Montage is one of the main (if not the one) traits of film form. It a tool that has puzzled filmmakers from Edwin S. Porter to Joshua Oppenheimer, and it is because montages enable them to structure time and space in forms that, while different from reality, express a deeper version of it.
Thus, it becomes a way of creating dramatic structure and emotionally engaging the viewers of the film. The power of montage is limited only by the imagination of the team inside of the editing room.
Montage has been the object study of many filmmakers, but their highest peak of interest in it was during the 1920s when with Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov and Vsévolod Pudovkin (among others), the theory around montage was more deeply analyzed and practiced.
The Soviet filmmakers alleged that montage was the main tool of filmmaking, and that it was through the juxtaposition of frames creating a “new meaning” that was greater than the individual frames. The view of the Soviets was criticized for being reductionist and neglecting others aspects of filmmaking, such as acting.
One of the main theories around montages has been known since then as the Kuleshov effect, which consists of giving meaning to an image that lacks it through a juxtaposition. The experiments of Kuleshov consisted of using different scenes juxtaposed with a man with a neutral expression. The effect was that the viewer induced an emotional charge from the expression, not according to the expression itself but according to the image that was juxtaposed.
After the rise and fall of the Soviet cinema, Eisenstein wrote another book on montage, this time with the experience he had from making his films and the technological advances of cinema, such as color and sound. In this book, Eisenstein developed a more complex view on montage in which juxtaposition is not reduced only to a fragment of time, but seen inside each frame and in a double channel that was enabled by sound technology.
In this book called “The Film Sense,” Eisenstein uses comparisons with poetry, music and painting to explain how meaning is created through the way in which a film is structured, i.e. through a complex chain of juxtapositions. He speaks about the way in which an ambiguous color such as yellow can acquire positive and negative implications depending on the way in which it is related to other elements.
The point of Eisenstein is clear, that it is trough juxtaposition that film form relates its various elements, and that is precisely what the example of this list are going to display. Relationships with which we can relate and thus experience emotionally. Some of these scenes are powerful because of one single cut, and others because of the rhythm they achieve through several shots. Without any further detail, here is a list on some of the best montages in film history.
15. Caravan – Whiplash
“Whiplash” is constant confrontation between two characters and the last sequence of the film is the final confrontation between them, that in which one has to win. The scene is extremely dynamic and it shows how Fletcher slowly gets on the side of Andrew.
This is the first half of the film; the rest is complicity between them and the trance of Andrew. The rhythm of the montage takes us into the perspective of Andrew as the final extreme close-ups show us the looks of the opposing forces who are finally be redeemed to the look of the other.
14. Sydney Barringer’s unsuccessful suicide – Magnolia
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most innovative filmmakers working today, and it’s in “Magnolia” that we see one of the most well-crafted and expressive scenes in his filmography. The greatness of the montage in this scene relies on the treatment that the film takes to time.
Instead of a linear perspective, the montage manages to travel through the incident several times, each time revealing a different part of it that creates the final and complex image that the film attempts to create through the fragmentation of space and time.
13. Opening – City of God
There are certain scenes that apart from being great by their individual structure, they are also great by the way in which they encapsulate the entire film, and one of the scenes is the opening from “City of God.” In this sequence we see a chicken being chased by a gang whose origins we will see throughout the entire film.
In itself, the film is very well crafted, and the point where it pits armed groups against each other, and the sympathetic characters between them, is very moving. The fact that this structure reflects the structure of the entire film is just another detail that makes the scene even greater.
12. A married life – Up
The sequence form-up in which we see the married life of Carl and Ellie in less than five minutes is one of the most touching scenes in film history. This has a lot to do with the musical montage that the scene has. When we think about music, a recurring scheme is two motives interacting with each other.
This is precisely what the scene does, and it does it with color, characters, interactions, and also with music. The role of each motive (Carl and Ellie) is different in each part of the sequence, and that is what keep us constantly involved and touched by what we are seeing.
11. Rosebud – Citizen Kane
The great masterpiece from Orson Welles consists of a search for the meaning of a word. This word is rosebud, the last of Charles Foster Kane. It is never stated what Kane tried to say when he pronounced “rosebud,” but his relationship with it is stated clearly at the end of the film.
We see all of Kane’s expensive items, we travel through the mountain of luxuries, and arrive at a fire in which an old sled with the word ‘rosebud’ is being burned. The scene is not as complex in itself as it is in relation to the film as a whole, but again, that is one of the main characteristic of montage.
10. The drums – The Act of Killing
When one sees the documentary of Joshua Oppenheimer, they constantly ask whether the perpetrators truly believe that they are innocent or if they hold any kind of guilt. Neither they nor Joshua give a verbal answer to this question, instead the juxtaposition of fragments of time is used.
After a very tense moment and almost at the end of the film, one of the perpetrators is seen playing a drum and screaming, but the moment in which it’s shown is extremely expressive. The moment is so powerful that Werner Herzog asked Joshua to remain silent in the audio commentary, arguing that the moment explained itself.
9. The balloon – Enduring Love
The opening sequences of “Enduring Love” is one of the most impactful sequences in film history. The structure of the sequence is very classic; it has an introduction in which normality is broken, a development that leads to a climax and a resolution. This is done in less than five minutes of screen time, creating an episode that works on a whole.
The sequence is so great because of the way in which it treats emotions, creating moments of great calm and others of great chaos that keep the viewer involved in the incident. It dissects the actions of the characters in the way that is needed to create the maximum emotional response, and uses music only a restricted moment to create an specific sensation.