Thoughts On: The Wizard Of Oz/No Country For Old Men - Objective Impressionism


The Wizard Of Oz/No Country For Old Men - Objective Impressionism

Thoughts On: The Wizard Of Oz (1939) & No Country For Old Men (2007)

This is the well-past-due end of the...

A continuation of a previous talk on a bit of film theory.


A while ago, we talked about an idea of subjective impressionism, and after doing so alluded to an antithetical concept. Today, we will be discussing just that. But, before jumping straight into things, let us go over a little of what we discussed previously.

Impressionism is an approach to art that essentially means using one medium to represent or give the sensation - the impression - of something or someone else. The definition of this term varies when you look into painting, music and writing, but, with cinema, impressionism is largely defined by a 1920s movement and represented by figures such as Jean Epstein and films such as The Fall Of The House Of Usher and The Faithful Heart. Like impressionist paintings, the impressionist films of Epstein have you see the world as he wants you to - or, at least, in the manner that he sees the world. This is the crux of impressionism: an artist giving you the impression of their own perspective. However, and this is particularly true when we talk of cinema, there can be a question of an artist's intentions: are they always trying to give us an impression of their perspective, or are they attempting to show the world as a character sees it?

In response to this question, I think it is important to make a distinction between scenes such as this from The Faithful Heart...

And the first minute of this scene from Kirsanoff's Menilmontant...

Both of these scenes utilise montage (cutting) and violent movement - for The Faithful Heart, this movement is of the camera itself, but in Menilmontant, the motion is of the fighting bodies. They are both impressionistic scenes as, more than we would see in, for example, realist films like Bicycle Thieves, cinematic language is used to say something; to give the direct impression of something that a scene by itself may not otherwise be able to say. In a sense, impressionism and constructivism (Soviet Montage) are then very closely linked as they are all about a camera being used by a director to show the world in a way that an audience could not see with their naked eye.

However, there is something key separating the Faithful Heart scene from that from Menilmontant: perspective. The source of impressionism in Epstein's film is primarily the POV; is the tilted shot-reverse-shot that gives you the sensation of being the woman, trapped in a world that has spun out of her control. In Kirsanoff's opening, the source of impressionism is the montage: the way in which the scene is cut up into specific sections - a window, a hand, a door knob, an axe, etc. - to give the impression of violence. What we can then clearly see to be separating these films is the fact that Epstein gives you the impression of what it is to be like a character whilst Kirsanoff gives you the impression of the violence of a scene, of spectatorship. In my opinion, Kirsanoff's scene then represents a fundamental impressionism whilst Epstein's represents subjective impressionism. Fundamental impressionism is the basic concept of impressionism: an artist giving you the impression of their perspective of something, e.g, an impression of a violent scene. Subjective impressionism is an artist using a conscious body as a voice; they give the impression of what it is like to be a conscious body in a specific, subjectively perceived, situation.

Let it be noted that in the example from The Faithful Heart, Epstein uses montage to cut away from the character's perspective and so strays from subjective impressionism just like Kirsanoff strays away from fundamental impressionism by utilising a kind of POV by showing a man look off screen before cutting to an axe. As we will later realise, you often get different kinds of impressionism merging together to create an impressionist scene. And it should also be noted that, impressionism is a little bit of a redundant concept. After all, with cinema, we are always using one thing to give the illusion of something else: an actor is a character, a fake set is a real location, CGI objects are material objects, flickering light is movement. As a result, even with realist films - which do not mean to interrupt, dress up or disguise the 'reality' within a frame with cuts, professional actors, fake sets and studio lighting - the camera always ends up saying something. Thus, not only is the impression of cinema (the impression of pictures moving) constant, but so is the presence of a director and contrivance: they have to choose a shot type, a script is almost always written, people act in a manner that is not perfectly realistic, etc. With this, I'm not trying to suggest that realism does not exist (cinema can come close to capturing reality within the constraints of the form and so let's not be pedantic). I am, at this point, suggesting that there is always a print of an artist's finger and perception: impressionism. That said, just like I won't say that realism does not exist, I also won't say that impressionism always exists. In such, we should recognise that both of the previous statements can be perceived as true, but we should also respect the fact that cinema works in relation to intention: an artist always tries to say and do something with their film and it is an audience's job to confront this. So, if a filmmaker is consciously attempting to replicate reality, and manages to do so to a satisfying degree, we should call their work realist. Equally so, if a filmmaker is consciously attempting to project a perspective, we should call their work impressionism.

The reason why it is important to recognise that we can argue that all film is a form of impressionism concerns what exactly a director may do to a scene to make it impressionistic. Fundamental impressionism comes from a director merely emphasising the fact that cinema is always about perspective. Thus, they may not want to represent a character's thoughts with POV, instead, a more abstract idea - such as a theme - through their cinematic language, and so they will select specific camera angles and a certain kind of editing, to imply that. This mere emphasis of inherent impressionism is fundamental impressionism and we see it Menilmontant. Further examples, in my view, would come from certain montage films such as Man With A Movie Camera and Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City. The crux of both of these films is to show a city, or a selection of cities, in the way in which the director wants you to: Berlin as a great, industrialised city and Odessa, Kiev, Kharkov and Moscow as great, communist cities. Because the director imposes his opinion on you with cinematic language, we have fundamental impressionism.

Having gone into fundamental impressionism, we will not dive into the nitty gritty of subjective impressionism as we did this in the mentioned post. In short, however, subjective impressionism can be used to create great characters; a director can use a person to exude an impression of their being alive (and if we accept them as an alive person who we derive meaning and worth from, they become great characters). What we will talk about today, however, is how to create a create great symbols through objective impressionism.

If you understand subjective impressionism, you should be able to accurately assume what objective impressionism is: it is the use of an unconscious entity to impress meaning onto a viewer. Given this definition, we could argue that we are merely talking about symbolism. However, basic symbolism or the symbolism you find in a painting or a book, is different from some forms of symbolism in cinema. Two examples, we can then reference here are The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy's ruby slippers...

As well as Anton's coin in this scene from No Country For Old Men...

There are many theories on the subtextual meaning of The Wizard of Oz, but, in my view, this is ultimately a story about finding out who people are through objects. If we recall the scene in which Oz solves everyone's problems with gifts - the Scarecrow gets a diploma and is suddenly smart, the Lion gets a medal and is suddenly brave, the Tinman gets a clock-heart and can suddenly feel - we see that, whilst the Scarecrow has already proven that he is smart, the Lion that he is brave and the Tinman that he is affectionate on their journey with Dorothy, they need something to seal the deal: an object. The meaning of the film lies in a question of why? It seems that these rather pointless objects, just like the rather pointless Oz - which seems to just be a dreamland that she sees after being knocked cold - teach Dorothy to see the depths of people; she should see through them as mere objects and into the people that they represent.

Her ruby slippers do exactly this too, but for herself. She then learns that a journey - her feet and what is on them - can take her to places and through things that she will learn from. Thus, the slippers teach her that she could have always have gone home. She just needed to know how to use them; she needed to learn how to take a specific journey that she would be able to grow from so that she can defeat 'wicked witches' both in her imagination and reality.

The fact that we may not have been able to articulate this idea when we were children, but nonetheless followed and accepted the idea that the diploma made the Scarecrow smart, that the heart made the Tinman affectionate, that the medal made the Lion brave, that the slippers took Dorothy home, says a lot. This is especially true with the slippers; they symbolised magic power and were present throughout the film. With the slippers on, Dorothy was always safe. Thus, the slippers signified more than the average shoe does; more, even, than the basic symbol of the shoe that we see in a film such as Forest Gump:

Whilst Forrest's shoes symbolise direction in his life and Jenny's love - she gives him the shoes and he knows the path to tread, she leaves and he runs around America for no reason - they aren't as powerful and alive as Dorothy's slippers (though, they are pretty close). Dorothy's slippers, much like Cinderella's slipper, bring rules with them. When we see their slippers function - when the slipper slides onto Cinderella's foot, when Dorothy is sent home - we are then imbued with abstract emotions of fulfillment.

These are exemplary projections of objective impressionism as the crux of the concept is that an object and its rules give meaning and emotion to a story much like a strong character will. Thinking back to the scene from No Country For Old Men, we will discover a similar paradigm: the coin not only carries the subtext of the film, but it is a source of emotion. We won't delve into the subtext of No Country For Old Men as we have done this already, but I think this film holds a particularly relevant and striking example of objective impressionism for the manner in which the coin exudes such power, tension and nihilism.

Now we know what objective impressionism is, we should reflect upon the idea that, both now and when we discussed subjective impressionism, we didn't talk about impressionist films. Already, we have discussed the idea that we can identify impressionism in cinema when it is not consciously inserted into it. Seemingly in contradiction to this, when we discuss objective and subjective impressionism, we are talking about a kind of impressionism that doesn't stem from impressionist filmmaking. This is because objective and subjective impressionism aren't actually bound to impressionism per se, rather, symbolism and character-construction. What I am implicitly suggesting here is that, whilst not all films are impressionistic, all films that have powerful symbols and characters utilise subjective or objective impressionism.

This is yet another reason why it is so important to recognise redundancies such all 'all films are impressionist films'. All films have hints of impressionism in them, some more so than others, but unless they explicitly and consciously use them, they don't really need to be called 'impressionistic'. Moreover, if a film doesn't use fundamental impressionism in conjuncture with objective and/or subjective impressionism, it doesn't necessarily qualify as impressionist as it won't bear the impressionist aesthetic (the impressionism won't be imbued into images).

No Country For Old Men and The Wizard of Oz clearly want you to feel a symbol's presence; they are integral to emotional beats of the film. Thus, whilst they may not be impressionistic for their lack of fundamental impressionism, they do utilise objective impressionism to construct powerful symbols and meaning from objects, which, notably, we have to perceive critically and objectively to fully understand. And such is a key reason why subjective impressionism and objective impressionism need to be distinguished; we can accurately articulate how objective impressionism functions, whilst we cannot accurately describe subjective impressionism as it is so subjective.

It is now that we have to leave another open end. There are greater complications to the manner in which subjects and objects - objective and subjective impressionism - function and interact in a film. This is another topic for another time.

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