Tuesday, April 11, 2006

soviet montage

Sergei Eisenstein’s dialectics in a larger philosophical context are subject to critique from the perspective of the relationship of his politics to psychology.

In Battleship Potemkin Eisenstein's politics is overtly addressed through his dialectics – and not only in virtue of his Party affiliation, nor his State commission to produce the piece. He seems more than willing to criticize the Party to which he credited his support: the revolutionary soldiers – even as the heroes of the revolutionary tale – on their first glorious military excursion destroy only one thing: the opera house. This would be an odd statement for an artist with Eisenstein’s beliefs to make (considering his use of metaphor generally: as with the ideogram, musical terminology, or visual sensibilities (rotten meat)) if he didn’t mean to present a subversive critique of the Party. If he showed willingness elsewhere to interpret history for the sake of his tale, he might also have changed the target of the revolution’s attack (that is, being an artist using the opera house as a symbol for his own vocation. the historical authenticity of that event in the film is not unequivocal for me; subjectivity, unlike objectivity, can explain human fault; objectivity can only describe our failings as humans without offering any rational suggestion for how we might improve our lot: useless!); perhaps, this curiousity is an unavoidable demand of his dialectic methodology: thesis and antithesis, as in, a film that portrays its own destruction – or impossibility. Eisenstein could be using his political dialectic to speak anagogically, as the Dada spoke about the destruction of art; or he could be speaking literally, as in, “this is what happened 20 years ago,” or, “these are the formal possibilities of the medium (sheer potential to be sudden, to shock with the impact of an explosion, to record movement, to be edited in various ways)”; he could be speaking allegorically, as in, simply using an arbitrary overt politics to call attention generally to the fact this film is not just a tale about the revolution, and to thereby imply any number of possible interpretations.

About shot and montage as a dialectic of the physical and mental (critique of dialectical materialism?). Pavlov’s conditioned stimulus-response model could be interpreted as relating the societal understanding of cinematic technique (external conditioning/the shot) to the mind’s understanding of a particular experience of cinema (internal response/montage), in virtue of the fact that (as Kuleshov demonstrated) the juxtaposition of various images is understood by humans in ways that are somewhat definite and regular. Stimulus is objective (external: other people are objects in a way that “I” am not), response subjective (internal: language has objectively described syntax with definite physical corollaries (the shapes of letters) – none of which is ever influenced by the meanings they convey, and thus can be used to describe the meanings they convey (by definition) without being required to explain the meanings they convey. In the sentence “I saw a truck,” the word “truck” stays the same as if it were in the sentence “I’ve never seen a truck.” “Truck” is a syntactically vital descriptive word in the sentence “I saw a truck,” but the sequence of letters ‘truck’ does nothing to explain what a “truck” is, nor does it shed much light upon what it is to see.). Shot is objective, physical: it, although not like a block or a letter, is not unlike a word, or an idea, or a house. Shot is contiguous in many ways similar to our experience of consciousness. The shot is the causally-related material origin of any particular experience of cinema. The montage, however, is what the individual spectator sees and understands. It is like how, when one reads a word, one understands the word rather than each individual letter in order; or the meaning of a sentence supercedes the meaning of a word. The film (both a strip of celluloid as well as an idea in minds) is therefore a dialectic of shot and montage.

Interesting to note that Eisenstein’s understanding of montage has tremendous descriptive strength insofar as it describes how the individual relates to film as a mass media; Eisenstein’s view, however, suffers from an important shortcoming of behaviorism generally. Behaviorism is very strong descriptively, but has no explanatory strength without an implicit appeal to cognitive terms. By analogy, Eisenstein’s view of cinema makes no room for much of experimental cinema (which can be art in virtue of the critical statement that informs it, while at the same time lack any formal property that would identify it as art (this point is discussed at length by Arthur Danto. Common examples of art objects that cannot be identified as art objects based solely on appeal to physical properties, or material rules of causality: Fountain, by Marcel Duchamp (who denied that he was an artist or that he was making art); The Brillo Box, by Andy Warhol (who replicated consumer goods and had other people paint his paintings)) – unless elements other than shot and montage (or any element whose meaning can be understood by appeal to physical properties, for that matter) – are sufficient to qualify a film as being cinematic (or to have meaning in relation to cinema by implication).). A similar problem afflicts behaviorism: to understand why a person steps out of the way of a moving vehicle – a person who, in such a case, responds to a material stimulus in a conditioned way without any sort of causal relation that resembles the way a rock falls from a cliff, or a protein interacts with an enzyme, or a person when burned recoils from fire – requires appeal to cognitive terms that find no material analog, such as, understood, believed, or was afraid. Any psychological state montage in film causes for a spectator can with equal validity be said to have been caused by the film. Science derives its value from predictive strength. Behaviorism and the stimulus response model – if for nor reason other than the sheer range of past experiences spectators bring with them to movies – cannot relate a film

a definite seor any spectator; the syntax of film is not unequivocal. The spectator, to Eisenstein, was not a part of the cinema. If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody is around to hear it, of course it makes a sound.

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