Transcendental Style in Film

by criticalhit009

“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!” – The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”

This is the result of a book review assignment some years ago.

From Taxi Driver to Notes on Film Noir, one can certainly say that Paul Schrader has had an impact on both pop culture consciousness and film scholarship. One of the most well-known graduates of Calvin College, Schrader graduated with a BA in philosophy and a minor in Theology, and later earned a MA in Films Studies from UCLA. As a well established screenwriter (Raging Bull) and director (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, American Gigolo), as well as a former film critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, Schrader stands as a notable figure of the film medium. Perhaps the apex of his scholarly work is his book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, published in 1972. An outgrowth of his master’s thesis in college, Schrader analyses the works of the titular filmmakers in relation to invoking transcendence and expressing the Holy, and highlights a transcendental style that ultimately appears to continue as a style of filmmaking.

Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer is an essay detailing the aforementioned ‘transcendental style’ Schrader traces in the titular filmmakers. With detailed looks at each filmmakers’ catalog of films, history of art styles (sacred and secular), and the cultural personalities of each filmmaker, Schrader puts forth a common style found in films seeking to transcend and express the Holy. He writes of three steps of this transcendental style found in film: 1) the everyday, the celebration of the mundane, which prepares reality for the intrusion of the transcendent; 2) disparity, the gradual building process of disunity between man and his environment; and 3) stasis, the transcending of the disparity and reuniting with nature.  Whereas Schrader finds Ozu and Bresson using this transcendental style thoroughly, he finds that Dreyer does not, intentionally avoiding a sense of stasis in his films.

Schrader situates his analysis within the studies of Gerardus van der Leeuw and André Bazin, both critics who discuss the relationship between spirituality and realism in art. As he notes, both scholars held that “the spiritual quality in art suffered it decline at the expense of ‘realism,’. . .” (157). He mentions the work of these scholars in response to possible confusion with the first step of the transcendental style, that of the everyday. Schrader does this both to comment upon the state of representation in film (especially as it relates to the Transcendent) but also to reaffirm that the everyday isn’t a heightened sense of ‘realism’ per say, but an attempt at a more objective view of reality. The everyday is inexpressive, acting as a primer for the disparity and transcendence to come. Though the discussions of theology, religion, and their intersections with art have never ceased in academia, Schrader’s book seems to stand as a unique entity in film scholarship. With such a particular subject matter, I have not found any similar material that comments or critiques the work outside of an assortment of book reviews. It is a well earned entry into film scholarship.

Delving into the main reflections of this transcendental style, Schrader begins with the work of Yasujiro Ozu and traces the common elements of the transcendental style of the everyday, disparity, and stasis, as described earlier. However, he also looks particularly for the uniquely influential force in Ozu’s life to shape his work towards this transcendental style. Schrader teases out the complications between the influences that affect the filmmaker himself, noting that “Oriental art in general and Zen art in particular aspire to the Transcendent” (17). He finds that Ozu’s extremely formulistic style of filmmaking was Ozu’s method of expelling his own personality from his films (and his method of creating the everyday), but that trying to separate Ozu’s personality from Zen culture is meaningless because “both personality and culture are enveloped by a transcending reality” (26). Ultimately, Schrader comes to the conclusion that Zen culture is the predominate influence of Ozu’s work, and that it is his personality that is a means of expressing that influence in his films, despite the bulk of Ozu’s personality expunged due to his rigorously formulistic filmmaking.

Next, Schrader turns to Robert Bresson and examines his body of work, illustrating through careful analysis of his body of work that Bresson also exemplified the same three step process as seen in Ozu’s body of work. Schrader finds Bresson to be a good case study of the transcendental film style because he was relatively isolated from his culture. He was also a formalist like Ozu, with “a rigid, predictable style which varies little from film to film, subject to subject” (60). Indeed, both filmmakers “use form as the primary method of inducing belief” (61). Hence the use of transcendental style, which Schrader explicates more about regarding the nature of the stasis and transcendence achieved. Schrader explains that as disparity builds in a film, in creates an emotional experience for the audience, and the decisive action ending the disparity needs emotional commitment of the viewer, otherwise there is no stasis, a technique used by both Ozu and Bresson, but not Dreyer.

Finally, Schrader looks at the works for Carl Dreyer, a filmmaker whose works only somewhat employ the transcendental style, and thus his films also make for an interesting case study. Schrader notes that Dreyer never fully embraces the transcendental style, as he also enjoyed in working with deep character psychology in his films (which works against transcendental style in film, as it de-universalizes the experiences and thus limits the ability for transcendence.) Aside from transcendental style, the other styles of Kammerspiele and expressionism also are present in his works. Kammerspiele (chamber plays) influenced Dreyer’s direction incredibly, as they typically had “complex psychological states are reveals through meticulous staging, an insinuating manner, weighty deeply felt gestures, and a ponderous slowness” (115). These aforementioned traits are definitely seen having influence in Dreyer’s work, particularly in the case of psychology of characters.

The influence of expressionism is also present, and complicates the notion of transcendental style as “expressionism is an anathema to transcendental style . . . it ‘interprets’ reality, assigning to it a comprehensible (though irrational) psychological reality” (118). Thus “expressionism doesn’t eliminate the barriers which stand between the spectator and the Holy, it exaggerates them . . .” (119). Because of Dreyer’s other influences in his work (and perhaps other interests), Dreyer does not fully embrace transcendental style, instead reveal to incorporate only some of the stylistic elements.

Overall, I believe the book succeeds in presenting and supporting its argument for a traceable transcendental film style, partially due to the book’s plethora of citations and quotes. Schrader laces his text with supporting quotations from scholars of various fields of stuffy to illuminate the certain topics at hand. Whether it is Byzantine art or the philosophical underpinnings of Zen, Schrader incorporates others’ expertise to illustrate the necessary contextual history or scholarly insight needed for the topic at hand. However, the case has been made that Schrader uses too many quotations, perhaps seeking validation of his word written text by utilizing scholarly quotes. I disagree, as I believe the quotations, for the most part, are helpful and give insight to the topic. In tracing a complex transcendental style, Schrader goes through various scholarship regarding Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson, Byzantine art, humanism, expressionism, sacred art, etc. Indeed, seeking authoritative sources and information is important, as Schrader’s essay ultimately relies on the synthesis of all these cultural sources that both inform and influence the titular filmmakers. In this case, the textual citations reveal that Schrader is incredibly well read, able to construct complex meaning from these cultural histories, and traces a complex transcendental style in film that I believe still holds up today.

In my own personal experience, I believe that the film Of Gods and Men uses to the transcendental style of film that Schrader uncovers in his text, and may work as a case study to test out whether this film style may still be present today. The film details the lives of French monks living in Algeria in the early 1990s. The first part of the film illustrates daily life of the monks, from their communal worship in their monastery to their community presence in the mountains. However, soon Muslim extremists threaten their existence in the monastery, and the monks are forced to contemplate whether they should leave or stay. Finally, the film ends with their decision, prompting a yes or no response from the audience, as described by Schrader.

Schrader’s three stages of Everyday, Disparity, and Stasis are perfectly present throughout the film. In much of the film, Of Gods and Men contains the same quiet reflection of the mundane reality as described by Schrader in the three titular filmmakers, best illustrated by the many scenes of the monks’ rituals, such as their scheduled worship and prayer. Disparity comes in the form of the Muslim extremists, who threaten to disrupt their monastery and surrounding community through their violence, and whose actions continually build until the monks face the decisive action of staying or leaving the monastery. Without any spoilers, the film ends with the stasis of their decision. In terms of transcendental style, this film fits perfectly, as it’s one of the most spiritual films I’ve ever seen. Though Schrader mentions (and I agree with him) in his conclusion that transcendental style may not be and likely isn’t the only way to express the Transcendent on film, is appears that his traced form appears useful and utilized by filmmakers today, whether they know it or not.

As a book detailing much more than just transcendence, I recommend this for any (studious) film student curious to learn more either about Paul Schrader’s work or the interplay of the sacred in film. It is worth the effort to read, though difficult it may be. Though its status as a niche subject may not appeal to everyone, its varied synthesis of content from film to art history is likely to intrigue anyone willing to try.