André Bazin’s discussion of montage in What is Cinema? (Bazin, 1968) is based around his belief that true cinema occupies a space between reality and imagination; he asserts that both must be present for a film to be cinematically successful. Bazin describes the balance between the two as “imaginary documentary” (Bazin, 1968 p46), and he clarifies this using the example of French film Crin Blanc (Lamorisse, 1953):
Thus Crin Blanc is at one and the same time a real horse that grazes on the salty grass of the Camargue and a dream horse swimming eternally at the side of little Folco. Its cinematic reality could not do without its documentary reality, but if it is to become a truth of the imagination, it must die and be born again of reality itself… It is that fringe of trick work, that margin of subterfuge demanded by the logic of the story that allows what is imaginary to include what is real and at the same time to substitute for it. (Bazin, 1968 p47)
This element of reality, this documentary reality, is vital in engaging the audience; it draws them into the story and invests them in its outcomes. “If the film is to fulfil itself aesthetically we need to believe in the reality of what is happening while knowing it to be tricked” (Bazin, 1968 p48). And it’s this element of reality that Bazin believes is lacking in montage:
What is imaginary on the screen must have the spatial density of something real. You cannot therefore use montage here except within well-defined limits or you run the risk of threatening the very ontology of the cinematographic tale. (Bazin, 1968 p48)
He uses an example from Where No Vultures Fly (Watt, 1951) to illustrate his point:
Unknown to its parents, the child has wandered away from the camp and has found a lion cub that has been temporarily abandoned by its mother. Unaware of the danger, it picks up the cub and takes it along. Meanwhile the lioness, alerted either by the noise or by the scent of the child, turns back towards its den and starts back along the path taken by the unsuspecting child… The little group comes within sight of the camp at which point the distracted parents see the child and the lion which is undoubtedly about to spring at any moment on the imprudent kidnapper… Up to this point everything has been shown in parallel montage and the somewhat naive attempt at suspense has seemed quite conventional. Then suddenly, to our horror, the director abandons his montage of separate shots that has kept the protagonists apart and gives us instead parents, child, and lioness all in the same full shot. This single frame in which trickery is out of the question give immediate and retroactive authenticity to the very banal montage that has preceded it. (Bazin, 1968 p49).
Bazin doesn’t completely rebuff montage as a useful tool in cinematic storytelling, but believes that the choice of form should be based on a consideration of the nature of the sequence portrayed, “When the essence of a scene demands the simultaneous presence of two or more factors in the action, montage is ruled out” (Bazin, 1968 p50).
With this in mind, it’s intriguing that montage was adopted by Hollywood and became part of the classical editing style after the experiments of the Soviet Montagists, primarily because it’s so effective at creating a subjective experience which enables the audience to embody a character. Yet Bazin sees it differently. He views montage as a technique which jars the audience out of the cinematic experience by highlighting the constructed nature of film.
Is Bazin’s theory different to the notion that long take makes the audience aware of cinematic direction? I think it is. And I think that Bazin’s argument is not specifically pointed at montage in and of itself, but rather at lazy filmmaking. Montage when used only to hide flaws like stunt doubles or special effects, only serves to highlight them by making the fiction of the situation clear. But it’s effective when it’s used to create a subjective experience for the audience, because this subjectivity lends the sequence a sense of reality to balance the imaginary. I wonder if this is why long take combined with camera movement, like in Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941), is such an effective technique; it’s another way of achieving that same balance.
Bazin, A., (1968), What is Cinema: Volume 1, Oakland: University of California Press
Lamorisse, A., (1953), Crin Blanc, Films Montsouris
Watt, H., (1951), Where No Vultures Fly, Ealing Studios
Welles, O., (1941), Citizen Kane, RKO Radio Pictures