by Felicia Feaster
Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 20-25
Aiming to create a political response, Soviet filmmakers Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Pudovkin and others used montage — the cutting and editing of film stock — to incite revolution. The clashing or complimenting images prompted a sensory reaction, serving the political aims of filmmakers and suggesting the politics of the day. Capitalism, in its opportunistic use of the subversive (i.e., the media's appropriation of 60s radicalism for an 80s and 90s sell) has taken a shine to montage for its own purposes. Its goal is largely sales: the literal marketing of a product the marketing of a stance which serves to sell a product or the more common marketing of a political agenda through emotional and ideological persuasion.
Whether used for a directly commercial intent or indirectly forming ideology which encourages a consumptive mentality, montage has become the means for communication in our age. Cropping up on MTV, on network television news and in contemporary film appears the new montage of emotion for politics and profit. We have learned that the Soviets' methods hold true and exact the kind of response which serves the culture industry as easily as they played handmaiden to Bolshevik filmmakers.
MTV is perhaps the most compulsive user of a chaotic editing style, from its music videos to the political sell of its public service announcements (race/ environment/ AIDS awareness spots). Billy Joel's historical Top-40 montage "We Didn't Start the Fire" provides an example of the music video's standard use of montage, as well as Joel's in particular. "We Didn't Start the Fire," like the nightly news, is a musical and visual summation of history — one that the MTV audience can grasp. For viewers and for Joel, the 1960s are summed up by a teenage girl in tie-dye burning a bra in her mother's kitchen. This sense of superficial rebellion appeals to an audience engaged in the same aesthetic rebellions. But Joel also makes use of several closed referents in his video, such as the image of a Viet Cong about to be shot point-blank. Yet the energy expended in such an emotive effort is minimal. The viewer no doubt recognizes the Viet Cong photo as exemplary of the 60s, but the image is fleeting and only one of many such images, and therefore it resists contextual analysis.
The very ambiguity of the song's title, "We Didn't Start the Fire," rejects a closer examination of the image. Images of the 60s are a hotbed, readily creating responses. When assembled in rapid fire montage, those images have a powerful impact- the young girl with arm raised over the body of a dead student at Kent State; a flower placed in a National Guardsman's weapon; any stock image of Kennedy/King.
Critic John Berger describes how reproduced images affect us:
This same analysis of high art's loss of power when given low art's range applies to how culture drains political images once full meaning by overproducing them. By reducing the 1960s-or any decade-to stock images, the singularity of an event becomes lost. The complexity of each struggle and the personalities of those who defined it become erased. The capitalist ideal of a single, or several, heroic individuals is created. Change (and a vague change at that) becomes simplistically attributed to recognizable symbols, and most of history is buried. MTV and media have claimed history as their own. They interpret the past (10 days ago or 30 years ago) in purely visual terms. Berger continues:
In constantly, obsessively using empty images of our past, television splits us more from the relevance of history, and consequently, from our present. In the Red Hot Chili Peppers' remake of Stevie Wonder's 1973 "Higher Ground," members of the band stand superimposed over 60s psychedelic backgrounds; at times they he stretched out, using their bodies to make spinning geometric designs. With the song's lyrics, images appear in the background, literalizing the words: "soldiers" (group of marching soldiers) "keep on waning" (explosion)f'The powers keep on lying" (canon firing and a cartoon explosion)/"While the people" (crowd) "keep on dying" (bombed out building on fire). These black and white newsreel and fictional images are contrasted to shots of the band, in vivid color, and they politicize the song. We recognize the piece's critical tone, but the imagery is empty. Rather than updating a 1970's commentary with a 1990's remake which has relevance to our time, the video only suggests the band's critical stance and creates a mood.
The psychedelia recalls another time, but the video gives no indication for what purpose it is used. The past appears unreal, since the images seem vaguely comical or entirely vague: black and white, static, unrelated to the present. The very construction of some of the images, such as cartoon explosions coupled with a real canon firing, further removes these images from reality and any coherent ideological significance.
The imagery chosen, and the assembly thereof further classify this specific use of montage. Utilizing the innovative techniques of the Russian formalists but making montage its own, MTV's use of the technique actually runs counter to the Soviets' intentions. There was a radicalism implicit in montage: of disorder, confusion and colliding images. Here, montage creates a kind of inertia. At the disposal of an industry that channels adolescent angst into a cathartic product, montage works as carefully assembled confusion. Montage approximates the inherent confusion and numbing effect of certain events-the rapid heartbeat and jostling of a crowd, demonstrations where police beat protesters, a Chinese man blocking a tank's path. It juxtaposes images of many such events to produce an effect not acted upon, but felt. An image of injustice, of power out of control, is horrible. But when seen along with other injustices, it becomes something people cannot act on. The media's appropriation of political images through montage could have the effect of making us a nation of chronic passive bystanders, watchers of world events but not participants.
The Scorpions narrate their video "Wind of Change" (from the album "Crazy World") with such inert, politicized images. The video is bracketed by footage from 1961 and 1990 at "Potsdam Platz, Berlin," the subtitles state, at the Berlin Wall as it is erected and then dismantled. These images, standing alone, might correlate with the title "Winds of Change." However, housed within these historic bookends stands a succession of imagery so divergent and at odds with the lyrics about "change" that it renders the montage meaningless. This string of images is seen interspersed with footage of the band playing concerts in different locales: Soviet soldiers/protesting South Africans/various shots of helicopters/a man climbing upon a tank in Tiannamen Square/Palestinians throwing rocks/explosions, used to enunciate drum beats/the Exxon Valdez/ Chinese soldiers/ coffins draped in U.S. flags.
The imagery is often at odds with the lyrics. For example, the line, "Did you ever think we could be so close, like brothers?" is, ironically, illustrated with an image of Chinese soldiers en masse, in Tiannamen Square. The piece gives no indication or suggestion that such a contradictory juxtaposition of images and words has a purpose. It appears the video makers meant to "politicize" an otherwise bland song. The imagery is so divergent and so melodramatic when cut against concertgoers holding aloft cigarette lighters and sparklers, it's hard to incorporate song and image. Yet, in their choice of news footage and their song's title, the band is placing itself and its audience within a historical context to heighten the song's mood and capitalize on powerful imagery.
The breadth of the imagery and the many news clips invoked accomplish what Berger has suggested. In their overuse, they drain the events depicted of meaning and significance. Images such as these, whether of police resistance or our military's tanks in the Persian Gulf also expand upon Richard Dyer's definition of entertainment as Utopian. These images deliver the possibility of momentary escape, as Dyer suggests, but they also create a kind of anti-Utopia: a doom-ridden, sorrowful escape, one that offers release while reminding its audience of the inevitability of pain or injustice. We begin to glory in our ideological slavery to this imagery because it's morbidly fascinating. It echoes the adrenaline rush of fear and our communal role in a fragile, dangerous society.
Like the Gulf war itself, anti-Utopian imagery carries a double blow. It declares how far we've advanced technologically, and how little the world has changed; it's like nostalgia for primitivism. While the song "Wind of Change" speaks of change, its visual shock comes from dated news images of disruption, upheaval, repression and negation — not the optimistic progression the Berlin Wall bracketing suggests.
MTV is not the first medium to appropriate montage. The technique originated as an editing device. The Russians built upon montage to create a form that would allow editing the same preeminence as theme. From CITIZEN KANE to PSYCHO to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, U.S. cinema has reverted to D.W. Griffith's editing device for visceral effect and has used montage to suspend the viewer in acceptance and belief. It is a device of persuasion brought on by the simplest motivation: to have the audience accept the story. In PSYCHO the oft-quoted shower scene demonstrates Hollywood's interest in the technique (Florida's Universal Studios has an attraction demonstrating how the scene was edited to involve the audience in the "magic" and celebrate industrial expertise).
The scene, with its rapid cuts, impossible angles and assaulting rhythm, does many things. It has us identify with the victim while sharing the victimizer's point of view, provides a visual assault which simulates an actual assault, and establishes Hitchcock as a master of form. In addition, PSYCHO and the "March of Time" sequence in CITIZEN KANE use montage to highlight a single occurrence from different angles, perspectives and viewpoints for persuasion. Montage in PSYCHO elaborates a murder, in CITIZEN KANE it elaborates a life.
In MTV the colliding images are most often unique and do not expand upon a single perspective. Furthermore, MTV takes rhythmic cutting to a new extreme, often syncing editing and sound as in the Chili Peppers' video, where lyrics orchestrate image. And beyond Hollywood's urging of the audience to "believe," MTV asks the audience to go a step further, to act upon the inspirational succession of images to buy.
Eisenstein and his formalist conspirators created montage to incite revolution, by expanding upon Hegel's revolutionary formula that antithesis and thesis result in synthesis. Montage today has shifted 180 degrees away from the formalist vision and has subverted revolution. There's no longer the stylized dialectical clashing of images that the Russians espoused, which were designed to activate their audiences. Today, montage most often subscribes to Pudovkin's idea of "linkage," in its emphasis on continuity and on orchestrating audience emotions in a linear fashion. However, whereas the Russians' attention was directed at creating a precise, conscious and premeditated effect, today linear montage has evolved without premeditation. This editing technique has been garnered from films and commercials and adapted to MTV, but its politics are not calculated.
MTV's use of montage is only a highly individual, stylized representation of what our society has come to mean. When, more rarely, the more radical and stylized Eisensteinian model of "collision" montage is followed in MTV, it hollowly echoes the dialectic. But rather than encourage response, it insures the status quo and props up the righteousness of our system for all to see. In this generation, seemingly opposed images — a U.S. soldier in the Gulf, a child — suggest a similarity in technique to the Russians. However, because MTV is entertainment and consumer-based, without the Soviets' goals of political inspiration, its use of montage is more typically "open." In the quickly edited, multiple imaged, soundtrack narrated MTV montage, images create a never-ending stream of discourse which mimics the unrelenting stream of desire and product in capitalism.
A narrative without end is created, one which resists formation of opinion or ideas. Images of conflict do not necessarily conflict. When heaped one upon the other, they remain empty, inert symbols which flash by too quickly and number too many to analyze or capture. The only seeming way to stop the discourse is to become in control of the images: buy the record. Purchase means empowerment and recognition of the imagery.
In one sense, however, MTV montage has an affinity with the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s in its emphasis on rhythm to orchestrate image. The montage's quick cutting mimics and complements the song's force. The visual beat becomes as compelling as the auditory one. As Susanne Langer has suggested, music is related to feeling in its form, much as the powerful effect of MTV comes from its coupling of visual and auditory senses. In a recent New York Times article describing composer and director collaborations such as Prokofiev's scoring of Eisenstein's ALEXANDER NEVSKY, Edward Rothstein states,
Contemporary video artists have recognized the impact of syncing image to sound and more significantly, joining politicized images to sound. Unlike the television advertisements shown beside the videos, contemporary montage rarely relies upon spoken or printed commentary, thus greatly strengthening its visceral effect and freeing the imagery to function on its own. And while both MTV and television ads often make use of quickly paced montage, the commercial functions as a specific call to action. The music video could be considered a general call to several actions: buying the record, the clothing, the politics, the station.
While the overt sell of a band's music in the music video seems obvious, the network more subtly offers "public service" spots, which actually serve the channel's private interests. MTV announced a "Save Walden Woods" contest in which viewers competed for merchandise under the guise of political action. A portion of payment made for the 900 number called (or, if the entry is mailed in, no contribution is made) is given to a fund, which has unexplained membership and agenda and purports to save the woods in which Thoreau walked. Viewer motivation to contribute comes from merchandise carefully chosen to relate to the issue. This includes a Don Henley-authored book autographed by the likes of Sting and Janet Jackson, the chance to meet Don Henley, outdoor clothing and a mountain bike that befit environmental awareness (because looking aware is as important as being aware). After the announcer reels off the list of merchandise, we become aware of the incidental nature of saving Walden forest.
Other non-MTV funded advertisements betray the advertisers' recognition of its viewers' interests. An Education-First sponsored call to stay in school plays the song "Money" on MTV as images of expensive watches, cars, homes, stereos and jewelry are shown. The announcement at the end of the appeal is "Stay in School, Don't Learn the Hard Way." It tells the viewer that staying in school is crucial if young people want all the things education can buy: "Money don't get everything, it's true, but what it don't get, I can't use." This grotesque reduction of education to the perceived audience's interests, its pandering to the teen buying lust inspired by the channel, demonstrates the importance of advertisers' knowing to whom they speak. It is to a network or channel's advantage to define its viewership and create a specific demographic group so that the music and associated products sell better, thus guaranteeing the network higher advertising rates. MTV obviously relies upon these public service promos, which look like committed activism on the station's part. In actuality they are just more commercials playing to the aspirations and concerns of its audience.
A telling example is a "controversial" (the buzzword that boosts ratings) spot in which Madonna implores MTV viewers to vote. Rather than offer a clear and direct political message, the spot brings about further controversy through Madonna's minimalist costume and her draping herself in the U.S. flag. The issue of voting gets relegated to the background, if even noticed at all. Using Madonna to "sell" voting is ironic because we can't look beyond the image-the "controversy." The medium is the message and the medium is Madonna.
The audience is told to recognize itself in these politicized messages and, in addition, to formulate oneself through these messages as well as through the music, clothes and products that go along with it. MTV has recognized the value of selling to the audience it has created. It does so through the proper merchandising, since its audience is as apt to buy the politically correct record album as it is the politically correct social stance. MTV illustrates that appropriating subversive devices does not necessarily result in subversion. The choice which MTV most often offers — dress, attitude, slang and behavior which reject the adult — ironically, looks most like an introduction to "adult" ideology. It's consumption used to make a point. Ripped jeans function the same way a Mercedes does in the attitude marketplace. Just because teenagers feel more savvy because their attitude is upfront and stated in boldface on a T-shirt or in a song's lyrics doesn't mean that the concealed aims of having a particular car or dinnerware are any less "political" forms of expression.
Because MTV is not as limited as film, and has gone beyond the theatre or home, into beauty parlors, record stores, clothing stores and can be bought in itself, it has an expanded influence. The most explicit example of this more influential role of montage occurs when department stores use videos in their clothing departments. The videos become a kind of foreplay to the clothes; the seductive pulse and pose of the station and its message of empowerment through purchase is intensified in a realm where purchase is all important. MTV expands its consumptive breadth with consumer demand. Like anything, media must adapt and evolve to keep abreast of consumer trends while also creating consumer tastes.
This is why montage at the disposal of MTV is such a powerful tool- its a narcotic for a youth culture channeling all aversion and resentment into processed images which require no analyzing. These images are seen in a place where the viewer is so often alone, unengaged in a dialogue about the imagery. They are seen in his or her home. John Berger describes publicity or advertising in a way that sums up MTV's appeal to a youth culture trying to reach out and make sense of an unclear society:
Or, as Dyer states,
In our fragmented society, where concrete examples of divergent views are rare, potentially problematic opinions become packaged and gussied up for better, happier consumption. Commonly, Americans are encouraged to make a choice, generally between polar opposites with no room for compromise. With the Live Aid concert, critics of poverty sang about the world rallying together to fight the problem, as if awareness itself were enough. More subtle issues affecting poverty — bureaucracy, civil war, and genocide — could not be addressed. The world rallied to "fight" poverty by purchasing a record or attending a benefit conceit More recently, proponents of, not necessarily the Gulf war, but more amorphously, building U.S. soldiers' self-esteem, sing and produce a video to signify their perspective. The troops see the video as evidence of support.
A growing number of bands have politics as a selling point, such as Sinead O'Conner, Midnight Oil, and Jesus Jones. Once so-called "alternative" bands, now mainstream pop, they have recognized the emotional appeal of a politicized rock. As Lisa Lewis states in Gender Politics and MW, a dichotomy has historically existed between "serious" rock music and fluffy pop.
But the music video's inclusion of political imagery functions to deny categorizing the band as superficial or profit-bound. When a band seems to be making a political statement, commerce seems to take a backseat. In fact, the two work hand-in-hand. Additionally, to include a political theme can immediately qualify a band as "alternative," a popular concept for youth obsessed with the hip and different. In this way, ideology is sold in the marketplace and revolution reduced to the right look. We are a nation of Pavlovian dogs, with the proper visual cues triggering a programmed response.
As always, MTV recognizes the power of music to create a sensual response. Its "socially aware" Save the Rainforest/ Anticensorship! Freedom of Expression! Voting as Personal Empowerment messages help to enhance this response. You simultaneously buy the channel, the record, and the politics. The video! artists/ music/ products reinforce each other and their own tenets of youth revolution and style. For this younger generation, however, revolution means a kind of politicized posing. The consumer's ability to choose among hair gels, sneakers and CDs in the marketplace defines democracy. To be a revolutionary in the 1990s largely requires the successful mastery of a look and attitude to match the sound.
We live in a nation of processed politics as evidenced by the range of popular political choice available — Democrat or Republican. The Gulf War protesters were criticized because they so often looked like caricatures of 60s revolution: they've got the clothes, now they want the subversion, however mild, to go with the look. Perhaps the only chance of effective revolution in today's United States is to forget the possibility of having your demonstration broadcast, since that subjects the rebellious act to the medium's editorial power. Instead go to the source of information, as did the ACT-UP members who on one occasion interrupted The CBS Evening News during Dan Rather's introduction.
Other media have appropriated MTV-styled video montage, not necessarily for political aims, but often as a storytelling shortcut. Given the standard feature film's length and the contemporary demand for visual explanation, montage to condense storytelling helps filmmakers who want to make a long story short. In SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, a musically scored sequence shows Julia Roberts "recovering" from her abusive husband's emotional grip by trying on costumes and personalities as her drama teacher-boyfriend watches. Recalling an almost identical sequence in PRETTY WOMAN, montage in this case not only condenses storytelling and conveys an idea of recovery in a limited time, but the segment must also be seen as highlighting Julia Roberts' star quality and physical attributes in a way the music video highlights the rock star's.
A performer is being sold based on emotional/physical appeal, the capitalist marketing of personality. This is a typical video age shortcut. Rather than rely on detailed character exposition or an economically constructed plot, montage is used for its aesthetic appeal and simplified structure. Film, like MTV, has recognized the attraction of these terse, seductive image-bytes to persuade. In the incestuous nature of media, MTV may in turn borrow the film's montage as a video-clip to advertise the movie.
In an otherwise politically fortuitous bit of filmmaking, Ridley Scott's recent THELMA AND LOUISE falsely concludes with a happy picture postcard look back at the last two hours we have watched, betraying a theme which rang true in its pessimism. Here, montage functions in a Hollywood-sanctioned way to leave an audience satisfied. What's more, the film's message about the inescapabiity of female victimization becomes negated by images that, ironically, hint at the audience's temporary appeasement through "pictures." While in its previous Hollywood incarnations, montage aided storytelling and exposition, in this instance montage is less integrated into the narrative. As with the technique's appearance in SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, here montage is an insular device with functions wholly its own. The use of montage that ends THELMA AND LOUISE, running counter to the bulk of the film, belies the schizophrenia of contemporary Hollywood, which chronically qualifies its message for the perceived audience's good. And, as is typical in music video, THELMA AND LOUISE could be said to advocate a moderately subversive view, but the technique of montage, in its apolitical, visceral form, waters down the subversion.
Montage is a tool to milk the audience's sensibilities and emotions. We respond to a combination of music and pictures, not as a coherent narrative, but as emotive cues. A picture of a child can create a varied response, but a picture of a child intercut with a flag, a U.S. service man/woman in the Gulf, and Saddam Hussein elicits a particular response — one not coherently formulated but definitely felt.
The television news has long recognized the power of image to set the agenda but in its increased media savvy, it has appropriated the sensory impact of kinetic montage, most recently of the Persian Gulf War. Artfully manipulative was the Today Show's coupling of eerie music (the psychological music provided auditory communication of tension/ threat! fear) and a visual foreground of Saddam/ troops/ family to create an ideological Armageddon in the viewer's mind. We "see what could happen" if we aren't vigilant, and our enthusiasm for war becomes bolstered through visual celebrations of military prowess and technology. A shot of Patriots intercepting Scuds, the video-game spectacle of our weaponry, and images of U.S. armed forces linked man and machine in a fascistic celebration of our national might.
These images suggest the Utopian possibilities of technology, and the capability of scientific progress to liberate and glorify us. The music is ominous, but the visuals show us one man (Saddam) facing off against a bevy of combat troops. The images suggest we represent the majority in numbers and in righteousness. The foreboding melody signals his eventual destruction. As Dyer suggests in his description of how audience reality becomes filmic Utopia — danger, fear, difficulty, and most of all, ambiguity, are negated in images of effusive might and righteousness. The visual display of the missiles approximates the patriotic thrill of fireworks, which was a comparison often evoked by newscasters.
Montage in the newsroom serves an additional purpose when the week's news is edited together. A mini-history is created, a history set and assembled by the medium which delivers it. As an advertisement for CNN, the montage is "history" promoting a cable network. All the war's ramifications — personal tragedy, our colonialist sensibilities, or the destruction of other nations' citizenship — are reduced to the drama, excitement and patriotic resolve created by the montage. The week's wrap-up sums up the national agenda, one we are to embrace as our own.
Like the welcome home parade in New York, certain devices are used to gloss over ugly incongruities and to synthesize popular opinion through images and spectacle rather than debate. The parade was a natural "conclusion" and tying up of the loose ends in a war that, as the images seemed to demonstrate, had been clear-cut and clean. After all, we saw the troops move in, we saw marvelous pyrotechnic demonstrations, and we saw the men and women come home. The U.S. military controlled the images that might have created controversy or dissent and thus diminished opposition to the dramatic "flow" of the war. With no visual evidence to the contrary, U.S. citizens are willing to believe the war was as surgical as it looked. The great difference between the Persian Gulf War and the Vietnam War was the abundance of static, photojournalism portraits of the blood and guts of warfare in Vietnam. During the Gulf crisis, the absence of these images led news programs to use more shrewd "emotional editing" techniques. On a purely visual level, if Vietnam was the essence of what war is, then the Gulf War images were what we would like it to be. Through montage, the media picks and chooses the images that matter (largely graphic, recognizable, Western-biased images that favor shock over sense) and assembles them to create a sensory response. Propaganda is a function of any government, but it should be recognized at a cultural, artistic level. Montage as propaganda tool appeals to the senses in a way we do not necessarily recognize but react to, nevertheless. Perhaps its power is all the greater because of this.
1. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972), p. 32.
2. Richard Dyer, "Entertainment and Utopia," Movies and Methods, Volume 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).
3. The current wave of dread-derived "entertainment," I believe, supports this love of fear, which has its roots in the horror film but is presently made more explicit and personal in true crime television, the epidemic interest in serial killers and the obsessive viewership of our latest war.
4. Edward Rothstein, "Need More Humor Or Horror? Add Music Very Carefully," New York Times, Sunday, Nov. 3, 1991, p.13.
5. Lisa A. Lewis, Gender Politics and MTV (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), p. 29.