Wednesday 22 August 2018

Melbourne International Film Festival (6) - FIRST REFORMED - Bruce Hodsdon takes the two Adrians and others to task

I've been mulling over exchanges of comments generated by Adrian Danks' interesting summing up of his viewing at MIFF posted on FB at 6.42pm on 17/8 and reposted  here on Film Alert. 

Adrian lists his top 7 films at MIFF in order together with a few comments on his selection. An additional comment is his dismissal of Paul Schrader's First Reformed as  “certainly the most overrated movie I've seen - static, obvious, somewhat impoverished” - and even “ludicrous.” This produced prompt agreement from Adrian Martin that First Reformed  is “a bizarrely overrated film” followed by a series of comments in similar vein from other cinephiles broadening the attack onto Schrader's previous film, Dog Eat Dog (2016), a black comedy based on a trash script. 

The commentators somewhat missed the point - a film which Schrader himself has described as “a completely outrageous, off the rails, profane, gonzo, Tarantino kin of a film” which he obviously seems to have enjoyed making and does contain brilliant moments for those who can tolerate such indulgence. Dying of the Light (2014) also came in for a mauling in the post's FB commentaries although Schrader disowns that film because of producer interference, rating it the worst experience of his long career as writer-director. He has recut it for “screening by film institutes.” The Canyons (2013)troubled collaboration with Bret Easton Ellis is given a somewhat kinder treatment in the comments. Scroll down Adrian’s Facebook page to get the full flavour. 

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
The point of this blog however is not to survey Schrader's career (which I am anyway in the process of doing  in one of a series, in Film Alert, of short essays on key filmmakers in 'old and new' Hollywood)I have actually been holding off completing the blog waiting for the opportunity to view First Reformed.Advance reports and reviews have indicated a substantial upturn for Schrader both critically ( if “bizarrely overrated”) and at the box office after the “black anger and despair” he felt over Dying of the Light.This opportunity has been provided by MIFF prior to what should be a theatrical release if not I hope pre-empted bystreaming. There is is a good deal to be gained by seeing it in a cinema.

I have to say that I am disappointed by the pejoratively sweeping way, both Adrians, you have dismissed the film in such a few words which even had one of the readers reconsidering whether he would view the film, as he had planned, at its third screening at MIFF that night, such is the deserved standing of you both with many of us readers online. I say this because I am certain you  would be aware of Schrader's classic, lucid work of film scholarship (he certainly can write!)  Transcendental Style first published in 1972 which has just been republished for at least the second time. However your comments suggest to me that you have either not read it or more likely have not done so for quite some time as was the case with me.

Amanda Seyfried, First Reformed
It would also seem that you may not have taken in the advance information about the significance of this film – the aspiring 'transcendental work' Schrader thought he would never make “because it does not suit my personality,” i.e. his previously self confessed “love of the profane” as a filmmaker and critic. The significance for Schrader and dare I say for American indie cinema, of the explicit substitution of the “sparse means” of sacred mystery for the “abundant means” of the profane, in search of “stasis” is outlined in an article by Philip Concannon based on an interview with Schrader  in the August issue of Sight & Sound. A knowledge of what underlies the theory of transcendental art is of course not necessary to make First Reformed accessible to the general audience Schrader has worked so hard to reach – his self acknowledged 'evangelical impulse'. The last thing Schrader wants is mystification although he is seeking a certain strangeness. 

The greatest danger is the apparent simplicity in strangeness and the relocation of empathy required. It is significant, Adrian D, that you use the words 'obvious' and 'static' to downgrade the film. I am also interested Adrian M in your statement that “if FR is 'slow cinema' (according to Schrader - which I question) we're all in deep trouble.” FB is clearly not a forum for extended debate and analysis and one is entitled to one's opinion but I do see this as a special case given the 'extra-cinematic' information available. At least some qualification is in order.

Lest the whole notion of transcendental style in the cinema seem rarefied, as a coda I add this short excerpt from Schrader's book (p.10) :
Many filmmakers have employed the transcendental style but few
had the devotion, the rigor, and the outright fanaticism to employ
it exclusively (even Carl Dreyer, Schrader suggests). Elements of transcendental style can be  detected  in the films  of many  other directors:  Antonioni, Rossellini,  Pasolini,   Boetticher,    Renoir, Mizoguchi, Bunuel, Warhol, Michael Snow, Bruce Baillie.....

And I might add in at least some of Schrader's works of profane cinema.
I recommend David Hare's short piece in Film Alert on 14 August
Paul Schrader

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