In order to proceed with basic film techniques I felt that a short exposition on the ‘Kuleshov effect’ was required. The ‘Kuleshov effect’ refers to the Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov who saw editing and film as an art form. He established a workshop to study the effect of editing on an individuals perception of the film as a whole. Kuleshov used the same expressionless face and gave different groups alternative images that followed the expressionless face. The mans expressionless face was remarked, by different groups, to have beamed with a smile at the sight of a baby and conversely to have filled with remorse and deep sorrow at the sight of a dead women. Even though the face was the same several different group saw different emotions due to the relational shots before and after the face. Kuleshov uncovered that ‘the meaning or a shot was determined not only by the material content of the shot, but also by its association with the preceding and succeeding shot’ (1.) This understanding of editing can clearly be seen in the Soviet montage technique.
Film, and editing, is exactly like language; in fact it is a language as it is a system of signs that produce meaning. For an image to produce a comprehensible meaning it must be understood in relation to or as opposed to something else: two shots connected produce a meaning that is greater than the sum parts. A face and a dead woman produce deep sorrow whereas on their own the meaning would be only slight. This ‘effect’ is the central principle in editing regardless of the type of film you are producing. [Even film that is said to be avant-garde will use editing principles of relating colours, images and cuts against each other to produce meaning. Most avant-garde films take this principle to its most extreme point possible]
(1.) M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007), p. 192.
The End of St. Petersburg (1927)
Vsevolod Pudovkin’s film The End of St. Petersburg was written for the tenth anniversary of the 1917 revolution. Pudovkin’s film adheres to the formalistic conventions of Soviet cinema, particularly the use of montage. Pudovkin’s film differs slightly by concentrating on several characters and their experiences through the years leading up to, and during, the Bolshevik revolution. In Classical Hollywood cinema the heroes tend to be individuals whose sheer force of will affects change, but in Soviet cinema, due to ideological difference, the masses are seen as the force that affects change.1 The proletariat replaces the traditional individual protagonist and the bourgeoisie replace the conventional antagonist.
The formal technique of montage is important in The End of St. Petersburg for creating politicized narrative. The film builds a narrative around the proletariat’s collective spirit, constructed through several different characters – most importantly the farmer, the factory worker and his wife. Vsevolod Pudovkin called his use of montage ‘relational editing’. Pudovkin explains, in his writing about film technique, that the form of film, and the style of editing, should be an instrument of expression.2 One instrument of expression that that Vsevolod used was what he called the technique of ‘parallelism’. In The End of St. Petersburg we are shown Russian soldiers who are running over the top of a muddy trench towards their death at the hand of a German machine gun. The shot cuts to a parallel of bourgeoisie men in suits rushing up stairs to get to a stock exchange. The bourgeoisie men, instead of encountering machine gun bullets, buy the stock from a company which produces shells for the Russian government. The edit creates a parallel between two different actions and spatial environments. The parallel montage technique therefore imbues the action of buying stock, and capitalism, with the violence and murder of the battlefield scene. Another parallel is made in the same scene; as the battlefield fills up with wounded and lifeless bodies, both Russian and German, the scene cuts to the stock exchange market rate rising along with with several bourgeoisie shaking violently – as if they were themselves manning the machine guns. The excited ecstatic movement becomes a stark somber parallel when set against the bloody stalemate of the battlefield scene, through the technique of parallelism we, the audience, are made aware of the brutality of the capitalist system which makes profit in murder and the destruction of a nation’s own people.
Where as Classic Hollywood film utilizes aesthetic similarities between shots to create a sense of reality the Soviet montage method exploits aesthetic and thematic differences to produce politically charged meaning. The images in The End of St. Petersburg are left somewhat open to the viewers’ interpretation however overall we are guided psychologically, by the technique of parallelism, into accepting the political ideology of the film.3 The method of psychological guidance means Pudovkin’s relational editing system technique is an important instrument in creating a politicized narrative.