I saw a video online at the New York Times site today that made me think about Impressionism in the visual arts, and about how much more comfortable people are about allowing art forms like film and painting to be impressionistic, while believing that literary art should be more more solidly linear and narrative (that is, more easily seen, grasped and understood.) Watch the video, titled “Tunnel Vision” (by Jeff Scher, not to be confused with the Justin Timberlake music video of the same name, in which nudity leaves an impression of a different sort) and see what impressions you get.
It’s obvious in some bits of Scher’s video that what you’re seeing is a subway: lights flash, stations pass, tunnels and machinery catch the light. You even see people waiting for trains and – later – sitting on a train, so in that sense you have some narrative, or the impression of a narrative. But for much of the video/film, you are not quite sure of what you’re seeing. You immediately want to watch it again and let it pour over you again. The music (composed by Shay Lynch) helps form your idea of the “tonal register” of this narrative as it begins – not somber, but playful; in fact, it’s almost flirtatious. (I hear a music box, with layered counterpoints entering in.) Then the counterpoints disappear, and the music-box returns immediately. Toward the ending, the layers are like sheets of vellum, each layer having a traced image and a musical tenor, each layer playing off another, then another. So the narrative that this film proposes is like collage. It’s multi-layered, yet no one would call it “difficult” or “gimmicky.” Instead, it’s elegant, as is this painting by French Impressionist Paul Signac:
I’m curious about why other art forms can be figuratively and literally more blurred and impressionistic than their literary equivalents. And I have a guess or two:
- Maybe it’s the fact that the viewer enjoys making sense out of random visual impressions, which can happen without much effort. Our brains can process images much more quickly than words.
- Maybe it’s just the length of the piece – the film is less than five minutes long, and people can put up with fragments for awhile, but not for extended periods. That would explain why fiction has trouble being collage-like and holding all the pieces together — it’s just too long not to be more direct and less fragmentary.
- Maybe writers haven’t tried, or publishers haven’t been brave enough, and readers have been restricted by their expectations….
But how to explain people’s desire for poetry to be easily understood in one reading, a one-layer phenomena? Poetry is short enough to allow for impressionism – it doesn’t often take more than five minutes to read through a poem. But if a poem does as this film does in the same amount of time – a five-minute read-aloud presenting layered impressions without a solid narrative – bursts of images, but no easy message/story – it’s called “difficult” and “opaque.” Even fiction gets away with a mosaic-like structure more often than poetry does. In general, readers ask popular poetry (Mary Oliver, Billy Collins) to have a clear, precise narrative line, announcing its meaning clearly.
Why is that? Why do so many people allow the visual arts to tell a story through impressions, quick brushstrokes and glances (as in the painting by Monet which opens this post?)
Is the same effect allowed in poetry and fiction? Usually with fuzzy, impressionistic narrative lines (collaged, multi-layered, fragmentary) a great moan goes up about how obscure it all is. Any theories for what’s behind that? Why do readers want clean edges from poetry yet allow visual art a more complicated line?
[I wonder about these things while I wash the dishes! What would I do without the New York Times to set me wondering each morning…?]