The extraordinary power of ‘transcendental’ films

Deal W. Hudson

January 24, 2019

Deal Hudson on the shattering effect of movies that defy our expectations

In 1971, Paul Schrader, a film student at UCLA, published a book called Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Although he was only 24 years old, his theory of “transcendental style” – expressed in formal academic language – created a scholarly sensation. He is more famous, however, for writing film scripts that definitely do not use formal language – Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, for example (“You talkin’ to me?”).

Schrader’s “transcendental style” is still influential, however, and now the University of California Press has republished his book with a new 33-page introduction: “Rethinking Transcendental Style”. Its republication is long overdue.

Some years ago, I began watching the masterpieces of world cinema found in various “Top 100” lists to find out why they were so highly praised above my American and British favourites. I was immediately intrigued by the three directors Schrader chose, and particularly by Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu), Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer). Each had a shattering effect on me: an elderly couple visiting their ungrateful children; a French priest, nearing a physical and emotional breakdown, scorned by his parishioners; and the trial and execution of the Maid of Orléans played out on the face of Joan, portrayed luminously by Maria Falconetti.

The stories they told appealed to me, but I knew something more was going on that gave them extraordinary power. These films were not designed to buy a few hours of distraction. It wasn’t until I read Schrader’s book that I realised that they employed a peculiar sort of style – the “transcendental style” discussed by critics and theorists for the past 47 years.

Schrader is bold in this book, a boldness that does not flag in his new introduction. He grew up a Calvinist, in the Christian Reformed Church, which forbad “worldly amusements”, but he makes constant reference to the Mass and Christian iconography to explain what he means: “Transcendental style, like the Mass, transforms experience into a repeatable ritual which can be repeatedly transcended.”

Consider the example of Robert Bresson. What he repeats through his films is “everydayness”, says Schrader. He refuses to feed the ordinary expectations of a moviegoer: beautiful images, a straightforward plotline, including a happy ending, manipulative film scores, charismatic actors (Bresson preferred non-actors), creative camera movement (he shot only at chest-level) and film editing that creates an emotional climax. As Schrader puts it, “Bresson despises what the moviegoer likes best.”

Bresson’s austerity creates a “disparity” for the viewers, frustrating whatever natural emotional responses an audience brings to a film. His everydayness is “unfeeling”. Transcendental style postpones emotional reactions, creating “a need, although not a place, for emotion”.

The release of emotion comes at what Schrader calls the “decisive action”, such as the martyrdom sequence in Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, represented by the image of the charred stake after a shot of a flying dove and the sound of three bells ringing.

The decisive moment is followed by “stasis”. The shot of the charred stake becomes an icon. After an hour of “inexpressive faces and cold environment”, the viewer reaches stasis in a “spiritual expression of Joan’s martyrdom”. This is the point at which we can accept the disparity of being faced not by a typical moviegoer’s experience but an “an expression of the transcendent”. I find this convincing – though not exhaustive, because meeting the transcendent can never be fully described.

In the new introduction, Schrader explains the origins of “slow cinema” with its use of the “time-image” rather than the “movement-image” – concepts taken from French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.

Anyone who has tried watching, successfully or not, the films of Béla Tarr or Andrei Tarkovsky has encountered this slow cinema. “They all have the same purpose: to retard time,” writes Schrader. Tarr’s Sátántangó, a drama about scheming Hungarian villagers, runs to more than seven hours, asking the viewer to become part of the film and create “meaning where none exists”.

Schrader admits that slow cinema has a small audience and fewer enthusiasts. I have found the films of Tarkovsky draw me in, while Tarr’s are a bridge too far. But Schrader’s book remains authoritative and should be read carefully by anyone interested in the spirituality of many great movies.

Schrader’s own First Reformed contains aspects of the transcendental style – flat-toned dialogue, expressionless faces, sparse interiors and exteriors, all creating disparity. A decisive moment is followed by a powerful iconic image of stasis at its conclusion. The film contains clear references to Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and the country priest of George Bernanos and Robert Bresson, while taking Ingmar Bergman’s risk of the voice-over and dialogue addressing philosophical and theological questions. Schrader has made a profound and moving film, transcendental but with some, minor, accommodations to audience expectation.

Paul Schrader belongs to the select group of directors he names who are working with the transcendental style, such as Eugène Green, Pawel Pawlikowski, Carlos Reygada and Jessica Hausner. First Reformed, in my view, is something of a miracle in the wasteland of sequels, action heroes and saccharine romance films.

Deal W Hudson is the Arts Editor of the Catholic Herald (US edition)

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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