The power of the art form of cinema, which separates it from all other forms of art, is that it incorporates all forms of art into itself. Crucial to the cinematic work is therefore a narrative, which one would find in literature, the score that one finds in music, the visual effect that we find in painting and sculpture. Unlike these forms of art, which can only treat one dimension, cinema incorporates all these aesthetic expressions into a concrete and singular object. It therefore most closely resembles what Richard Wagner, the composer of the 19th century, called “total art” or Gesamtkuntswerk.
Now, it is important to bear in mind that Wagner used such a term before the cinematic art was even technologically possible. He used the concept of total art to describe his own ambitions in opera. For opera, it would seem, most clearly becomes an example of precisely such a synthesis of aesthetic genres, incorporating a story, music, and a visual element. If cinematic art separates itself from all other forms of art, it is because it itself is a radicalization of this possibility of synthesis, it is its most heightened performance, and we see all these genres of art combined and fused together into a singular object.
The film director therefore is almost confronted with an unlimited number of aesthetic problems and challenges to overcome, when she sets about to create her work. These number of challenges therefore also shows the brilliance of the artist who is able to surmount them. For example, consider a film that is beautifully shot, using immaculate imagery that would satisfy all the criteria of Jean Epstein. Furthermore, consider a film that uses the power of the camera, such as in the form of the close up, which Bela Balasz deems to be of such importance. However, what if this film does not have a captivating narrative, but only relies upon cliché. What if it does not have a coherent editing approach, such as the one which Sergei Eisenstein identified as decisive to the art form, so that the entire story is ruined by inappropriate pacing and poor montage decisions. The object of art falls apart. We could even think about a film that has a compelling story and also beautiful imagery: it could be entirely ruined, for example, by selecting inappropriate music for the score, turning it into a farce, instead of a work of art, such as if disco music was used in the background to frame an existential crisis. Film functions as a type of total art, but this means that the creators of the film must be well versed and skilled in multiple genres simultaneously, so as to truly produce something great. In film, namely, the artist is allowed to show a true genius, precisely because of the mastery at different aesthetic levels which is required so as to turn a simple “movie” into a work of art.
But it this very potential which should excite and encourage the artist also. One could argue that the problem with accounts such as those of Eisenstein, Epstein, and Balasz is that they focus too much on one particular dimension of the cinematic process, so as to make their claims about what makes cinema distinct. Certainly, as argued above, if one of these dimensions is of particularly poor quality, then the entire film can be ruined, even though the creators may excel on multiple levels simultaneously. Instead of these specific techniques, such as the close up or the montage, the holistic picture must be emphasized, the synthesis of basically the entire history of art into a singular artistic object, and it is precisely in this object that lies the potential for the greatest aesthetic triumphs because of the fundamental interdisciplinary nature of film as total art.