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Nearer to that silence, that invisible image... (Part 4 of 4: An Intro to Transcendental Style in Film)
But First: A Recap: Transcendental Style in Film
Wow, look at us. Four weeks of transcendental style in various films, per Paul Schrader’s seminal work on the subject; Four weeks leading up to Paul Schrader’s magnum opus: First Reformed (2017). Films as significant as this are rarely able to be studied through the lens of a fifty-thousand-word thesis written by the filmmaker. We happen to have just a thesis on hand, which makes this week’s watch all the more special.
Let’s briefly recap, cheat-sheet style, the significant hallmarks of transcendental style:
The Everyday: extreme attention to small details, dialogue, objects, gestures, and accessories, meant to imbue the film with documentary-like realism. The “everyday” eliminates the obvious emotional constructs of a classic narrative film.
Disparity: Undermines the everyday. Disparity injects a “human density,” as Schrader puts it, into the unfeeling mundaneness of daily life. Disparity occurs when a character moves away from our understanding or easily identified empathy via the everyday. There are many different ways that filmmakers can create disparity throughout a film. Still, all movies with transcendental style share disparity functioning to give characters a more profound (sometimes spiritual) meaning that alienates them from their environment.
Stasis: A static view of the world to close the film. It represents transcendence, the world in which the spiritual and physical coexist.
Before we go any further, I want to encourage you to stop reading here and just go watch First Reformed if you haven’t already seen it. Armed with this succinct definition of transcendental style (even better armed with this month’s reading), you’ll find many specific elements of the film jump out at you. In an interview with Stefan Pape just a few weeks ago, Schrader has this to say in response to being asked what the favorite of his own works is:
Well you have different favourites for different reasons. Obviously First Reformed has a cumulative joy, it feels like I did the thing that I set out to do fifty years ago, I’ve done it. That feels great.
I’m one of many cinephiles that believes First Reformed will be remembered along with some of the all-time great films. It’s a modern masterpiece. There is a popular Letterboxd list named: “You’re not the same person once the film has finished.” First Reformed perfectly exemplifies this list.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York. He has decided to keep a journal. Each night, he pours himself a neat whiskey and scrawls in the pages: his thoughts, his fears, his mundane daily life. When he’s not giving sermons to congregations with fewer than ten people, Toller provides tours of the historic church. First Reformed hosts many tourists eager to see a stop along the Underground Railroad. Preparations are being made for the church's reconsecration, a 250th anniversary and ceremony sponsored by a local business and requiring the repair of the church organ.
After a sermon one day, Toller is approached by a pregnant woman, Mary. (Amanda Seyfried playing in screen-flattening realism.) Mary asks Toller if he could come to talk to her husband, Michael. (Philip Ettinger; quiet, controlled, explosive.) The conversation sparks something in Father Toller that he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Reverend Toller’s narrative journal, not unlike the narration in Pickpocket (1959), gives us better insight into the inner workings of Toller’s mind. In one striking scene, the film's imagery shows us Toller changing the church sign to read “Can God Forgive Us?” As this happens, the journal's voiceover states: “I have not lost my faith.” This scene shows Toller’s growing spirituality, even if we struggle to understand his feelings precisely. The despair we see onscreen, but the affirmation we’re hearing via Toller’s journal, makes us stop and consider the implication. This is disparity in action: Toller’s every-day-life is getting further and further away as the film's action builds towards the climax. A simple solution isn’t apparent. I attempt one myself: A righteous fury has found its way into Reverend Toller’s heart and mind; he has never felt more sure of God’s presence, and he’s never felt more certain that ascendence to the kingdom of Heaven is out of reach for most of us. He is utterly humbled before God. These thoughts bat around my head, Reverend Toller already having exited the screen stage right. The camera lingers on the sign, allowing me this space to reflect.
The film's final sequence is confounding, but less so if you consider what Schrader considers crucial to the closure of films with transcendental style: stasis. I believe Schrader’s intention is to break the very rules he set out in writing almost 50 years ago. To give us one final jolt of disparity to challenge our, and even his understanding of the “rules.” It’s as if Schrader is saying that having rules in the first place preclude our ability to transcend a work of art. That the moment something can be defined, it loses its spirituality, its magic quality, and its ability to push us somewhere new. The film's final frames are a whirlwind of expression tying the complicated feelings of faith with the ways in which we are tested, and ultimately, a return to the oneness of all things: stasis is achieved. We might be all there is. God’s love might be near. The universe continues to spin.
Written and Directed by Paul Schrader
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
Oscar nominations are out! I’m happy that Stephanie Hsu got the nod for Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, as I can’t see the film working without her. There were great performances across the board (including my favorite, Brian Le, whom I think of once a week with his line read of, “Sir, whatever it is you’re about to do, don’t do it.”) but Hsu deserves glory on this one. My only other takeaway is Nope receiving zero nominations, especially given its focus on Hollywood lore. Hollywood history is typically catnip for academy voters (see A Star is Born, The Artist, La La Land, etc.). Nope’s commentary on black erasure in Hollywood history seems alive and well.
And finally, one last plug for Paul Schrader’s book, without which none of January’s posts would’ve been possible:
As I said the first week of January: Learning about film styles can make watching any movie more enjoyable. Better understanding different aspects of the “language of film” broadens our horizons regarding what we watch and appreciate. If you’re interested in digging deeper into transcendental style, you can check out a list I put together on Letterboxd, complete with notes from the book, but I’d encourage you to grab the book and read it. It’s good.
See you next week for Black History Month!