Feed on

By Mike Mowbray


In The Film Sense (1975/1942), Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet filmmaker celebrated for work including Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Alexander Nevsky (1938), speaks to film’s potential to bring together otherwise disparate elements of human sensory (and emotional) experience in search of a representational synthesis which exceeds the sum of its parts. Taken as a whole, Eisenstein’s arguments can be related to McLuhan’s insistence on conceptualizing media as extensions of our senses or faculties. The direction Eisenstein charts towards the synthesis of multiple images and perspectives (through a coordinated juxtaposition in montage) and the synthesis of these, in turn, with a soundtrack (drawing sound and image into a ‘common movement’ through different forms of synchronization) describes a particular sensory experience made possible via the creative deployment of the technologies of film production. Film extends the human sensorium insofar as it makes possible the experience of audiovisual (re)combinations unavailable with prior media technologies, and unattainable in unaided everyday experience. At the same time, Eisenstein’s ideas in Film Sense address – or indeed, require – a basis in perception and affect which entails a pre-existing tendency to connect corresponding elements – image, sound and color – and their arrangement, with particular emotional resonances. The experiential synthesis he describes entails a reverberation of these elements compiled in the composition of edited film. For Eisenstein, it seems, the artful production of montage both necessitates and facilitates a conceptualization of the world and a creative practice that traverse the traditional bounds of sensory perception.

To be clear, the tendency towards the kinds of sensuous correspondences (and possible syntheses) Eisenstein seeks to exploit is not fixed by nature. Eisenstein’s is a vision and practice deriving from the technological and socio-cultural resources available in a particular historic moment; the ’film sense,’ as it were, exceeds the five senses via the exploration of such syntheses, pushing the bounds of art and experience in a fresh medium. The historical development of the arts, as E.M. Forster suggests, brings together different forms of art, and in turn redefines them: “…indeed the more the arts develop the more they depend on each other for definition. We will borrow from painting first and call it pattern. Later we will borrow from music and call it rhythm” (cited in Eisenstein 1975/1942: 68). In film, this operation hinges upon the operations of juxtaposition and synchronization opened up by the development of the medium – operations described by Eisenstein in the chapter ‘Synchronization of the Senses.’ Eisenstein begins the chapter with a definition of montage that reaches towards his ideal synthesis:

Representation A and representation B must be so selected from all the possible features within the theme that is being developed, must be so sought for, that their juxtaposition – the juxtaposition of those very elements, and not of alternative ones – shall evoke in the perception and feelings of the spectator the most complete image of the theme itself (69).

This definition apparently seeks out unified thematic ends, but Eisenstein insists that there “be no arbitrary limits set on the variety of expressive means that can be drawn upon by the filmmaker” (70). Indeed, he quotes Byron’s suggestion that “the great art is effect, no matter how produced” (72) and advocates what he calls “polyphonic montage” (75), which brings to bear multiple elements in which correspondence is to be sought. The model of such correspondences, he writes, is to be derived from “Man and the relations between his gestures and the intonations of his voice” and to seek to capture one’s “first and most spontaneous perceptions,” those “sharp, fresh, lively impressions [which] invariably derive from the most variable fields” (71). Looking at an example from literature (a footnote from the journals of French writers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt), he illustratively decomposes the juxtapositions achieved in the description of an ‘Athletic Arena’ into a series of elements: touch, smell, sight (including both light and color), hearing, movement, and pure emotion (“or drama”) (72-73). Although the means offered by film production differ from those of written literature, Eisenstein suggests that the basic principle evoked for filmmaking is that “[t]here is no fundamental difference in the approaches to be made to the problems of purely visual montage and to a montage that links different spheres of feeling,” (73); what is important is “the composite sensation of all the pieces as a whole” (77).

Synchronization of the elements in the editing of montage is paramount for Eisenstein; it is through synchronization that possible correspondences between elements are brought into alignment in the complex composition of a sequence of film – and the work itself becomes a project of developing these correspondences. The definitive marker of artistic production (as concerns the synchronization of sound and image) can be located “at that moment of synchronization when the natural connection between the object and its sound is not merely recorded, but is dictated solely by the demands of the expressive work in progress” (82-83). Eisenstein is grasping at something “far beyond” physical or external – “factual” – synchronization (e.g. in matching the movement of the lips in speech); rather, he is “speaking of a ‘hidden’ inner synchronization in which plastic and tonal elements will find complete fusion” (82). The “significance and method” (ibid) of such a process, he suggests, is to be shown in movement. In elementary form, the “rhythm” in montage presents images edited in parallel with a musical soundtrack. Eisenstein locates a “melodic movement” as well, insisting that melody itself is not heard but followed according to a capacity to construct a “higher unity” from among the disparate tones or images (83-84). He then hones in, for example, on a “vibrating” rather than “intermingling” movement – associated with tone in contrast to pitch – and asserts that its “visual equivalent is color,” in contrast to “the play of light” (84). The indisputably synesthetic nature of such a notion of synchronization, finding terms – and representational equivalents in film – that resonate across sense modalities, is striking. Whereas many filmmakers are content to retain dissonances between elements, or to ‘lead’ with one form of synchronization, the ideal is an “intricate polyphony,” implying a synthesis that moves towards a ”final revelation,” and draws on “a perception of the pieces (of both music and picture) as a whole” (86). “[T]he definitive inner synchronization […] between the image and the meaning of the pieces follows,” and (as Eisenstein puts it) “the circuit is complete” (ibid).

In pursuing this grand avenue, Eisenstein notes the primacy of color in the correspondence between sounds and image – and with particular emotions. “[C]hromophonic, or color-sound montage” again raises the question of dissolving barriers between senses, leading him to a “theory of ocular music” (86-88). By way of example, he presents a poem accompanied by “color music,” given in triptych fragments of the following type:

WORDS: The sun rises over the mountains…

MUSIC: A majestic bass, from which middle-tones rise imperceptibly!

    COLOR: Bright yellows, mixed with the color of the dawn – dissolving into     green and whitish yellow (89).

A series of such combinations, he suggests “should be sufficient to prove that colors also hold the power of expressing the emotions of the soul” (89). Pursuing the point further, he notes Lafcadio Hearn’s claim that words “have color, form, character; they have faces, parts, manners, gesticulations; they have moods, humors eccentricities; – they have tints, tones, personalities…” (cited in Eisenstein 1975/1942: 92), which are themselves variable, as words are “like lizards in their power of changing color with position” (cited in Eisenstein 1975/1942: 93).1 Such correspondences among elements of image, color, music, and human emotion occupy Eisenstein at some length, and though he concludes that “an absolute ‘color alphabet’” (109) is not to be ascertained, a (sometimes fumbling) search for evocative combinations – a search informed by pre-existing (though culturally variable) correspondences, but which takes place through the medium itself – is the central task of creative artistic practice.

For Eisenstein, art is marked by the conditions of its historical production, and the development of art – associated with the convergence and interdependence of forms noted by Forster – is characterized by mounting ‘intensity’. Thus, contemporary art (and literature) employs multiple perspectives simultaneously, in contradistinction to ‘antique’ perspectives’ “geometrical concepts of objects – as they could be seen by only an ideal eye” (96). “Our [contemporary] perspective,” writes Eisenstein, “shows us objects as we see them with both eyes – gropingly” (ibid.). Jazz, in which “each instrument performs its solo while participating in the whole,” itself reflects the “modern urban scene, especially that of a large city at night” in which “[a]ll sense of perspective and realistic depth is washed away by a nocturnal sea of electric advertising” (97-98). Similarly, Picasso’s paintings often show a face from multiple perspectives at once, in an otherwise static medium. The position of the subject – artist, persona or audience – is not traditionally centered and coordinated according to prior rules. In film, the close-up and the panorama can be made to coexist (alongside bold metaphors and musical divergences), at least for those not reticent to “open up” the acute angle converging on the horizon, “pulling representation against us, upon us, toward us…” (96).

Eisenstein contends that music and visual arts, “fused together, correspond to the very image of an epoch and the image of a reasoning process of those who are linked to the epoch” (100). Previous epochs and other traditions have, of course, employed elements relevant to Eisenstein’s discussion of film. Chinese landscape painting, for example, stretches the apparent viewpoint against the rules of linear perspective. Closer to the heart of the Western tradition, El Greco, in his View and Plan of Toledo, depicts multiple perspectives from a distance, as well as details which are only visible from close-in, explicitly displacing some structures to open up a view of others, and presenting one prominent building in a view from precisely the opposite direction. Greco’s work here, according to Eisenstein, constitutes a “montage revolution” (105). In this and other examples, the act of articulating connections which exceed the possibilities offered by previous modes of representation through action on a particular medium, displacing elements from their everyday context and multiplying the perspectives employed is presented as key to the development of contemporary art, and culminating (for the time being) in film.

Film, the most contemporary major development in media technology for Eisenstein (and the one which made him famous), allows simultaneity of sound and visual elements, and therefore the pursuit of particular correspondences through the various forms or fields of synchronization that he describes. Film production facilitates increased intensity in the presentation of correspondences between images, colors, music and human emotion – and film thus presents a new, “polyphonic” or “symphonic” potential for human sensory experience in which the discrete nature of such elements (as may be the case in the contemporary urban experience) is eroded by the effect of their combination, and by the possibilities offered by technology which offers artistic producers a particularly malleable medium in which to recombine elements. Inevitably, the possibilities offered by the technology fail to be reduced, in the artistic production of film which seeks Eisenstein’s ideal, to a simple arrangement of previously available terms. As in McLuhan’s notion that media technologies effectively extend the human sensorium, Eisenstein’s ‘film sense’ implies that film’s possibilities derive from new ways of seeing, hearing, and experiencing movement and emotional feeling intermeshed in ways which simply could not be presented or experienced previously, and that articulation of these possibilities occurs through the practice of filmmaking.

In his conclusion to The Film Sense, Eisenstein insists that the creative act does not cease with the “with the composition of a shooting-script” (214). This, he suggests, is especially the case with “symphonic” works, which strive for the kind of highly-developed synchronization of elements which would maximize possible correspondences and traverse the boundaries of discretely-conceived senses. The ‘film sense,’ as it were, the guide to the selection of parts and enlivening of correspondences, is “direct action” (215). He recalls Oscar Wilde’s “denial that an artist’s ideas are born ‘naked,’ and only later dressed in marble, paint, and sound,” (ibid) insisting instead:

The artist thinks directly in terms of manipulating his resources and materials. His thought is transmuted into direct action, formulated not by formula, but by a form.

Even in this ‘spontaneity’ the necessary laws, bases, motivations for precisely such and no other distribution of one’s elements pass through the consciousness (and are sometimes even uttered aloud), but consciousness does not stop to explain these motivations – it hurries on towards completion of the structure itself (215-216).

Works cited

Eisenstein, Sergei M. 1975. The Film Sense, translated and edited by Jay Leyda. San

Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.