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5 Masterful Non-Training Montages in Film



Is there anything better than a good montage? 

There’s just something inherently, undeniably satisfying about watching a combination of fragmented shots convey a story. Montages are particularly well-suited for making gradual change over a long time more exciting, which is probably why our minds often make a beeline to training montages. 

And yes, while Rocky Balboa running through the snow in a sweaty tracksuit or Jack Black practicing music with his students in School of Rock are exceptionally enjoyable montages, there’s so much more this technique can do. 

The Russin filmmaker and film theorist Lev Kuleshov was fascinated by the different meanings audiences would derive from a montage based on the arrangement of shots. 

Here’s Kuleshov testing his theory by changing the first shot in a montage. Note how the man’s face takes on a different meaning based on what comes before: 

This theory became so influential, we now simply call it the Kuleshov Effect

Suffice it to say, there’s more to montages than training for the final showdown with the film’s antagonist. Let’s explore five other superb uses of montage in film. 

(It goes without saying, but there are spoilers ahead.) 

1. The Breakfast Montage in Citizen Kane 

It should come as no surprise that one of the most revered films of all time makes superb use of the montage. The series of shots examines the crumbling of Charles’s and Ruth’s marriage through not only the dialog, but also the set design, wardrobe, and props. 

The couple start off infatuated with one another, and Charles can’t take his eyes off Ruth. He leans close to her, almost as if their mutual attraction is physical magnetism. But as he pours more of his life into the paper, their relationship enters a stuttering decline. In the final shot of the montage, the camera pans out, and we see the great distance that’s come between them. 

This change takes place over the course of years, but the montage deftly conveys this tragedy in only a few minutes. 

2. The Opening of Watchmen 

I love the Watchmen comics. It’s one of the clearest examples of comic book writing that transcends its genre and tells a narrative worthy of literary awards. 

While the film didn’t quite meet that standard, the opening montage is superb. Bob Dylan’s trademark warble and guitar perfectly parallel the alternative history told in the opening sequence. 

Here we find another strength of the montage: interweaving multiple storylines into a cohesive narrative. From the dawn of the super heroes to the end of World War II to the creation of Dr. Manhattan to the assination of JFK, there’s a vast amount of exposition and world-building happening. 

But the trusty montage arranges it all in a clear, compelling package for the audience. Times were a’changin indeed. 

3. The Day of Mischief in The Royal Tenenbaums 

Montages are exceptional vehicles for comedy. A series of hilarious, quick shots will have any audience erupting with laugher. 

The infinite loop in Groundhog Day certainly deserves an honorable mention here, but the day of mischief montage from The Royal Tenenbaums also has a lot to offer. 

In classic Wes Anderson style, the comedy isn’t the slap-your-knee variety. Instead, Anderson invites the audience to smile and chuckle as Royal spends the day galavanting around New York with his two precocious, sheltered grandsons. 

This montage functions as both comedy and character building. Like many Anderson protagonists, Royal is deeply flawed and at times repulsive. Yet he clearly cares deeply for his family, and we learn about that side of him through this series of shots. It’s heartwarming, whimsical, and slightly absurd — just like any good Wes Anderson film should be. 

4. The Opening of Manhattan 

In addition to their strength as narrative vehicles, montages also excel at conveying the ambiance of a setting. In Woody Allen’s Manhattan, New York City plays a starring role, and the opening montage is a three minute homage to NYC. 

This type of montage is particularly interesting, because the choices of shots eventually impress on the audience a sense of what something is like. In this case, it’s New York, made all the more romantic by it being filmed in black and white. 

The contrast between Allan’s fumbling monologue and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue further illustrates the depth and enormity of New York. The protagonist’s struggle to articulate what the city meant to him is a testament to the impact it has on a person’s life. 

And through this montage, we get a sense of not just New York, but Allan’s New York.  

5. The Baptism from The Godfather 

The classics never go out of style, and The Godfather is no exception. 

As Michael Corleone watches a baptism and utters sacred vows, his goons execute his enemies around the city. This isn’t a subtle movie, and neither is this montage. 

As the organ swells, the audience is reminded again and again of the contrast between good and evil, life and death, purity and sin. It all serves to illuminate the maelstrom of a character that is Michael Corleone. 

The symbolism may be overt, but that doesn’t reduce its gravitas. 

And there you have it: not a single training montage in sight. Of course, this is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg when it comes to film montages, but these are a few noteworthy examples of how the technique can be used to full effect. 

Zach is the content manager at Soundstripe, a royalty free music company that supplies filmmakers with royalty free rock music, among other genres.

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