I. What is a Montage?
Montage is a filmmaking technique that uses a series of short images, collected together to tell a story or part of a story. This is usually used to advance the plot in some way without showing all the detail of what’s going on – for example, you might show a series of quick shots in which an inventor is scribbling at his desk, then poring over a book on the train, then staring intently at a computer screen. Without using any words, the filmmaker shows us that this inventor is working intensely on his latest project.
Sometimes, people use the word “montage” more loosely to mean any collection of small, discrete elements in a story or poem. We can call this “literary montage.” However, the term usually refers to film rather than literature.
II. Types of Montage
There are an infinite number of different types of montages, but three of the most common are:
a. Musical Montage
In a musical montage, the shots are accompanied by a song that somehow fits with the theme of what’s being shown. For example, a montage might show a young couple going through a series of increasingly intimate dates while a romantic song plays in the background.
b. Narrated Montage
If the montage is not set to music, there might be a character narrating what’s going on. An old cop, for example, might be telling the story of his first year on the force and how over-the-top his methods were; as he tells the story, the viewer would see a montage of the officer stepping over the line with suspects in various situations.
c. Photo Montage
Instead of filmed shots, a montage can also be formed out of still images. For example, a character’s whole life story could be told by showing a long succession of images, starting from baby photos and ending with a photo of the character as an old man. This technique is also frequently set to music, creating a “musical photo montage.”
III. Examples of Montage
The song “Push it to the Limit” by Paul Engemann has been used in so many movie montages that the song itself has become a cliché. It was originally used in Scarface, in a montage that shows the young Cuban gangster just beginning to taste the success that will ultimately claim his soul. The various shots include Tony Montana counting money, carrying bags of money and drugs, marrying his beautiful wife, and moving into a fabulously expensive new home.
The 2013 film Enough Said contains a number of montages, and the relationships between them are as interesting and important as the montages themselves. For example, the film juxtaposes two montages of the main character going about her daily life: in one, she is happy and the people around her are offering her help; in the other, she is alone and depressed as she goes about all the same activities, shown in the same order. The close parallel between these two montages helps to accentuate the negative change in the character’s life.
The movie Batman Begins tells the story of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman, and uses an extended montage to explain his criminal past. This narrated montage is accompanied by the sound of Bruce Wayne explaining and defending his past actions in discussion with another character, and is intercut with dramatic shots of the two characters sword fighting.
IV. The Importance of Montage
In film, montages can accomplish a couple of things:
1. They can compress time
In the real world, it would probably take Tony “Scarface” Montana years to achieve success (including planning his wedding). But the movie montage takes less than three minutes to show this part of his life! When the details are unimportant, a montage can show what’s happening over a long period of time.
2. They can show simultaneous action
In one part of town, the robbers are getting ready to pull off the greatest heist of their lives; at the same time, on the other side of town, the police are getting ready for the sting operation that will bring the mob to its knees; and perhaps, in a third part of town, the kingpin’s wife is in a hospital giving birth to their first child. Of course, the viewer cannot “be” in all these places at once; but by cutting quickly from one scene to another the film can show everything to the viewer at once.
In literature, it’s much easier to accomplish these compressions of time and space without using a montage (for example, by using words like “meanwhile,” or “after many years”). So it’s much less clear what the purpose of montage might be in literature. However, there’s one particularly popular theory devised by a man named Sergei Eisenstein.
Eisenstein was perhaps the most influential theorist of montage in literature and film, and his idea was that montage is supposed to mimic the fragmentations of the modern world. Think about it: as you go about your life, you move from TV screen to computer screen to iPhone to advertisements on the bus; you are constantly experiencing little snippets of imagery from the world around you. These experiences do not come together to form a single, unified narrative, and yet you craft a narrative (called “My Day”) out of them. Eisenstein argued that montages appeal to modern viewers because they are used to going about the world in this way.
V. Examples of Montage in Literature
S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is arguably a montage in poetic form. Eliot’s poem is a vast network of references to classical literature and poetry, and its structure is built out of a sequence of discreet images, similar to a film montage. Each image stands on its own (like a vignette), but they all work together to tell a general story.
Herman Melville also uses a montage-like technique in Moby Dick. The novel surrounds a long sea voyage ostensibly in pursuit of a mysterious white whale. However, for the vast majority of the book the whale is nowhere in sight, and Melville describes various events that take place on board the ship. These little moments, in many ways, stand on their own, giving the novel a montage-like feel, especially in its middle sections.
VI. Examples of Montage in Popular Culture
The day is approaching to give it your best
You’ve got to reach your prime.
That’s when you need to put yourself to the test
And show us the passage of time…
…We’re gonna need a montage. A sports training montage.
In one episode of South Park, the creators make fun of the montage technique with this humorous “Sports Training Montage” song. The song refers to a common cliché – the montage of training in various ways for an athletic event. Filmmakers use this technique because training, by its nature, is dull and repetitive. Viewers would quickly be put to sleep if you showed them all the hours and hours of sit ups that Rocky Balboa had to do before his fight with Apollo Creed; so instead, they used a musical montage.
You’re the best around
Nothing’s gonna ever keep you down.
Anyone who has seen The Karate Kid will recognize these lines. They form the chorus of a song sung over the final montage in that film, one of the most famous of all musical montages. In this montage, we see the main characters fighting their way through a karate tournament to reach the final showdown. Obviously the filmmakers could not show all the fights in full detail, so they opted for a montage to compress the time.
VII. Related Terms (with examples)
Collage is a similar technique to montage, in that it also involves bringing together several separate elements. However, collage is generally used in visual art rather than film or literature. In addition, the elements of a collage are usually taken from elsewhere, whereas the elements of a montage are original; that is, a film collage might use old newsreels or scenes from other movies, but all the shots in a montage would be created specifically for that movie.
A vignette is a short image, story, or description that stands on its own or in a group of similar vignettes. Each of the images or shots in a montage could be described as a vignette. For example, in the Scarface montage, the shot of Tony’s wedding would be one vignette, while the shot of him counting money would be another.