Before this discussion gathers any momentum it must first of all be clarified just who we are dealing with. Unless you are a scrupulous reader or have heard of the man yourself, you may be forgiven for accepting the notion of the mathematical genius Albert Einstein cooling his overstimulated brain with a spot of light film criticism. Yet for the purpose of this piece I will not attempt to pedantically rebuke this misinterpretation, but encourage the potential parallel. Just as Einstein posited his theory of e=mc2, Russian film-maker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein proposed and further demonstrated his theory of ‘montage’ which embraced all arts and all senses, including that of sound.
Eisenstein’s theory of montage can perhaps be understood to be the result of his search for the essence of film. Just as the Avant Garde art movements of the early 20th century explored how line and colour work in a direct way upon the human sense, unhampered by the laws of representation implied in realism and naturalism, montage worked with the then new techniques in cutting and editing reels of film to reconfigure the audience’s response to what they see. With the ability to break up the unity of movement come new ways of creating meaning, as well as new meanings to be made. One of the implications of this theory involves a turn away from fixating on scenes and characters towards a focus on movement in itself. It is upon this point that Eisenstein bases his theory of Audiovisual montage.
Having worked for most of his early career in theatre, Eisenstein already had experience in the integration of sound and image, a combination he would later investigate with remarkable complexity in his book The Film Sense. In it, he draws upon a wide range of art forms to determine a common factor with which a unified artistic product can be made. He references a literary sketch made by Da vinci of a painting he had envisaged: a violent storm with trees ravaged, riverbanks flooded, and humanity pitifully overcome. What Eisenstein picks out, and what determines the approach of montage, is the sense of movement exhibited by Da Vinci the artist. It is not the objects themselves which form the power of the scene but the pattern of the eye itself as it scans them.
Music can perhaps be held up as the epitome of this idea of movement (Eisenstein himself used musical terminology to describe visual effects), with it’s rhythms and crescendos providing the most lucid example of that which is internal to all art. Yet there are no hierarchies in this complex relationship, but an interdependence in which elements from one blur into another. In the filming of Alexander Nevsky, the directing and Prokofiev’s soundtrack literally took turns in laying the groundwork for a scene. The film also contains a battle sequence which Eisenstein would later theorize as his most impressive example of Audiovisual montage. This is an incredible piece of writing in its sheer audacity in outlining the correspondences between image and sound. While a faithful transcription of it would itself take an eternity, It can at least be stated which aspects common to each element are shown to produce analogues. The geometry of outline, foregrounding, and the presence of empty space are all key features in determining the movement of the image, and each in their turn are reinforced with a corresponding development in the soundtrack. In one shot, banks of spears are lined up in successive units, decreasing in size as they are pushed further to the background. The accompanying score here has a melody which begins to ascend in relative degrees. The diagram to the right shows the mathematical precision within which the montage plays out, as each vertical bar embraces both note and geometric shift.
The inverse correspondence between the two takes on its own meaning. The vastness of the army that Eisenstein is trying to convey is not represented merely by the image (which actually diminishes), but by the audiovisual effect of the rising music as it counts off each section of the army. We can here see Eisenstein’s theory not as a radical break from tradition, disrupting a hallowed unity of representation, but as a source of more comprehensive unity, replicating the temporal effect of the senses as they respond to the spatial facts of a shot.
While we are used to the Hollywood style action soundtracks using frantic strings to instill a sense of urgency in the viewer, the link between sound and image can be taken much further than a narratively relevant somatic response. While such films undoubtedly contain their own successful logic in the interrelationship between the two, sometimes new responses need to be created and new ideas evoked. Cinema is still a comparatively new art form, and Eisenstein’s theories of the potentialities of the sound-image combination should open up an avenue of enquiry for film-makers to explore new modes of representation that firstly draw out its elements to then fit them together into a more complete whole.