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Boring Everyday Stuff (Part 1 of 4: An Intro to Transcendental Style in Film)
But First: Transcendental Style in Film
transcendent - adjective
tran·scen·dent / tran(t)-ˈsen-dənt
exceeding usual limits : surpassing
extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience
in Kantian philosophy : being beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge
What better time of year than the beginning to dive into transcendental style in film? When many of us are taking a moment to contemplate the year ahead: Where we have been and where we might be going? For January, let’s deep-dive into a style of film notable for its slow feel, meditative quality, and extensive use of time-image editing.
This month's guide will be screenwriter, director, critic, and the foremost authority on transcendental style: Paul Schrader. Schrader’s contributions to the world of cinema are hard to overstate. He wrote Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). He wrote and directed Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) and First Reformed (2017). And in 1971, at the age of 24, while a grad student at UCLA film school, he wrote Transcendental Style in Film. It’s an invaluable resource for developing a deeper appreciation for a style of film you’ve probably encountered, even if you haven’t realized it. I’ll be drawing on the book often over the next month.
To better understand transcendental style, it’s helpful to be familiar with the concept of “slow cinema.” From Schrader:
“Slow cinema” is a fairly recent term used to designate a branch of art cinema which features minimal narrative, little action or camera movement and long running times. Harry Tuttle listed the four criteria for slow cinema as plotlessness, wordlessness, slowness, and alienation.
There are many techniques in slow cinema; static frames, wide angles, images taking precedence over dialogue, and visual flatness (see image below), to name a few. The technique that stands out most crucially to me is “offset editing.” As described by Schrader:
Man exits one room, enters another--that’s movement-image editing. Man exits one room, shot of trees in the wind, shot of train passing--that’s time image editing. Man exits one room, the screen lingers on the empty door. That’s time image editing.
How does transcendental style factor into slow cinema? Schrader makes it clear that slow cinema does not equal transcendental style; instead, that transcendental style is simply a pre-cursor to slow cinema:
Transcendental style evolved as “time-image.” Film-makers in different places and different traditions understood they could slow movies down to create a new reality, to explore memory, to beget contemplation, and in some rare cases to simulate transcendence.
For many filmmakers, Schrader included, religiosity was the primary catalyst in striving toward transcendence. A desire to reconcile the teachings of Christianity, though the style is not limited to Christianity, with reality. Further, religiosity is not even necessarily a requirement for transcendental cinema. At the risk of delving too far into Schrader’s book (which is worth picking up), I’ll leave you with one final excerpt:
Boredom as an aesthetic tool. Deny the viewers what they seek. Deny, deny, deny. Why would a viewer put up with such abuse? Such boredom? Well, most viewers don’t. Most slow films are in fact “boring” (a subjective judgment, but there it is), and the lovers of slow cinema are relatively small in number…Why do we take it? The boredom. The distance? …Because something is happening. Cinema lets us look around. Good slow cinema gives us something to watch when we do.
Tokyo Story (1953) opens with multiple fixed shots of the city. Trains move through the frame, juxtaposed with nature rooted in the background. Trees sway in the breeze, and the harbor water gently laps against the land. We meet Shukishi and Tomi, two grandparents chatting about their children and grandchildren as they pack for a long journey by train from Onomochi to Tokyo.
They arrive in Tokyo to find a house buzzing with the hectic goings-on of everyday life. Pleasantries follow that any family at any time in history might have about how big the children are getting, what’s new with work, and what food has been good lately. The father of the family in Tokyo, a doctor, is called out to see a patient. The grandparents are trying not to impose, but as with any family, juggling a visit, work, and childcare is a lot to manage. Noriko, the widow of the grandparents’ son, is asked by her former siblings-in-law to take the grandparents out and entertain them. The family just needs to get them out of the house for a while. Suddenly we’re on a bus tour of Tokyo, and then, just as suddenly, we are in Noriko’s apartment, and she’s gathering supplies from neighbors to continue entertaining the “in-laws.” Eventually, they have nowhere to go but back to their children's home, who don’t seem to have time for their visit.
The film maintains a creeping pace throughout. Reading Schrader’s work makes it impossible not to notice some of the hallmarks of transcendental cinema: nature juxtaposed with urban landscapes, shots that linger long after characters have left, or long takes of still sets, like slippers resting outside of a bedroom door. Long refrains allow us to consider the unspoken emotion behind the spoken idle chat. Interactions between characters force us to see ourselves and consider our complicity in failures to connect with our loved ones. Conversations between family members feel natural in their mundanity. This buildup of tension, created by the mundane, allows moments of genuine expression to feel like profound fireworks displays. Tomi takes one of the grandchildren up the grassy hill to play, overlooking power lines and trains; it strikes us when she expresses an unexpected weighty sentiment. She asks her grandson what he wants to be when he grows up, and he, too distracted by his games, doesn’t hear her. A beat. She says, “I wonder if I’ll be around to see it.”
Employing another tactic, the grandparent’s children send them to Atami hot springs. They justify this to themselves endlessly. It’s an uncomfortably familiar conversation. They discuss that it is cheaper than taking them places, and honestly, why should two older folks be forced to walk around Tokyo all day anyway? We understand how they feel, even if we are hoping against the tragic undoing of the grandparent's original intention: to visit. When they return to the Tokyo apartment to politely gather their things and excuse themselves home to Onomochi early, the daughter insists they stay. It’s, again, uncomfortably familiar.
Tokyo Story can be a complicated watch. It’s densely realistic; each conversation perfectly captures the thoughts, hopes, fears, or regrets we’ve all had at various points in our lives. I regularly lost focus as the movie reminded me of my own life, my own loved ones, and my own unsaid things that I’m not sure will ever be said. I can’t imagine the battering one would take watching this in a theater, stumbling out into the daylight afterward, emotionally hung over.
Sitting regularly within the top 5 “greatest” films of all time on Sight and Sound’s list, this film is by no means a “hidden gem.” Ozu made over 50 films and is considered one of the world’s greatest directors. Tokyo Story is among his best because it bridges humanity and cultures. In showing us everyday life from long ago and far away, we see how life today is similar.
When Tomi and Shukishi are about to depart Tokyo and talk with their children at the station, they insist that the children don’t inconvenience themselves and make a trip down to visit them. They insist it’s “not necessary.” They don’t want to be a burden. It reminded me of a comment Tomi made when they visited the spa, as they were deciding to leave Tokyo early. While sitting on a wall overlooking the ocean, and after staring into space for a while, “This place is meant for the younger generation.” Another long pause, allowing us to consider the comment. We understand she may be talking about more than the spa.
In the end, I was thinking of my own childhood. Of saying goodbye to loved ones, watching them pull out of the driveway, and staring at the space where they once sat in their car, trading pregnant nothings of farewell. The gravel driveway, which had so much kinetic energy just a few moments before, became a place like any other: empty.
Written by Yasujirō Ozu and Kōgo Noda; Directed by Yasujirō Ozu
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
Believe me when I say it is challenging to distill the concepts of transcendental cinema, as laid out by Paul Schrader, into a summary. Difficult but clarifying! The concepts Schrader lays out, and that I’ll touch on over the course of the next month, can make watching any movie more interesting. It doesn’t have to be a film working in the transcendental style. Better understanding different aspects of the “language of film” broadens our horizons in terms of what we watch and appreciate.