Just a quick one on this, the final day of our beloved month of August. I’m taking a class on Soviet Cinema this semester, and suffice it to say, I’m very excited about it. I’ve always fallen into the minority camp when it comes to the most famous Soviet director of all-time, Sergei Eisenstein: I love his films, sure, but I love his theoretical writings even more. Of course, what makes this position so peculiar is the fact that many seem to find his writings stylistically opaque if not intellectually incoherent. Personally, I’ve always found Eisenstein’s writings to be kind of awkwardly composed but philosophically potent as all-get-out. Indeed, any critic or scholar who has tried to come to grips with what a film is and what a film does is indebted to Eisenstein’s theoretical work; that his ideas have seamlessly carried over into other fields, like architectural theory, is a testament to the conceptual effectiveness of Eisenstein’s philosophy of montage.
But I’d like to see more attention devoted to the philosophical affinities between Eisenstein’s theory/practice and that of another director who articulated his own vision for what cinema was and what a film ought to be: Robert Bresson. Today’s Quotes of quotes of… will be dedicated to demonstrating just how similar these two thinkers/artists really were, at least when it came to expressing how they conceived of cinema. All of the Bresson quotes are taken from his book Notes sur le Cinématographe (English: Notes on the Cinematographer), while the Eisenstein quotes (you guessed it, in red) can be found in various essays from Film Form: Essays in Film Theory.
The film-frame can never be an inflexible letter of the alphabet, but must always remain a multiple-meaning ideogram. And it can be read only in juxtaposition, just as an ideogram acquires its specific significance, meaning, and even pronunciation (occasionally in diametric opposition to one another) only when combined with a separably indicated reading or tiny meaning–an indicator for the exact reading—placed alongside the basic hieroglyph.
(Eisenstein, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension”)
An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact with other colors. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation.
Cinematographer’s film where the images, like the words in the dictionary, have no power and value except through their position and relation.
And yet we cannot reduce aural and visual perceptions to a common denominator. They are values of different dimensions. But the visual overtone and the sound overtone are values of a singly measured substance. Because, if the frame is a visual perception, and the tone is an aural perception, visual as well as aural overtones are a totally physiological sensation. And, consequently, they are of one and the same kind, outside the sound or aural categories that serve as guides, conductors to its achievement.
For the musical overtone (a throb) it is not strictly fitting to say: ‘I hear.’
Nor for the visual overtone: ‘I see.’
For both, a new uniform formula must enter our vocabulary: ‘I feel.’
(Eisenstein, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension”)
If an image, looked at by itself, expresses something sharply, if it involves an interpretation, it will not be transformed on contact with other images. The other images have no power over it, and it will have no power over the other images. Neither action, nor reaction. It is definitive and unusable in the cinematographer’s system. (A system does not regulate everything. It is a bait for something.)
Now why should the cinema follow the forms of theater and painting rather than the methodology of language, which allows wholly new concepts of ideas to arise from the combination of two concrete objects? Language is much closer to film than painting is. For example, in painting the form arises from abstract elements of line and color, while in cinema the material concreteness of the image within the frame presents-as an element-the greatest difficulty in manipulation. So why not lean towards the system of language, which is forced to use the same mechanics in inventing words and word-complexes?
(Eisenstein, “A Dialectical Approach to Film Form”)
Because you do not have to imitate, like painters, sculptors, novelists, the appearance of persons and objects (machines do that for you), your creation or invention confines itself to the ties you knot between the various bits of reality caught. There is also the choice of the bits. Your flair decides.