Lesson 4 Lecture & Discussion
The Moving Image

Montage: The Whole Is More Than the Sum of the Parts

Lester's first Beatles film, A Hard Day's Night, introduced the world to a new style of montage, one that called attention to the craft of editing.

As intriguing and riveting as mise-en-scène is, montage is almost irresistible. Real life happens as mise-en-scène. You can't edit real life. But you can edit film: you can put this image next to that image, one shot opposed to another. You can move from one sequence to another far removed in time and space, with the simple effectiveness of a razor blade and some glue (or their infinitely easier electronic equivalents).

How could you resist?! Imagine! An aboriginal ape-man, just having discovered how a bone can be used as a tool - an extension, an amplification, of his human power - throws it into the air in celebration of this discovery (undoubtedly one of the most important discoveries in human history). As the bone revolves in slow motion in the air, cut to a twenty-first-century space station (still a tool, just a more advanced one). One hundred thousand years have passed in the space between two frames of film. This, of course, is the famous match cut from 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most famous cuts in film history.

In the theatre, before film, you could change the scene, but it was time-consuming and distracting. You had to pull down the curtain. You had to wait. You had to look in your program to discover where and when this next scene took place. Then you had to raise the curtain again, acclimate the audience, and, finally, begin your new scene.

Film could do this instantly. And because it could, filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein soon realized that there was a dialectical imperative to the cut. When you moved from A to B so quickly, observers naturally compared the two and drew conclusions. There was meaning, not only in the previous shot and the next shot, but also in the juxtaposition between the two. This had never before been possible in art. Painters had done triptychs before, but they were usually expansions of the current scene. Now, you could compare and contrast. A whole new esthetic dialectic was possible. Because he raised montage to the level of a philosophy, Eisenstein is regarded as the high priest of montage. Nearly all films are edited: the question is how - what meaning does the filmmaker invest in the cut?

Very quickly Hollywood developed a classic style of editing (the French call it découpage classique), which de-emphasized the cut. The aim was a seamless transition so that you could follow the story. Montage in the service of mise-en-scène, if you will. This tradition continues: you can see it every night on television. But it has been augmented by a much more frenzied, rapid-fire style of editing. Although this style goes back to the 1960s, it still has no commonly recognized name. Because it calls attention to itself so self-consciously, let's call it "postmodern" montage.

When Breathless first appeared in 1960, critics were fascinated by Jean-Luc Godard's jump cuts, but Godard hardly ever used the technique again. And few other filmmakers found it useful. The jump cuts (when done within the same shot, as if a piece of film had just been cut out) may just have been Godard's way of announcing that a new age had dawned.

It was Richard Lester's Beatles films (A Hard Day's Night, 1964; Help! 1965) that set the model for postmodern montage. Lots of cuts, no necessary logic to the edit, unusual juxtapositions - these were the characteristics. Such a style made a lot of sense for a modern musical, especially one that heralded the birth of a new culture. A musical doesn't have to create the illusion of truth or probability; it can be a show, a presentation—anything goes. You want to call attention to the craft of the film, not hide it. This is not unlike what the Beatles were doing with their music at the time (an eclectic collection of pop and show styles), so Lester's freestyle montage fit well, emphasizing the freedom of the Beatles' act. The style, like the group, was fresh and brash.

The invention of the music video in the early 1980s gave further impetus to postmodern editing. It remains the style of choice for most of them. The music video is the most influential new form of film to come along in the last 25 years, so it's no surprise that it has had such an effect on the style of feature films. You can see it at work in almost any contemporary action-adventure film and many comedies, too. Many times, directors with a background in music videos bring a unique style and sensibility with them when they make the jump to features. Charlie's Angels director McG, The Cell's Tarsem Singh, and Fight Club's David Fincher―all veterans of music video―spring immediately to mind.

As the industry moved rapidly to computer editing suites in the 1990s, the postmodern style became almost de rigueur (fashionable). After all, it was so much easier now than it had been on the old Steenbeck or Moviola. And producers would tell you that young people (their primary meal ticket) would be bored by anything less. The result is that today, postmodern editing is applied even to documentaries and educational films, where it has no useful purpose, except perhaps to keep those "bored" young people from changing channels.

So it's clear that montage is often used to "busy up" a film that otherwise wouldn't make it. It's also anti-humanistic since it takes your attention away from the people in the film. In the crudest sense of the term it may be more entertaining - just because of the feverish action. But the next time you see an example of that style, ask yourself if it really adds to our understanding or deeper enjoyment of the movie. Chances are the answer will be "no."

The Moving Camera: A Unique Tool

While the power of mise-en-scène was more than obvious, and the possibilities of montage were quickly evident, there was a third power of film that took a while to be understood. It lay somewhere between mise-en-scène and montage: the camera could move.

The Author Reflects:
The Ultimate Tracking Shot

For my money, the greatest tracking shot ever is the opening shot of Robert Altman's The Player. It's the scheduled film for Lesson 7, but if you already have a copy, do watch that eight-minute-long tour de force a couple of times right now.

I worked on the DVD-ROM version of How to Read a Film off and on for several years. At the end of the night, after a long writing session, I would often turn on the clip of The Player's tracking shot to treat myself.

I must have seen this piece of film more than 80 times. It still surprises and delights. This shows you that film can have the same repetitive function as music. As the technology develops, expect to see more films of this type, designed to be played many times.

James Monaco

When the camera moves we call it a tracking shot (or a dolly shot, a crane shot, or a trucking shot, depending on how the camera is moving). One of these shots can be as simple as following actors as they move down a road, or it can be a highly choreographed dance between camera and subject.

During the days of the Mitchell camera, tracking shots were difficult to set up. There are some great tracks from the Golden Age (as in Murnau's Sunrise, 1927 or Ophüls's La Ronde, 1950), but the technique didn't really come into its own until the development of handheld cameras. Moving a Mitchell camera required either a set of tracks to be laid down, or a rubber-tired dolly or a crane to be used (with a properly paved path to accommodate this heavy equipment). So it's easy to see why the advent of the handheld opened up so many creative doors for filmmakers.

Mise-en-scène is the obvious first principle of filmmaking: you have to frame the shot. Montage is the obvious thrill of filmmaking: you get to juxtapose various elements of the material you shot. But the moving camera - the tracking shot - is where much of the poetry of the camera lies. In the tracking shot, we combine the power of mise-en-scène and montage because we shift our point of view, but without cutting.

Truffaut used his handheld Arriflex to create beautiful, poignant tracking shots, such as this closing one from The 400 Blows, ending in the famous freeze frame. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Perhaps the greatest legacy we have from the New Wave of the early 1960s is the sense of freedom and buoyancy films like The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless communicate. Both Truffaut and Godard fell in love with their Arriflexes―you can see it in the romance of their handheld tracks.

It's obvious that the lighter the camera is, the easier it is to move. But the difference in size, weight, and maneuverability between the Mitchell and the Arriflex is so great that you might want to think of them as entirely different tools. It's like the difference between a 500-pound generator and a C-cell battery. Or a massive five-foot-high console Victrola and a Walkman. Their uses―and the experience of using them―are entirely different.

Although the Panavision camera (much smaller than a Mitchell, but much larger than an Arri) soon became the standard on the set, the handheld camera had revolutionized filmmakers' approach to the moving camera. The tracking shot, which had once been a rare setpiece, became the norm. And audiences became used to the camera (and their point of view) invading the space of the set, dancing with the actors.

Garrett Brown's Steadicam of the 1970s, which we briefly discussed in Lesson 3, was almost as important an advance as the lightweight handheld camera itself (by matthew abernathy). A balanced, stabilized mount for the camera, it allowed the operator to produce what appeared to be a mechanized tracking shot simply by walking (or running) with the subject.

Stanley Kubrick, who started as a still photographer, displayed a sophisticated sense of composition in all his films, but what really obsessed him was the tracking shot. His camera moves often, and with a sense of purpose. You can see him exploring technical variations on the tracking theme in 2001: following Dave jogging around the circular track; the long, slow take tracking the entire length of the ship; or the flight attendant's roll shot (no, the camera doesn't move but the viewpoint does!). The abstract sequence near the end when Dave is transported to the last monolith may hold the record for the longest tracking shot ever. How many billions of light years long is it? The only competition for this record is Charles and Ray Eames's Powers of Ten (1977) - but that's a short, not a feature!

If mise-en-scène can be regarded as the soul of cinema (because what you see is what you get), and montage seems to be the libido of cinema (because that's where the action is), then the moving camera is film's ego. This is where we focus on the "thingness" of film, the changing position of the lens through which we see the filmmaker's world.


Please post your responses to the following questions on the class message board.

  1. Seen any ingenious tracking shots lately?
  2. How about match cuts?
  3. Can you name an egregious example of "postmodern" editing that you've seen recently?