Arts Arts & Books

The extraordinary power of ‘transcendental’ films

Florence Delay in the astonishing martyrdom sequence from Robert Bresson’s 1962 film The Trial of Joan of Arc

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)