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Sessions | Soviet Montage Theory and You! Part 4 – The Politics of Theory

Sessions | Soviet Montage Theory and You! Part 4 – The Politics of Theory

Nina

March 15th, 2018

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Now that you know what Soviet Montage Theory was trying to convey creatively, we can take a step back and take a brief look at how the politics of the time and place heavily influenced the development of these ideas. As culture changes, ways of interpreting art also changes – so we as artists can use history to innovate within our own mediums as well.

A Nutshell History Lesson
The political climate in Russia in the 1920s was complicated. The Russian Soviet Socialist Republic (or RSFSR) had just been established in 1917, and many of the artists and filmmakers in the country who were opposed to the socialist communist revolution had fled to escape. And with revolutions being as messy as they are, much of the country was left without many resources which were necessary to make films – most notably, electricity.

The new government also heavily censored the arts, and filmmaking in particular was ultimately left as a propaganda tool to spread the tenants of the new government and its ideals. Anything criticising communism was swiftly quashed, leaving only artists who believed in (or conformed to) the new system to have the infrastructure and funding to actually create anything.

Thankfully, limitation aids creativity, and having the government hovering over their shoulders forced the remaining established filmmakers to join with young budding filmmakers to develop this visual language which would convey their stories and messages effectively whilst still appeasing censors.

Different From the West
Filmmaking was still a new technology in the 1920s, and it was changing rapidly as new techniques were being explored all over the world. In Britain and Japan, films largely stuck to the standard of continuity editing. France focussed on visual effects and how to tell stories within one frame, and Hollywood perfected the art of studio production and eventually sync sound.

The lack of infrastructure for innovations in technology in Soviet Russia probably had a strong influence on why they focussed on theory, but it could be argued that it also fueled their desire to separate themselves intellectually from western media. If they wanted to convey the evils of the upper-class, then what was the best way to do it with the tools that they had available?

Connecting the Concepts
Eisenstein coined the term “Dialectical Montage”, arguing that putting two unrelated, conflicting images together would logically create its own meaning. For example, in his film _Strike_, he cross-cuts between footage of a bull being slaughtered and a group of police attacking workers. This has the double effect of not only being shocking, but planting the seeds of the idea that assaulting workers is akin to herding cattle to slaughter in the heads of the viewers.


The scene I refer to is at 01:26:38 – warning: graphic!

Soviet theorists argued that using montage in this way was logical – as in, the derived meaning would be universal to anyone with rational thought. But once the theory got out to the rest of the world near the end of the 1920s, that idea started to get a little fuzzy. Theorists and filmmakers in the USA challenged the idea that montage was logical – they believed it was more heavily psychological.

Put it like this, if you’re the intended audience for the aforementioned police and bull slaughter scene in Strike – that is, a working class person struggling in rural Soviet Russia – then yes, the proposed meaning is sure to hit the nail on the head. But for someone in the USA, with a completely different cultural background, everyday life, and established class-system… well, that meaning likely will be something completely different than what the filmmaker was going for.

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