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Culture Warrior: The Gesamtkuntswerk

By  · Published on December 22nd, 2009

The gesamtkunstwerk is an idea popularized (though not originated) by German composer Richard Wagner. The term roughly means “total artwork,” or an art form that is able to utilize and contain within itself all other forms of art. Wagner employed this idea in his magnum opus, the epic opera The Ring Cycle (1876). But if we were to identify what art form comes closest to achieving the idea of the gesamtkuntswerk – that is, the fusion of all arts – in a post-Wagner era, it’d have to be cinema. While in the nascent years of the 21st century the Internet proves time and again to not only be the source of all art, but of all information, it is the cinema is undoubtedly the 20th century’s gesamtkuntswerk.

But what does this mean exactly? And how do we see the gesamtkunstwerk operate in cinema on a regular basis? From a pragmatic standpoint, the basic modes of production require cinema to utilize virtually all forms of art (which is what gives cinema the nickname “the seventh art”). With the use of actors and screenwriters, set designers and film composers, cinema employs the arts of performance, writing, painting/design, and music. One could go even further, arguing that practices unique to cinema like film editing are analogous to other specialized forms of art like sculpting, chipping away at a formless object until it resembles what the artist is trying to achieve.

But what Wagner meant when he implemented the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk into his opera was not the union of all art forms within modes of production behind the scenes, where they often remain invisible, but the coexistence of all other art forms apparent in the finished work itself – in other words, other art forms integrated (sometimes simultaneously) either as thematic device or directly within the narrative.

It’s interesting that Wagner popularized an idea so applicable to cinema because his compositions have arguably been used more often – or, at least, in a more iconic and memorable fashion – than any other pre-20th century composer, like Coppola’s infamous use of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (from The Ring Cycle) for Apocalypse Now (1979). And this brings us to one of the most apparent, repeated, and interesting implementations of this intersection of various art forms: the use of existing classical music, rather than original scores, for feature films.

Take this example from one of the highest-praised films of the year, Up. This brilliant sequence juxtaposes the mundane nature of everyday reality for an elderly man with the “Habanera” theme from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen (1875, as interpreted by Up’s composer Michael Giacchino). Following a heartbreaking, mostly dialogue-free sequence showing a decade-spanning relationship ending in the death of the old man’s wife, viewing the protagonist in such continued solidarity could have come across as even more heartbreaking. But such potential heartbreak is alleviated by the effectively comic audio-visual juxtaposition of elegant, graceful music with boring, ordinary routine.

While this sequence appropriates Bizet’s music inventively, this is where the perceived advantages of a gesamtkunstwerk-like exercise comes into conflict when utilized within cinematic practice. While Up without doubt uses the sounds of Bizet, these sounds are severed from the context in which they were originally intended to be received: that is, the entirety of opera itself, not only in terms of the remaining compositions, but the narrative, performances, and visuals that go with opera. Up and Carmen are incredible pieces of art in their own disparate ways. But when the material of one medium is used for the other, one can’t say – in the Wagnerian sense, at least – that it actually contains or is integrated within the other, because one form of art has to lose something in order to be part of another. While the sounds of “Habanera” are used for Up, the film does not contain Carmen, at least not in its scope or intended context/mode of audience reception. Elements of “Habanera” exist in this sequence but not the “Habanera,” not Bizet’s “Habanera.”

A more direct illustration of a film attempting the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk is Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, a film the features within the narrative (if you can even call it that) a classical guitar performance, a flamenco performance, the music of Schubert, and many works of modern art. This film very explicitly contains many other forms of art within one art form, an exercise appropriate for the film’s theme of accepting the subjective experience of reality as reality itself (a process endorsed by postmodern art). But like I argued last May in my CW post on that film, The Limits of Control fails in integrating various forms of art into a cohesive, authoritative cinematic form of its own. It’s an empty, proudly meaningless walk through a museum. It collects densely meaningful, expressive, beautiful art together into a collage that, when combined, becomes far less than the sum of its parts. The collection of these many art forms under the umbrella of one art form ends up, in this case, cancelling out all potential meaning within these intersections.

So is the attempt at a cinematic gesamtkunstwerk too ambitious? Is it futile to force several, sometimes conflicting art forms into one? Is the perception that cinema potentially uses all other forms of art simply wrong, and is cinema (deceptively) just not “big” enough to contain all others? Is even attempting the gesamtkunstwerk going directly against the natural, unique artistic characteristics particular to cinema?

I think the cinematic gesamtkunstwerk is rare, but real nonetheless. It takes a skilled filmmaker and the right material, but sometimes a film comes along that integrates many other works of art into a single film in a way that doesn’t go directly against it being also strongly cinematic, instead employing this ambitious practice seamlessly into what the film at large is trying to achieve. When it happens, the result can be spectacular.

My case in point here is Sally Potter’s 1992 film Orlando, based on the Virginia Woolf novel (of the same name) about a woman inexplicably traversing through time and era. Below are the film’s final eight minutes (including its end credits). (Note: If you haven’t yet seen the film, this still doesn’t really ruin anything for you. It’s an art film and the ending hardly makes coherent narrative sense even in the context of the larger film itself. But ultimately, it’s your choice).

In the final moments of Orlando, we see many forms of art featured within a few short minutes, at first combining the beauty of architecture with Elizabethan paintings in a museum. Naturally matching the film’s star Tilda Swinton’s unique Renaissance-style beauty with the film’s story, the Elizabethan painting allows the time-traveling Orlando to look at her past self, aestheticized and rendered immortal through art in a way analogous to her existence through history. The gesamtkunstwerk continues here with the integration of Jimmy Somerville’s soaring music, personified in his rather random appearance as an angel. And the last shot – that exquisite last shot – combines Swinton’s unblinking statuesque physique with the moving image and – in its almost shocking, 4th wall-invading stillness – marries the moving image with the effect of the photograph. It is so much art wrapped together, yet still uniquely one art, the seventh art.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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