A Century Ago: Eisenstein Presents His Theory of Attractions

We are well past the centennial of the birth of Soviet film-maker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) but this year marks the centennial of something he gave birth to. I had occasion to refer to this brainchild of his in my book No Applause, for it is related to vaudeville.

Everyone who’s ever been to an art house knows Eisenstein’s films Strike (1925), Potemkin (1925), October (1928), ¡Que viva México! (1932), Alexander Nevsky (1938) and the two parts of Ivan the Terrible (1944-46). As a young person I was enthralled with artistic manifestos, loved to read them, and wrote cockamamie ones of my own. And so I was entranced by all of Eisenstein’s early books of cinematic theory: Film Form, Film Sense, Notes a Film Director, and Towards a Theory of Montage. My second-hand paper back copies of these books (except the latter one, which was first-hand because published in 1994) were dog-eared, and full of underlined and highlighted passages, and scribbles. Eisenstein’s was an atomizing instinct. He loved to break things down into units and organize them, and he made it his task to devise laws of grammar for the brand new art form of the cinema, an outgrowth is his own formal studies as an architect and engineer, and his own independent study of Japanese, with its heiroglyphic, lexographic writing system. He fought in the Revolution and remained in the Red Army, where he eventually gravitated to making theatre for the Proletkult around 1920. It is these years, which resulted in the formation of his theories, that interest us.

As its name implies, the Proletkult was instituted to educate and indoctrinate audiences with class consciousness. Its aims were practical and didactic. The job was to discover the most efficient ways to affect people’s minds. If that sounds sinister, I assure you that capitalists do that to you every day of your life, as do religions and the governments of nations. If anything, a socialist effort along similar lines would have to swim upstream against traditions and prejudices that are millennia old. In America, in spite of hysteria to the contrary, socialist education scarcely ever did more than scratch the surface, and the last time it ever truly gained even a marginally significant amount of traction with the masses was about a century ago. At any rate, as we mentioned in our recent piece about Stanislavski, theatre artists began to mimic technology in their efforts to achieve modern efficiency in realizing their goals. Stanislavski’s pupil Vsevolod Meyerhold studied industrial techniques such as Taylorism, as well as art forms like music hall and circus, to arrive at his system of theatrical movement he called Biomechanics. Eisenstein (with that engineering and architecture background) designed productions for Meyerhold.

It was in this context that Eisenstein articulated his idea of the Montage of Attractions in 1923. He directed a production of Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s Enough Simplicity in Every Wise Man, which employed tightrope walkers, jugglers, acrobats, clowns, music hall comedy, and other circus acts. In this sense, the word “attraction” is used in the same way it is used in the amusement business, the way we speak of individual acts in circus, vaudeville, sideshows, carnival midways, and so forth. Eisenstein wrote an essay describing his ideas on the topic that was later printed in the back of one of his books, and has been widely read and emulated by theatre artists since the time of Brecht. In the essay, Eisenstein widened the definition of an attraction to refer to any startling or aggressive effect that demanded the attention of audiences, from the sound of a cannon, the roll of a kettledrum, Romeo’s soliloquy or a pretty girl in pink tights (ha! a burlesque attraction). Obviously, this is what vaudeville and variety entertainment are all about.

A knotty problem for the theatre and film maker is how to integrate such moments into a NARRATIVE. Hollywood and Broadway have famously done this with a maximum of nonchalance. “Here’s a great place for a number!” and “We need something here — how about a car chase?” Brecht of course, believed in NOT integrating the two elements, using the attractions to break UP the narrative in order to get the audience to think. Eisenstein of course adapted the theory for cinema, where his theory of the Montage of Attractions was applied to editing. But that’s a topic for another day, another blog, and probably another blogger. Although I did write more about Eisenstein and his theories here.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.