If you are curious about this subject, please view my previous introduction and video essay to Transcendental style in film.
My journey to understanding transcendental style began a few years ago, when I became fascinated with Richard Linkater’s films and the idleness of his storytelling. The meandering quality of Slacker’s cinematography felt like a meandering eye – a soul – me. It was around this time that I was introduced to Andre Bazin’s essay: “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” When put simply, Bazin says that art has two ambitions: the scientific duplication of reality, as well as artful, spiritual expression. Meditating on Bazin’s ontology of film and Linklater’s more “auteur” pieces (Slacker, Before Sunrise, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books), I began to see the link: the present. These films were simply in no hurry to be anywhere. In this new light, I began to recreationally interpret Linklater’s films as Buddhist texts – meditations on the power of the present moment. Personally, I find myself drawn towards spirituality, and as a filmmaker, I felt the urge to unite the two as a cinematic artform. It was this instinct that encouraged my interest in Bazin (a Catholic) and Linklater (a humanist), but ultimately led me to writer/director, Paul Schrader (a lapsed Calvinist), and in turn a new appreciation of neorealism, the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze’ time-image and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Viewing First Reformed late in its theatrical release at Kendell Square Cinema in Boston, Massachusetts was a transcendent experience. Reverend Toller pastors a muted congregation, a subdivision of an Evangelical megachurch, and he journals of his pain and flickering faith has he is thrown into deep questioning by the environmental activism of one of his congregants. The deliberately slow pacing, stark cinematography and punctuated scenes of Reverend Toller’s internal anguish left me estranged, but highly curious. From the film’s first frames I was moved by its contemplative quality. A slow fade – nearly a minute from black – opens the film. The camera dollies forward at a low angle and reveals First Reformed church, dead and looming. When the camera stops at the church’s steps, it lingers, hesitating four more seconds before the cut occurs. What I’ve just seen is something Paul Schrader swore he would never do: make a transcendental film (Fuller).
Paul Schrader first proposed transcendental style in 1972 through his lengthy essay “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer.” Fundamentally, transcendental style is a collection of techniques used to express the Holy, or “Wholly Other” (Schrader 35). Transcendental films are characterized by mundane, everyday realities, long takes, delayed cuts, bare frames, deep focus, minimal coverage – all used to starve the audience until the climactic “decisive moment,” in which all withholding techniques are forgotten (Schrader 12-16). For they are simply that – techniques. What makes a film transcendental is more than technique. It’s how they are used. Without disparity (minimalism), the decisive moment has nothing juxtaposed to it. Effectively, the decisive moment should come so late in the film it feels out of context. In the decisive moment the frame is freed from its static position, the music swells, the actors cry out – and then silence again. Stasis. The viewer is so used to being starved, and the audience is so primed to feed upon the sparse means that when the abundant means finally arrive, they don’t last. Enter stasis (the sparse resurrection). This final return to ascetism is integral to transcendental style. All of this is orchestrated through the ratio of abundant to sparse means, and by this ratio, the spiritual nature of a film can be assessed.
The terms “sparse” and “abundant” are taken from Jacques Maritain’s book Religion and Culture (1930). The sparse and abundant are two temporal means, which correspond with “sacred” and “profane” artistic forms. They are both necessary: “the abundant means keeps the body alive so that the sparse means can elevate the soul” (Schrader 173). This ratio of means is (when supervised by the director’s doting scalpel) used carefully to produce a film with enough abundant means to sustain an audiences’ attention yet let them feel the pressure of boredom (sparse means). Through the manipulation of boredom, the director can flex their control over transcendental style, keeping the audience in a revolving state of interest and despair. This dance, Schrader admits, is a challenging one to choreograph and probably the reason he never wanted to make a transcendental film in the first place (Fuller). Transcendental style uses minimum abundant means to sustain a film in which the means are becoming increasingly sparse.
An important note is that transcendental style is not inherently religious – it is a filmic style that can be used to approach the Divine, but transcendental style does not inherently share the Divine’s hypostasis. Schrader reiterates this point several times saying, “Although transcendental style, like any other form of transcendental art, strives toward the ineffable and invisible, it is neither ineffable nor invisible itself” (Schrader 35). It is not necessarily possible to correlate artistic techniques across mediums, and furthermore it is dishonest to claim there is a universal technique when it comes to sacred art. Schrader cites Byzantine art as another example of religious art. Icons expressed the Holy through compositions with a single focal point. However, the techniques used to create religious art are constantly changing. Visual ascetism succeeds across one medium (film), but perhaps falls short in another. For example, Sumi-e painting and Byzantine iconography are religious in nature/theme, but their techniques are not (Schrader 185).
I emphasize this point again now because it is easy to mistake transcendental style as a religious. Many films which incorporate it possess religious themes, but ultimately it is the style, not the content that dictates a film’s spiritual nature (Schrader 36). This point is key, and one that I feel like I have missed over my years of interest in both religion and film. There was hardly any discussion from within religious circles about the style of faith-based films, which are classically Hollywood and 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 criticizes films like these as exceeding having an overabundant amount of means (180).
Seeing Christ walk across the waters on screen and calling that film “spiritual” is a twisted form of fundamentalism. It’s a way of saying “Oh, we see miracles happen, so it means they can happen!” In this sense films with religious themes are “inspirational,” to certain religious fundamentalists – the affirmation of their beliefs. There is a certain epistemology that Christian Evangelicals adopt: for something to be true, it must to have occurred historically. For some individuals (myself at one time), this is the basis for faith – the historicity and scientific possibility of the literal Christian narrative (I remember reflecting on the atomic changes that must have occurred in Christ’s body for his resurrection).
For example, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ is often lauded for its bloody realism. While there are some expressionistic dimensions to Passion (Satan), its bloody realism and authentic Aramaic is an ontological red herring. In effect, the film is seen as “real,” ecstatically validates the viewer’s belief the miracles on film are in a nonliteral sense “real.” Obviously, the audience is aware that these films are staged, but I do not think staging is taken that seriously. There is an assumption that the portrayal of spiritual events in these films is “realistic,” and that assumption is highly dependent on the nature of film. This is a big problem for spiritual folks with an awareness of art and demonstrates why artistically transcendental film is subversive. Its techniques are not inherently religious, but the way they are used points to a different sort of religious epistemology – one that is not historical, but ahistorical. Faith that is grounded in experience, not reason.
Additionally, transcendental style is not a secluded phenomenon but is open to all cultures and can be found in many traditions (why Schrader chose filmmakers hailing from the East, West as well as non-religious/humanist backgrounds). The desire to express the transcendent is ubiquitous, however, this alone is not enough to call transcendental style universal. Transcendental style’s universality is grounded in two things: “the desire to express the Transcendent in art and the nature of the film medium” (Schrader 35). Universality is something which Schrader focuses on more in his essay. To limit the scope of this paper, I will exclude any extended commentary, but I did want to reference its centrality in Schrader’s work.
The goal of Schrader’s essay was to identify a common style he saw in Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer and give critics the proper tools to dissect the technique. In order to properly critique and to establish the ontological assumptions which undergird the framework for transcendental style, Schrader draws from Andre Bazin’s essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Bazin says, “there never was a unity between art and religion, it has been motivated by something else: the expression of a spiritual reality, wherein the symbol transcends the model, and the duplication of our world” (qtd. in Schrader 188). Cinema, as a scientific invention, roots its heritage in “profanity.” In contrast to the studio arts, cinema was not explicitly born from religious practices; it is a product of capitalism and invention. Tension between transcendental art (the spiritual) and the box office is not an anomaly, but it is problematic. Tarkovsky says, “If art can stimulate emotions and ideas, mass-appeal cinema, because of its easy, irresistible effect, extinguishes all traces of thought and feeling irrevocably. People cease to feel any need for the beautiful or the spiritual and consume films like bottles of Coca-Cola” (Tarkovsky, 179). (Ironically, Tarkovsky’s long films only could exist due to the economic structure of Soviet cinema at the time. There is a sadness to the thought that perhaps transcendental style can only flourish in either artistic utopia or dystopia.) In short, when art relies too heavily on a gimmick, we all lose. “Perspective was the original sin of Western painting,” Bazin boldly claims. Adding perspective indulges the artists’ pursuit of duplication, distancing the art from its second core objective – to capture something “spiritual.” Art that succumbs solely to the desire to represent reality and fails to find to a spiritual balance. (VR will fail to attract a wider audience until directors understand Bazin). These core desires of art are what produce transcendental style’s universality and nothing else.
Almost forty-five years later, in 2016, during a lecture at Fuller Theological Seminary, Schrader reflected on his original essay. He admitted he did not predict two things: Gilles Deleuze and Andrei Tarkovsky. In turn, Schrader revisited his essay with a problem: how had his original premise stood for so many years?
In the 1980s, French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, wrote two influential books, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1986) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1989). In the new introduction of Schrader’s book (which was republished in May 2018), Schrader incorporates Deleuze and Tarkovsky into the framework of transcendental style, with his thesis being that transcendental style was “a part of a larger movement which was a movement away from narrative,” and one that was predated by Italian neorealism and succeeded by Tarkovsky and Slow Cinema (Schrader 3).
To grossly simplify Deleuze, there are two major movements in cinema history: “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 is seen in Italian neorealist films. Deleuze points to the exact moment this shift occurs in Vittorio De Sica’s film, Umberto D (Schrader 4). Bathed in stillness, a maid rises from bed, walks to the kitchen and pulls out a match next to the stove. She strikes the match against the wall. It fails to light. She strikes it again, turning the gas on at the same time – it lights. This scene serves is the threshold between movement-image and time-image. If this scene were told through movement, it would have cut when the match failed to light. Where is the utility in screening “useless” action? It is only useless if the artistic work is motivated by action/movement. Umberto D is about the experience of time. Slowly, watching the maid becomes not about domestic tasks, but about the time it takes to complete those tasks. It’s a radical transformation of an everyday reality – the mundane to the sublime. Who is to say that a kiss or car crash is more important than emptying the dishwasher? (Schrader 26). In this way, the hierarchy of images is flipped. No image has a monopoly on value. Meanwhile, decades later and miles away from Italy, in Soviet Russia, Andrei Tarkovsky is at work perfecting this form for a commercial audience.
Tarkovsky stands apart from the other filmmakers for one specific reason: time. It is not difficult to understand that time is incredibly important to cinema – it is the foundation of our medium. An image is a story, and an image over time is cinema – they are inseparable. However, Tarkovsky’s relationship to cinema and time was above and beyond his fellow creators at the time. Tarkovsky’s use of cinema as a reflection on the nature time was subversive to the precedent of Soviet montage’s collision of images and rational, logic driven edits (Schrader 9). Meaning is derived not through the montage, but through duration (time-image in lieu of movement-image). The simplest unit of this kind of filmmaking is the long take, of which, Tarkovsky is quite fond.
However, the long takes deployed by Tarkovsky are not to be confused with the long takes of conventional Hollywood. By contrast, Hollywood-master, Stephen Spielberg’s long takes are often a series of shots composed together in one master take. The drinking game scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark stands out to me as an example – the camera dollies in, transforming the frame from a medium-wide into a close-up before panning back and forth between the contestants, with an insert of their glasses in the center of the table. In this Raiders example, Spielberg’s long take still follows traditional scene coverage and continuity editing. First Reformed’s opening shot is shorter than Spielberg’s scene. While long takes are named for their duration, perhaps this is a misnomer. The take simply must go on longer than expected and defy the audience (Schrader 11). Tarkovsky’s long takes are marked by meditation, wonder and the delayed cut.
If were Tarkovsky were filming a zoo, but more specifically, the lion’s cage. The cage would be filmed in deep focus, giving the opportunity for the audience to see every detail in the scene, and the would perhaps look like this: A lion crosses the frame and exits. No cut. Will the lion return, the audience might think? The frame lies empty, lacking any obvious subject. Where are the zookeepers? Are there other lions in the cage? Another beat. The lion returns and lies down, off center. It stretches before rolling over. Another beat. Cut.
The moment the viewer’s expectations are defied (when the lion leaves and there is no cut), the time-image begins to work. The viewer ideally becomes aware that they are watching something. The viewer may be confused. Could you imagine the audacity of an Avengers film if the heroes were to leave the frame and the camera kept rolling for fifteen more seconds? People would leave the theater and demand a refund. But as Tarkovsky said “How does time make itself felt in a shot?” (qtd. Schrader 17). The feeling of time is the pressure of the nearing transcendent. The heavier the feeling of duration, the closer the viewer is through breaking through into something transcendent. In those moments of dead time, Schrader says, “we not only fill in the blanks, we create the blanks” (6). The viewer becomes active in concentration, and less becomes more (9).
A contract is formed when the filmgoer enters the theater. This contract is like the one formed when a worshiper enters a church (this idea is not restricted to “church,” but the point serves generally). The goer signs that there is a specific function to the next hour and a half to two hours. The filmgoer is there to listen, as is the worshiper. Both remain active in these events. Active listening – taking in the sights and sounds, and yes, letting the mind wander at times. Transcendental films are a modern religious exercise – a liturgy of sorts, and lovers of slow cinema are harder to come by (as are religious devotees). It requires a spiritual like devotion to watch a slower film. The slow cinema goer must be prepared to fast and wrestle with God.
While watching a film, the viewer has no control over what comes next – they are powerless. Paradoxically, transcendental film creates a sense of “free will” within a medium where free will is ontologically impossible. As the viewer is pushed by withholding techniques to create sense of the frame (to tell their own stories), they become the storyteller. The viewer may not have control over our fate (telos) but can sketch out their own details along the way. This contrasts with the video games’ player. In a point and click adventure game, the player does have control over what happens next (i.e. the “tracks”). To take this further, let’s say this video game is a “transcendental” video game and employs various withholding techniques – slow pacing, subdued dialogue, no music, etc. The key variable is control. The player has a “freer will” than the filmgoer. For the player can pause the game, go grab a snack, and pick up where they left off without missing a beat, whereas the filmgoer cannot leave the theater without losing something. The viewer has one ultimate decision: to engage with the film or leave the theater. Only after choosing to stay can the filmgoer experience their new agency to react to the film freely.
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. As the frame gets emptier and emptier, viewers are no longer “instructed” by edits (Schrader 39-40). They must make their own decision on what to concentrate on. Contemplative films challenge the viewer to lean forward and engage, rather than remaining passive. 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. This existential crisis faces every viewer of transcendental film. I see this manifested in m own life as well. Sometimes I don’t want to come home and watch De Sica’s Umberto D. I’d much rather watch Iron Man 2. Sometimes I don’t want to face the Absurd.
Transcendental style manifests into a few of life itself. For when the lateral space between the cinema and the viewer is completely deleted, viewers are left with only eyes to see and their bodies to breath. To understand transcendental style is to understand life. What makes a viewer “lean in” to the frame? What makes humanity “lean in” to life? The decision to stay and participate is equitable with the decision to embrace life’s most pleasant and beautiful mysteries, those of art, science and faith. Watching cinema can be a “chore” in the same way life can be tiresome; this is the lesson. In all circumstances participate and create meaning. This is how transcendental style works. Beyond the phenomenological effects of a bare frame or of the time-image; transcendental style works spiritually by inviting the viewer to participate in the creation of cinematic meaning. Therefore, transcendental style (and in the same way, time-image) transform cinema from a profane art, to a liturgical one, creating opportunities for contemplation and meditation.
In Buddhism, the Human realm is above the God realm. Why? The Gods, full of pleasure and bliss, are to lethargic in their living to seek spiritual Nirvana. Humans, on the other hand, experience the proper amount of suffering and pleasure; pain serves as motivation for more and pleasure negotiates the pain. Humans do not sit complacent like the Gods. This in-between state is more valued than either Heaven or Hell because it allows humans to achieve more than their godly counterparts. Being a transcendental filmmaker means creating a world where the audience feels that same itch for Nirvana. It’s not Heaven and Hell, but the abundant and sparse means. This line is razor thin and it is easy to fall into boredom. But when executed just right, with the proper balance of withholding techniques, the pressure of time, and yet, enough interest to sustain attention, transcendental filmmakers can create a meditation which escorts viewers to meet the Transcendent. This process of viewing these films is a spiritual one, and I can’t help but imagine the process of creating them is spiritual too.
Bazin, André, and Hugh Gray. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Film Quarterly, vol. 13,4, 1960.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
Fuller Studio. “Rethinking Transcendental Style in Film.” YouTube, lecture by Paul Schrader, 28 Apr. 2018, https://youtu.be/C0CCMz7nJdo
Gibson, Mel, Dir. The Passion of the Christ. 20th Century Fox, 2004.
Linklater, Richard. Dir. It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. 1988. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2013.
Linklater, Richard. Dir. Before Sunrise. Turner Home Entertainment, 1999. DVD.
Linklater, Richard. Dir. Before Sunset. Warner Home Video, 2005. DVD.
Linklater, Richard. Dir. Slacker. 1991. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2013.
Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, With a New Introduction. University of California Press, 2018.
Sica, Vittorio De, Dir. Umberto D. Rizzoli Films S.P.A., 1952.
This subject continues to fascinate me, and I have come a very long way from that first viewing of Before Sunrise. I would love to connect my previous essays about Linklater and neorealism to form an uber transcendental style essay.
I think it would also be interesting to explore more topics in “religious” filmmaking. Perhaps a video essay on content vs. form using First Reformed and The Case for Christ as media texts.