Introduction to Transcendental Style

Just as mystical experiences are nurtured through emptying the mind, transcendent cinema is born through emptying the frame.

As I reflect back on the last few years, transcendental style is at the forefront of my mind. Whether I knew it or not, transcendental style has dominated my thoughts and had a significant influence on my own personal filmmaking. I would like to write about the topic more and ideally tie together some of my past essays into one larger essay about the subject.
This video is simply an introduction.

Transcendental style is style of filmmaking which was first proposed by writer and director, Paul Schrader in his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film. In 2016, Schrader revisited his work with a new introduction, adding key insights to its relation to Gilles Deleuze, Andrei Tarkvosky and Slow Cinema. These films are characterized by several withholding techniques: emotion is muted, music is scarce, cuts are withheld, movement is dulled, performances are deadpan and dialogue is short (Fuller).

One of Schrader’s key points is the universality of Transcendental style. Transcendental style is universal to all cultures and can be found in many traditions — that is why Schrader chose filmmakers hailing from the East, West as well as non-religious/humanist backgrounds (Schrader 1). Additionally, Transcendental style is used to represent the Holy but is not inherently religious — it is a filmic style that can be used to approach the Divine, but there is nothing about it which is of the same substance of that which is transcendent (Schrader 7).

A juxtaposition to Transcendental style, would be the faith-based genre. The faith-based films are merely classical Hollywood style cinema full of American, Christian, Evangelical themes. Those filmmakers use the same toolbox as the person directing any Marvel film – there’s nothing spiritual about faith-based films besides their content (Schrader 4).  As Schrader says “the link between the soul and the commercial life of cinema is style, not content” (Fuller).

Decades later, Schrader revisited his work and reflected on the ways Transcendental style was predated by Italian Neorealist cinema and French philosopher, Gilles Delueze.

Delueze proposes that there are two cinema histories: “movement-image” and “time-image.” Movement-image derives meaning from the way an object moves within the frame, whereas time-image draws meaning from the duration the object is shown (Deleuze xi). This shift occurred after WWII and can be seen in Italian Neorealist films.

The through-line of Transcendental cinema, (if the style were to be exaggerated indefinitely) begins with the Neorealists and the Deleuze’ time-image, and then moves onto Tarkovsky before it leaves the commercial market entirely and lands itself in museum with a placard reading: “Slow cinema.” From there, it would levitate towards a ceiling corner and turn into a never-ending surveillance camera feed – until the battery runs out at least – like life (Fuller).

Furthermore, I believe there are spiritual parallels to viewing transcendental film — just as mystical experiences are nurtured through emptying the mind, transcendent cinema is born through the emptying of the frame (Schrader 7-8). As the frame gets emptier and emptier, viewers are no longer “instructed” by edits. They must make their own decision on who to concentrate on. When meaning is not obviously given to the viewer, they must choose whether to participate in the creation of meaning or theater. I see this as congruent to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith.” Only on the other side of that leap (i.e. the decision to watch the film) can meaning be found.

Works Cited

Fuller Studio. “Rethinking Transcendental Style in Film.” YouTube, lecture by Paul Schrader, 28 Apr. 2018, https://youtu.be/C0CCMz7nJdo

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. University of California Press, 1972.

Where next?

If you want to continue reading, I’ve expanded my thoughts here:

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