Friday 11 October 2019

Bruce Hodsdon - On Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style and FIRST REFORMED

Transcendental style “fleeing” narrative in First Reformed
Paul Schrader
 A cross reference from the note on First Reformed in Paul Schrader Part 2 in my series on Authorship and Hollywood  this is a summary, not a critique, of the realisation by Schrader in his latest film, of transcendental style based on analysis of the style proposed by him in his book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu Bresson Dreyer (first published in 1972, Bracketed references in black type are to relevant page numbers in Transcendental Style in Film, 2018 edition). 

This essay appears here also to complement the appearance, in Issue 92 of Senses of Cinema, of an essay,“Paul Schrader's 'Rethinking Transcendental Style'.”  You can find that essay if you click on this link

“Movies are antagonistic to articulating spiritual feelings, but through a process, a stylistic ritual in motion pictures you can create a feeling of transcendence or a sensation of the Wholly Other.” (1)
When he wrote Transcendental Style in FilmPaul Schrader admits that he had little idea of how the phenomenology (2) worked in the process of breaking free from “the iron nucleus of narrative.” (25)  

In defining filmic transcendental style (TS)  (2), Schrader makes his intentions explicit: not to pretend any “new” aesthetics but rather to situate his concept within some previous theories which draw conclusions from “the checkered history of sacred art.”(171) Schrader emphasises that there are no specific religious techniques. What is important and necessary are aesthetic generalisations. “A technique or form can only be described as “religious” (or transcendental) when defined in a highly restricted context.”(172) This context comes into clearer focus, Schrader suggests, by the adoption and adaptation to cinema of the theory of abundant and sparse means in art.(177) (3)

In this context transcendental style “must walk the line”: it must use the given abundant means of profane cinema to sustain audience interest, and it must sufficiently reject the empathetic rationale of profane cinema in order for that rationale to attain a new priority. The book thus uses a minimum of abundant means in order to sustain a film in which the means are becoming increasingly sparse (179).  At the same time, despite increasing austerity, spirituality in a film needs to remain in a state of flux, to have “room to move” in a subtle interplay between abundance and sparsity. In this, irony and ambiguity have a part to play.

The following is a form of transcendental analysis (1) of the style Schrader subsequently applied to First Reformed  for the first time in his own filmmaking. Many filmmakers have used elements of TS in their films in the context of other styles but according to Schrader “few have had the devotion, the rigour and the outright fanaticism to employ it exclusively.” (41)

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
In First Reformed Schrader opens with the everyday,a meticulous representation of the commonplaces in everyday living which for him is a form of stylisation - the camera is static and human figures positioned in flat (planimetric) compositions – a preponderance of images with the camera placed in medium or long shot to the action, filmed and edited in longer than average shots (ASL) . There is an ASL in Film Reformed of around 12-13 secs with shots in some scenes of 30-60 seconds or more, minimal reverse angle cutting between characters. Schrader emphasises that “if the everyday was an end in itself it would be a style rather than a step within a style.”  (69-70)

In his film, minimal non-diegetic music throughout heightens the impact of the onscreen choral performances in this austere environment. Acting in First Reformed is more expressive than Bresson would have allowed. Schrader repeats Bresson's use of “doubling,” i.e., repeating information in the form of spoken onscreen diary entries. He suggests that this questions what is perceived to be happening in the everyday, increasing the sense of disparity.

Disparity isan actual or potential disunity between man and his environment...a growing crack in the dull surface of everyday reality” (70). “Disparity is often reflected (as in Ozu's family dramas) “by a thoroughgoing sense of irony”  (72). [Disparity] is “a gradual process, each progressive step eating away at the solid veneer of everyday reality.” (74 ). Disparity is caused by the insertion of what Amédée Ayfre calls, “human density” which, if examined more closely, is actually a spiritual density  (70).”

Amanda Seyfried, First Reformed
Mary, a parishioner who is pregnant, asks Pastor Toller, himself struggling with his faith, to counsel her husband Michael who is despairing for the future of their child in what he perceives to be a physically and morally polluted world. Following the counselling, Toller is shown a suicide vest by Mary, of which he takes charge, that she has found hidden in the garage. There is a moment of subjectivity in the everydaythe elation of the bike ride with Mary Disparity in the everyday becomes an open rupture with Michael's suicide. Toller's comforting of Mary transmutes into the 'miraculous emotional screen' of the levitation.

A sparsity of means is balanced by narrative interest – Toller's relationship with the two women and the critical environmental issue. Toller discovers on Michael's computer, that a company, the main sponsor of the 250thconsecration of Toller's church, is a leading polluter. This is rationalised by Toller's superior in his concern about the pastor's growing despair.

In transcendental expression there is a difference between East (enlightenment) and West (conversion) – the disparityin Ozu's films is primarily internal  (“man cannot find nature in himself”), in Bresson's films it is external (“man cannot live harmoniously in a hostile environment”). In the former the decisive action is communal, in the latter it is restricted to a lonely figure pitted against the environment. (82-3) In transcendental stylewidening disparity produces a decisive action, a commitment by both a central character and the viewer. Without the latter there can be no stasis.(105) (3)

Ill and in personal crisis, in the light of dawn Toller embraces belief in “a new form of prayer” fuelling the pastor's resolve to take decisive action. The cold environment is briefly 'thawed' by the singing of 'Everlasting Arms' in the church service. Irony cannot mask Toller's resolve.

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Note: the following paragraph in italics contains spoilers.

Despite his earlier warning for her to stay away, Toller sees Mary enter the church for the consecration service during which he is planning to activate the suicide vest.  Following the Pastor's maximum emotional conflict expressed in a muffled scream of agony, is Mary's sudden presence in the room which must be accepted or rejected - they embrace as the camera circles, then stasis image and sound just stop at the ambiguous final moment, an abrupt cut from image and sound to a black screen and silence.  

“If the viewer accepts the decisive action (and disparity), [she] accepts through [her] mental construct a view of life that can encompass both. On screen this is represented by stasis...This static view represents the “new” world in which the physical and spiritual can co-exist, still in tension and unresolved, but as part of a larger scheme...more or less expressive of a larger reality.” (108)

The outburst of inexplicable emotion Bresson called “ 'the moment of transformation'...This transformation does not resolve the disparity, it accepts [overrides] it” in what Schrader identifiesas “the end product of transcendental style,” (75)...the trademark of religious art in every culture.” (75-6) It establishes the image of another reality which can stand beside the ordinary reality; it represents the Wholly Other.”  (76) “All is one,” disparity, now frozen, is “unresolved but transcended in stasiswhich is the final example of sparse means.” (108,179)  This “forces the viewer into the confrontation with the Wholly Other [she] would normally avoid.” (106)

Unlike conventional religious films which deploy identification with abundant means as the means of audience engagement, transcendental style uses a form of confrontation through increasing sparsity culminating in stasis. “If successful,” Schrader concludes, “stasis transforms empathy into aesthetic appreciation, experience into expression, emotions into form. This distinction between form and expression is not pedantic, but fundamental; a form can express the Transcendent, an experience cannot.” (77) In transcendence  “the viewer keeps going, deeper and deeper into the image,” Schrader suggests, that “this is 'the miracle' of sacred art...if it occurs, the viewer moves...beyond the province of art...past the point where 'temporal means' [abundant or sparse] are of any avail.”(179 ) (4)  Schrader acknowledges that this does require some special knowledge and commitment on the viewer's part to explore the spiritual in art.(184)

Claire Thomson summarises filmic stasis as “reducing narrative to a repeatable ritual devoid of 'human culture and personality'.” (5)  Schrader illustrates this by reference to Carl Dreyer in the final scene of Ordet in which expectation of the transcendent, already explicit in the film and set-up by the miracle of Inger's resurrection, is denied by Dreyer's assertion of  'the social and material reality of the body and the cultural context'. (134-6).

In contrast to Dreyer's dualistic re-admission of the immanent, Schrader is committed to evoking the mystery of transcendence.

Stasis, on the threshold of transcendence, is acceptance of a parallel reality.

End Notes
1.  Paul Schrader, “Ozu” Film Comment 2016
2.  Phenomenology is the philosophy of experience. Film both records and is the object of experience. Although they are not mutually exclusive, criticism based on transcendental analysisis more about communicating the experience of the film - a criticism based in persuasion -  distinct from experience based on analysis in hermeneutic mode(story, plot, characterisation). Transcendental style aims to transform experience into transcendent expression, “that spot on the spectrum, whether in art, religion or philosophy, which can take [the viewer] to the point of greater mystery.” (185)
3.  See also David Sorfa, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory 2015 p.353). Unlike so-called stasis or monomorphic films (the best known being films by Warhol and Michael Snow) which, in terms of the ability to sustain an audience, could be termed overly sparse, films in transcendental style are concerned with holding audience interest by building what Schrader calls “spiritual momentum” in moving from abundance to sparsity of means. (184)
4.  Superficially the three phase template, as outlined by Schrader, within which transcendental style operates resembles the dominant template of the  conventional three act structure in the screenwriting text books. The everyday(Act 1- introducing the problem); disparityin the everyday (Act 2 -extended struggle severely testing the protagonist and his or her problem); the decisive event preceding stasis( Act 3 – the protagonist solving the problem). In addition to the application of the theory of sparse and abundant means, the key departure in transcendental style is with the concept of stasis in place of narrative closure. These departures do locate TS in the ambit of Deleuze's time-image film. The desired result in the transcendental film is the viewer breaking free of the 'iron grip' of narrative.
5.  Essay in Slow Cinema ed.Tiago de Luca, Nuno Barradas Jorge 2016, p.50.

A necessary preface to engaging with Schrader's theory of transcendental style in film is in the introduction to his book (pp.35-44). Without attempting to summarise here Schrader's arrival at definitions of 'transcendental', 'transcendental art' and 'transcendental style', below are some essential elements in his 'moving towards a working definition'.

The Transcendent is beyond normal sense experience, and that which it transcends is, by definition, the immanent. Beyond this truism there is little agreement about the nature of the transcendent in life and art.

The style is not intrinsically transcendental or religious, but it represents a way to approach the Transcendent. The matter being transcended is different in each case, but the goal and the method are, at their purest, the same. Ozu, Bresson and to a lesser extent Dreyer, have forged a common form not determined by the filmmaker's personality, culture, politics, or morality but are the result of two universal contingencies: the desire to express the Transcendent in art and the nature of the film medium. In the final result no other factors can give this style its universality. Because it is a style it can be isolated, analysed, and defined.

Schrader has chosen to use a meaning of style which Heinrich Wölfflin, in Principles of Art History (1950), calls “a general representative form,” like the primitive or classic styles, the expression of similar ideas in similar forms by divergent cultures. This use of style is concerned with what is universal rather than style in terms of individual expression, described by Raymond Durgnat as the “creation of a personal, subjective, non-objective world” ( p.30 Films and Feelings 1967) .

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