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Sergei Eisenstein

In the early 1920’s the historic Russian filmmaker and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein was working as a theater director in search of realism in his plays. He liked to blur the line between the audience and the actors, choosing to stage a fight in the middle of the audience for example, or performing a play in an abandoned gas factory to give the subject matter a tangibility to the audience. When he began exploring film, he realized that this new medium had even more variables that he could play with in order to create meaning and connection. Not only could the camera move around to different locations and focus the attention of the audience onto certain elements with framing and composition, the strip of film could be cut or edited, such that certain shots would switch to others. Out of experimentation with shot selection and editing (Eisenstein called it “montage”), a “film language” emerged.

The film language consisted mainly of composition (mis-en-scene) and montage. Composition has to do with what the camera frames in the scene, and montage with how it is edited. Montage gives film a unique power to create meaning by juxtaposing two elements together in order to create a third thing in the mind of the audience. Famously, this effect was demonstrated by a fellow Russian filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov. As an experiment, Kuleshov created a short film consisting of a man looking somewhat longingly at something just off camera, and then cutting to a bowl of soup. Audiences agreed that he looked hungry. However, when that same shot was juxtaposed with a girl in a coffin, audiences concluded that this was a depiction of grief. When it was juxtaposed with a shot of a scantily clad woman, people said it was lust. Each individual shot was, in and of itself, relatively meaningless without context, but when juxtaposed with another shot, a new thing was created in the mind of the audience (the sense of love, hunger or lust for example). This was a way to get inside the head of the audience. The discovery opened up whole new worlds for filmmakers, as they realized that they could create meaning, move a story forward, or create the effect of emotion through editing. They began to make films that took advantage of the power of montage.