Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Where God Lives: First Reformed, Bresson, and Transcendental Style

February 20 2020

“I go to church to be bored,” Paul Schrader told me in 2018, when I interviewed him about First Reformed. “That is where I think holiness resides: In the waiting, in the quiet places.” In this, Schrader has been consistent. In his book Transcendental Style in Film, which he wrote at the age of 24, he describes the quietude which permits the viewer to discover the holy within everyday life, the “mystery of existence” revealed through a stripped-down, “transcendental style [which], like the mass, transforms experience into a repeatable ritual.”

What role does the natural world play in this film style, which is set so apart from the contemporary, the cultural, the “subjective” and human? Emerson’s Nature, and American Transcendentalism more generally, doesn’t figure in Transcendental Style in Film. Emerson in his ramblings is ecstatic and perceptual. The “austere” Schrader is more concerned with absence, with “a certain way of being on top of life,” as the French director Robert Bresson explained to Schrader in an interview conducted after Transcendental Style and before Bresson’s The Devil, Probably.

To the extent that “nature” entered into Schrader’s thinking at that time, it was via the East, through Yasujiro Ozu, whose films Schrader reads through his interpretation of Zen. In Schrader’s understanding of Ozu’s Zen philosophy, “Any dichotomy between man and nature [...] is false. When Yahweh set Adam over the Garden of Eden he set the West on a course that the East has never accepted.” Accordingly, the conflicts in Ozu’s films arise out of modernity and its interruption of the “unity of man and nature”—divides along generational, gender and class lines are really a failure of man to “communicate with his environment.” As the disconnect between man and his environment becomes wider and graver, it follows that the transcendentalist Schrader would take note—thus his update of the transcendental template with his climate-change reckoning First Reformed, and the urgent attention it pays to “nature” and “the environment” in a more immediate material sense.

Transcendental Style in Film was reissued two years ago to coincide with the release of First Reformed. Reading it, one can see the depth of Schrader’s debt and gratitude to his masters: For First Reformed, he has donned the vestments of Diary of a Country Priest, but also internalized Bresson’s sense of humor, picked up on the country priest’s “obsessive—and ridiculous” fastidiousness and the ironies he draws out of dry voiceovers and dire action. Likewise, Schrader’s new introduction to the book shows how his latter-day study of what he categorizes as "slow cinema" doubled as preparation for First Reformed. The techniques he describes as characteristic of "slow cinema"—a static camera and symmetrical compositions with neutral blocking that offers minimal instruction to the eye; shots that linger just a little bit longer than the last character to leave the frame, or respect the length for narratively unnecessary actions; a restricted use of music and color—all operate in his film as he sees them operate in the post-Tarkovsky global cinema. They make a quiet place for the viewer to be bored, to create “a simultaneous movie” comprised of our own rememberings and meditations, a place where holiness might reside and we might happen upon it.

Bresson, too, “ruthlessly strips action of its significance,” Schrader wrote in Transcendental Style in Film, describing his “everyday” style. Plot? Merely an “appeal to the emotions through the manipulation of events.” Acting? Psychology “humanizes the spiritual.” Camera movement? Too “editorial,” and “climax cutting, whether in service of a plot or self-sufficient, elicits the artificial sort of emotional involvement which Bresson studiously avoids,” while “metaphorical editing” is “a totally artificial argument imposed from without by the filmmaker.” By removing from the environment any trace of man’s meddling with the world as it is, Bresson brings us face to face, however unwillingly, with a presence both of and beyond our everyday.

But man’s meddling would become harder for even Bresson to ignore, and his alienation from his surroundings would become even more acute. Bresson’s style was never more anachronistic or his concerns more up to date than in The Devil, Probably, a film still shocking in its clarity, in its total refusal of a world whose profanity it’s pointless to deny. Anyone who is even remotely ecologically self-aware knows that normal, relatable, everyday people live lives which are, in essence, evil. This is a truth Revered Toller’s colleagues squirm away from, and it was even a joke on The Good Place, but Charles of The Devil, Probably saw it first, and his dissatisfaction with all artificial things, with political activism and organized religion and love, is what drives him to martyrdom. In Transcendental Style in Film, Schrader writes that the Bresson protagonist is “a lonely figure pitted against a hostile environment,” and is understanding of Bresson’s predilection for suicides: “The prison house of the body is the last impediment to the soul’s emancipation.” In arranging his own suicide-by-proxy by the hand of a junkie friend—a “subtle” suicide, like that of the cancer-stricken country priest—Charles can be martyred, can choose to accept a predestined grace.

Schrader predicted how Bresson would film Charles in his description of Bresson’s “Byzantine” compositions: “Frontality, nonexpressive faces, hieratic postures, symmetric compositions, and two-dimensionality [...] the nonexpressive face because God himself [is] beyond all expression. [...] The long forehead, the lean features, the closed lips, the blank stare, the frontal view, the flat light, the uncluttered background, the stationary camera, these identify Bresson’s protagonists as objects suitable for veneration.” Charles is a pure subject in an impure world. In The Devil, Probably, Bresson does all the things which Schrader says he doesn’t do: when Charles watches trees being chopped down, it’s cut together in a traumatic, uncharacteristically fragmented montage, as is volley of voices offering partial solutions at various rallies and meetings.

In Transcendental Style in Film, Schrader describes how, in a film by Bresson or Ozu or Carl Dreyer, our consciousness of the dull everyday and the ineffable divine coexist, giving rise to an eventually unbearable awareness that this cannot be the world, “a sense of emotional weight within an unfeeling environment.” So we continue along the surface of things until a “decisive action, ”often a literal miracle, “an incredible event within the banal reality which must by and large be taken on faith,” and through which the world is transfigured.

There is the stripped-bare everyday, and the miraculous decisive action, and they exist simultaneously, together in what Schrader terms “stasis.” This is a concluding image “which can accept deep, contradictory emotion and transform it into an expression of something unified, permanent, transcendent.” Perhaps it is a literal vessel, like the urn in Late Spring, or sometimes a landscape, but one in which “the spiritual and physical can coexist, still in tension and unresolved, but part of a larger scheme in which all phenomena are more or less expressive of a larger reality—the Transcendent,” which for Bresson might mean “the presence of something superior to man which can be called god” and for Ozu the “merging [of] man and nature.” I dwell on this pattern because Schrader, who described it before he had ever made a film, uses his own pointed variation of it to end First Reformed.

Charles has a kindred spirit in First Reformed’s Michael, with his home office full of clippings and global-warming screensaver an echo of the newsreel footage of oil spills and baby seals being clubbed to death in The Devil, Probably, and then in Toller, who takes up Michael’s cross. When Toller discovers Michael’s body in the forest, it’s a garbled quotation of a scene which finds the country priest, in Scrader’s description, “an agonized, lonely full figure set against an empty environment, his head hung[...], wrapped in body-obscuring robes, and about to succumb to the spiritual weight he must bear.” Michael’s funeral scene, at a Superfund site, is a reminder that we were in a garden once, but no more; when Toller returns to the site later in the film, the rusted ship’s mast in the shape of a cross is Schrader’s ironic quotation of the image of stasis which ends Country Priest. Alienated from his environment, Toller—who feuds with the head of his church, and struggles to connect at his youth group—is wracked, like the country priest, by a “holy agony,” but by now, nature, which might provide unity and resolution, is harder and harder to find.

In the opening shot of First Reformed, Schrader’s camera approaches a 250-year-old church in a dolly shot timed to the sunrise. A dawning human perception of the world around us is timed, harmoniously, to the literal dawn, in one of those "slow cinema" shots that provides “dead time [in which] the spectator is left alone to think or reflect,” per Transcendental Style’s new introduction. This is in contrast to the “smash cut [that] jumps ahead of the viewer’s expectations,” as Schrader continues, and which “depreciates the viewer’s participation...After the smash cut, the viewer is propelled unthinking through the ongoing narrative.”

Likewise, the ending of First Reformed attempts to sync up manmade time and natural time, but this finds them at odds with one another. When Esther sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the scene should be a harmonious unity of unprocessed forward-flowing time with a hymn of praise to a constant God. But as Toller prepares for his decisive martyrdom or self-mortification, words and melody fall subtly out of sync with one another. Schrader compromises the Bressonian unity of time and space by crosscutting: time out of joint, in a world without winter.

First Reformed’s ending might be a miracle. The doomed Toller is resurrected, like in Dreyer’s Ordet, by the arrival of the pregnant Mary. (Is Mary pregnant with Toller? Is her pregnant belly the vessel for stasis?) What should follow, then, is something like “the final stasis shots of Ozu and Bresson: a long pull-back from the central characters, a still view of natural surroundings, and the strong implication of the unity of all existence.” But the film ends prematurely. The smash cut which ends the film is conspicuously authored, and artificial. The artist’s presumption, and man’s delusion more generally, “propels us unthinking,” leave us conscious of a transcendence almost achieved, but unable to hold together the world and the spirit.

Paul Schrader's Transcendental Style in Film is available for purchase from the Metrograph Book Store. First Reformed and The Devil, Probably will screen as part of our series Climate Crisis Parables.