Transcendental style seeks to maximize the mystery of existence; it eschews all conventional interpretations of reality: realism, naturalism, psychologism, romanticism, expressionism, impressionism, and… rationalism… ‘If everything is explained by understandable causal necessities’, abbot Amédée Ayfre wrote, ‘or by objective determinism, even if their precise nature remains unknown, then nothing is sacred.’ The enemy of transcendence is immanence, whether it is external (realism, rationalism) or internal (psychologism, expressionism).
– Paul Schrader

Schrader’s comprehensive list of exemptions in his original treatise, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1972), seemingly prescribes transcendental style as an art house outlier.1 The former theological and liberal arts student immersed himself in understanding a shared form of thinking and feeling in films by the three canonised filmmakers, of different geographical and cultural backgrounds, who shared techniques that were “neither parochial nor Christian nor Western.” As Schrader acknowledges, his curiosity as a critic and student was aroused. He found that no one had written a study of spiritual style on film and he was in what he describes as “a unique state of transition – my love of movies full-blown and my knowledge of theological aesthetics still intact.”2 Two years later, Schrader stopped writing (and, he says, pretty much reading) film criticism and started making films.

Almost five decades on, in an essay written for the second edition of Transcendental Style in Film published in 2018, entitled “Rethinking Transcendental Style”, Schrader outlines reasons to revisit and update his previous theories. In response, this essay reflects upon the development of Schrader’s filmic concepts in light of this current return to theory and his recent filmmaking. In First Reformed (2017), Schrader aims to bring new life to the hierophanies of style (expressions of the sacred) spearheaded by a major change of resolve in his own filmmaking practice.

Ozu, Bresson and transcendental style

Robert Bresson’s transcendental style had already been recognised and perceptively analysed by André Bazin, Amédée Ayfre and Susan Sontag (and prescribed by Bresson himself) when Schrader saw Bresson’s fifth film, Pickpocket (1959), in 1969 and wrote about it. Sontag wrote of Bresson’s working out of a form “that expresses exactly what he wants to say”. Schrader wrote of him using “a rigid and austere style to ward off superficial emotional release, instead intent on creating a ‘transformation’ without which Bresson insisted there is no art … He wants you to believe in something you don’t want to believe in – the supernatural and the spiritual.” 3

Bresson was the first to develop a radically minimalist style in modern cinema in which the main stylistic components, all present in Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1950), were fully in place by Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (A Man Escaped, 1956) and Pickpocket. 4 In Bresson’s minimalism, András Bálint Kovács identifies three main components: extensive use of off-screen space (termed metonymic as a considerable amount of information is provided offscreen by sound), a highly elliptical narrative style, and a radically dispassionate acting style. 5 This combination produces a sense of singularity, autonomy and objectivity in the characters which, for the viewer, appears as a certain emptiness. “This emptiness, however, is counterbalanced by a sort of ‘mystical integrity’ related to a deeply religious component of the human psyche.” 6

Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959)

Schrader was curious about Yasujiro Ozu whose work had only become more generally available outside Japan following his death in 1963. He saw Samma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962) at the Shochiku cinema in LA in 1969, the same year that he first encountered Pickpocket, and acknowledges that “it took hold of me and wouldn’t let go.” He realised later that “it was the same passive-aggressive push-pull” that drew him to Bresson’s films. In comparing their films Schrader said he recognised them both as minimalists and concerned with the Other, at the same time realising that “East is East and West is West” and “you can’t go too far in comparing them before you run into some contradictions.” 7 In his analysis, Schrader highlights the stylistic similarities in Ozu’s’ films – use of off-screen space, narrative ellipses, and low-key acting.

Like Bresson, there was every indication, Schrader suggests, that Ozu did not attempt to explore his personality through the psychology of his characters. In the rigorous demands he made of the actors, “he attempted to drain his characters of any psychological nuance, any emotion.” With these demands, “he was after a bigger prize … he sought, like the Oriental artist, to eliminate the personality in order to propose a thesis.”8 Schrader suggests that in Ozu’s films “it seems that his personality was enveloped by Zen culture, and that Zen culture was enveloped by a transcending reality,” as he puts it, “like the fish who ate the fish who ate the fish… tracing this sequence of influences one will arrive at the final unique influence on Ozu and his films.”9 Schrader asserts that Ozu did not need to revive or inject the expression of the transcendent but only adapt it to film.10 “Zen,” Schrader emphasises, “is the quintessence of Japanese art.”11 Based on various sources, Schrader proposes that Oriental art and Zen art, in particular, “aspire to the transcendent” as “[l]ike primitive art, traditional Oriental art makes no distinction between the sacred and the secular.”12

The key premise for transcendental style is the universality of its form in sacred art that is only achieved in stasis. Schrader finds that Ozu shares a filmic form with Bresson and Dreyer. However, the notion that Ozu consciously sought to engage transcendence through stasis in his films13 seems at least questionable in the dependence Schrader places on the weight of Ozu’s supposed commitment to introduce Zen into Japanese cinema and to adapt transcendental style to Oriental culture.14 Schrader argues that the concept of transcendental expression is so intrinsic to Japanese (and Oriental) culture, that Ozu was able to develop it and stay within popular conventions of Japanese art. This claim, that Ozu shared with Bresson the “common desire (my italics) to express the Transcendent on film,” providing the crucial “shared ancient Christian/Oriental aesthetic heritage,”15 makes explicit, Schrader problematically suggests, Ozu’s conscious intent rather than cultural absorption.

The cultural and personal differences between Ozu and Bresson are apparent in the disparity of the everyday. In Ozu’s films this is primarily internal: man cannot find nature within himself. In Bresson’s films the disparity is primarily external: man cannot live harmoniously with his hostile environment. In Ozu, there are no futile protests against the frailty of the body and the hostility of the environment, as in Bresson. In Bresson, there is no resigned acceptance of environment, as in Ozu.”16

Schrader acknowledges that “films employing transcendental style can be studied from a personal and cultural perspective, and they usually are,” but for films employing transcendental style he finds that the personal and cultural approach “disregards the unique quality of transcendental style: its ability to transcend culture and personality … a spiritual truth that can be achieved by objectively setting objects and pictures side by side that cannot be obtained through a subjective personal or cultural approach to those objects … This form [beyond the personal and cultural differences between Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer] is remarkably unified.”17

For Schrader, “all the facts of Ozu’s private life cannot explain his mysterious transcendental pauses (the much remarked-on contemplative montage passages sometimes called ‘pillow shots’). These are not derived from an individual personality,” Schrader insists, “the characters’ individual feelings [in an Ozu film] are of passing importance; it is the surrounding form that is of lasting value … It is not an experience at all, but an expression (my italics), or rather not an expression of the individual or a cultural experience of transcendence, but an expression of the Transcendent itself.”18 Schrader and Donald Richie identified what they saw as Ozu’s philosophy of resignation with the Buddhist concept of mono no aware (“sympathetic sadness and acceptance”). Richie also agreed with Schrader that Ozu counterposes Zen unity to the disunity of cultural conflict and then surpasses the opposition by achieving a transcendental stasis. “In Ozu’s films,” Schrader suggests, “Zen art and thought is the civilisation, film is the veneer.”19

David Bordwell is forensic in describing what is up there on the screen in Ozu’s films; Schrader is singular in locating a path from East to the West, a path to what is ‘not up there’: the wholly Other. In addition to his film-by-film analysis in his definitive reference book on Ozu’s work, Bordwell has discussed Ozu and Bresson’s films in the context of what he terms parametric narrative which involves more formal emphasis on what he refers to as “the patterning of film style”.20 Bordwell concludes that “Ozu’s works can be seen to engage the spectator on many levels, both narrative and stylistic, in a manner that is unique in the history of cinema.”21 In terms of their variety of subject matter and degree of concern with psychological verisimilitude, Bordwell considers that “placed in a social context, the films are less indebted to Japanese aesthetics and Zen Buddhism than to a vibrant popular culture, and more indirectly to ideological tensions.”22

Bordwell considers that Schrader and Richie are insufficiently historical and miss the real significance of Japanese tradition and Zen aesthetics in Ozu’s career. He suggests that Schrader and Richie fail to produce any evidence that Ozu was ever a devout Buddhist or that he had a keen interest in Zen sufficient for them to be centrally instrumental in his filmmaking. In the course of researching his book, Bordwell “could find nothing that would support such an explanation.”23 While being prepared to talk at length about the filmmaking process, Ozu himself generally refused to discuss meaning. Although hardly the final word on this issue of intentionality, on one of the few occasions Ozu did speak of it offhandedly to foreign critics, stating: “They don’t understand – that’s why they say it’s Zen or something like that.” 24

Far removed from the work of a conservative traditionalist, the first close analyses of Ozu’s films in the West25 found a ‘modernist’ divergence from the continuity system of classical and realist narrative which Ozu de-centres, as spatial and temporal structures that create their own interest, if in a quiet and contemplative way; his aim would seem to be to often catch the attention of the viewer rather than drive the narrative. Ozu tends to linger on details of everyday life, in effect ‘sliding away’ from conventional expectations of significant narrative space. Ozu often creates ellipses by not showing important narrative events. He employs what at first sight might seem to be conventional continuity shots in his own system of separate transitional shots not directly connected with the action of the scene. These shots wear their ‘off-centredness’ lightly neither obscurely nor symbolically. The use of time and space can be playful at times with stylistic devices opening out the narrative.26

Through his strong engagement with American cinema up to the end of the war, Ozu developed his own system from the formally rigorous premises of editing in classical Hollywood, in which he explored cinematic space while maintaining ‘legibility’ by adhering to basic classical precepts. Ozu pared down his own style into a unique system of organising figures, objects and settings in cinematic space.27

In considering Ozu’s stricture that, in effect, Zen was “not something that can be entirely avoided,” Robin Wood (consistent with Schrader) sees Ozu’s central concern in his films to construct a spectator/actor relationship of contemplative distance. At the same time, Wood stresses what we are invited to contemplate is “not some ineffable, eternal mystery but the concrete and often prosaic realities of life-in-society.” Contemplative distance “does indeed place these ‘realities’ in a context that one might loosely term metaphysical: the awareness of time, transience, death, and an inanimate universe. But that is something scarcely alien to Western culture.” 28 

While not denying their cultural specificity, Wood takes issue with the oft-repeated claims made (seemingly endorsed by Japanese critics and younger generations of filmmakers) for an essential “Japanese-ness” which delayed the arrival of Ozu’s films in the West, and the corollary “that the values the films enact are in a clear-cut, unambiguous way very conservative, reactionary and traditional.” 29 Any radicalism, following this line of thought, is primarily to be found in the films’ formal elements. It is here that the emphasis resides in claims for Ozu as the creator of films in transcendental style. This would seem to have its origin in Richie’s pathbreaking essays that culminated in the publication of his book on Ozu in 1974, two years after Schrader’s.

In contrast, in “thinking” Ozu’s films, philosopher Gilles Deleuze sees no need to call on the transcendental. He sees in Ozu’s body of work, the first appearance in the time-image of pure optical and sound situations, identifying him as “the inventor” of what he calls opsigns (image) and sonsigns (sound)30 which later appear throughout neo-realism (see below). For Deleuze these are opposite to the sensori-motor schema of action in the movement-image, a form of enveloped perception replacing the regularities and continuities in the ‘commonsense’ space-time organisation of classical narrative.

Enter Deleuze and the time-image

Following his encounters with films by Bresson and Ozu, Schrader sensed that the bridge between the spirituality he was brought up with and rebelled against, and the “profane” cinema that he loved, was “a bridge of style not content.” While he sought, in Transcendental Style in Film, to unravel the techniques and devices that he found Bresson, Ozu and Carl Dreyer shared, nearly five decades later Schrader writes of how he has been able to understand how they work by placing them in a wider context of the phenomenology of perception through time – distancing devices he terms the “nuts and bolts” of transcendental style addressed by Deleuze in Cinema 2: the Time Image, in a shift away from what Deleuze calls the movement-image (the subject of Cinema 1).31

Kovács claims Deleuze’s two volumes based on his own philosophical system, constitute “by far the deepest and most developed theory of modern cinema [that] does not fit in with any other theoretical system,”32 a statement which only fully holds if the Cahiers du cinéma tradition is ignored. Deleuze claims that “it took the modern cinema to re-read the whole of the cinema as already made up of aberrant movements and false continuity shots.”33 As Allan Thomas points out, this results in the effacement of the movement-image “because from this perspective the time-image is indeed anterior to the movement image,”34 leaving the historical positioning of the time-image in an apparent state of uncertainty. Thomas sees the problems posed by the Cinema books in the context of a return by Deleuze, via cinema, to problems constitutive of his own origins as a philosopher. Thomas undertakes the task of unravelling this apparent incoherence in the course of the rest of his book.35 In suggesting an apparently contradictory historical relationship between the movement- and time-images, is it a case of the demands of the philosophy project overriding those of Deleuze’s cinema aide? Deleuze’s recasting of Bazin in the Cinema books in the context of his own philosophy project, would seem to have restored theory to the field of cinephilia through his auteur inflected taxonomy of image types.

Schrader seizes upon what is perhaps the most questionable aspect of the Cinema books, in light of Deleuze’s own assertions that they do not constitute a history of cinema. 36 I refer to Deleuze’s location of narrative cinema’s bifurcation between the classical cinema (termed the movement-image in Cinema 1) and modernist cinema (the time-image of Cinema 2). It is not the bifurcation per se that is so questionable, but the degree of historical specificity that Deleuze injects into it. In the opening chapter of Cinema 2, titled “Beyond the Movement Image”, Deleuze foregrounds what he sees as the emerging crisis of the action-image in “the loosening of the sensori-motor link” of the movement-image, first by Italian neo-realism and then by the path ‘retraced’ by the French New Wave.37

Lúcia Nagib historicises the connection between cinematic speed and modernity in a re-evaluation of the evolutionist model that establishes World War II, invoked by Deleuze for one, as a watershed between the classical and modernist cinemas 38. Nagib questions what she sees as the “veritable obsession” with the modern that continues to beset film studies. She seeks to clarify the modern-classical debate by analysing two canonical examples of Japanese cinema: Ozu’s Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959) and Mizoguchi’s Zhangiku monogatari (Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, 1939), to highlight the question of the relationship between the long take, slow cinema and modernity. Mizoguchi’s film, although hailed for the realism of its long takes, is only accorded by Deleuze, for example, a place in the classicism of the movement-image, while Ozu, inveterately adept at deploying montage throughout his oeuvre, is given a key place by Deleuze for his modernity. Nagib concludes that the divide (she refers to it as a “quarrel”) between slow and fast cinema, as the most recent expression of the classic-modern debate, “cannot adequately account for cinema’s aesthetic and political values or the creative power of the human mind across history and geography.”

In rejecting the notion that his intention was to do a history of cinema, Deleuze described his taxonomy of images as a natural history or “a kind of biological classification of living forms.”39 Yet beginning with D. W. Griffith in 1915, Cinema 1 is structured in historical progression of the varieties of movement-image film narrative to dominance in the thirties reaching its most complex form in the “mental images” peaking in Hitchcock’s films then, for Deleuze, lapsing increasingly into cliché marking the crisis of the action image beginning, as he sees it, in the late forties.

A loose chronology prefaced by a discussion of the philosophy of Henri Bergson does not, in itself, constitute a history. Thomas points out that the progressive chronology is not continued in Cinema 2 as an expansion of the concepts laid out in Cinema 1. Deleuze actually de-centres his account of the time-image chronologically, while tending to de-chronologise the account of the movement-image in the context of the emerging time-image in Cinema 1.40 Rodowick reinforces this by stating that when Deleuze refers to the organic movement-image as “classic” and the time-image as “modern” he does not mean “that the latter flows from the former as natural progression” or that the modern form necessarily stands opposed to the classic form in critique, or is a consequence of the evolution of the movement-image. Instead, “this transition represents a distinct if gradual transformation in the nature of belief and the possibilities of thought.”41

Thomas insists “that the Cinema books must be understood not as a response to cinema, or as a product of Deleuze’s love for the cinema, but as a response to a properly philosophical problem with and for Deleuzian philosophy itself approached by means of the cinema.” Although sourced from writing outside the Cinema books, Deleuze acknowledged that philosophical problems “compelled him to look for answers in the cinema.”42 “Unfortunately,” Thomas concludes, “he does not say what those problems are, or what it is about cinema that enables him to respond to them in a way that philosophy on its own does not.”43 Thomas poses a question that the extraordinary nature of this project invites and his own book seeks to explore: why does Deleuze write about cinema as a philosopher?44

Thomas has identified paradoxical statements made almost in passing by Deleuze in the Cinema books with implications for the historical placement of the time-image in relation to the movement-image. While the first volume ends in precise historical terms, as Thomas further points out, the new image crisis “appears in more or less dispersed and fragmentary forms throughout the whole of cinematic history in the second volume. Elements accounted for in terms of the taxonomy of the movement-image are then understood or worked through as somehow characteristic of the time-image,”45 at the same time emphasising discontinuity and disconnection. Specific historical timing – the end of the war – is given for the break between the movement-image and the time-image which, as Thomas points out, begs the question why outside historical factors are given such weight in the supposed break in film form. Deleuze partially alludes to an answer: “that in Europe, the post-war period has greatly increased the situations [the Holocaust, Hiroshima, cities in ruins] which we no longer know how to react to, in spaces we no longer know how to describe.”46

The ambivalence in the relationship, in pre- and post-war cinema, between the movement- and time-images is considered by Thomas at length. He notes that Deleuze’s account of the transition begins precisely with the collapse of the unity of action and reaction presented in the sensori-motor schema.47 He works through the implications of what Deleuze notes briefly, but with little discussion, “that the time-image has always inhabited the cinema as a possibility or implicit presence [within the movement-image],” or in Deleuze’s words: “the direct time-image is the phantom which has always haunted the cinema, but it took modern cinema to give a body to this phantom” waiting to assert itself when the system begins to fragment.48 Thus the time-image is not opposed to the movement-image, but rather has inhabited the cinema as a possibility or implicit presence, subsisting within it. This leads to a seeming conundrum as Thomas points out.

At around the same time in the early seventies, Andrei Tarkovsky, through his writing and six films from 1962-86, more than any of his contemporaries, freed time from the control of action in film style to evoke interior mental processes through poetry and memory, paradigms for what in the last two decades or so has come to be referred to as “slow cinema.”

Deleuze-Tarkovsky-Slow Cinema

Schrader‘s synthesising of a Deleuze-Tarkovsky-Slow Cinema field is not so much a negation but an apparent dismantling of classical cinema in order to reconstruct time through its mental formations, in a purer state. Schrader’s readiness to historicise Deleuze’s theories is not surprising given the contradictions inherent in the two Cinema books, as identified by Thomas.

Schrader seizes on Deleuze’s notion of the time-image as explicitly addressing the phenomenology of perception through time, something he admits he had little idea of at the time he wrote his book in which he posits “that the psyche, squeezed by untenable disparity, would break free [at the point of stasis] to another plane.”49 Schrader finds that the explanation for this breakthrough is provided by Deleuze’s referencing of Aristotle’s notion of the first mover, that viewers are hardwired to continue the movement in their minds of an action prematurely cut short on the screen. Thus movement is subordinated to time (as in the cut to black on the embrace filmed by the circling camera that ‘suspends’ narrative in First Reformed) meaning that “a film edit is determined not by an action on the screen but by the creative desire [by the viewer] to associate images over time.” The movement-image cut maintains rational continuity – man enters a room, man exits a room; with the time-image cut, man exits a room, the camera lingers for some seconds on the closed door. As Schrader explains, Deleuze calls this the “non-rational cut” which breaks from the sensori-motor logic of the movement-image.50

In his need to fill in a gap in his theorising of transcendental style – where to place the phenomenology of transcendental style – Schrader problematically embraces the historiographic model based on Deleuze’s recasting of Bazinian realism in the time-image. This is exemplified by Bazin’s reading of the famous 4-minute kitchen scene in Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1952), that the cinema image’s affinity is not ultimately with capturing movement (the action-image) but with capturing time. It was in this scene and in films also by Rossellini, Fellini and Visconti that Delueze posits the first appearance in film narrative of a moment of pure seeing (which he calls the opsign) by the young maid detached from her doing,51 although this seems to contradict Deleuze’s claim for Ozu as the inventor of the opsign and sonsign (see above).

Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)

Schrader’s own admission of his “grossly simplified” adoption of Deleuzian mapping of “film history” contains intimations of a grand narrative. To take one example of Schrader’s teleological appropriation, Deleuze’s time-image films, in a global context, constitute in audience numbers the nature of an ‘art cinema’ which Schrader refers to, after Deleuze, as “a mature cinema” in support of his case for transcendental film’s placement in the evolution of film style.52 He writes of discovering, in Deleuze’s “history”, a place for transcendental style “as part of a larger movement away from narrative” which he describes as “a way station … in the post-World War II progression from neorealism to surveillance video.”53

Schrader is on surer ground in invoking the evolution of slowness in narrative although, as has been pointed out, this has tended to legitimise a history of film style that is both decidedly teleological and Eurocentric and can be seen to be overly simplistic in subsuming a variety of filmmakers from different periods and contexts under a single umbrella. Conversely, transcendental style might be seen as a benchmark for historicising a movement of cinema away from the imperatives of movement to those of time.54

Perhaps understandably, given its widely acknowledged complexities, Schrader does not give consideration to the taxonomy of images that is the philosophic core of Deleuze’s theory. In adopting philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of time, Deleuze, in his time-image, allows the viewer to imbue the image with associations, even contradictory ones, which Schrader sees as getting close to the way he sees transcendental style working. However, the historical chronology attributed to Deleuze is not as clear-cut as Schrader’s mapped-out chronology suggests.

Although to be found in earlier films and periods of filmmaking, as an identifying term for a branch of art cinema with minimal narrative and little action, ‘slow cinema’ was first coined two decades ago for films concurrent with other grassroots movements (slow food, slow travel) reacting to “the accelerating tempo of late capitalism.”55 Many terms have been used to describe such films but “slow” seems to have taken hold, Schrader suggests, because it’s meaning is malleable. In Sculpting in Time (1986), Tarkovsky passionately merged his innovative thoughts on film with alarm at the state of world culture, amplified by film festivals he attended. More as a tipping point than in isolation, Tarkovsky’s success was in activating the experience of the power of time, when “dead” in narrative terms, can actually “say more” to the engaged viewer through a form of film poetry, what Kovács identifies as “a dual vision of the world: simultaneously material and spiritual.”56

What really distinguishes slow cinema is, at core, a different attitude towards time which becomes the central component of the story instead of merely servicing it, or as Schrader finds consistent with transcendental style, “slow cinema examines how time affects the images… experiential not expositional.”57 It works more or less against the grain of a century of cinema’s narrative stream, replacing action with stillness through foregrounding narrative techniques which tend to be distancing rather than empathy inducing. Thus, Schrader observes, “expectations are turned in on themselves, no music to guide the emotions, no close-ups to indicate importance, no acting to affect feelings, no fast motion to distract the eye. Slow cinema is passive-aggressive par excellence.”58 He then hastens to add that transcendental style is “not slow cinema [but] one of several precursors to slow cinema.”

From the profane to the sacred

As an independent American filmmaker whose career had been widely seen as in near terminal decline, for Schrader to follow in the path of Ozu and Bresson with First Reformed was not an easy call. As previously mentioned, Schrader had been clear that he had never intended to make a film in transcendental style. Although a believer in spirituality but not of any “sectarian notions of God,”59 he confesses that his filmmaking commitments have been in deploying the profanities of mainstream narrative drama. In much of his most personal work he has, however, sought to place a “blinding emotional moment” as an acknowledgement of the presence of the spiritual in a momentary denial of psychological realism.60

It has been suggested that rather than crossing a bridge of style in First Reformed, Schrader is actually returning to the essence of his breakthrough script for Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976): “a crisis of faith dramatised as a crisis in identity and moral self-worth.” [61. Tony Rayns, “First Reformed [Review]”, Sight & Sound 28.8 (August 2018): p. 65.] Culminating with the theme of self-annihilation, Schrader is now speaking of the Pastor in First Reformed as the fifth stage of the traveller in “the life journey” begun by Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, what has been referred to by himself and others as Schrader’s emotional and spiritual autobiography at that time. The stylistic range and thematic evolution central to Schrader’s six “masculine crisis” films (the quintet plus Affliction, 1997) [62. Taxi Driver (1978), American Gigolo (1979), Light Sleeper (1992), The Walker (2007), First Reformed (2017).] in the wider context of his work, in my view, does not support Rayns’ claim that Schrader has been “dancing on the spot for forty odd years,” a proposition that before First Reformed seemed to me only arguable.

What is more apparent now is that it has not been a matter of crossing a bridge so much as struggling through a strongly flowing stream. To take Schrader’s films from Taxi Driver on, there is the tendency in his work of “not giving what the audience expects” the disconcerting elements he speaks of as “creating a kind of unsettling discontent, a disparity … something that shouldn’t be there.”61

First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2017)

In 2008, Schrader admitted to George Kouvaros that “perhaps my style is in a permanent and contradictory tension … moving toward a harmony as yet unknown to me.” This lead Kourvaros to comment that “this permanent contradictory tension may not produce films that are settled or easy to place but what it continues to provide is a vital reworking of the defining archetypes and tropes of the American cinema.” 62

As if in atonement for his previous indulgence in Dog Eat Dog (2016), with First Reformed Schrader has returned to the austerity of Bresson’s cinema and Ingmar Bergman’s Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light, 1963) for inspiration in film about a crisis of faith that ends in ambiguity, as it must. Schrader says that in referencing Bresson in several of his previous films he was signifying a bridge from the dominant mode of psychological realism, in which “you’re slowing down, holding back, waiting.”63 Leaning away from central engagement with narrative, in First Reformed, Schrader puts into practice the phases of transcendental style that function as he first described, what he sees as the achievement of a fundamental spiritual unity of personal and cultural differences between East (Ozu) and West (Bresson), as is emphasised, only through stasis.

For a companion piece by the author in Film Alert 101, see: https://filmalert101.blogspot.com/2019/10/bruce-hodsdon-on-paul-scrader.html

An Afterword: Budd, Robert, and Grace

Now acknowledging no sectarian involvements, Schrader’s spiritual commitment is apparent in his belief in the truth that can be achieved when films like Diary of a Country Priest and Akibiyori (Late Autumn, Ozu Yasujiro, 1960) seem to have that genuinely transcendent “Other” quality” whereby personal and cultural perspectives are not necessarily inaccurate, as far as they go, but for him they “are finally inadequate”.64 The form of ineffable stasis seems to gain strength in Schrader’s eyes by the infrequency of its occurrence at an outer end of the narrative spectrum. However a movement-image genre film like Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959) can admit an element of reflection, while Bresson’s prison film, A Man Escaped, is spiritually engaging because Bresson admits an element of humanistic warmth into its emphatic reflective form. While Schrader finds the prison metaphor in Bresson’s work “gains in complexity and depth [as it is extended into] the theological paradox of predestination and free-will,”65 such paradoxes can also be grounded in deliberate dualism, as in Dreyer’s films such as Ordet (1955), and in the qualified Otherness found in Ozu’s cinema, the latter best summed up, in my view, by Robin Wood (see above).

There is the matter of a state of grace which has some congruent cross cultural religious and secular meanings. The dying words of the country priest are “all is grace” followed by stasis (the image of the cross). Schrader adds that “if one accepts transcendental style, then all is grace which allows the protagonist and the viewer to be both captive and free.”66 He identifies a state of grace in the Ranown Westerns due consideration in his essay on Budd Boetticher, first published in 1971 in Cinema (which he also edited) and in Bresson’s ‘prison’ trilogy (The Trial of Joan of Arc, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket) addressed in Transcendental Style in 1972. Schrader describes Boetticher as “probably the most primitive filmmaker in American history” by which he means intuitively obsessed with the primitive dilemma: at what point does the individual become archetypal, a theme of considerable intellectual depth that goes to the origins of art (although Boetticher himself may not have been a man of intellectual depth).”67

Ride Lonsome (Budd Boetticher, 1959)

Bresson “may be the prototypical director of inaction”68 whose rigorous approach to his art made the form, as it must be in transcendental style, the operative element for inducing belief. “The Jansenist ‘chance’ of grace,” Schrader writes, “is the theme of A Man Escapedthe plot, revealed in the film’s title, is secondary – its unpredictability is perfectly expressed in the biblical quotation that forms the subtitle of the film: ‘the wind bloweth where it listeth’.”69 Schrader embeds the notion of grace in Boetticher’s archetypal primitivism:

Boetticher’s [Randolph] Scott is, in a strange way, like Bresson’s Joan of Arc, a person who lives by a special call and is not rationally responsive to the dangers of earthly existence. It is through this mysterious grace that Scott exists, and his decision for grace that allows him to function archetypically, like a horseback Every-man. The dilemma of the Ranown Westerns, like modern morality plays, is not one of works but of grace, not of action but of decision.70

A re-reading of Schrader’s early writings prompts a welcoming of his return to theorising film practice with more than four decades as an independent writer-director behind him.71 Since the late eighties Schrader can only identify eight other filmmakers, each in at least one instance “with the devotion, the rigor and the outright fanaticism to employ transcendental style exclusively.”72 What might buttress interest in the implications of transcendental style is if, in addition to the cross-cultural essentialism of the aesthetics of sacred art in the practice of transcendental style, Schrader et al. might also give more attention to elaborating “how transcendental style enters in and does business with all sorts of styles.” As Schrader notes, Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) is a transcendental film that “indulges in expressionism,” Pasolini’s Il vangelo secondo matteo (The Gospel According to St Matthew, 1964) “gives way to Marxist realism,” and Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now (1956) “yields to psychological realism.”73

Acknowledgement to the AFI-RMIT Research Library, with thanks to Alex Gianfriddo and Olympia Barron. Thanks also to Adrian Danks for his suggestions and encouragement when I was struggling for coherence in an earlier draft.

Recent interviews with Schrader

Eric Cortellessa, “Paul Schrader on First Reformed,” Wide Angle, 13 June 2018: https://slate.com/culture/2018/06/first-reformeds-ending-paul-schrader-explains-why-its-designed-to-be-ambiguous.html

Alex Ross Perry, “Paul Schrader: Deliberate Boredom in the Church of Cinema,” Cinema scope 74, 2018: http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/paul-schrader-deliberate-boredom-in-the-church-of-cinema/

Alissa Wilkinson, “Paul Schrader on First Reformed,” Vox, 16 June 2018: https://www.vox.com/…/paul-schrader-interview-first-reformed-ending-apocalypse-fai


  1. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), p. 42.
  2. Ibid., p. 2.
  3. Kevin Jackson (ed.), Schrader on Schrader & Other Writing (New York: Faber & Faber, 1992), p. 4.
  4. Kovács, András Bálint, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema 1950-1980 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 141.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., pp. 147-8.
  7. Paul Schrader, “On Yasurjiro Ozu”, Film Comment, Blog, 25 November, 2016, https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/paul-schrader-on-yasujiro-ozu/
  8. Schrader, Transcendental, p. 55.
  9. Ibid., p. 53.
  10. Ibid., p. 46.
  11. Ibid., p. 55.
  12. Ibid., p. 45.
  13. Ibid., pp. 55-66.
  14. Ibid., p. 46.
  15. Ibid., p. 131.
  16. Ibid., p. 82.
  17. Ibid., p. 41.
  18. Ibid., p. 54.
  19. Ibid., p. 47.
  20. David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), Ch. 12.
  21. David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (London and New York: BFI Publishing & Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 2.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., p. 27.
  24. Ibid.
  25. See: David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, “Space and Narrative in the Films of Ozu”, Screen 17.2 (Summer 1976): pp. 41-73; Edward Branigan, “The Space of Equinox Flower”, Screen 17.2 (Summer 1976): pp. 74-105.
  26. See Bordwell & Thompson Film Art: An Introduction, 5th ed. (New York and London: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 1997), pp. 404-5.
  27. Bordwell, Ozu, p.88
  28. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan… and Beyond (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 112.
  29. Ibid., p. 100.
  30. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 13.
  31. Schrader, Transcendental, p. 3.
  32. Kovács, Screening, p. 60.
  33. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 41. Deleuze declares that the crystal image is fundamental to the operation of the time-image: “time splits into past and present, not in order that one might be able to declare that this is where the present ends and the past begins, but rather so one can declare that past and present are always dividing, always splitting, so that each carries the other along with it.” See Richard Rushton, Cinema after Deleuze, (London & New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2012), p. 81. The silent and classical sound cinema of Hollywood and the modernist cinema of ellipses and felt duration brought to light by Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1942) and Italian neorealism as identified by Bazin and elaborated in films like Viaggio in Italia (Voyage in Italy, Roberto Rossellini, 1953), Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) and L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960).
  34. Allan James Thomas, Deleuze, Cinema and the Thought of the World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), p. 42.
  35. Ibid., p. 48.
  36. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1 The Movement-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 3.
  37. The impression is given at least implicitly in the Cinema books (especially Cinema 2, Ch.1) and in various commentaries that the divide between the classic and modern cinema occurred over a relatively short period. See: Ronald Bogue, Deleuze on Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 200. The appearance of film narratives in increasing numbers in which time no longer derives from movement evolved over decades (the 50s to the 80s), initially in Italy and later France, and from the late 60s in Germany and ‘new’ Hollywood. The re-formed movement-image has continued to dominate mainstream storytelling on screen, for example in long-form TV drama and in the highly fragmented découpage of Hollywood’s pure action Transformers and X-Men film series, and Marvel blockbuster cycles – 40 films together grossing more than to $US30 billion, in theatrical release alone, since 2000.
  38. Lúcia Nagib, “The Politics of Slowness and the Traps of Modernity”, Slow Cinema, Tiago de Luca & Nuno Barradas Jorge, eds. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Universty Press, 2016), p. 25.
  39. Quoted in Bogue, Deleuze, p. 202
  40. Thomas, Deleuze, p. 39.
  41. David N. Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997), p. 10.
  42. Thomas, Deleuze, p. 3.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid., p. 1.
  45. Ibid., p. 39.
  46. Deleuze, Cinema 2, op. cit., p. xi.
  47. Thomas, Deleuze, p. 29.
  48. Deleuze, Cinema 2, op. cit., p.41 (quoted in Thomas, Deleuze, p. 31). Jacques Rancière reaches a similar conclusion via a somewhat different path finding in films by Bresson, for example, “an almost indiscernibility between the logic of the movement image and the logic of the time image, between the montage that orients spaces according to “sensori-motor schema” and that which disorients it so as to render the products of conscious thought equal in power to the free deployment of the potentialities of world images.” See Jacques Ranciére, Film Fables (Oxford & New York: Berg, 2006), p. 122. Both Patricia Pisters (2003) and David Martin-Jones (2006) see in contemporary science fiction, action, and war films, not considered by Deleuze, images that are a combination of movement- and time-images. See: William Brown, “Movement-Image” and “Time-Image” in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory, Edward Branigan and Warren Buckland, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 322, 478, 482; Patricia Pisters, The Matrix of Visual Culture: Working with Deleuze in Film Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003); David Martin-Jones, Deleuze, Cinema and National Identity: Narrative Time in National Contexts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).
  49. Schrader, Transcendental, p. 3.
  50. Ibid., p. 4.
  51. Bogue, Deleuze, p. 109.
  52. Schrader, Transcendental, p. 5.
  53. Ibid., p.3.
  54. Tiago de Luca & Nuno Barradas Jorge, “Introduction: From Slow Cinema to Slow Cinemas”, Slow Cinema, Tiago de Luca & Nuno Barradas Jorge, eds. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Universty Press, 2016) p. 9.
  55. Ibid., p.3.
  56. Kovács, Screening, p. 188.
  57. Schrader, Transcendental, p. 10.
  58. Ibid., p.17.
  59. Jackson, Schrader, p. 28.
  60. Ibid., p. 29.
  61. Paul Schrader, “A Postscript from Paul Schrader”, Film Quarterly 34.4 (Summer 1981): p.13.
  62. George Kourvaros, Paul Schrader: The Teller and the Tale (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), p. 118.
  63. Philip Concannon, “Faithful Servant”, Sight & Sound 28.8 (August 2018): p. 40.
  64. Schrader, Transcendental, p. 41.
  65. In noting what he sees as core differences between Bresson’s Catholic “Jansenism” and Ozu’s “Zen,” Schrader concludes “that for Ozu grace was neither limited nor unpredictable, but easily available to all. The awareness of the Transcendental was for Ozu a way of living, not as for Bresson a way of dying.” Ibid., p. 119.
  66. Ibid., p. 115.
  67. Jackson, Schrader, p. 52.
  68. Schrader, Transcendental, p. 30.
  69. Ibid., p. 117.
  70. Jackson, Schrader, p. 5.
  71. In 2014-16, Schrader gave a series of five Game Changer lectures at Columbia University on aspects of the aesthetics and history of filmmaking published online by Film Comment. See: https://www.filmcomment.com/author/paul-schrader/
  72. Thérèse (Alain Cavalier, 1986), Mother and Son (Alexander Sokurov, 1997), Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, 2007), Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont, 2009), Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, 2009), La Spaienza (Eugène Green, 2014), Ida (Pawel Pawlikoski, 2013), Stations of the Cross (Dietrich Brüggemann, 2014). See: Schrader, Transcendental, p. 21.
  73. Ibid., p. 41.

About The Author

Bruce Hodsdon has contributed to Senses of Cinema since 2002 and is also a frequent contributor to the blog Film Alert.

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