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Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin represents a classical example of formalist editing in cinematography. According to most well-known enthusiasts of this style of editing, such as Pudovkin and Eisenstein himself, the semantic significance of film’s mise en scene should not be dialectically explored but rather constructed.
Both individuals tended to perceive the process of movie’s editing as being similar to the process of composing music – just as composer constructs a melody out of individually sounding and often dissonant musical notes, film’s director endows a particular scene with semiotic significance by the mean of providing scene’s takes with contextual wholesomeness.
While outlining the essence of formalist editing, Gianetti (2001) states: “The environment of the scene is the source of the images. Long shots are rare. Instead, a barrage of close-ups (often of objects) provides the audience with the necessary associations to link together the meaning” (p. 157).
Given the fact that Eisenstein never ceased being closely affiliated with promotion of Communist agenda, it comes as not a particular surprise that he had chosen in favor of formalist editing – by juxtaposing scenes’ seemingly unrelated shots, he was able to endow his films with clearly defined ideological sounding.
In the same book from which we have already quoted, Gianetti provides us with the insight onto the actual technique of Eisenstein’s style of editing: “The conflict of two shots (thesis and antithesis) produces a wholly new idea (synthesis). Thus, in film terms, the conflict between shot A and shot B is not AB but a qualitatively new factor—C” (p. 158). In the next part of this paper, we will explore how Eisenstein went about applying the methods of formalist editing in Battleship Potemkin at length.
Even the very beginning of Battleship Potemkin is being perfectly illustrative of how the utilization of formalist editing in film can achieve a strong dramatic effect. At first, there is a take of battleship’s physician wearing a monocle, meant to emphasize his association with the class of bourgeoisie (00.05.43).
After that, follows the shot of maggots crawling all over the piece of meat, which was supposed to serve ship’s sailors as food (00.05.45). After having exposed viewers to this take for a while, Eisenstein sharply replaces it with the shot of angry expression on sailors’ faces (00.05.60). It is needless to mention, of course, that from purely semantic perspective, the sequence of these shots does not make much of a sense.
Nevertheless, after having watched this particular scene, viewers quite unintentionally get to absorb the idea that Eisenstein wanted them to absorb – namely, the fact that, while serving in Russian Imperial Fleet, sailors used to be subjected to a number of different abuses, which had prompted them to revolt. Just as it is being often the case with today’s TV commercials, the main idea that combined earlier mentioned shots into something that conveyed cognitively recognizable ideological message, only existed in director’s imagination.
And, it is namely the fact that Eisenstein was a master of psychological manipulation, which had allowed him to impose his obscure and morally repugnant ideas upon viewers as representing some objective value.
Another clue as to the actual essence of Eisenstein’s formalist editing can be found in the scene where revolutionary speakers address angry mob (00.41.32 – 00.42.19). Given the fact that Battleship Potemkin is a silent movie, exposing viewers to the sight of crazed revolutionaries encouraging marginalized crowds to kill nobles, while intensely gesturing, making angry faces and spewing saliva, during the course of the process, does not appear rationally motivated – after all, there is no sound in the movie.
Nevertheless, by having this particular scene presented in his film, Eisenstein did not aim at subjecting viewers to Communist propaganda per se, but rather at making them cognitively comfortable with this propaganda as a concept, because on subconscious level, people tend to associate emotional intensity with intellectual honesty.
In other words, just as it is being the case with the shots of maggots crawling over the piece of meat, the shots of hook-nosed political activists instigating ‘proletarians’ to overthrow Czar had served the cause of psychological manipulation, on director’s part – a clearly formalist editing technique.
Nevertheless, it is specifically the scene of czarist police shooting at civilians in Odessa, which provides us with the full understanding of how the utilization of formalist editing had helped Battleship Potemkin to attain a cult status.
After police fires a salvo at demonstrators, we get to watch the following sequence of structurally unrelated takes: people running down the ‘Potemkin stairs’ (00.49.23), some kids laying on these stairs and crying, while being stepped upon (00.50.08), a bug-eyed woman experiencing an emotional distress (00.50.12), the older woman making jesters with her hands (00.51.18), one-legged man maneuvering through the running people on his crutches (00.51.48), police officers firing another salvo (00.51.51), woman with a baby in her hands catching the bullet (00.52.53), people running again in a chaotic manner (00.53.07), and finally the baby-carriage with a baby rolling down the stairs on its own (00.54.57), with this shot climaxing the whole scene.
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Apparently, Einstein was well aware of the fact that, even though the scenes of police shooting at civilians do not occur very often in reality, his depiction of such a scene nevertheless would be perceived by viewers as perfectly plausible, due to its strongly defined emotional undertones. In their turn, these undertones had been brought about by director’s mastery in utilization of formalist editing.
Even though that in ‘artsy’ circles, the application of formalist editing in cinematography is being often considered as the only appropriate, due to such editing’s ‘sophistication’, the majority of movie goers do not subscribe to this point of view.
And, this has nothing to do with their lessened intellectual abilities, as is being implied by enthusiasts of ‘auteur’ genre in cinematography, but simply with the fact that this style of editing does not correspond to the linearly defined workings of Westerners’ psyche. In formalistically edited movie, there is very little of an actual movie, but mostly theory.
The watching of Einstein’s Battleship Potemkin is like observing Malevich’s Black Square painting – without having been introduced to both individuals’ highly irrational and superficially sophisticate life-philosophies, it would prove quite impossible to define the actual significance of their cinematographic/artistic creations’ themes and motifs, if we assume that they do exist. As Gianetti had put it: “Eisenstein’s theories of collision montage have been explored primarily in the avant-garde cinema, music videos, and TV commercials.
Most fiction filmmakers have found them too intrusive and heavy-handed” (p. 168). Thus, even though in Battleship Potemkin Einstein did succeed with providing an emotional appeal to the Communist cause, he nevertheless had failed in making this particular movie watchable – after all, viewers do not particularly enjoy the feeling of being intellectually manipulated by the mean of being forced to accept director’s own ideological agenda as representing an undeniable truth-value.
Gianetti, L. (2001). Understanding movies. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.