Montage and Decoupage are two very important terms which have been used throughout film history. Varying definitions, functions and methodologies of such terms have been widely theorised and practised upon within cinema. In this blog post I will attempt to analyse these terms in their historical relations and unpack central concerns they relate to on filmmaking as practise.
The two texts I will be using for this post are
Aumont, J. (1992). Aesthetics of film. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Timothy Bernard’s Essay – Decoupage
published in the Caboose series Kino-Agora in 2014
Montage is an term which largely describes “the combining of two film elements, resulting in the production of a specific effect that could not be produced by either of the two elements“(Aumont, 1992)
Aumont first redefines the term montage arguing that over the course of history the vocabulary relating to the term has been loose, primarily in the use of the word ‘effects’. Aumont preposes that instead we define montage via its ‘functions’ as the term functions is more abstract and does not posses the same connotations of concrete proof inherit in the term ‘effects’. Marcel Martin proposes montage bares its three creative functions, the creation of movement, rhythm and the ‘idea’. Aumont defines this more systematically as three functions, the first of which is a montages syntactic function, or the way in which the montage assures formal relations between the parts it assembles. The second function, the semantic function is the most important as it is the center of the production of denotative and connotative meaning within the montage. Finally the rhythmic function, in which “Film rhythm presents itself as a superimposition and combination of temporal an plastic, both of which are heterogeneous“(Aumont, 1992).
To give these functions a more tangible context, a common match on action cut would yield the following results; a syntactic effect of liaison due to the apparent continuity of the movement, a semantic effect as the action is part of a greater narrative which aims for temporal continuity and finally a possible rhythmic effect which is tied to or produced by the break within movement.
Aumont groups the theory surrounding montage under two different philosophical approaches to film with their leading figureheads. One approach is to understand film as an art of representation in which film aims to share as much ambiguity as the real world, this stance was taken by renown film theoretician Andre Bazin and his french new wave followers. The other is to approach film is as a signification for mass vocation, one which functions as part of an articulated discourse as theorised by filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and other soviet filmmakers.
Eisenstein believed in the film’s duty “not to reproduce the “real” without intervening but to reflect this reality by simultaneously making an idealogical judgement“(Aumont, 1992). Eisenstein’s theory is centred around film fragments and conflict they produce with one another. Eisenstein defines these fragments one unitary piece of film or a ‘film unit’, it is important to note that these units are not necessarily limited to the definition of a single shot.These fragments form an element of the films syntagmatic chain and are defined by their relations to their surrounding units. Each fragment is able to be devised or broken down into its material elements which are limited by the film parameters, these includes elements such as luminosity, contrast, sound quality, shot size, duration etc. Fragments also contain a certain relationship with a referent, each fragment is extracted from the ‘real’ also operates as a break within the ‘real’, as Aumont puts it “Thus, Eisensteins’ frame always has a more or less value of a clean cut between two heterogeneous worlds – those of the onscreen and offscreen space.” (Aumont, 1992).
Eisenstein theorises that the production of meaning within montage is built upon a model of conflict, a conflict which is that is created by the interaction of any two film units of the film discourse. These units like before, can then be deconstructed or divided and analysed by their different parameters, Eisenstien lists some examples of these conflicts, graphic conflict, conflict between planes, conflict between volumes, light conflict, conflict between an event and its temporal nature, spatial conflict, etc.
Another important note in Eisenstein’s theory of montage was his concepts regarding sound/image relationship. Eisenstein was one of the first to significantly develop the idea of the ‘audiovisual counterpoint’ a idea which Aumont describes as “an expression which attempts to describe sound cinema as a contrapuntal play generalised among all the elements or film parameters”(Aumont, 1992). Aumont notes this as a crucial concept because Eisenstein considered sound to be on an equal level of the production of meaning with the image.
Bazin’s theory of montage is based upon two ideological assumptions
1. “ In reality, or the real world, no event is ever endowed with an priori meaning. Thus, Basin designates the idea by expression “the immanent ambiguity of reality”
“The cinema’s ontological vocation is the reproduction of reality by respecting this essential characteristic as much as possible. The cinema therefore, must produce, or strive to produce, representations that are endowed with as much ambiguity as exists in reality itself.”
Bazin’s theory deemphasised the power of montage compared to Eisenstein, as Bazin saw montage as limiting the potential of cinema’s ability to communicate a continuous transparency of reality. Bazin’s montage was one that aimed to mask any discontinuity as much as possible as part of which Bazin set out defining certain limitations of the montage,
“when the essence of a scene demands the simultaneous presence of two or more factors in the action, montage is ruled out. It can reclaim its right to be used, however, whenever the import of the action no longer depends on the physical contiguity even though this may be implied”
One issue that Aumont highlights with this statement is that Bazin uses the term ‘the essence of a scene’ with the same “famous ambiguity, which is the imposed absence of signification to which he attaches such a high value“(Aumont, 1992)
Aumont simplifies this further to note that “it will be ruled out, for example(at least in principle), every time the event’s outcome is not foreseeable“.(Aumont, 1992)
another issue Aumont points out with these theories is that both theorists, abandon or fail to properly define their criterions for ‘reality’. Despite this these theories are not in opposition to one another as the systems and functions which they discuss share little similarities as Aumont states,
“What interests Bazin is almost exclusivley the faithful, “objective” reproduction of reality that carries all its meaning within itself, Eisenstein does not conceive of film except as an articulated and assertive discourse that can only maintain a figurative reference to reality.“(Aumont, 1992)
A term which Bernard initially describes as enigma one that is full of paradoxes and contradictions, its meaning has fluctuated over time changing with the author and the language. The term was initially split into two meanings ‘decoupage’ and ‘decoupage technique’ the initial relating to concerns of film form whilst the latter was roughly defined as the process of cutting up the script from the narrative, a detailed plan for shooting complete with camera indications, stage directions and editing directions. Luis Bunuel makes the important distinction of dividing decoupage from the editing, seeing editing as a mere manual labour, similar to say a grip or a camera assist. Geroges Sandoul also sees this division between decoupage and editing, defining decoupage as a centrifugal process, existing in the three unities of space, time and action. Gergoes states that decoupage cuts up the space of a scene by fragmenting a united space into pieces, editing on the other hand creates a linear narrative out of scenes which are remote from one another in space. George’s defines editing as a centripetal process which joins distinct spaces together, using the film the Lonsdale operator as an example, as the final scene demonstrates the differences as the film attempts to create a united spatial continuity via the editing rather than decoupage.
Bernard says that it is as if decoupage lacked an equivalent word in English to describe “the aesthetic and industrial operation for conceiving films both pictorially through camera work and temporally through image sequencing.” (Bernard, 2014) and so it seems much of the confusion in concepts stems as much from a language and translate barrier as it does from a any of idealogical differences of the term. Bernard argues that influential authors such as Bordwell and Thompson have misunderstood the term making the common mistake of mixing it somehow in with the editing process or visa vera.
Another distinction Bernard makes it that decoupage is a highly collaborative and collective process for it is the process in which the film is mapped out, planned divided up to establish spatial relations. authors such as Jean Miitry insisted that decoupage stresses the articulation of the camera in the cutting process. Editing acts materially on the abstract whilst decoupage acts ideally on the concrete. Bernard suggests that what has been termed as classical analytical editing is in fact analytical decoupage. Finally Bernard defines decoupage as
“sequencing derived from camera set up to constitute what Noel Burch describes, in a discussion of decoupage, as the fracture or formal treatment of a film: its style, in common paralance“(Bernard, 2014)
After reading these two texts it would seem that as Benard notes in history both the terms montage and decoupage have been used to regard similar concepts, sometimes so similar in fact that they have been confused for one another. I think this is due to the fact that they can, in some cases share very similar functions, for example to the functions of montage that I made an example of above with the match on action could also be said to be the functions of decoupage for the same sequence. They both can evoke these syntactic, semantic and rhythmic functions and they both share a place as the process of production of meaning within film. A key difference that I found is that decoupage seems to apply to a single unified space, whereas montage can apply to multiple spaces(parallel montage) or a single space. In the end the terms are largely context dependant on whose definition you refer to them with, although each author has attempted to define a particular the terms as a particular process, the terms themselves seem to be somewhat dependant on the individuals philosophical approach to filmmaking.