Prof. Stephen Hutchings – Russian Studies, School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures
Interviewed by Laura Minca
29th May 2012, Manchester
Laura Minca: Firstly, thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview; it is an amazing opportunity for me to learn more about montage.
The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution brought along not only a dramatic shift in terms of power but it also inspired a revolution regarding the role of the arts within the new political scene. Could you tell me more about its effects upon the film-making industry?
Stephen Hutchings: The film industry was a relatively new phenomenon not only in Russia but across Europe. Having said that, even by 1917, the year of the revolution , Russia did have quite a well-developed film industry. It was entirely privately owned and much of it was borrowed for the ideas, the techniques; the financial model was borrowed from Western Europe. And the films were overwhelmingly derived from literary texts, plays, novels, poems, myths and so on. Most famous Russian films before the revolution ended re-adaptations from famous works of literature; they were re-adaptations of Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina and of Turgheniev and also of non-Russian, European writers as well as film versions of great plays. One of the things that happened during the lead-up to the revolution and then in the aftermath was that there was a whole movement right across Russian culture and the avant-garde to start interrogating each art form and try to find out what might be the specificities of each art form. The most perhaps well-known example of that is the movement known as Formalism, Formalism in literature; so really trying to ask questions about what makes literature, literature. What are the inherent and the essential qualities and functions of a literary text that allows you to describe it in a language that is specific to literature rather than subordinating it to social reality, to psychology? So rather than talking about literature in terms of how it represents psychology and social reality what it is that makes a literary work literary? And that principle was applied right across the arts and including film which was a new technology; so a reaction against subordinating film to literature; a complete throwing out of the idea that film should be kind of hand-made to literature and that its task should be putting into visual reality the hiring of literature and theatre and trying to ask what film can do that no other medium can. […] What is it that film does, and how does it do it that no other medium can do; that music can’t do, that literature can’t do and so a Formalism of film. And the same was true of painting and if you look at what was one of the principles of Suprematism and Constructivism, two big movements within the avant-garde and avant-garde painting in Russia – again they were asking the same questions partly prompted by develops in technology; so once you have a camera, a camera can do everything that a realist paining can do and do it better, copying reality. Why do we need painters if we have cameras that can provide a much more detailed and accurate copy, not even a copy of reality but an imprint of reality itself. It caused a sort of crisis in painting. What is painting for, if it can’t be about copying reality? And one answer to that was again looking at what painting can do that photography can’t and that literature can’t. What is the essence of colour? What is the essence of paint, of two-dimensional form? And how can we use painting so that we can express the essence of colour, shape, form on canvas in a way that no other art form can? Right across the arts from literature to painting, drama and film too, this drive to discover this essence of the medium. And with film, that of course became intimately bound up with montage, but, the other point that will bring me back to your question – this was a time that coincided also with a revolution in politics and in society. So the creation of a new, completely new society that works on completely different principles, a new reality. The avant-garde was all about trying to tie the revolution in form with the sociopolitical revolution and how those two can be brought together.
LM: So it’s more about the fact that they coincided rather than that one determined the other…
SH: Yes, they informed one another, they coincided…one can argue that it was by coincidence or one can argue that there were much larger cultural forces responsible for both revolutions. But the trick was to make them one and the same to bring them together and the early post-revolutionary avant-garde in Russia was all about a revolution in form that was, that tended to mount to an equivalent to the revolution in the content of reality. And it was extremely utopian. So the idea is that if we have a new reality, a new social reality, a new political reality, then we need a whole new way of life and a whole new set of forms to go with that reality. Hence the interest of constructivists in design and in architecture. So the constructivist building, the constructivist working man’s club given that this political revolution is led by the working class and you are creating a reality in a country, in a society in which the working class is in control, then you need a reality to match. So a working man’s club fit for the new reality in form and in function. Every-day utensils – how should a teapot differ? What should it look like given that it is now part of a whole new reality? So what was happening in film was rather a small part of what was happening right across the arts which in turn was one small part of what was happening on a much larger socio-cultural scale. So ways of expressing the new reality – for a new reality you make up a whole new set of forms that must differ from the old bourgeois forms that they succeeded.
LM: So their principle was that nothing can be recycled, that a tabula rasa needs to be reinforced in order to make way for a new reality…
SH: Exactly, yes. This is, you know, what the beginnings of what we know as abstract art were bound up with what was happening in Russia. Why some of the leading proponents of the abstract art linked themselves with the revolution. And you know, the kind of familiar examples that tend to be cited are Malevich’s squares . Most sort of notoriously but white on white – the white square on the white canvas as the perfect embodiment of an attempt to, not only express but to coincide with this new higher-reality. This reality beyond reality. Supreme reality which for the likes of Maleivich was very close to the, or equated with the new higher reality that was communism. And Tatlin’s famous tower – this kind of vortex, which was an attempt to create a new form that in turn expressed a new higher reality, the reality of the third international.
LM: For those who may not be familiar with the Russian film-makers of the twenties, could you briefly talk about why their approach to cinematic composition was regarded as groundbreaking at the time?
SH: Well, you could say that all modern film can be traced back to 1920’s Russian avant-garde film. They invented modern film as we know it to the point where the techniques and principles that they began to explore and incorporate are now so familiar to us that we don’t notice them, we don’t recognize them as being revolutionary or radical. But at the time they represented a complete break with pre-revolutionary film which was all about copying reality. So many of the first pre-revolutionary films were essentially what you are doing now: putting a camera in front of a play and filming it; or in front of a set of actors who act out a script. And the camera is merely a passive tool of recording: all it does is it sits there and records. What avant-garde Russian film primarily through Eisenstein but also through other film-makers began to do was to make the camera an active tool in not simply reproducing reality but re-creating reality or even creating reality anew. So this is now in keeping with what I said about the revolution in arts and beyond film. And of course for Eisenstein in particular but also for the other film-makers, including Vertov who was another great director of that period, montage is … If you ask that question, what is it? What is unique about film? What is it about the cinematic form that is specific to cinema, and the arts of Eisenstein – it’s montage. That basic unit of the film is the shot. Then montage is about fragmenting reality, deconstructing it, freezing it and then putting it back together in a new cinematic form. And it is montage that is that principle of reassembly, reassembling reality and creating something new from it .
LM: Which do you consider is the connection between montage and propaganda? Could we refer to montage as a manipulation tool?
SH: Yes. And the likes of Eisenstein would have no qualms about that because what he and others are trying to do is not to distort reality, not to deny it, not to negate it, not to manipulate it in a cynical way but to use existing reality to express and create the real reality, the higher reality, the new reality, the reality of the revolutionary society. Whereas cinema as it used to be and the art forms as they were, were about copying, reproducing, mimicking, and that was now seen as a bourgeois approach in the arts, a discredited bourgeois approach to art.
LM: Isn’t it true that Stalin liked the effects of cinema to such an extent that he nationalized film production in 1917?
SH: It was actually Lenin who first and he is much quoted – ‘of all the arts, cinema is the most important for us’. Stalin then repeated that later on and it has been repeated all the way down to the present. But yes, Lenin did recognize that cinema is potentially, hugely important to propaganda. Now it has to be said that Lenin himself was a man of a rather conservative taste in the arts. He didn’t have much time for the avant-garde. So when he said that cinema was the most important of the arts, he meant something rather different from what Eisenstein meant. Lenin was very suspicious of the avant-garde; he didn’t have much time for it. He was conservative, he liked his art to be recognizable, and easy, and popular. So when he said that cinema was the most important tool of the arts he meant purely that it can be used as an effective tool of propagating message, of propaganda.
LM: Was this also because cinema can appeal and be understood by anybody, even the illiterate people?
SH: Yes, that is right. And this was of course the downfall of Eisenstein and the avant-garde. The films they were making were experimental, exciting, difficult, challenging, bold and very, very sophisticated. And he, like a lot of the other avant-garde, swept up in this huge wave of optimism about the possibilities that working class men and women would be able to understand this art. Not only would they be able to understand it but they themselves would be able to produce it. So this movement was set up under the name of ‘ProletCult’ – proletarian culture – in which artist were meant to play a leading role but which eventually had the purpose of creating a whole culture in which working men in the factories could produce art, art of the highest order. So they saw no contradiction between the sophistication, boldness of the idea that they were exploring and the lack of education, the illiteracy and ignorance of very the people who were made central to that platform. And it wasn’t long before people realised that actually working men and women cannot produce art on that level, on that scale, nor could they even understand it, or do they want to understand it. They want art that is popular and easily accessible, easy to understand and familiar, and yes, conservative. And it was Stalin who recognized that, who really recognized that and then the avant-garde was swept aside by the 1930s that were the years of socialist realism, which was an attempt to create popular culture for a socialist society . Eisenstein of course, survived through, into that era, and his work did change quite a bit as a result. But he never really lost the burning desire to use film in an innovative and creative way.
LM: Eisenstein stated “All that is best in the Soviet film has its origins in intolerance.” Could you please elaborate on this comment?
SH: I don’t have the context, but I’m not surprised to hear that from Eisenstein. He and other avant-garde artists like him were uncompromising. They recognized that in order to create this new reality, and the forms with it you do need to completely reject what had gone before and be intolerant of any attempt to play safe, any attempt to sentimentally protect and preserve the old. So I mean in poetry you have Mayakovski, a great futurist poet who wrote a poem about throwing Pushkin and Dostoyevsky over the board of the ship of Modernity. So it’s tossing them overboard, no time, no place, no stomach for the old. So it’s intolerant I think in terms of attitudes to what these people were trying to replace. But, you know, intolerant of compromise. This new reality is a radical new reality and any attempt to soften at the edges and compromise, will compromise the reality itself. So there’s an absolute certainty that you’re right and an absolute certainty that there should be no compromise and that the old reality has to be wiped clean completely.
LM: Eisenstein is frequently referred to as the “father of the montage” in cinema, a technique which he wrote numerous essays about. Nevertheless, he was part of an outstanding generation of film-makers including Kuleshov, Vertov and Pudovkin. What made his work stand out? Could you compare and contrast it to the style of the other directors?
SH: Yes, I mean there is much that they shared but there are differences too, there were arguments between them; probably Vertov represented the major alternative to Eisenstein, although he too was part of the same movement and he shared a belief in the creation of a new reality.
LM: Vertov was interested in the idea of perfecting the man in a way…
SH: Yes, he saw the camera almost like a, well, literally as an appendage to the human body . So the he was about perfecting human vision and you know, his most famous, most cited ‘The Man with the Movie Camera’ and the title describes quite accurately what the film is about: it is a man with a movie camera attached to him. And he had this sort of utopian desire that man could see anew, could see the world in a different way and that the camera was the sort of way of perfecting the human vision, whereas Eisenstein was slightly different, he had a more instrumental approach to cinema. For him it really was about using existing reality, not seeing it differently, but taking it and using it as the building blocks of a method that would then convey and give access to a new reality, a higher-reality. So I suppose Vertov was more grounded in the everyday; there was much more of a kind of symbolic underpinning to what Eisenstein was doing, and that comes through in his theory of montage and the way he uses montage: it’s putting together two elements of existing reality that don’t belong together, forcing them together in such a way that they create something that transcends them both and transcends the reality from which they both emanate. So in a way it’s, although he probably wouldn’t agree with this description, he has a much more transcendent, symbolist approach to cinema than does Vertov; he’s trying to break down the boundaries between man and reality and human vision and camera rather than looking through something transcendent.
LM: Can you tell me a bit more about these different techniques of montage that Eisenstein developed?
SH: Well, yes, Eisenstein considered there were different categories of montage and actually he used the term in a way that for us probably is beyond its political meaning. He talked about montage in its most literal sense: the splicing together of existing elements, shot upon shot in order to convey a new reality. But then he also talked about two other forms of montage using the world in a way that we wouldn’t use it. He talked about ‘inner montage’ which, to cut the long story short, is what the film-makers now, essentially refer to as ‘mise-en-scene’ – within a different shot there are ways of putting things together in a new way and in such way as to debate something that wasn’t there when the elements were in their pre-existing positions. So that’s within a shot. You can rearrange the different elements within a shot in such a way that the whole that they create is something new. Also with inner montage he talked about using time in montage. So montage itself takes place through time: one shot, then another, then another, then another that takes time. So it’s using time to reorganize space. But within a shot you can also use time because you can superimpose a shot from one time with a shot from another and you’ve got these super-impositions and Battleship Potemkin contains at least one example of the superimposition. For Eisenstein that was montage, it was just montage in a different form; it was montage within a shot and using time rather than space. And then finally there was ‘vertical montage’. You see Eisenstein although he worked in a time before sound came into cinema, his films were all silent. He, you know, there were musical accompaniments to his films and he did foresee, he saw that film is a syncretic form that combines, can combine, image with sound and that there ought to be ways of using the technique, the principle of montage to juxtapose and combine a particular image with a particular sound vertically, you see, so there’s the image track and the music track, if you think of it like that, and at every point not only are there visual montage effects but there are vertical montage effects. He did get through the sound era but even before that he was recognizing that film was a syncretic form and that distinguishes him from some of the other avant-garde film-makers who didn’t want to recognize that sound because for them cinema stopped being cinema if it imported sound. Sound is not visual, sound is already a dilution of the essence o cinema but, Eisenstein didn’t see it that way.
LM: Was the Kuleshov effect before Eisenstein?
SH: I think probably it’s one of those questions where there’s no right answer to: who did what first? In a sense it’s not a question that one needs to answer. What is the case is that there is this group of film-makers who were talking about, arguing about the same things at the same time; experimenting in similar ways and yes, learning from one another but also criticizing one another and the question of who did what first in a sense becomes a bit…[…]In a sense it’s part of a movement; there were an awful lot of things, similar things happening at once and who did what first is…what is the case is that yes, the superimposition technique that has become known as the Kuleshov effect was being used by Eisenstein too.
LM: Why did Stalin suppress the Soviet montage cinema in the 1930s? Which were the main ideological contradictions between the ‘Formalism in Arts’ and the ‘Socialist Realism’?
SH: Well, I suppose he suppressed it for two reasons: one was that the pragmatic man in him saw that it was not working, it was not doing what it was meant to do, it was not providing a new culture for the new working class. It was rejected by the working class. Very few people were going to see Eisenstein’s films, so he saw it as a failure, he saw it as something that wasn’t providing the basis for a popular, socialist art, but he also rejected it because he saw it as dangerous and as a threat to his position and to his ideology. So it was utopian and as bound up with a kind of Trotskyite approach to the revolution; that was something he was fighting against. He was in a struggle for power and artists who claim that they are leading the way by creating this new reality and they have a place alongside the politicians is an artist too many to Stalin. Because it represents a challenge. So it’s for those two reasons that the avant-garde was stopped from its tracks as being unsuccessful, unrealistic and a threat and that was justified by Stalin as ideologically unsound, ideologically indulgent, self-indulgent. Socialist realism was completely different. It was conservative in its form, it wanted borrow the best achievements from the pre-revolutionary realist painting so it was based on the idea of copying. It was required to be popular so therefore easily accessible. It was required to subordinate itself to ideology rather to actually co-creating the ideology and it was supposed to…The principle of socialist realism is that it represents reality in its revolutionary development so it had a kind of romantic utopianism about it: you take reality, you copy it, but you touch it up in such a way that it represents a better tomorrow, creating the tomorrow in the today; it was a combination if you like, in crude terms, it was a combination of realism and romanticism, subordinated to an ideological project. So it completely rejected all the principles upon which the avant-garde was based .
LM: Kuleschov himself felt that the practice of montage had its precedents in literature. He stated that writers such as Tolstoy and Pushkin had been using a form of montage without even knowing it. Is montage a technique that can be applied or is applied on a subconscious, almost instinctual level by other disciplines?
SH: I think that’s right and I think it was not just Kuleshov who recognized that, Eisenstein did too. I you look, if you read, and there’s a bit of a paradox here, a contradiction, if you read Eisenstein’s essays on montage, when he’s trying to describe it and explain what it is, because it’s something new, he has to fall back on something already existing – and what does he fall back on? He falls back on poetry, Pushkin’s poetry. So the examples he uses are metaphors: so what is a metaphor? What is a literary metaphor? A literary metaphor is when you take two existing elements of reality that don’t belong together, you put them together and from that you create something new, a new meaning. Isn’t that a perfect description of what a literary metaphor does? And yet it was supposed to be the explanation for what is unique, and different, and novel and revolutionary about montage with cinema. So, yes, you can find examples of montage in literature, you can find it in rhetoric as well. I think you could probably find it in visual arts and architecture too, yes. I suppose if you take one architectural style and another and hybridize them and create something new, you can argue this is a form of montage. So the term becomes very, very loose and all-encompassing.
LM: Have their manifestoes mutated in any way with the ideological shift brought by capitalism from ‘the masses’ to ‘the individual’? The word “montage”, holds an industrial connotation as a reference to the French ‘chaine de montage’, which essentially means “assembly line”. Similar to the way a product is put together and assembled on the assembly line, so is film compiled from smaller pieces to convey a certain meaning. Has this metaphorical link between the process of industrial production and ﬁlm as the central thesis of these soviet ﬁlm-makers survived?
SH: Well, you have to remember that the Soviets were themselves interested in Ford and in production assembly lines . There was a cult of the machine; there was a cult of automated production. So you find that in Mayakovski’s poetry for example. He talks about 150 million people using poems onto a factory basis. Bolshevism was, in way, although it may seem paradoxical to say this, it was the last gasp of modernism. So modernism, was a movement that embraced art and technology as well so industrial production and industrialization of artistic production are the same thing, are all part of the same phenomenon. Modernity itself and the idea of progress, coming from the Enlightment that man can perfect himself through inexorable progress and can subordinate the world to him in an inevitable path to a perfect society; this unbending faith in progress. That produced capitalism, large-scale industrial capitalism from which we are now suffering the consequences, mentally and economically, but it also produced socialism and communism as another allied way of using the idea of progress to bring about the perfect society based on the faith of using the world, the material world around us one can build a perfect society. So one has to get used to the idea of seeing communism and industrial capitalism not as polar opposites but as, you know, part of the same broader movement, you know, which would give the name modernity; and which we are now, only now, in the 21st century moving beyond. So there’s no contradiction in seeing a link between what Eisenstein was doing and montage, and that assembly line; in principle he glorified the machine and of course Vertov, too, glorified the machine and the movie camera, the glorification of the industrial production that, reached its zenith in the Western capitalism.
LM: Which are elements of the Marxist-Leninist discourse that surface from Eisenstein’s and Vertov’s films?
SH: Well, the central place of work and the working class and also the rejection of the sense and the conviction, a rejection of the bourgeois culture and form.
LM: How does the legacy of the mentioned film-making pioneers manifest itself in the post-soviet culture with the disappearance of the Soviet Union from the world map in 1991?
SH: Well, I mean there’s a general answer to the question and a more specific one. The general answer is that montage is being incorporated into cinema world-wide. So you see examples of what in Eisenstein’s work could be considered a very, very dramatic and revolutionary use of cinema which for us now is part of the every-day language of cinema and that’s true of post-soviet cinematography as it is of early soviet cinema. There is one, more interesting, specific answer to the question which is that before we got to the post-soviet period there was in late soviet cinema a revolt against Eisenstein, an attempt to, not just critique, but to completely reject the principle of montage. And to suggest that Eisenstein got it wrong. And if you’re asking about the essence of cinema then montage is the wrong answer. It’s the wrong answer cinematically, it’s the wrong answer ideologically as well so… you have the attempt of Tarkovsy in cinema  where the idea is that you do not only reject the idea of cutting and splicing but you push towards a cinema that is completely free of editing and montage – editing is manipulation, editing is lying, it’s a whole deceit. What cinema must do is to create a new form, a new meaning, but through the long take. Through extending the shot to the point where it can do without manipulation. So if you watch one of Tarkovski’s films and what characterizes them is the use of the long take, of the shot that continues and continues and continues from one minute, two minutes, three minutes, four minutes, five minutes and only then breaks. Now Tarkovski never made a film without a single edit. There was a movement in post-soviet cinema that has sort of followed that up particularly in the works of Sakura. And he has made a film in which there is not a single edit. There is a 90 minute film without a single edit. One, long, 90 minute take.
So there was a group of post-soviet film-makers that rejected Eisenstein what he stood for, his connection to the revolution, his approach to cinema and to try to get to the question what is cinema, what can it do, in a completely different way. A different language of cinema – using cinema the way the cinema brings space and time together in a unique way. The cult of the moment, of trying to bring the viewer’s experience and viewer’s time and trying to align viewer’s time with the film, real-time so that you see and experience what you see on the screen in the same temporal plane as the temporal plane in which it’s shot. Which is why you get this sort of cult of the long tape. When you are experiencing second by second same reality as the reality that the film-maker experiences.
LM: This makes me wonder if I have chosen the right approach in rearranging the elevational montage as per a defined set of rules and principles. Maybe I can initiate a pattern that can be taken over by the city which can rearrange, reconfigure itself, without a regular external intervention.
SH: Well, Eisenstein’s answer would be yes, but Tarkovski’s answer would be no.