanings? That, we could consider, a more appropriate interpretation of Kuleshov.

To prove this point let’s look at some evidence. Does Coppolla use montage to create new meaning in Godfather (Francis Ford Coppolla, 1972) during the baptism sequence in which, while Michael’s child is being baptised, parallely, rivals are being bumped-off.


In the Church–the VIEW on MICHAEL. The PRIEST hands him the infant.

PRIEST: Michael Francis Ricci. Do you renounce Satan.

MICHAEL: I do renounce him.

PRIEST: And all his works?

MICHAEL: I do renounce them.


LAMPONE, backed up by two other MEN in his regime, runs down the iron-rail steps, and kicks in the door on Room 7F. PHILIP TATTAGLIA, old and wizened and naked, leaps up; a semi-nude young GIRL leans up.

They are riddled with gunfire.


We go, aah! the diabolic Don Michael.

The point is, we never witnessed any causal actions that linked the two events. We indeed know that Michael is behind the killing, but did the juxtaposition create a third meaning of the evil, unforgiving, and decietful man in the house of god. Or was the parallel event a symbolic baptism into a life of crime.

Surely the “meanwhile” action in the sequence above is not a chain of unrelated sordid goings-on taking place in another space. The juxtaposition as a device helps the director nuance his narrative – the juxtaposition retells butchery born of revenge as a rite of passage in gangland New York. Did it serve a purely visual pleasure or did the juxtaposition of shots spring a third meaning, i.e., the revealing of the sheer villainy behind the callow veneered Don Michael? Did the third meaning allude to the hackneyed conception of good and bad in terms of the aesthetically beautiful and ugly. Do people of the free world suffer from such generalisations, which preventing them from spotting the devil’s metaphor in their midst?

Does this prove montage does have a third effect? Yes and no. Effects of Intellectual Montage cannot be a reductionist argument for all juxtaposed images. Not every human agency would be in a position to realise it. Even those who score the effects sometimes do so with the help of subtle suggestions that preclude the montage. Kuleshov and his cheerleaders probably claimed too much of montage giving it too much a communist character alarming many in the west. As argued earlier the answer lies in examining the cognitive effects of random images.

Going back to the Godfather example, would somebody who hadn’t watched “the story so far”, make any meaning of the sequence watching it out of context? So, is “the story so far” a pre-requisite for intellectual montage to be realised? Wonder what Griffith would say to that. Too many questions. Over to continuity editing.


1 anirban { 04.09.08 at 6:40 pm }

could u name any two films in the past 5 years that have used Soviet Montage.eisenstein’s techniques??

2 Kishore Budha { 04.09.08 at 9:35 pm }

Thanks to Catalin Brylla of the London Academy:

“Seven” has a great intellectual-montage-sequence, where it cross-cuts between Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt investigating in their own particular way. Differences in camera angles, movement, colour, edits, POV shots and shot size create a great intellectual

“Amadeus” uses a similar cross-cutting sequence at the very beginning (Salieri being institutionalised cut with young people dancing).

Documentaries and commercials rely heavily on montage to create meanings in short time frames. Michael Moore uses a lot of dialectical montage in his films for irony and “manipulation” (I call it manipulation because of the subtle way he juxtaposes images, whole scenes and sounds to reinforce his message).

You can also have dialectic montage with sound and image. Again, Michael Moore uses a lot of counterpoint sound and music. “La Vie en Rose” has a great “sound montage” sequence where Edith Piaf has her first public appearance but instead of her singing we hear the non-diegetic soundtrack.

“Run Lola Run” is full of montage (literal, metaphoric and symbolic).

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