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Eisenstein and the Dialectic Theory of Film

At its core, a dialectic is simply a conflict. But Soviet filmmakers, especially Sergei Eisenstein, elevated these conflicts to an art form and their dialectic theory of film has made a substantial impact on cinematic visual aesthetics. Eisenstein used a juxtaposition of conflicting images to create a montage, believing the effect could bring about consequential social change. Unfortunately, films built on this technique, such as his Battleship Potemkin (1925), now come across gimmicky and in some cases laughable.
However, the dialectic theory of film has not left us. The dialectic has been proven itself an effective way to condense an argument and persuade the audience, sometimes in less than 30 seconds. You can readily find any number of examples by flipping through a few television channels, watching a few commercials. The conflict may be presented through colliding words, colliding images, or both.
MAN: So are you trying to watch your weight?
WOMAN: No, why?
MAN: Nothing, it’s just the Cheerios box. It says it’s low in fat.
WOMAN: Does it look like I need to watch my weight?
MAN: No, no, no, no. It’s just the box. It says there are only 110 calories per serving.
WOMAN: There are other reasons why I like it.
MAN: I know. It’s just the box. It says it’s made from five whole grains. That’s good, right?
WOMAN: What else does the box say?
MAN: The box says, “Shut up, Steve.”

But herein lies the at least part of the reason this technique has fallen out of favor in film today. Dialectics are by their very nature manipulative and unnatural. It is difficult to witness use of this technique without feeling on some level you are being "sold" something.
In the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence of Battleship Potemkin we are exposed to a montage of images calculated to bring about an emotional response. In one part of the sequence, a woman with a baby carriage is shot and not only does her death leave the child unattended, but even the fall of her body pushes the carriage down a flight of stairs. She clutches her large belt buckle, a swan (probably a symbol of culture, civilization, beauty), as blood pours slowly over it. Even if the mythological associations of the swan had passed viewers' attentions, the woman's fine clothing would have made them realize she was another middle-class victim of the Cossack assault. Eisenstein knew his audience would associate the Cossacks with their reputation for horsemanship and ruthless military skills, and knowing that,  he capitalized on it.
When an art form is new, its boundaries remain to be defined. The fact Eisenstein believed the addition of sound to film was a passing gimmick seems to show he believed film's boundaries were similar to that of visual art. It would be easy to say Eisenstein lacked an understanding of film art, but how can anyone understand what has not yet been defined? It might also be tempting to say he lacked a vision of what the form could become, but judging from his experimentation and passion for film as a dialectic tool, it might be more accurate to say his vision was merely of something different than what film eventually did become.
Regardless, the modern television commercial owes him a great debt.

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