It is generally held that a good work of art should have elements which work together so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But what does that mean for an audience and how should that influence the way we feel about a given work of art?


An email from t might go like this:


“I’ve watched L’Avventura much more closely, and with more appreciation, because of your emails.  And I love much of it.  However, I still contend that to sit down and watch it from start to finish is perhaps not as great an experience as watching all its scenes over a few nights.  The whole is less than the sum of the parts.  (much like Matisse/Picasso which I just saw.  I’m in New York).”


            Which reminds me of this quote from Pauline Kael:


“The only part of Clair’s Porte des Lilas I cared for was the little set-piece of the children acting out a crime as the adults read a newspaper account of it—an almost surrealist little ballet with no connection to the rest of the film. The only sequence I recall from Rickshaw Man is the distant view of an Englishman’s little dance of rage as he’s kept waiting in his rickshaw. Aparajito was beautiful, but it is all hazy in memory except for that sudden ecstasy of the child reciting poetry.


In film after film, what we recall may be a gesture or a bit of dialogue, a suggestion, an imaginative moment of acting, even the use of a prop. Suddenly something—almost anything—may bring a movie to life.  It is art and imagination that bring the medium to life; not as Kracauer would have it, the recording of ‘reality.’ I can’t remember much of the streets and crowds and the lifelike milieu even from the neo-realist films—who does?  But who can forget the cry of the boy at the end of Shoeshine, or the face of Umberto D, or Anna Magnani’s death in Open City? I would suggest these experiences are very similar to the experiences we have in the theater. But shouldn’t we take our bits and pieces of human revelation wherever we find them?  There isn’t so much to be had that we need to worry about whether what we get from a movie is only possible in ‘cinema’ or whether we could have received a similar impression, or even the total conception, in a novel or in the theatre.”


I concur. T.S. Eliot puts it like this:


“Yet it is only in a poem of some length that a variety of moods can be expressed; for a variety of moods requires a number of different themes or subjects, related either in themselves or in the mind of the poet. These parts can form a whole which is more than the sum of the parts; a whole such that the pleasure we derive from the reading of any part is enhanced by our grasp of the whole.”


And so as a viewer, this overall coherence or meaning, if you will, becomes imprinted. After this, you may recall fragments, which may have self-contained greatness of artistry and expression, but whose maximum power still rests on your overall understanding of the work as a whole. Does this make sense? This is why a clip from a feature film watched on YouTube will always carry more impact than a similar length clip, which was never part of any greater whole. Take the line from Caddyshack, “This isn’t Russia? Is this Russia?” It’s funny because it resonates with the entire attitude of the film. But only if you can conjure up Chevy Chase’s persona.


And now Matisse:


“Expression, for me, does not reside in passions glowing in a human frame or manifested by violent movement. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive. Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings. In a picture every part will be visible and all play into appointed roles.”


Here would be Matisse’s words with equal importance given to each (in other words, uncomposed):


the art of arranging is  composition

in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his


In a picture every part will be visible and all play its appointed roles. 

Expression, for me,

does not reside in passions glowing in a human frame

or manifested by violent movement.

The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive.


Is this true?  Are there obvious, discrete “packets” of humanity (an emotion, a smile, something) we can grab and hold onto. In Matisse’s work, sure. For example, in the one with the goldfish and the lemons, we see the fish looking pretty scared. That I can grasp, and remember. I don’t much remember the color of the glass, the table, but I remember the fish. But let’s go back to his painting of _________ where it really is all a collection of color combinations, even what could be called repetition, with seemingly equal importance given to each element. I suppose they’re working together, if he says so. It certainly has a feel, a look, a very colorful look and a particular wavelength of energy.


Anyway, it’s difficult to compare painting and film because the overall meaning of a painting is so difficult to discuss, let alone agree upon. But for the sake of argument, let us say we could start judging any work by asking whether the power of the fragments is in large part due to their connection with an overall meaning. If so, then a work meets both Eliot’s and Matisse’s demands.


But Kael says, “The film is overpowering: it’s like seeing a series of teasers—violent moments and highly charged scenes without structural coherence.”


I haven’t seen the film she’s talking about, but I can think of some films with assuredly magnificent scenes but which the coherence of the work as a whole can at least be questioned. They would include some of my most loved films from Kubrick to Godard and others. And, you guessed it, some of t’s most hated. But then the question is why do I keep watching these films with such joy even though my literary side cannot really make an air-tight case for them.


To get at this, let me go back and say two things on the issue of how we achieve this final imprint of the overall meaning. First, the imprint need not occur by seeing the film in its entirety, but may occur in your head after the fact, after several viewings, in part or in whole. And consequently it is subject to change over time. Architecture, is a great place to address this issue, because a building forces its inhabitants to develop a response over multiple encounters.


Charles Moore:


“Another characteristic beginning to emerge in the middle of the twentieth century is a special concern with the observer’s reaction to a building over a period of time, so that the whole processing of arriving at a building, of seeing it from far away and up close, from a variety of angles, represents part of one continuing experience, in which the forms instigate the observer’s movement, so that one view slides into another.”


That’s right. A relationship with a film doesn’t just begin when you see it. It begins when you first learn about its existence. When you see the box on the shelf, or read something about it in a magazine. Your subsequent feelings about the film are indeed informed by this prior knowledge. I have a funny habit of popping a DVD in, becoming mesmerized by the little intro menu (with its handful of images and hopefully well chosen sound loop) and just letting it play while I do other things. This may go on for several days (with interruptions) before I finally watch the film. I think we can agree I am weird. But if someone offered me money to sing the menu song for Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, I could do it. Sometimes my reasons are real. Sometimes the result of an overdeveloped tendency toward delayed gratification. Other times it’s trepidation, or outright fear, of Bergman usually.


Seeing a film on the big screen, collective and big. Seeing it in private. Bite sized pieces. These are like different angles of looking at the same building. Part of one continuing experience.


Sometimes, we fall in love with certain scenes and watch them over and over again to the neglect of the other scenes. It’s true. And this indeed can distort our understanding of the overall work. But as with music albums, these little obsessions usually drift from song to song until over time, things tend to even out. And if the film is at all coherent, then would not each  important scene be capable of transmitting the essence of the whole?


As to whether one’s initial viewing of a film should be straight through in its entirety or in parts, I must tell you I believe arguments can be made on both sides. And the answer may in fact depend on the film. But that is for another time. For now, let us agree that the relationship between a work of art and an audience is ongoing, whether you see it once and think about it later or whether you actually do see it repeatedly, in whole or in part.


If this is true, it suggests that the overall enjoyment or imprint of the work can be increased by repeated viewing of certain individual segments. And skipping other, perhaps even less great or flawed parts. This may seem like cheating. Perhaps. But let me assure you the movie I have right now in my head ten years later is way better than what you saw in the theatre.


But you can also look at all of this as you would a relationship with a friend. The longer it goes on, the more you become aware of certain flaws or inconsistencies. But you learn to accept them and be lenient. Would it be better if your friends were all perfect? Maybe. But face it, the only one who is, in fact, perfect just won the Nobel Prize in physics and seriously, he doesn’t have time for the likes of you. But that crazy one, you know, the one who is guaranteed to either sing or cry at least once each time you go out in public. Yes, that one. That one’s not bad.


We can all agree the Andrei Rublev is a near perfect and unassailable work of art. But right now I think I’d rather just watch the first half hour of Full Metal Jacket.



April 2007