Sergei Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith & Pudovkin: A Comparative essay

Any student of film studies encounters Eisenstein, Griffith and Pudovkin. This essay explores some of their similarities and differences

The differences between the techniques of Eisenstein and Griffith, both pioneering filmmakers, arise from the fact that they saw different potentials in the same medium and sought to exploit it for different purposes. While Eisenstein spoke of film sometimes as if it were “a powerful vehicle for rhetorical persuasion” and sometimes as if it were an autonomous art, Griffith’s innovations were simply results of trial and error, practical experiences rather than of theorizing.

Eisenstein saw the screen as a frame rather than as a window. It was a space in which the director decomposed reality into usable blocks or neutralised them, and arranged them to construct new meaning through juxtaposition1. His theories follow from his basic definition of raw material, which he found to be the different elements or attractions that constituted the shot and were capable of affecting the spectator’s mind. Each element functioned like a ‘circus attraction’ different from the other attractions but on an equal footage and depended on the rest for its significance2. The principle of montage determined the juxtaposition of these elements in order to create a specific meaning and a desired psychological effect. Without it the attractions were merely disordered stimuli. Unlike Griffith who used montage to involve his viewers into the action, Eisenstein saw film as a totality with the various elements working in it. While the theme or life principle3 determined the elements’ interaction with each other, it was itself determined by them; they were both mutually dependent and inextricable.

In his notion of dialectical montage, Eisenstein established the binaries of thesis and antithesis that were to be resolved in a synthesis by his spectator. As a Constructivist, he wanted to destroy all sense of inherent fullness of meaning and dynamically construct new significance. Through montage, the filmmaker could shape the mental processes of the spectator by bombarding them with ‘a continuous string of shocks’ coming from each of the various elements of the spectacle. Through this collision of attractions, the audience was forced to actively participate in the making of meaning by resolving the conflicting themes and attaining significance through synthesis. Merely juxtaposition was not enough, Eisenstein thus offered the experience of ‘completing the image rather than a completed image’ in “The Formative Tradition.”

Film, for Griffith, was picture stories. At a time when performance was dominated entirely by theatrical techniques, Griffith combined stage narrative with the Victorian novel, which greatly influenced him, to form a cinematic device. Film was nothing but another medium to tell stories and all its technical aspects were only meant to support the dominant plot. With Porter’s discovery of the shot as the basic unit of film, unlike the previous ‘scene’, Griffith further refined the rudiments of continuity editing that were already at his disposal. Although both, Eisenstein and Griffith were concerned with manipulating their audience, while Eisentein sought to enlighten his audience through colliding shots, Griffith merely sought to hypnotize them with all the glamour that later came to be associated with Hollywood. Unlike Eisenstein, Griffith was not interested in film as an art but with making successful and realistic films. In film, he had found a visual equivalent to the novel and perfected the visual inventory of the medium to enhance storytelling in a manner as vivid and engrossing as a novel. He employed shots of varying sizes, spatial and temporal lengths for dramatic effect and used flash back and point of view shots to heighten the cinematic climax. Through all his inventions and experimentation, he played on the audience’s basic perception of reality and their ability to draw on common established meanings through associations and experience. Unlike Eisenstein’ s conception of confusing the viewer through shocks of attraction, it was imperative for Griffith that the audience understood what he presented to them and related to it. Thus while Eisenstein’s film was incomplete without the spectator, Griffith depended on his audience to voluntarily suspend reason.

Pudovkin, on the other hand, differed from Eisenstein in his raw material for film. He saw the shot itself as the basic unit of film. The filmmaker had less power over his raw material and was at the mercy of the shot. The shot was already inherent with reality and that is what the filmmaker began with. His task was then to make the proper choice and organization of these bits of reality, which already had ‘a definite power’. Even though Pudovkin also believed in producing precise reactions in his audience, the filmmaker’s task lay, not in manipulating reality, but in mediating it to his audience. The sense of the world already existed in the reality captured by the shots, but it was proper editing that could operate upon this sense to produce the desired effects in the audience. It was thus even possible for the filmmaker to force the spectator to experience a film event as if it were a natural event. But unlike Eisenstein’s collision of shots, this was acheived by ‘linking’ them. The difference between the two filmmakers is clearly portrayed in these oft-quoted words of the French critic Leon Moussinac: “Pudovkin’s films resemble a song, Eisenstein’s a scream.”

Notes:

  1. Through the influence of the Kabuki theatre, he saw the breaking up of various aspects of theatre into elements for the director to arrange them according to his wishes so that it is the form of the ensemble that contains the meaning. All events are deformed and altered until they retain only their exterior. All aspects/elements become equal .
  2. Eisenstein’s colour theory is related to this. He talks of colours being significant only in a relational context. Individual colours don’t have any inherent meanings.
  3. In his dilemma to pronounce art and film form as a machine or as an organism, Eisenstein talks of autonomous art being enthused by a governing life principle that dictates the arrangement of montage pieces and thus the cinematic meaning itself. But this notion of organic form endangers the director’s total power to create meaning. To this, Eisenstein gives the filmmaker the task to first discover the theme.

Reference:

Andrew, J. Dudley. The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.