Faith

When Catholics Lost Their Cultural Clout — A Lesson for Today

Deal W. Hudson

September 21, 2018

Catholics of my generation probably only dimly remember, if at all, the furor provoked among Catholics by films in the 1950s directed by Luis Buñuel, Los Olivados (1950); Roberto Rossellini, The Miracle (1951); Otto Preminger, The Moon is Blue (1953); Elia Kazan, Baby Doll (1956); Roger Vadim, And God Created Woman (1956); and Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot (1959).

Most people to think of today’s “culture wars” began in the 60s — Vietnam War protests, Hippies, and Nixon’s Watergate — but the tremors of that struggle can be traced back to the postwar period when major filmmakers decided to free themselves from the bonds of the Catholic-inspired Motion Picture Production Code that had governed Hollywood productions since 1930.

It was Hollywood’s fear of Catholic opinion that led to the creation of the Code in the first place. Martin Quigley, a Catholic layman and film writer, had been pushing for such a code since the early 20s.  He asked Rev. Daniel Lord, S.J, of St. Louis University to draft something for moguls at Warner Brothers, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and RKO. Father Lord had already been a technical advisor to Cecil B. DeMille for his silent film version of King of Kings (1927). What Father Lord draftedis far from a puritanical screed. Though it does set definite limits on what films can show on the screen, especially about sex, the MPPC is highly sophisticated in a way that reflected the work of a deeply educated and aesthetically sensitive Jesuit.

The major studios, however, assumed they could play fast and loose with the Code’s requirements, but Catholics, in particular, did not let them get it away with ignoring it. The National Legion of Decency was founded by Catholics in 1933 to fight against the immoral influence of Hollywood films, which, it must be said, were challenging the moral boundaries of mainstream America. That led to the hiring in 1934 of another Catholic layman, Joseph Breen, to head of a new Production Code Office.  (The films between 1930 to 1933 are now called the “Pre-Code” era mainly due to the sex, homosexuality, lesbianism, and unredeemed violence that they portrayed.)

Breen had to approve every script before it went into production which gave him considerable power. Breen himself was neither a prude nor an unreasonable man, but producers, directors, screenwriters, and actors naturally grew weary of his ‘censorship.’ One magazine wrote in 1936 that Breen had “more influence in standardizing world thinking than Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin.”

The power of the Production Code Office held sway through the end of WWII. As the “Mad Men” decade of the 50s began, filmmakers began to challenge Breen, the Code, the power of the National Legion of Decency. The first direct challenge came from the Italian director, Roberto Rossellini and the U.S. film distribution company that brought to film to be screened in New York City.

It was 1950, Rossellini’s film, The Miracle (Il Miracolo) opened at the Paris Theater, on 58th just west of 5th Avenue, one of the oldest ‘art houses’ in the United States. The National Legion of Decency denounced the film as “anti-Catholic” and a “blasphemous mockery of Christian-religious truth,” giving it the C rating — signifying “condemned” — a judgment that was previously feared by Hollywood studios. The Legion’s rating led the New York State Board of Regents, in charge of film censorship, to revoke its license to be shown in movie theaters.

Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York never saw the film but issued a statement to be read at every Mass in every parish of the New York Archdiocese.  He condemned it as “a despicable affront to every Christian” and “a vicious insult to Italian womanhood,” eliciting demonstrations in front of the theater where it was being shown. The protesters carried signs which read, “This Picture Is an Insult to Every Decent Woman and Her Mother,” “Don’t Be a Communist,” and “Don’t Enter the Cesspool.” Nine years earlier, Cardinal Spellman’s public condemnation of Greta Garbo’s Two-Faced Woman (1941) had caused MGM to withdraw and re-release an edited version.

But a sea-change had occurred in American culture following World War II, and the movie’s distributor Joseph Burstyn, sensing this, initiated a lawsuit that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the Court ruled the film’s artistic expression was guaranteed by the First Amendment — freedom of speech. At the same time, the Court’s decision overthrew legal precedents going back to 1915 that allowed the public censorship of films.

The Supreme Court decision marked not only an end to the power of the Code but was also a sign that the cultural clout of Catholics was coming to an end. However, by putting it so bluntly, I don’t want to be misleading. It was a certain kind of clout, a form of Catholic Puritanism, that was defeated.

The sophistication seen in the original Code written by Rev. Daniel Lord, S.J., had been turned into a fear-driven attempt of the Legion to act as parents looking out for a nation of impressionable children. In doing so, the Legion’s condemnations showed no appreciation of, or respect for, film as an art form, in the manner contained in Rev. Lord’s original Code.

It was by “crying wolf” too often about artistically important, well-made films, the Legion and its supporters became irrelevant. These denunciations were based not on seeing the actual films but what was read about them. Thus, a simple, one-sentence summary of The Miracle, certainly makes the condemnation sound plausible: “A poor shepherdess named Nanni who believes herself to be the Virgin Mary is seduced with liquor drink by a wanderer whom she thinks is St. Joseph.”

Yet, after viewing the film itself, one Catholic critic called The Miracle a story of “unregenerating suffering.” What is still considered a consummate performance by Anna Magnani, as a “holy fool,” demonstrates how easy it is to caricature in verbal terms what is far more complex when seen on the screen. As was mentioned, Cardinal Spellman never saw the film about which he required all his priests to read a statement from their pulpits.

It should be added that the same year, 1950, Roberto Rossellini made what is arguably the best film ever made about the life of St. Francis, The Flowers of St. Francis (Francesco, giullare di Dio). Also co-written with Fellini, the film about St. Francis was called, in l995 by the Vatican, one of the 45 greatest films ever made.

The moral of the story? Catholics lose cultural influence when they act like parental arbiters of public taste, especially when they refuse to acknowledge excellence in works of art they find somehow objectionable or dangerous.

Less than a decade after the furor over Rossellini’s film, the United States would elect its first Catholic president, and during the same period a number of Catholic writers would become celebrated among the elites of the literati, including Flannery O’Connor, J. F. Powers, Graham Green, Muriel Spark, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Paul Horgan. All of these writers would not have passed the scrutiny of those at the National Legion of Decency.

Merely contrasting the work of these celebrated Catholic writers with the narrow Catholic mentality behind the condemnation of films by Buñuel, Rossellini, Preminger, Vadim, Kazan, and Wilder provides a lesson that many Catholics, 67 years later, have still not yet learned.

Further reading:

William Bruce Johnson, Miracles and Sacrilege: Roberto Rossellini, the Church and Film Censorship in Hollywood, University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Laura Wittern-Keller, Raymond J. Haberski, The Miracle Case: Film Censorship and the Supreme Court, University Press of Kansas, 2008

Washington Post Praise for McCarrick in 2014 Contains an Ironic Comment by Pope Francis

Deal W. Hudson

September 4, 2018

When Pope Francis refused to comment on the letter by Archbishop Vigano enumerating his cover-up of ex-Cardinal’s sexual abuse, the public was bemused, if not angered. Now the Holy Father has explained the reason for his refusal — it’s too mystical to talk about.

In his Monday homily at Casa Santa Marta, Pope Francis pronounced, “the truth is humble, the truth is silence.” At first glance, this is strange comment given the issues at hand — charges he ignored the criminal past of McCarrick and sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI that McCarrick that end his public ministry. 

How can the truth be ‘silence’ on these charges? Pope Francis either did, or his didn’t know about McCarrick’s actions.  

Yet, Pope Francis goes further, he identifies this claim with the virtue of humility — “truth is humble.” What is he recommending here? Perhaps he believes that anyone possessing truth should never express it publicly? He may have in mind the humility described by St. Thomas Aquinas, which, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior” (Summa Contra Gent., bk. IV, ch. lv.).  

However, Pope Francis would be contradicting himself according to St. Thomas — his notion of humility would imply the Pope does not know if Vigano’s charges are true or not. The Pope, however, would not not be going outside of “one’s bounds” in addressing the charges: Pope Francis knows the answers, and he won’t say anything about them. Why? Because, presumably, the truth is humble and silent.

Even more strange is how the Pope concocted his description of truth from Luke 4:16-30. In this passage, Jesus begins his ministry by visiting the Synagogue in Nazareth where he reads a passage from Isaiah and concludes, “This day is fulfilled this scripture in your ears, adding, “ Amen I say to you, that no prophet is accepted in his own country.” When the crowd was angered and wanted to throw him out of the city, “he passed through the midst of them and went away.” 

The passage does not mention Jesus’s silence, rather Pope Francis infers it and bases his entire commentary on it. In doing so, the Pope is comparing himself to Jesus under attack for his claim that he represents the prophecy of Isaiah.  How is that a fair comparison? In the passage from Luke, Jesus had just proclaimed the truth about himself — he did not remain silent, he spoke the truth aloud, and it provoked the anger against him! 

Yet, Pope Francis ignores what Jesus said and focusses on his supposed silence after he had spoken to those in the Temple. The Pope, evidently, thinks Jesus was able to pass “through the midst of them” because he remained silent. Didn’t those in the Temple just see him and identify him while he was speaking? “Isn’t he Joseph’s son?”

It doesn’t make any sense to credit a supposed silence for Jesus getting away from the crowd when it was his speaking that aroused the crowd in the first place.  Clearly, for Jesus Christ, the truth is NOT found in silence. 

So what does Pope Francis really mean? Those familiar with the Catholic traditions of spirituality will know that ‘silence’ has a privileged place. As with the celebrated “silence” of St. Thomas, it denotes that boundary between what the mind can grasp, conceptual, and discuss and the supernatural reality that exceeds its power.  

St. Thomas Aquinas stopped working on his Summa Theologiae after telling his longtime secretary Reginald of Piperno, “After what I have seen today I can write no more: for all that I have written is but straw.”

Remaining in silence about what lies beyond the power of the mind, about a vision of the Divine, is revered in the tradition of Christian, and non-Christian, mysticism. 

What do the facts about the McCarrick scandal have to do with mysticism, with the silence provoked by an encounter with the supernatural? Pope Francis’s attempt to play a mystical trump card would be laughable if it were not so pathetic.  

One can imagine those hearing it on Monday at the Casa Santa Marta: the groupies present would start tearing up, others would scratch there heads, while others would be thinking, “How can he equate an experience of God with the facts about McCarrick’s sexual abuse of young men and boys?”

What’s next? Will all Catholic clergy be given the command – “the truth is silence” – regarding Archbishop Vigano’s letter about Pope Francis?

Ten Books That Have Taught Me About America

Deal W. Hudson

July 4, 2018

Though I have not read as widely in American history as I should have, some books have remained with me since I read them.  They have shaped for me a deeper understanding and appreciation of my native country. I’m not going to list some of the obvious suspects such as The Federalist Papers, although that should be at the top of anyone’s list. Instead, I offer a personal list chosen out of my unsystematic reading on the subject.

  1. 1777 by David McCullough (2005). I have no idea how close we came to losing the American Revolution until I read McCullough’s dramatic account. Neither was I aware of George Washington’s true stature behind all the stories so often repeated.
  2. Truman by David McCullough (1992). Need I apologize for two by McCullough in a row? Absolutely not! At a personal level, Truman is a story about a mid-westerner with little formal learning but remarkable commonsense and a more remarkable work ethic who rises to the occasion when suddenly faced with the necessity of negotiation with Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Douglas MacArthur. As a work of history, Truman illuminates how the American character overcame powerful temptations to divide into a factionalism which would have weakened our resolve to end the war in Europe and the Pacific.
  3. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016). I grew up in a relatively safe middle-class household shield for the most part from afflictions described by Vance about his youth in a Rust Belt Ohio town. His world of drugs; child and spouse abuse; debilitating poverty; constant job insecurity, poor education; and pervasive lack of hope was one I knew next to nothing about. To be confronted so vividly with that world and the twists of fate, or grace, that save only a few greatly enlarged what I understood about the limitations of the American Dream.
  4. Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer (2009). This book came as a sort of revelation — I had never read anything in depth about the founding of America from the North, a story of how two nations, Canada and the United States, grew out of the encounter between French and British explorers with the native inhabitants along the lakes, rivers, and bays of 17th century exploration. The hero of Fischer’s book — Samuel de Champlain — can stand aside any of our nation’s heroes in determination to secure human rights and religious toleration.  
  5. Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment by Patrick K. O’Donnell  (2016). The best way I can describe this delicious book is a more thorough treatment of account by McCullough in 1776 of how Washington’s army overmatched in every way eventually prevailed. O’Donnell’s account of the early clashes around Manhattan, notably the Battle of Brooklyn, formed no part of my education in American history, and what a story! Washington’s army could have been destroyed had it not been for the sacrificial effort of 256 ‘Maryland Heroes’ who gave the Commander time to evacuate his remaining men. Also quite astounding was the sheer arrogance of the British leadership in failing to recognize the opportunity to end the rebellion right then and there.
  6. American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their LovesTheir Work by Susan Cheever (2007). In the middle of the nineteenth century, a remarkable gathering of intellectual talent lived in the same city of Concord, MA, a group whose writing would leave as deep a stamp on the American character as the Founders themselves a century earlier. Emerson served as the godfather to the group which inevitably created barely concealed rivalries with writers of equal talent, particularly Hawthorne and Thoreau. And, yes, there were other barely concealed dynamics as well, none evidently consummated — they were all heirs to New England Puritanism thought they sought refuge in prodigious learning, transcendentalism, and a form of Christianity resembling classical humanism. 
  7. Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience by Kevin Starr (2016). I had the privilege of interviewing the author about this book twice before he was suddenly taken away from us. To those who believe all the roots of America are Protestant, this book is a definitive refutation. In fact, one country in the Americas, the United States had Catholic roots growing from all geographical directions. Yes, the Founding elite were almost all Protestant, but as Starr shows parts of the vast territory eventually unified as the United States had a Catholic character long before the rise of the WASPs! 
  8. Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation by Steve Vogel (2013). As I said about McCullough’s 1776, I did not know how close we came to be reconquered by Great Britain following the August 24, 1814 raid on Washington, DC which caught our leaders and military entirely unawares, leaving the White House and the Capitol destroyed by fire. As the heavily manned British fleet sailed up the Chesapeake towards Baltimore, if it had not been for command of Major General Samuel Smith Baltimore would have very likely been taken, with nothing standing in the way of the British all the way up the Eastern coast of the US.
  9. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz (2011). I had always thought John Brown was just a maniac, and then I read this book. Yes, he was a maniac of a kind but with deep intelligence, flamboyant personality, and irresistible leadership. Horwitz hour by hour account of the showdown in Harper’s Ferry is riveting, especially given Brown was under attack by U. S. soldiers under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Lee, we are told, did everything he could to keep deaths to a minimum, which he did in spite of Brown’s unwillingness to surrender. Most memorable, however, is Horwitz’s account of John Brown’s capture, trial, and execution — how those around him, even Lee, began to admire him.
  10. A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ’20s by Roger Kahn (1999). What an eye-opener this book was! Boxing in the sport in our nation long before football, baseball, and basketball began competing to be the nation’s favorite pastime. Boxing events and personalities, such as Dempsey, became the foundation of mass entertainment, beginning with July 21, 1921, the first-ever live radio broadcast of a world title fight between Dempsey and Georges Carpenter in Jersey City. Kahn connects Dempsey to the Roaring 20s, the Flappers, Babe Ruth, Lindbergh, Coolidge, segregation, and organized crime.

Remembering My Father — How John Wayne Grew Old

Deal W. Hudson

June 6, 2018

He was the strongest man I ever knew. He had will-power of iron. The doctor said to stop smoking. After that day he never smoked another cigarette. Years later a different doctor banned alcohol—not another drink passed his lips for more than thirty years. Of all the money he inherited from his mother and aunt, not a penny of these assets was spent on himself; all of it was saved and reinvested for his three children. Heart failure and a stroke put him in a hospital bed. I went to his bedside in Houston, where I cut up his dinner and placed it in his mouth, piece by piece.

I guess you could call my dad part of the Saving Private Ryan generation. Fresh out of Texas in his early twenties, a captain in the Army Air Corps, he flew his missions over Germany and Yugoslavia and, I was told by my mother, never lost a man. Dad never talked about the war, but over the years it became clear his soul had suffered much from the experience. After seeing the Spielberg movie, and listening to the reaction of many World War II veterans, it was also clearly an emotional catharsis of sorts had been long overdue for them.

I took the occasion of that film for my daughter, Hannah, and I to interview him about his war experience. Dad seemed finally ready to talk about those years where every morning these young men wondered if they would survive another day. No wonder, he said, they all learned how to drink, pretty hard. His best story was about his plane being shot down in Yugoslavia and the local women who hid the flyers in hay wagons until they were rescued.

I already knew that story because a few months earlier providence had arranged for Dad to play golf with my friend and Crisis supporter, the late Jim Matthews. On the 18th hole, I noticed that Jim and my father were still on the tee by the time I reached my ball in the fairway.  When they arrived at the green, I asked why they were dragging behind. My father looked up from the ground with a look on his face I had never seen. “Remember that story about being picked up after being shot down in Yugoslavia? Jim, was the pilot of that plane.” The last few words were almost inaudible because my father, this strong man, was choking with emotion.

Age did not diminish Dad’s will-power. In the summer of 1998, I went to Rockport, Maine, to play with him in a two-day golf tournament at the local country club. This had become a yearly ritual for us—we had never played that well but we knew we were running out of time, and we were determined to make a good showing.

Dad was 78 that summer but still a solid mid-80s player. He loved to make putts under pressure. After making them, he would almost dance to the hole to pick up the ball.

After the first day’s scramble format, we were in the lead. We always liked scrambles, where you pick the best shot and play from there since I usually drove well and Dad has always been an extraordinary putter. The second day was the best-ball of our twosome, meaning we choose the best of our two scores in each hole. I played well for about 13 holes but then started to fall apart. My trusty driver was letting me down. We knew we were probably in the lead for the championship flight but could not afford a single bad hole.

To this day I have no idea how he summoned the strength. While I looked for my lost game, Dad parred the last five holes, making all the putts required of him. We had been teaming together since I was eleven, and now father and son had finally won a golf tournament.

Two weeks later, at a hospital in Houston, my father was told he suffered from congestive heart failure, and his heart was pumping only 20 percent of the blood his body needed. How did he do it at Rockport? These men from ‘the greatest generation’ had guts, a courage acquired in the midst of the ultimate self-sacrifice — fighting against tyranny that threated the freedom of nations and peoples, country, a cause that outweighed their need for home, family, and their very lives.

Many readers, I am sure, have been down this road of watching a father, or a mother, become child-like through the ravages of age and disease. I was once told losing a father is like standing in a clearing where all of a sudden the last row of trees are blown away and you feel a storm smacking you in the face. I have gone back to that image many times to understand the strange reversal of roles. My father died not long after, I felt the force of the wind rising against me.

At his burial service in Austin, I felt conflicted because my admiration for my father was mixed with bitterness over years of conflict with him over finances and my choice of occupation. Much to my regret, my eulogy did not do him justice. I described his ‘toughness’ more as a rebuke of how he treated me than the making of a man who was born in the Depression, who lost his father at age 12, who loved breaking horses, who was part of the Corps at Texas A&M, and who captained a B-24 over Europe in his early twenties.

Since his death nearly twenty years ago, I have thanked him in my heart hundreds of times for the strength and perseverance he passed on to me. Not everyone is given that gift by their parents. And, when given, it’s a gift rarely wrapped in a pretty package. My father cared little about packaging of any kind, only what’s underneath, what could be called character.

For all this, as Father’s Day once again approaches, I am grateful. I pray I have passed on some of his patrimony to my two children, with, perhaps, some kinder packaging.

Aretha Franklin, witness to the Gospel

Deal W. Hudson

May 16, 2019

Amazing Grace is one of the greatest concert movies of all time

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin travelled to Los Angeles to join her good friend Pastor James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir to record a gospel album. That album, entitled Amazing Grace, went on to become the bestselling gospel recording of all time.

Warner Brothers sent director Sydney Pollack to film the recording sessions in the New Bethel Baptist Church with a live audience. At the time, Pollack was a veteran television director but had only a few films to credit. Pollack forgot to use clappers between the songs, creating such difficulty in synchronising the video with the sound that he gave up on finishing it.

In 2007, as Pollack was dying, he gave all the material to producer/composer Alan Elliot. More than a decade later, Amazing Grace, the documentary, has finally been finished and released. The result is a sensation – Amazing Grace deserves to stand beside the greatest concert films of all time, such as Monterrey Pop (1968) and The Last Waltz (1978). What distinguishes Amazing Grace from the rest is the music and the performer: This is not the pop star Aretha of the late 60s; this is the Aretha who grew up singing gospel songs.

When she sings old black gospel songs like Precious Lord, which she sang at Martin Luther King’s funeral, there’s an emotional connection between herself, the choir and the audience that’s both soulful and joyful, the joy of overcoming the pain and sadness of the historic black community in America. For many fans of gospel singing, Aretha’s voice contained a purity that has few precursors and no successors.

By 1972, Aretha had become a revered figure in the black community. Her pop music captured the generation: civil rights, sexual revolution, the decline of the black male and the ascendancy of the black woman. For black women, she has been a rock of stability and a source of inspiration to face the crumbling of black culture. It’s no accident that 1972 was the year the movie Super Fly, an exaltation of black pimps, was released.

But Amazing Grace is a return to her roots, and her performance is breathtaking. Aretha combines perfect musicianship with a modest, almost placid, presence punctuated by flights into the gospel ether. Her eyes are often closed, and when her improvisation starts a layered ascent, her face turns upward reaching the fullness of jubilation. At these moments, you are made to realise this is not another performance for her but an act of her witnessing about Jesus Christ.

Pastor James Cleveland accompanies on the piano with grand bravado, choral director Alexander Hamilton was Dudamel long before Dudamel, and the Southern California Cathedral Choir make a funky entrance that made me want to cheer.

Deal Hudson is the Catholic Herald’s arts editor

Films that take you into the wilderness with Jesus

Deal W. Hudson

March 14, 2019

It’s hard to understand why any director making a film about Jesus would ignore the face-off with Lucifer. Cecil B DeMille has his mind elsewhere in his 1927 King of Kings. Himself succumbing to carnal temptation, DeMille opens his film with a barely clad Mary Magdalene, now a prostitute in love with Judas. In his Jesus of Nazareth (1997), Franco Zeffirelli, I’m guessing, could not conceive of a suitably Botticelli-like way of depicting the wilderness encounter within his five-and-a-half hour mini-series.

By far the worst wilderness scene is in the King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray. Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) climbs with bloody feet over rocky terrain when Miklós Rózsa’s powerful film score is interrupted by Lucifer’s arrival in the form of a plummy voice-over (Orson Wells). The subsequent dialogue is so clumsy, so literal, so cardboard stiff, I was reminded of teenage actors at my local Catholic school.

As he walks out of the wilderness, Jesus meets John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) sitting with John and Andrew. At the Baptist’s recommendation they stand up and start following Jesus like zombies, no questions asked.

In the much-admired 1964 film, The Gospel According to St Matthew, director Pier Paolo Pasolini is anti-Hollywood. Shooting in black-and-white, Pasolini uses non-actors in a 1st-century setting, using language from the Gospel account. There was no screenplay.

We meet a Jesus (pictured) who is ordinary, even frail; he lacks all charisma. As he prays on his knees in the wilderness, a dark figure approaches from a distance. Jesus stands to meet him, and Satan arrives dressed as a priest. Except for a 20-second trip to the top of the temple and back, there’s no drama in the three temptations; neither face changes expression. Satan walks away, but Pasolini’s panoramic shot of Jesus walking out of the desert is worthy of David Lean.

The best of the wilderness scenes are found in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) directed by George Stevens. The screenwriting and direction move in a surprising direction. Jesus (Max von Sydow) hears some laughter and a voice from a cave. It’s Satan (Donald Pleasance), whose voice is gentle and coaxing: “Long hard climb?”

Satan tempts Jesus with the voice of a friend trying to offer a favour. Their faces are barely seen against a night sky filled with a large, cratered moon. Satan explains: I can give you this and that, because “life should be easy”. Jesus struggles for a moment but pulls himself away from the edge of the cliff, and Satan goes back to eating his snack.

Satan, after all, should be depicted as having some touch of St Paul’s “angel of light”.

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)