The montage is one of the most effective innovations that film provides us. Count it in the Top 10 of any media contributions to our creative endeavors.
It’s also helped many view their life differently. Let’s not forget the power that art has. Take first-person view in literature. Or monologuing in theatre. Or stream-of-consciousness in poetry. Art always influences our life. It provides frames to understand challenges and opportunities. It makes us feel not alone and part of a larger history.
The best example is the Hero’s Journey. How many celebrities and hard workers structure their life around it. Probably more than screenwriters do.
This is why montage is important to talk about. Not only its importance in life as we live it. But also its transference into other art forms.
First, we need to understand what montage is. It’s not what you think of nowadays. (Technically it is and it isn’t. We’ll get to that). By this I mean a selection of images or video clips one after another. In the modern sense, it can extend to showing unrelated media in a sequence.
However, the original theory forms the basis of editing. And in that way the basis of film as we know it. Thank the Russians for this too. (apart from literature, vodka, caviar, and communism).
The concept goes like this — take any two unrelated images. Play them after one another. Boom! You’ve got a match. Or to be more accurate, viewers believe there’s a connection between the two.
Like many technologies, the montage exploits human perception. Especially the gestalt principle of proximity. In normal parlance, this is a spatial thing. Viewers consider objects close to each other as part of one set. The montage takes this concept and adds a temporal twist. You see them so close apart in seconds, you make an association. That’s it.
Simplicity like this is what underlies its profundity. Now, to be frank, most filmmakers don’t always follow this principle. In most films you watch, there’s some relation between each cut. It could be a reaction shot, a transition to a mentioned place, etc.
Directors do this to keep the viewer well aware of what’s happening. Or at least that’s how it goes in commercial cinema. It’s in art cinema where montage, as it’s conceived, comes into play.
It’s still powerful after all these years. You can connect things across places, time periods, contexts, etc.
All through a well-timed cut. The montage in popular culture has evolved into a collection of events.
This is often in service of the summary as I call it. Take two characters falling in love. In real life, that takes a long time. You can’t show all that in a film. So you compress it into a song, with varied shots. The montage displays their entire courtship until the point of drama. This includes dates, talking and walking, hand-holding, watching cinema, etc.
In Indian movies, filmmakers borrow this concept for the action genre. The star quotient is a big thing here. Plus what I call the transformational film. This refers to films that show a change in the world, rather than the hero. This mostly comprises of the city becoming less corrupt, hardworking, and so on.
What do you get when you combine these two? The transformational montage. The hero, a cop goes on a spree “cleansing” the city. All this in a sequence of events, soundtracked with a hardcore masala song. It’s inspirational and doubles down what a badass he is.
It also triggers the main bad guy to show his/her face. After all, no kingpin (or queenpin) likes to see their turf disturbed.
One question I’ve always had is how to take the montage into other media. Or even other genres where it’s not usually welcome. (Think horror or suspense.) This is pretty complicated and more difficult than I initially thought. This is due to how medium-specific the montage is. Eisenstein designed it to solve a specific issue — how to make video compelling as an art form. As such we may need another post to go deeper into this. Expect that next Monday.
For now, I’ll provide one use case for montages that do not come up often. That is, the ability to maximize your creativity per minute.
This is a metric that decides how creative and novel your movie is. Montages help you pack a lot together. You can cut sequences to carry beats forward, resonate themes, and further character.
Directors use the commercial montage to show off their toolset. The weirder the camera angles, staging, and editing technique, the better. If a first-time filmmaker is forced to make a bland, generic film, montages are where you can break out. They stick in viewers’ heads and are something they can watch again and again.
It’s all thanks to YouTube and social media. If a montage is well-executed, the world will want repeat viewing. And montages are great for any situation. In fact, juxtaposing a situation with an unexpected montage can be a home run.
Montages are useful when you’re dealing with instrumental scenes. Those where one exposits information. Or is only necessary for understanding the plot. Montages achieve these basics and elevate them into entertaining art.