Monday, March 10, 2014

Manipulating Time, Emotions and Impressions via Montage; A Short Essay by Payman Akhlaghi (2014)

Manipulating Time, Emotions and Impressions via Montage
A Short Essay by Payman Akhlaghi (Draft 2)

(*) First published on March 10th, 2014 at, under Manipulating Time, Emotions...

I was thinking today of Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 classic silent "Battleship Potemkin", particularly, the Odessa Steps sequence from the film. Interestingly, I learned from Wikipedia [1] that historically, the events dramatized in this most famous scene did not actually take place on this staircase; even though the crowd were in fact reportedly shot at, perhaps elsewhere in the city at the time of the events. Notwithstanding this diversion from historical facts, and the mythologizing ideological halo surrounding the project, the scene leaves us with an impression of experienced humanity and the illusion of historical veracity, complete with the "perceived sound" of the guns firing and the people screaming in this very silent film.
[NB: The music on this version is an excerpt of work(s) by Shostakovich.]

The influence of the Odessa Stairs sequence on the theory and practice of cinema afterwards, and on montage in particular, has been far reaching; and deservedly so. Note the rich and contrasting vocabulary of the camera angles, frame sizes, and camera positions. Note the director's control over the precise timing of each shot. Note how he exploits the point-of-view shots, the reaction shots, the cross-cuts (parallel edit), the inserts of objects and faces, and the tracking shots, to maintain and maximize the tension and momentum in this long sequence. Note how the perception of time is compressed and/or extended, throughout, especially as the stroller carrying a child speeds down the stairs. Note how he manages to communicate the sound of the gun fires, or the screaming of a mother, by the timely placement of the extreme close-ups, in this very silent film.[3,4]

Among the diverse list of subsequent films influenced by the Potemkin [2], I would like to cite a most direct homage paid by Brian De Palma in 1987, i.e. the stairway shoot-out sequence from "The Untouchables", featuring Kevin Costner and Andy Garci. Note how De Palma finds it necessary to draw upon slow-motion to better magnify the perception of time: perhaps to avoid jamming his "screen time" and allow each shot to be absorbed; perhaps because the "real time" of the sequence is much shorter than the Odessa sequence; and perhaps because what has preoccupied him the most is a smooth prolongation of the real-time into an stretched-out screen-time, as opposed to its compression.

P.S. As I recall, I first learned about the significance of montage in this Eisenstein classic, as a young teenager, from a series on cinema offered on the Iranian TV, produced by E Makki, with a special guest appearance by editor Dr. A Zabeti-Jahromi. Such TV series may go a long way in educating the public on the arts, in this case, on cinema.

(*) You may see Wikipedia under "Potemkin Stairs" and the "Potemkin Mutiny" for more historical and geographical information.
(*) The following two sites provide a quick reference for some common cinematic terms:

© 2014, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

(*) Payman Akhlaghi is a composer, pianist and piano teacher based in Los Angeles. His repertoire covers Classical music, as well as Persian (Iranian) Music, Pop Music, and Film Music. For information on the lessons in the Greater Los Angeles area, including Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Encino, Brentwood, etc. please call: 310-208-2927. Thank you.