Is the unity and wholeness essential quality for a great film? For a long time that has been my opinion, but I want to throw this idea out there and put it to the test. Now, what do I mean by “wholeness” or “unity?” For one thing, I mean that all the various parts of the film—e.g. the direction, acting, writing, cinematography, set design, music, etc.—all come together in a unified way. At the same time, I also mean the actual scenes and events in the film come together in a seamless whole. One scene follows the next and it all makes sense and seems natural. I think what makes the film whole is that there is a center and focus of the film. It could be an overarching idea or feeling, but whatever it is specifically, this thing pulls all the parts together; it serves as a kind of hub, while the parts of the film are like spokes on a wheel. I’m not completely satisfied with this definition, but hopefully it’s good enough.
My feeling is that this sense of wholeness is a mark of a great film. In other words, a film without this quality is usually not great. Do you agree or disagree with this? Why or why not?
A lot of films have great scenes, but lack the wholeness and unity you describe. Sometimes a great film has that but is tampered with and cut by the producer or the studio (think Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH). Great directors like Ford and Hawks and Walsh knew how to keep that unity you describe in their best films.
Of course, the wholeness and unity have to MEAN something. To the Coen brothers, their films have a wholeness and unity, but I tend to find their films unsatisfying (TRUE GRIT excepted—they honored the wholeness and unity of the book). Their wholeness and unity don’t move me.
When I read your post, the very first film that came to mind was Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1967). The international cut that we all saw in the ’60s and ’70s. When they “restored” scenes to it a few years ago, those scenes completely damaged the wholeness and unity that Leone achieved in the film.
totally agree with you “jazz” …….. in my opinion unity and wholeness are among the basic things or factors that should be present in any great film ……. actually the audience don’t recognize the unity of the film however they feel it and are affected by it.
however, on the other side there are some films that succeeded without – in my opinion – the unity and wholeness … like “the Deer Hunter” or “Tokyo Drifter” or to some extent , and I repeat to some extent “2046” and “La Strada” .
Yes.The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes 2005 is an ideal candidate for an example of the ineffective totality.
The intent was to have a 3-part structure that is assessable. Yet, this film doesn’t coalesce, the properties of its structure are anomalous. It is a collage-like, the assemblage of parts not achieving a new whole.
I think ‘Wholeness’ is one of those things that’s a good idea to have in a movie, but it’s okay not to have it if you have a good artistic reason not to.
I remember reading in English class that playwrites used to try to abide by the ‘Three unities’. Unity of time, unity of setting, I forget the third. Shakespeare was often criticized for violating the three unities, because his films often jumped all over the place in time and setting. I believe these ‘Unities’ are getting at the same quality. It’s okay to violate them, if it’s an artistic decision to do so and not just a matter of laziness.
I feel directors like Cronenberg often suffer from lack of ‘Unity’, but directors like David Lynch do not. And I like the way the finale of The Sopranos teased unity then stripped it away.
There are also some cases where I felt the film suffered from a strained attempt at unity. Endings often involve characters coming together by total coincidence, or characters suddenly falling in love whether or not it made sense for them to.
Cronenberg often suffer from lack of ‘Unity
The odd thing about this subject is that, if a unity is suggested, it is difficult to disprove.
Cronenberg films with unity:
Cronenberg films with total lack of unity:
A History Of Violence
I don’t know how to prove unity or lack thereof, since ‘unity’ is such a vaguely defined concept when applied to film. We’d spend more time debating the definition than we would the films. I find some of Cronenberg’s films have schizophrenic moods piled with emotional non-sequiturs.
I don’t know how to prove unity or lack thereof, since ‘unity’ is such a vaguely defined concept when applied to film. We’d spend more time debating the definition than we would the films
I agree with this. It’s a tough concept to articulate and understand. It can be easily confused with other concepts, too. But I do think it’s worth tryinng to clarify and define, so, if you’re game, I hope you will help me work out a better understanding of the concept.
Apropos of what I just said, I don’t know if I agree that Lynch’s films are always unified. For example, consider Lost Highway. Imo, the film tries to combine elements of Blue Velvet with his more nightmarish/experimental films like Eraserhead, but it doesn’t successfully come together. It’s not until Mulholland when we see a better integration of these ideas, imo.
However, perhaps Lost Highway is unified, but it just has elements that don’t work. Is there a difference between “unity” and a film just not working for some reason? In other words can a film be whole and still fail?
I’m not sure if I totally agree, but I think I agree about Naked Lunch—although that is a tough one to judge.
I believe there are exceptions, but what would be some examples?
Of course, the wholeness and unity have to MEAN something.
I think this is interesting. There does seem to be a link between meaning and wholeness. Do others agree with that? Let’s try to flesh that out. On the other hand, can a film really be unified and whole if there is little meaning behind the film? (By “meaning” I’m thinking of what the film is about on a deeper level; what’s driving the film—it’s what I meant by a film having a “center” or “focus.”)
…actually the audience don’t recognize the unity of the film however they feel it and are affected by it.
Maybe you’re right, although I’m not sure about that. I do think the audience can sense when a film is not unified.
@Jirin — Naked Lunch is about drug use and the effects of it. I would imagine that perhaps Cronenberg was trying to imitate a drugged state of mind if the storyline is fragmented? From a review of the book by Burroughs on Amazon, I assume the movie is at least loosely based on the book:
“That is the story of its life: few people have actually gotten through the whole book. It reads in fragments with inconsistent characters morphing, changing and altering identities. Dream, hallucination, reality and drug visions blend and merge and disperse. Scatalogical routines take coherant form and read like vaudville humor from a bathroom wall, then deteriorate into filthy fragments and irreverant and often disgusting descriptions of sado-masochistic sex acts. Everyone is a junkie, everyone is gay, everyone screws teenaged North African boys, everyone is insane, psychotic or diseased. Doctors kill their patients, police murder their suspects, drug addicts infect their marks with insect diseases and turn into centipedes during sex acts that threaten to nauseate the reader.
So what does it all mean? What is the motivation or the reasoning behind it all. Burroughs was no fool and he had a strong moral intent all the way. He considered himself a reporter who has entered behind enemy lines, like a photojournalist who returns from Vietnam with pictures of napalmed babies. The title Naked Lunch evokes an image of someone being wised up to what they are eating. Burroughs is depicting the relationship between the junkie and the drug dealer to be a metaphor for all control systems, for all vampiric systems whether it be capital punishment, abuse of political power, police states, etc. By the time Burroughs wrote this novel he had suffered through decades of abuse at the hands of federal agents, narcotics police and the customs officials of all the third world borderlines that he crossed as he moved from New York to Texas to New Orleans to New Mexico to Mexico City to Tangiers, all the time running from the police, none the least of reasons being that he shot his wife through the head during a drunken game of William Tell (she put a glass on her head and challenged him to shoot it off — he lost the challenge)."
So anyway, I agree with you about the artistic license that should be allowed if fragmentation is done to a work for a specific reason. Although with this particular film, to me it was obvious why this fragmentation was happening — drugs will do that to one’s reality.
Is the unity and wholeness essential quality for a great film?
Can you think of any great films that lack “unity?” If so, than it isn’t . Naked Lunch, (the novel) for example, isn’t a particularly unified work, but many would argue it’s a great novel. Unity is certainly something that is valued in a lot of classical aesthetics, but, again this is something I think it could be argued is a product of the lens (metaphorically speaking) through which it’s being viewed as it is of the work itself.
I agree with you there, Matt. I’m perplexed as to why “unity” is being proposed as a criteria for greatness. Things can be said with work that is not smoothly moving from one thing to the next that cannot be said with the opposite kind of work. Also, there are works that can pull off both in the same story to represent different aspects of someone’s reality and consciousness. It takes someone with great skill to do that, but it can be done.
Certainly one’s life does not proceed in an orderly and sequential fashion, or if it does (like when you can make it through all your school years without interruption), it is an imposed order that is capable of being destroyed and made incomprehensible at any minute and for no reason (e.g., the sudden break out of war where you happen to live, or, God forbid, an earthquake/tsunami combo).
I think the preference for something orderly may have to do with a longing to see SOMETHING in one’s life look like it’s under control. Not to get psychological here, but really, all our constructs are subject to change without, as it’s said, advance notice.
Can you think of any great films that lack “unity?”
Off the top of my head, no, but let’s try to think of some.
If so, than it isn’t.
Well, I don’t know if I would say that. My sense is that there aren’t absolutely essential qualities for great art—meaning that even if we identify qualities that are almost always present, there can be a great work that may not have one of the qualities. But that is not to say that indentifying these qualities that most frequently appear with great works is not meaningful—at leat not imo.
I don’t think “orderliness” or “smoothness” are necessarily the same as unity. A film can bounce around or even have a fragmented quality, but still be unified. The scenes, dialogue, etc. don’t necessarily have to be smooth or orderly for a film to be unified, imo. In those type of films, there could be an overarching theme that ties them together; or maybe those “jagged” elements contribute to the overall purpose of the film—which would make the film unified and whole. What you seem to be talking about is what I would say is more of a superficial level of wholeness/fragmentation.
One example for a film that is superficially fragmented, but whole, overall, could be Nashville. (Then again, maybe it is a fragmented film that also happens to be a great film.) I haven’t seen it in a long time, but my recollection is that the film is unified and whole—even though it is told in a fragmentary way and deals with many different issues. The film manages to bring these elements together in a way that feels both whole and organic.
Would The Color of Pomegranates be one?
I think you misread my post, Lynch is my example of somebody whose films do not always have unity, but for whom it works well for.
I see what you mean, Jazz. I guess I’m having a bit of trouble then understanding what is meant by “whole.” I would imagine that a work should be unified to make any sense, i.e. not a bunch of random scribble scrabble, that there is a master plan in mind behind anything other than something like automatic writing (if I understand that concept correctly), but that sometimes the person making the work does not succeed well in giving his audience a feeling of unity in the work. In which case it’s a matter of failing technically, not for lack of trying…
I guess I’m having a bit of trouble then understanding what is meant by “whole.
That makes two of us. :) Seriously, as I mentioned, I don’t have a clear understanding of what I mean, and my hope is this conversation can help me get a better understanding of the term.
I would imagine that a work should be unified to make any sense… but that sometimes the person making the work does not succeed well in giving his audience a feeling of unity in the work. In which case it’s a matter of failing technically, not for lack of trying…
This brings up a good dinstinction. Any decent work of art is coherent to some degree, but the sense of wholeness and unity (in the way I’m thinking) requires a higher degree of artistry—an artistry that is not just technical. Let me use an example from cooking. Great chefs can bring together different ingredients in a way where the blending is almost seamless and natural—as if the dish came out of the ground that way, if you know what I mean. There are good chefs that can use ingredients and techniques to make a meal that is decent or even good—but not necessarily whole and unified in the sense that I’m talking about. The same thing can happen in films or any other medium.
Btw, technical skill is important to pull this off, but an artistic sensibility—what will work and fit together to create a desirable effect—as well as discipline—what things shouldn’t belong in a work—are also very important. When you see a work that is fully whole and unified, it’s a wonderful thing, imo. It’s a sign of great artistry.
I feel directors like Cronenberg often suffer from lack of ‘Unity’, but directors like David Lynch do not.
Ah, so you mean that Lynch’s films aren’t unified, but they still manage to succeed. I don’t know if I agree with that. I liked Lost Highway, but I think the lack of successfully merging some of the elements hurts the film.
The Color of Pomegranates might be a good choice. I say might because it does have a fragmented quality to it (somewhat similar to Naked Lunch). I think I’d have to know more about the poet that was the subject of the film (and I feel the same about NL).
I think I know what you mean. Harmony, sort of like? But how is one supposed to be a truly objective critic about this? What might seem to work really well for one person, seems disjointed to another.
Ok take Mozart, for example. I think a lot of people can agree that he achieves that level of mastery, and a lot of people are familiar with Mozart. Is there an equivalent in the film world?
Also, I wonder whether we’re sliding into an aesthetic sort of territory now… there have to be people who would prefer something improvised and imperfect to Mozart, somewhere out there. Here’s another example — there is a kind of lore in the community of people who knit by hand (and other needlework communities such as quilters) that when you make something for someone, you’re supposed to leave a little mistake in there somewhere (that only an experienced eye could spot). It gives, I suppose, the feeling of a sense of humanity in there somewhere. So, someone might appreciate that scarf or sweater or something else that has a mistake in there somewhere because to err is human, there is therefore a connection between the maker of the gift and the recipient of the gift that is humble.
Not that filmmakers would do such a sentimental thing. But maybe the idea of dis-harmony is more appealing aesthetically to them than harmony. Something off, something grating, something not quite lying flush against the surface of another and causing malfunctioning.
Is this making any sense? Does it relate at all to what you are trying to get at?
I’d have to think if harmony is the synonymous with wholeness, but it sounds good for now.
I think a lot of people can agree that he achieves that level of mastery, and a lot of people are familiar with Mozart. Is there an equivalent in the film world?
First director that came to mind: Hitchcock. I’m not sure if he fits, but there’s something about his facility with the camera, editing, that made me think of Mozart. My response is probably not a good one.
…there have to be people who would prefer something improvised and imperfect to Mozart, somewhere out there.
Again, I think you’re raising an interesting issue—namely, the relationship between perfection and wholeness. Is wholeness/unity the same thing as perfection? I’m not really sure of the answer to that. There seems to be a connection. On the other hand, the type of imperfection you’re referring to doesn’t seem connected to wholeness/unity. What makes something unified/whole is not the absence of mistakes or imperfections so much as the absence of what doesn’t fit into the meaning/purpose of the work. In other words, a mistake or imperfection—especially a technical one—might be neutral with regard to the overall framework and meaning of the work. Does that make sense? If so, what do you think about that?
Yeah, I hated to even mention The Color of Pomegranates b/c it is second only to (fill in name of obscure film) in popularity around here.
But if someone can watch that and say what it is about without reading several volumes, wow – they get my vote.
@Robert — I’ve seen it. I loved it. And my response to it was emotional, more than anything. However, wouldn’t mind seeing it again to discuss more thoroughly.
@Jazz — I think that is a philosophical question, that some of the philosophy people could answer with references to actual texts, but yes, I think wholeness/unity is the same as perfection. Whenever people talk about for example, a bargain they got somewhere but is missing something (an object), you’d think of its missing something defining it as imperfect, and therefore less than praiseworthy.
Anyone else want to take a stab at this? I can only think in metaphors. I think for sure that people associate wholeness, or at least the perception of wholeness, with perfection. All parts work in harmony, nothing is missing or out of place. That is an experience that one can have — the amazing thing for example of seeing a newborn have all his/her fingers and toes, limbs, everything is whole and well, perfect. Everything works as it should.
Yeah I liked it too, but this is a good summary:also i just wonder guiltily sometimes if there isn’t something a little contemptible at being so entranced by the fragrant exoticism – it is so stunning and inescapable. you don’t quite get the spiritual agony of the poet, because you’re so happy just looking at the prettiness….
I don’t remember feeling it was a pretty or exotic movie. I recall there was emotion in it, and it wasn’t hitting me in a superficial way. I was also baffled, kind of like I dropped in on some ritual and had to start participating in a dance without really knowing the steps, but once I got in rhythm, I understood how to listen to the language being spoken better…
Again, a film I’d like to see again.
I love the title of that thread, btw.
Depends on what you mean by unity.
Again, depends on what you mean, exactly, but, ignoring some of the obvious examples from experimental film, for me, a good portion of Godard’s work intentionally disrupt audience expectations of “unity.” Lynch plays with expectations of unity in characterization. Raging Bull is expressionistic during the fight scenes but sort of neo-realistic during much of Jake’s day-to-day life. Ordet seems to me intentionally not stylistically unified. One could argue that many of the what Bordwell calls “intensified continuity” films often violate spatial unity. Some of Tony Scott’s more avant garde films. Etc., etc.
Kurosawa has said something about this. Rashomon is about as close as it gets to a balanced whole.
I think there are different ways of thinking of perfection, though. In one sense, perfection can mean the complete absence of any flaws or mistakes. So, if the musicians performing a piece by Mozart make a few mistakes (e.g. off notes, play too slow or fast at one point, etc.) we can say they failed to achieve perfection. I don’t think this definition of perfection is the same as wholeness/unity. The same group of musicians can express the wholeness or unity of the piece, even with these flaws. (That’s an awkward example, but oh well.) This type of perfection is impossible (or at least extremely rare), and, in any event, I don’t think it’s even desirable. Flaws, as it relates to this definition, can actually enhance a work of art. In jazz, this is certainly true. In a way, if a jazz improviser plays perfectly in this sense, the performance probably won’t be very interesting or exciting because she probably won’t be taking enough risks, pushing herself for something more. Sometimes the mistakes or flaws can also be a sign of beauty, as in the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.
But we could also think of perfection in a more general, less absolute way—i.e. not something that means the complete absence of all errors and flaws. In this sense, errors aren’t tiny, technical flaws, but parts of a piece that a) really don’t belong in the work and/or; b)weaken the sense of wholeness/unity. This is a narrower definition of flaws, and I’m suggesting that a work of art can have other types of flaws (like the technical errors I mentioned above or even certain aspects of the work that aren’t so effective—i.e. maybe the acting is weak in certain areas, etc.) and still be very unified and whole. What do you think about that?
By “unity” and “wholeness,” I mean something like a work that conforms to an overall design or objective. The parts of the whole fit within this design, and work together to achieve or actualize the film’s objective. So a film using several different styles doesn’t necessarily weaken the unity of the film, by my definition of unity and wholeness. A film’s style or filmmaking used in the film can have a rough, fragmented quality and still create a unified film. What matters is the way the filmmaking and structure of the film conforms and fulfills the overall design and “aboutness” of the film. Does that make sense? (I’m not fully satisfied with my explanation, so I’d understand you’re not clear about what I’m saying.)
Arnheim:that perceptual order rarely, if ever, exists for its own sake but is the
external manifestation of an internal order (as in a crystal) or of a
functional order (as in a building or machine), or is intended as a
portrayal of a signicant type of order existing elsewhere. In this latter
case, the case of the work of art, the structural theme derives its
value even much of its -value as a stimulant-from the human condition
whose particular form of order it makes visible or audible.
Order,I shall suggest, is a necessary although not a sufficient condition of
Jazz, I don’t know. I think I have to get some food in my stomach because right now none of this makes any sense to me.
“Unity” or “self-similarity” in musical compositions is a concept that was hammered home in my music degree; so as far as constructing an artwork goes, I think that “unity in film” and “unity in music” would be similar in some respects.
“Unity” implies self-similarity and consistency in “technique”, “structure” and “concept”. A simple example of unity can be found in Beethoven’s piano sonata, op. 2, no. 1. The opening theme (melody) is characterised by a falling sixth (an interval between two different pitches), and if one studies the following transitions, developments and structures throughout the entire work, then one will find that Beethoven utilises his “motif” of a falling sixth throughout the entire work, which gives the work as a whole a sense of unity or “self-similarity” in harmonic organisation. However, one doesn’t need to comprehend this fact in order to appreciate to aesthetic unity of the piece, because it is immediately apparent upon the surface; i.e. as you listen, your ears instinctively appreciate the aesthetic unity of the work, which can be considered as the immediately presentable “surface” of the work. Then, the individual elements which make up the work can be thought of as bubbling away beneath this immediately presentable surface, holding the structural properties of the work together in a “unified” fashion. This, of course, can be analysed and understood with an intellectual effort, which can then bring a sense of enlightenment and thus deepen one’s appreciation of the artistic ingenuity of the creator.
I’d imagine that “self-similarity” in film would be hammered home in film schools too, in regards to editing, costumes, set designs, lighting, acting, etc. That is, individual “motifs” may turn up at structural points in the film to create a sense of continuity and hence “unity”. A “motif” in a film could be anything, for example: a specific panning shot or zoom; a specific sequence of rhythmic edits; a specific colour schema; a line of dialog; an actor’s facial expression or gesture; “symbolic” objects and/or locations. These “motifs” may not be immediately apparent to the viewer, but the overall effect of “unity” will be sensed and appreciated, perhaps subconsciously at first.
To summarise: finding “unity” in an artwork implies that the creator of said artwork spent much time and energy in crafting his/her work technically, structurally and conceptually, which should then engender a sense of appreciation for the artistry and ingenuity of its creator.