Editing – that invisible art of the cinema – became fully realized in Battleship Potemkin, the silent Russian masterpiece from director Sergei Eisenstein.
For better and for worse – from the deft slicing and dicing of footage by longtime Martin Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker to the incoherent jumbling in your average Michael Bay film – Eisenstein revealed how a true movie is a juxtaposition of images, not simply a filmed play. Commissioned to commemorate the Russian Revolution, Battleship Potemkin recounts a 1905 mutiny aboard a Russian naval ship and the ensuing rebellion in the city of Odessa. It’s propaganda – the one color image is of a red flag being raised aboard the ship – yet of the most artistic variety.
Whereas most films of the era let the action unfold in front of a fixed camera, Eisenstein used editing – or montage, in his terms – to master space and time. Insert shots, close-ups, establishing panoramas of the ship at sea – all are mixed and matched to clearly communicate the story. A shot of maggots squirming in the sailors’ ration of meat followed by a quick image of a clenched fist ably stands in for 10 pages of dialogue.
It’s propaganda, yet of the most artistic variety.
The most famous of these montages is the Odessa steps sequence, during which government forces open fire on the protesting citizens as they flee down a massive outdoor staircase. Cutting back and forth between the soldiers and the victims in agonizingly measured paces – interspersed with glances at a teetering, unmanned baby carriage – Eisenstein proved himself to be the first of what would become a familiar filmmaking type: the entertainer/sadist. These days, filmmakers use and abuse Eisenstein’s techniques with such regularity that we hardly blink at them (even as they often cause us to blink incessantly). When a more frantic, formalistic style of editing began to take over in the 1980s, it was referred to as MTV filmmaking. Who knew, back in 1925, that Eisenstein had also invented MTV?