The role of Editing in Film

Why is editing so crucial to the creation of meaning within a filmic text?

Meaning and signification is born out of the relationship between the images displayed upon the screen. This micro element of montage can be viewed as unique to the film medium, which suggests that the medium is not restricting itself to the methodologies of theatre and painting. It is rather a fluid entity, constantly evolving, changing and adapting over time, which in relation to the first question, can be viewed as a parallel to language. 

In terms of montage editing, which typifies the works of Eisenstein, a plethora of different images are presented to the spectator, thus forcing the spectator to consider the connections between these images. Eisenstein engaged with this concept through an experimentation of using fast moving and rhythmic montage in order to produce metaphors. The film, October (Eisenstein, 1927), is considered the most experimental of Eisenstein’s films, in particular with its increased use of ‘intellectual montage’, which demands that the spectator must think critically about political issues, for example the cross cutting between the power hungry General Kerensky and the statue of Napoleon. This use of intellectual montage was however criticized for its excessive formalism, which alienated the masses; the people that the film was supposed to represent. It therefore displayed that Eisenstein did not understand the fundamental requirements and needs of the masses. The method of editing involved the spectator more than the passive reception of information derived from static shooting. On this basis, I propose that editing is not fundamentally alone in the creation of meaning, and can only allude to a potential signification, relying upon the audience to interpret it.   

On the other hand, from a more contemporary perspective, Tarkovsky’s visual approach is founded in a lack of editing and a cinema of observation. He uses long takes in order to focus upon the moment and display cinema’s capacity for capturing time. These long takes were employed in order to capture the spectator’s emotion and drain the spectator of this emotion, which can be viewed in juxtaposition to the rapid takes employed by Eisenstein. The use of editing employed by Eisenstein was thus used for intellectual and political purposes, whereas Tarkovsky’s contemplative approach and lack of editing engages instead with the audience’s emotion. It is therefore important for the editing to have an impact upon the spectator in order not to ossify, but to instead fossilize the emotion and understanding within the spectator’s memory.

Eisenstein postulates that meaning is derived from the ‘collision’ and ‘conflict’ of images, which are independent of one another. His montage can be viewed as a filmic equivalent to Japanese ideograms, where two separate symbols can be juxtaposed in order to create a third meaning. His works refute the convictions of “early” cinema, which held an initial belief that montage would ‘destroy the idea of real man’.  

Bazin suggests, however, that the works of Eisenstein, rely upon the ordering of images in order to allude to social-political undercurrents. The meaning to Bazin is derived exclusively from the images’ juxtaposition, adhering to Eisenstein’s collision of the images. Another similarity between the articles of Bazin and Eisenstein is the role of the spectator. Both express that the spectator is the key to the generation of meaning, since this signification is formed within their consciousness from the images displayed and contrasted. Eisenstein takes one step further to suggest that montage functions emotionally within the spectator’s field of consciousness as it is presented. However, Bazin contrasts this over-reliance on montage of Eisenstein, with the works of Murnau, to whom montage is unimportant and plays no central role. Murnau instead focuses upon another form of film syntax: the mise-en-scene as expressionistic.

Bazin privileges the works of filmmakers like Jean Renoir and Orson Welles, who utilise a lack of editing in their films, which is viewed in juxtaposition to Eisenstein. He highlights that Welles in Citizen Kane covered whole scenes within one take, thus suggesting a modern lack of importance of montage to a film’s reading. 

It could be attributed that there is a difference between these schools of thought in relation the era from which they derive. Within the silent era of Eisenstein, other aspects of a film’s composition, for example, sound was viewed as ancillary, since montage could add to and enhance a given reality. The contemporary film has however moved away from the symbolism and metaphors of montage towards objective presentation. Meaning in the modern era can now be born out of alternative means and the use of Eisenstein’s montage would seem out of place in a contemporary film; ‘There are still those who acclaim him (Eisenstein), but his influence is now very hard to detect’ (Thomson in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, 1981).       


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