Thoughts On: Subjective & Objective Projection


Subjective & Objective Projection

Thoughts On: Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism & Surrealism

A return to subjective-objective theory and an attempt to expand our view beyond just impressionism.

Recently on the blog I have been sorting through and developing a theory of Subjective & Objective Impressionism. As the theory has developed, it has become mixed into a theory of the cinematic space, of archetypes and the audience and of drama. One of the key questions that has remained since first introducing the concept of subjective and objective impressionism concerned the singular analysis of impressionism and the fact that this limits the theory considerably.

The basis of the subjective-objective theory is concerned with character, symbols and the entities that can appear on screen and the manner in which they are presented and embodied; this can be done by treating the figure as an object or a subjective entity, as something that has consciousness and autonomy or not. To reveal a character or object as a conscious being, a filmmaker has to use cinematic techniques to manipulate a space into having meaning, and so this is where impressionism becomes key. With subjective impressionism, a filmmaker uses cinematic language to impress into the audience, to instil within them, the autonomy of an entity. As implied, this is so often done with camera work that manipulates a space and an entity into meaning something, or that, through montage and the script, associates an entity with meaning. Two examples we have previously given stem from impressionist films from the 20s. In Epstein's The Faithful Heart, we have an example of subjective impressionism:

In this scene the performances, perspectives and bodies of actors as they move through space are emphasised by the cinematic language and sound design. This provides them a subjective perception that permeates through the screen. In opposition to this, we see fundamental impressionism, which is heavily linked to objective impressionism, presented by Kirsanoff in Menilmontant:

Here, violence is impressed onto the audience with focus on montage and not the subjective perception of characters, rather, their material bodies moving through space alone. Thus, characters become objects of sorts, signifiers without real consciousness and autonomy before the camera - this is at least quite true of those engaged in the violence and less true for the girl who witnesses it (she is a more complicated figure more aligned with an object-archetype).

With these as examples of objective and subjective impressionism, we can take a step back and see that, whilst there is a basis of subjectivity and objectivity that all films interact with as to manifest characters, the mechanism of projection can differ beyond impressionism. To better clarify, let us re-introduce the objective and subjective types:

This is an updated version of the objective-subjective type diagram we have been using so far. There is one change, and that is in the top left-hand side. This element used to be 'MacGuffin', but I have since changed this to 'Device'. MacGuffin is a term that implies something similar to Caricature, but not very accurately. Device, I feel, better reflects the simplest object-entity that a filmmaker will engage.

With that said, all that must be realised with this diagram is its categorisation of objective and subjective entities, depicting how, if they are manifested with greater complexity, they will appear to be true characters - imitations of real people. A symbol, on the other hand, is an object with deep meaning. Given mid-level complexity, an object or subject becomes archetypal - a general and universalised representation. But, given the lowest-level complexity a subjective entity will appear as a caricature, and an object a mere device (maybe seen once or twice) in the grander scheme of a narrative.

It is important to outline this, however briefly, as these are the entities that can be projected into and from a cinematic space. And whilst we have explored one method of projection in impressionism, we have already noted that there are more in realism, expressionism and surrealism. I believe that these are the four major means of expression as they map onto a spectrum of verisimilitude:

On one extreme there is the realistic projection of objects and subjects. We can describe this process as objective-subjective realism. Examples of this on film can be seen in De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. Within this film, De Sica's mode of cinematic language is realistic in that it aims to replicate and capture the real world as we so often see it in reality (this entails the camera playing the role of a camera, or, more typically, taking its place as an observer or fly on the wall). As a result, De Sica's style is typified by long takes at eye level, a moving camera, fades and wipes that punctuate cuts between disparate spaces, cuts that imply a long, fluid sequence of uninterrupted events and a cinematic space that is uncontrived; it uses real locations and unprofessional actors.

In this sequence, the camera takes the position of someone walking by on a street, looking down from a window or on from the backseat of a car. These camera positions, along with the setting, give scene this a basis in realism, but it must be noted that some of the montage and camera angles are impressionistic in their manipulation of space and in their projection of perception through POV. (Cinema is fundamentally impressionistic, so impressionism almost always plays a part in a cinematic style). The camera work in this sequence is largely objective - in general, I believe Bicycle Thieves to be a primarily objective film. I believe this to be the case as the true humanity of the characters is not individualised; we never grow to know or feel we know much about who exactly Antonio, his son or wife are. Most of the entities in De Sica's cinematic space are archetypes and devices.

Antonio, for example, is an archetypal father who is bereaved of hope in an impoverished Italy; he is a wanderer. His wife, Maria, is the spiritual centre of the family, sacrificial and understanding, a presence over the entire narrative; she embodies the archetypal Madonna to a degree (something somewhat common in Italian films of the period). Their son, Bruno, is the child of the future, it is he who struggles between his mother's hope and his father's despair; he works, the adult of the family, yet he is lost and helpless without his father. Bruno is the archetype of Italy's future. And so then we have the final object-archetype, the bicycle itself, Fides, which means and symbolises faith. In addition to this, there is the device of Bruno's baby sibling who further represents the future of Italy, but is a fleeting figure seen only once - a little like the theives. Ultimately, however, it is the realistic treatment and contrivance of all of these object-archetypes and devices that we can call objective realism.

To counterpoint this example, we can turn to Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman:

The characteristics of the cinematic language here are bluntly realistic: an observational long take. However, what emerges from this long take, and over the film more generally, is the humanity of the main character and their subjective presence in the realistic frame. This is subjective realism.

With this simple but expressive example, we find a somewhat rare example of subjective-realism. What I mean to imply here is that finding subjectivity with realist techniques alone is not common, and the reason for this is the fact that realism blends into impressionism all too easily. Another example we can briefly look at then comes from Satyajit Ray's Charulata:

Ray's narrative assumes a fundamentally realist approach with its cinematic language. However, the sequences that express the subjectivity of our main character to the highest degree are quite impressionistic. We see this with the swing shot. This is a realistic shot in that it is sustained and observational. However, it is impressionistic in its movement - in its manipulation of the cinematic space behind our main character - especially when this movement is considered as apart of the wider montage.

To move on without delving too deeply into the complexities of the distinguishing lines, let us look past subjective and objective impressionism for the fact that we've discussed these at length already and focus on subjective and objective expressionism.

Expressionism in regards to cinema is so often limited to the short-lived German silent film movement of the 20s that is typified by films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

German Expressionism in the 20s was distinguished from French Impressionism (a movement that manifested around the same time) via its means of constructing and projecting a cinematic space. Expressionism exudes its space outwardly whilst impressionism places the space within the audience; expressionism is emotionally received, impressionism is psychologically recognised. This is why impressionist films would have you stare at a face and question what thoughts reside within a character's head, or would have you piece together a space through association; the construction of the space and its meaning largely occur within the audience - thus, it is impressed upon us. In opposition to this, expressionism takes character psychology and masks it over the cinematic space. This is what German Expressionist films did so blatantly; one needs to only look at a single frame of Dr. Caligari to see that the torment that resides within characters has literally been painted onto the walls.

Whilst most will take this definition and leave expressionism in the 20s, I believe that expressionism is one of the most popular forms of cinematic projection. Expressionism paints a space in its own meaning and character. Following this logic, most horror films and action films are expressionistic. Let us take a look at one of the best directed scenes of Nolan's Dark Knight:

Inspired by Francis Bacon, the visage of the Joker is so clearly expressionistic in that it takes what it inside and represents it on the outside. Christopher Nolan emphasises the expressionistic characterisation of Joker with his spinning, violently handheld camera techniques. These shots take what is inside Rachel's and the Joker's head - a feeling of chaos and no control - and mould the cinematic space thusly. For this, the expressionism Nolan conveys here is quite subjective in that it is involved with character psychology. Furthermore, the script is subjectively sourcing a backstory of the Joker. However, in the greater scope of the narrative, it seems that Joker is less a subject and more an object - an object-archetype - though, I think there is room for debate on whether or not he is a subject-archetype or an object-archetype.

Alas, through Nolan, we find an example of expressionism in modern cinema; it is not as explicit and pure as it was in the 20s in Germany, but, in my belief, it is expressionistic nonetheless. To find a clear example of objective-expressionism, let us take a look at the cinema of Michael Bay and the dinobots of Transformers 4:

Almost immediately, we can see expressionistic camera techniques used by Bay here; violently moving shots that mean to take the purpose and meaning of a scene and replicate and emphasise it are constant. Thus, when characters fly, so does the camera, when they fall, run, jump, so does the came, etc. Bay is practically a master of expressionism in this respect as he is always seeking to represent the fundamental element and emotion of a scene or moment as violently and explicitly as he can through cinematic language (if one looks to the cinema of Zack Snyder they will find another good example of objective expressionism for the same reason). Alas, the nature of Bay's scripts and characterisation leaves all figures objects: usually archetypes and devices. Optimus Prime and the dinobots are then object-archetypes whilst the screaming bald guy is a device of sorts, all built and projected via objective expressionism.

To make a final point on expressionism, it must be noted that expressionism bleeds into surrealism. And this is so often done in horror.

In this scene from the Babadook we see the psychological torment of characters represented in their costumes, performances and on the set - in the physical cinematic space. But, the nature of the drama and symbology moves so far from reality and so deep into the unconscious psyche that one could easily argue that this is surrealistic before it is expressionistic. In my perspective, however, the story is highly surreal at points, but the cinematic language and general design of the sets across the entire film is expressionistic at its core (in a subjective capacity) before it is surreal.

Let us now then look for clear examples of subjective and objective surrealism. We shall start with an example of subjective surrealism in Tarkovsky's Mirror. (You will have to click through to watch this on YouTube:)

This sequence deals with the personal memories of our unseen main character, representing both his mother and the interaction of elements (earth with water and light; reflections, crumbling material, dripping, the human body). The poetic manifestation of these entities has unconscious logic in that it seemingly depicts feminine elements - water mainly, which doubles a symbol of unconsciousness - crumbling around a feminine archetype - a mother. This scene then contributes to a wider journey into a man's anima. For the fact that it is so personal and involved in bringing about the autonomous nature of the unseen protagonist, this is subjectively surrealistic and creates subject-archetypes.

The next clip I will show is to be expected, an excerpt from Un Chien Andalou:

The surrealistic design of this need not be outlined or analysed. However, what should be clear through a juxtaposition between this scene and Mirror's is the place of a subject. In short, there is no individual perception emphasised or utilised in this short; whose dream this is, we never know. Furthermore, we never get to know any of the characters as more than subject to their own sexuality and impulse. Thus, they become object-archetypes, players in a game of l'amour fou (mad love). The film, in total, is then objectively-surrealistic.

To bring things towards a close having only outlined the different types of subjective and objective impressionism, I must say that there is far more analysis that could be done and more that this theory connects to. So, I'm sure I will be writing about this far more in the near future.

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