How does contemporary cinema still relate to its historical origins? By abiding with principles set out nearly a century ago, this essay will focus on how one film has taken a style of editing to practically dominate the condensing of time throughout the entirety of the film, this style being montage. During the ’80s in western cinema, studio productions were on the rise and high concept films were gaining traction. To some, the ’80s were considered to be one of the weaker decades for American cinema. Quentin Tarantino in an interview with Vulture magazine said “Back in the 80s, when movies sucked-I saw more movies then than I’d ever seen in my life, and the Hollywood bottom-line product was the worst it had been since the 50s-that would have been a great time”. David Bordwell however suggested in his blog that the “megapicture mentality” was already existent in the 70 (Observations on film art, 2008). ’80s directors were establishing what they wanted through genre conventions, and following the distinct stylistic genre of fighting movies, I’ll be looking at how Rocky IV is dominated by the montage edit, and where such techniques originated.
An article headed by the title ‘So Bad It’s Good’ from Flavorwire magazine (Bailey, 2015), might suggest that it wouldn’t be a good start to be analysing perhaps the most undesired sequel of the Rocky franchise, but considering its incredibly forward use of montage, the way this interesting technique is used cannot be overlooked. It has been calculated that nearly a third of this film contains montage, just under 30 minutes of the 91 minute length (Steve McCutchen’s Cavalcade of Awesomeness, 2009). Compared to other contemporary films, that is quite an excessive amount.
Directed by Sylvester Stallone, written by Stallone and lead role by Stallone, Rocky IV opens with a montage sequence alongside the soundtrack ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor and archive sounds of the previous Rocky fight. Showing two boxing gloves from either side of the Pacific, American and Russian flags directly suggest the tone and narrative of the film, being about boxing and presumably between an American and a Russian athlete. As the gloves collide an explosion is seen, the epic nature of two unstoppable forces colliding together. As the explosion fades we see imagery from the previous fight, The Stallion vs Clubber T. The nature of this sequence is montage, containing slow motion shots showing the aggression of the fight and being intercut with shots of the audience and his supporters encouraging him, living such a powerful tense moment. This is a form of tonal montage, building the overall tone by cutting related tonal imagery to build and elevate the power to the scene. Close up of aggressive fighting expression. Cut to wider audience shot. Cut to audience motivating the fight. This short, frenetic montage editing style builds the authenticity of the atmosphere and conveys powerful emotion from different perspectives in a small time frame.
The most common usage of montage falls under the condensing of space and time, to suggest a rapid acceleration of a narrative motivation, which is used frequently later on in the film.
Halfway through the film, after the death of his friend Apollo Creed at the hands of the imminent Russian boxing threat Drago (note the stereotypical portrayal of Russian/US conflict, good vs bad, but then again this was during the cold war era), Rocky is facing the fact that he must take on this fighter, as his reputation and what he believes in is at stake. He takes a drive whilst his life flashes before his eyes in perhaps one of the lengthiest montage sequences I have witnessed, 4 minutes and 25 seconds. The sequence is cut to a close up shot of Rocky opening his car door, fast cut to a tight shot of his face, back to the door and intercut of a surreal scene of his enemy Drago in a dramatic light strobing setting. This is cut to the beat of the song ‘No easy way out’ by Robert Tepper. Continuing the fast intercut style between the car getting ready, and intimidating shots of Drago, the montage ‘evolves’ and develops representing the thought process of Rocky and what is going though his mind. He remembers the fatal blows delivered to Apollo, contrasted by personal memories of good times they spent together training. This continues to develop as his mind shifts to his loved ones, his wife, the strained family conflicts his brutal lifestyle had brought home, all while intercutting to the ‘evil’ Drago, to the progression of Apollo’s fatal last fight, to past memories of the beginning of his career, to meeting and developing the relationship with his wife, intercut with the growth of his career, to his marriage through valuable life moments, back to Apollo as Rocky holds his lifeless body in his arms, to more training, to the death of another loved one, to aggressive motivated training, to the birth of his first child, back to more Drago and more shots of being beaten down by his adversary, and finally a match cut in between shots of Rocky and Apollo falling in slow motion with the reactions of the loved ones in the crowd, as they both fall and collapse, to the close up of the expression of Drago, the hate burning through his eyes as the shot is intercut with a close up of Rocky driving. After this excessive drive along ‘memory lane’ montage, Rocky has concluded who stands in his way, through an incredibly clear and direct editing process; the montage process. This uses a combination of Tonal and Rhythmic montage, understandably no ‘intellectual’ montage is present here. The editor has clearly cut according to the emotional tone of the scene, and cut according to the accompanying music.
Perhaps Stallone has used montage as a quick fix technique for propelling the emotions and thought processes of his characters, using a lot of archive footage from previous films. Stallone may have just been exploring the technique believing it was the most effective way for pursuing character development. Compared to more recent contemporary films, this style appears cheesy and overdone, to some an incredibly cheap way for eating up screen time (Steve McCutchen’s Cavalcade of Awesomeness, 2009).
What Rocky IV has done, and not coincidentally, is reflect the US and Russian diplomatic tensions during the cold war era. That being the Russian athlete having all the technological advancements to support his fight against Rocky, a scientific, lab-backed approach, while Rocky relied on down to earth and accessible training techniques. This is topped by Rocky’s speech in Russia as he defeats Drago, essentially opening the door for exposure to a non communist system, the ideology that an individual can be an individual and not part of a shared system. US vs Russian ideologies, propagated in favour of the US as of course its an American film, released toward the end of the cold war.
This political influence brings about a sense of deja vu, the concept of montage originated from a conflicted setting during a time of change in society. A change in ideologies, a fight against a corrupt system overthrown by ‘the people’. Ironically this being the Russian revolution, where montage was born.
Montage is a common technique in contemporary cinema, and when used effectively can potentially propel a narrative like no other filmmaking technique can. Montage is said to differentiate and specialise cinema as an art form. David Bordwell argues “montage was the essential factor differentiating cinema from the other arts and forming the basis of the specific impact that film can make.” (Bordwell, 2016).
In Russia, a second violent revolt against the established Russian government was led by Vladimir Lenin in 1917. Lenin overthrew Tsar Nicholas II due to the extreme class divide in society, and brought the Bolsheviks to power, Bolsheviks meaning the ‘majority’. This great political movement emanated from the lower working classes, who created such a powerful movement through persuasion and force. The result of this revolt brought about the Communist Party, which was organised around the principles of workers rights. The government took control of industry and the suppression of dissent came about, which led to the state developing a great interest in film, as it was seen to be a strong tool for political and social influence. But the government had to first work on some areas; it needed to centralise the Russian film industry (Film History an introduction, 2002).
Russia had a mass shortage of raw film stock, due to a series of problems including strained imports, the inability to manufacture film and also the fact that many Russian production companies left with their equipment and film stock. Narkompros (the People’s Commissariat of Education) established a state film school in 1919 called ‘VGIK’ or the ‘State Institute of Cinematography’. By 1920, a director called Lev Kuleshov had joined the faculty, and created a small workshop that would eventually produce some of the era’s most important directors and actors.
Kuleshov’s small group explored this new art over the coming years, working in conditions of deprivation and frequently without raw film stock for their experiments. These experiments included reediting old films, working with various film scenes. Finally in 1921, the group obtained a limited amount of film stock from the government, and created what are now known as the ‘Kuleshov experiments’. Throughout all of the experiments, Kuleshov explored a breakthrough editing concept which is now known as the ‘Kuleshov effect’.
As described in the book ‘Film History by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’ “The Kuleshov effect is based on leaving out a scene’s establishing shot and leading the spectator to infer spatial or temporal continuity from the shots of separate elements.”
One of the most famous experiments the group had worked on involved recutting old footage of the actor Ivan Mozhukin. The first shot that was arranged depicted a close up view of Mozhukhin, with a neutral facial expression. The exact same shot was repeatedly edited together, however intercut with various other shots. These other shots included a bowl of soup, a dead body and a baby. Supposedly, the average viewer found the actors performance to be most effective, suggesting that his face had reflected the appropriate emotions; hunger, sorrow or delight, even though the actor’s facial expression remained the same every time they had seen it. This experiment revealed that an audience would develop greater meaning from two shots edited together, than either isolated shot on its own. This was a discovery that enforced cinema as a unique art form, that no other could even attempt. The concept of juxtaposing live images to suggest new meaning, perhaps unrelated, perhaps not, was a breakthrough.
The theory of montage suggests that how the shots of a film are assembled, ie order, length of time of the shot, their repetition and rhythm give a film its meaning and power. However the Soviet montage filmmakers considered that it was necessary that those cuts must be visible to the audience. The viewers had to be aware of the process and it should not be hidden. They had to see that this process of constructing the edits was a deliberate act. They named this effect ‘discontinuity editing’ and it fitted conveniently well with the political thinking of those Soviet filmmakers; that the filmmaker rather than being an artist, was just another engineer, a worker who slots or joins things together thus assembling a product such as a factory worker or construction worker would. It could be said that the way the film was made was as much a political statement as the film itself.
There are various methods to juxtapose in film. The Kuleshov effect is the prime example of ‘Intellectual montage’, which is the concept of juxtaposing two otherwise unrelated images to suggest a third idea in the viewers mind. This is the purest form of Soviet Montage. There is also Tonal Montage, Metric Montage, Rhythmic Montage and Overtonal Montage, all derived and branched out from the Kuleshov’s experiments.
Kuleshov and his students spent a long time studying and developing these theories, and not surprisingly the first thing they did after acquiring raw film stock was to make various films. One of the most influential Soviet Montage filmmakers was called Sergei Eisenstein. His second film called ‘Battleship Potemkin’ 1925 propelled him into international fame, setting the precedent for how filmmakers could incorporate these montage theories into fiction films. Although it was banned in France, Spain, the UK, Finland and Germany between World War 1 and 2 (Healey, 2014), the seed of montage had been planted, and it was only a matter of time before it grew to form a mainstream technique.
Potemkin follows the true story of a mutiny aboard a Russian battleship in 1905. The film does not focus on a single protagonist, however it evokes the painful conditions for the deprived sailors working under cruel officers. The most noteworthy scene is the Odessa steps sequence, where the sailors are hailed heroes and cheered on by the people of Odessa. The scene took a turn for the worse as Xarus troops show up and massacre the crowd. The scenes throughout this sequence are frightening and brutal, as children are trampled, bullet wounds, terrified parents and a baby stroller rolling perilously through the middle of the battle. Where this film marks film history, is Eisenstein’s innovative use of montage. It was used in a way that brought the aggression, chaos and madness to life. He wanted the juxtaposition of sometimes unrelated images to jolt the audience.
At 41 minutes into the film, we begin to see montage appear, with the close ups of clenching fists being intercut with the crowd angrily revolting as they shout “down with Tsarism!”. As the scene develops the montage editing technique develops in the steps sequence, using a large amount fo intercutting as the camera follows different victims of the Tsarist troop attack.
Potemkin was also a powerful piece of propaganda for the Soviets, by making the sailors and civilians so innocent and the officers and Tsarist troops so cruel the film comes down on one side and encourages the viewers outrage against the other. A similar watered down version of this is found in Rocky IV with the US/Russian divide.
As Stalin began to gain power, films made in the Western world quickly started to be reintroduced into the USSR. At the same time, film stocks started to become easily available and the government somewhat loosened their stranglehold on the Soviet montage filmmakers, whilst their audiences began to demand films that were easily accessible and more emotive. The filmmakers were encouraged to produce a different type of film, one that focussed on more true to life events which also supported Communist values. This became known as Soviet Realism and the Soviet montage process began to die out (Film History an introduction, 2002). Despite this, it’s influence on modern day filmmaking continues even now. It’s effects can be witnessed in many of the latest music videos, movie trailers and feature length films.
The concept of montage had originated from a distinct beginning, a time where sound-on-film had yet to be invented, but Rocky IV still stuck to the editing principles found and popularised by Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The relationship of shots, cutting through time and place to formulate and evoke emotion is a technique that is used by both films. Although Potemkin showcased the earliest form of montage, after the international success of Potemkin the technique was beginning to spread, passing through cinema history and surviving the introduction of sound and eventually colour. Lev Kuleshov’s technique had been rooted into the filmmakers’ toolbox. First used by Stallone in the original Rocky 1 series, he took this tool and churned out what can be described as an exhaustive use of montage in his fourth sequel. This is quite ironic considering that the manufacturing of the Rocky anti Russian propaganda during the cold war used the montage technique that originated in Russia, during a time where it was also used as propaganda to pursue its own political movement. Montage has been moulded and casted through political reform and political propaganda, throughout the two greatest wars in recent human history, thriving today to condense great dynamic and dramatic sequences in the forms of movie trailers, emotional journeys throughout film scenes and affiliating tonal messages to build and evoke crafted emotions from the filmmaker to the audience.