The Transcendence of First Reformed

Movies Features Paul Schrader
The Transcendence of First Reformed

Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for First Reformed.

It has been a recurring joke that Paul Schrader literally wrote the book on Transcendental Style in Film, his seminal 1972 text that focused on the films of Carl Th. Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson. Though, when Schrader finally wrote and directed his own films, the transcendental style that he had described in those directors was largely absent from his own work. Schrader admired and even loved the pictures his criticism pondered, but as if caught in a rebellion to his strict Calvinist upbringing, it was the visceral verve of hard-edged American cinema that most seduced him.

Possible that Schrader got swept up in the undertow of his collaborator Martin Scorsese, for whom Schrader wrote classics like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. His first screenplay credit was The Yakuza, a wonderful Sydney Pollack genre flick that showed Schrader’s obsessions and signatures already fully formed, alchemized even: violence of body and soul, linked with a bitter wit but also a solemn faith in something to pull us through. That “something” is where, perhaps, a seed of the transcendental still gestated in Schrader’s art.

From April 9th through the 26th in 1972, the Pacific Film Archive and Paul Schrader presented a film series to highlight works of Dreyer, Ozu, Bresson, Bud Boetticher and Roberto Rosselini. In his program notes Schrader wonderfully summarizes the thoughts that are given more expanse in his book. Below are excerpts:

The transcendental style in film has three stages: the everyday, disparity, and stasis. Through techniques of limitation and restriction the everyday suggests the world is cold, unfeeling, and without emotion or meaning. In the cold, factual minutiae-oriented of everyday there is no potential for emotion or meaning; there is no place it can come from.

Difficult to say what The Last Temptation of Christ would have been if directed by Schrader instead of Scorsese, but even then Schrader’s most overtly religious screenplay didn’t manifest in the spiritual exercise of the transcendental style Schrader’s book talks about.

The idea of the transcendental is presented in three very different ways by Dreyer, Ozu and Bresson—and certainly those three don’t have a monopoly on its quality—but the essence of its method lies in a film withholding from the viewer in order for the viewer to lean in to the experience of the film, eventually coming to join the work on its meditative wavelength. Most films foist the experience upon the viewer. They shout, they plead, they manipulate. The transcendental film is reverent of the thought it carries, is reverent of the viewer’s view, reverent for the simple power of the right image delivered without fuss or accoutrement. It seeks not to overwhelm the viewer with surges and swells. It values stillness and quiet. It wants to hear the viewer’s thought in response. It wants awareness.

But through the past several decades, Schrader had given his considerable abilities over to the type of brash filmmaking that had given him his career. No doubt for that type of cinema’s value, either, when executed by the likes of Pollack and Scorsese. For Schrader, the stylistic panache of his peers’ films seemed almost inextricably linked to a type of sordidness in content, and this became a defining element of Schrader’s work, along with the “man in a room” or “a man in crisis” trope (note the strong protagonist arc parallels of Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper and First Reformed). The closest that Schrader the artist came to pulling from Schrader the academic was perhaps 1985’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters or 1997’s Affliction, but the reality is that Schrader hadn’t made a film in the transcendental style…until he made First Reformed. It was a film Schrader swore he would never try to make; then, a couple years ago he was having a discussion with a Pawel Pawlikowski (director of Ida) and realized, simply, it was time. While the context and the characters and possibly even the central ideas of the film did not exist in Schrader prior to that decision, when Schrader talks in interviews about the writing process one can almost feel how ready this film was to be born of him, to be put to page. But it had to be chosen to be written. Schrader finally chose to write it.

The finished film is remarkable, a culmination of all these Paul Schrader signatures, subverted and recontextualized and repressed (until they aren’t) in the transcendental style. It is the transcendental style itself, evolved into the form of a modern Paul Schrader film.

Perhaps the clearest example of this evolution is the soundtrack. Bresson famously shirked non-diegetic music in his films, and Schrader picks up that trait for most of the first half of First Reformed. What music is there is present on the screen, in the form of a youth choir singing “Are You Washed In the Blood?” or Neil Young’s “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” No accident that these songs are phrased as questions, as the film shows Ethan Hawke’s mesmerizing Reverend Ernst Toller (a career-best performance) pondering these questions himself, falling ever deeper into a darkness of no answers, even as there seems to be some comfort in just the sound of the music amidst the silence. Schrader, the sensualist, revels in the music, too. What happens in the back half of the film, as Toller seems to become gradually more disconnected from reality, is a modern technique of sound design as soundtrack—courtesy here of Welsh musician Lustmord—as a sort of advancement or twist on Bresson’s ethos. In a way, the dark ambient noise we are hearing is still happening on the screen, too, but only because we’ve been spending the past hour in Toller’s mind, and now that mind is slipping.

Disparity introduces an overpowering, irrational, and undefined sense of commitment (a “passion”) into the cold, ordered everyday. There is no reason for this passion to exist, yet it exists nonetheless. Disparity culminates in a decisive action, an action (such as crying) in which the passion actually breaks through the unemotional structure of everyday. The decisive action is the crucial moment of the film; its dual nature is revealed, and the viewer must accept or reject the duality (the duality, for example, that the Holy can find expression in a factual world).

In a call to Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Toller keeps a journal (which becomes in Biblical terms a “jeremiad,” a lament) and in voice-over we hear his entries: filled with disdain for himself and others, then remorseful, avoiding God, wishing that he could pray, analyzing himself, contradicting himself, promising not to self-edit, then ripping out pages. An entry where he reflects on a bicycle ride with Amanda Seyfried’s Mary gives a glimpse of a man that was once not so broken, maybe. In contrast, after lashing out at a former lover who wants only to care for Toller, his journal reads: “I feel much better.” There are parallel echoes in shots, as well, Toller walking, stopping, looking at something off-screen or to the left of the frame: at the end of the first act, Mary’s dead husband, who shot himself in the snow; at the beginning of the third act, a dead rabbit, caught in the fence around Toller’s First Reformed church (accompanied by Toller quoting an apocalyptic verse from the Book of Revelation, making the common mistake of calling it “Revelations,” a simultaneous comment on both Toller’s knowledge and his fallibility).

The style of the imagery in the film reminds a bit of Ozu in its compositional rigidity—shot immaculately by Alexander Dynan in Academy ratio with very little camera movement and zero pans—but also Bresson and Bergman in its starkness and centering on and foregrounding of characters. There are surrealist hints that bloom to fruition in a scene where Schrader says he wrote himself into a corner and then asked himself, “What would Tarkovsky do?” (the best question). Dreyer is perhaps most present in First Reformed’s ideas but Schrader brings his own edge and briskness, the film’s ending pulling from several of the Danish great’s works, working almost chronologically from The Passion of Joan of Arc on through Ordet in a matter of minutes. Yet, First Reformed is very much its own thing. It takes the ideas of the transcendentalists in terms of its form, its philosophy, its tone and aesthetic, but it applies that to far different ends while also achieving a completely different effect from films in the same vein from the past couple decades. This is not “slow cinema”; it has far too much to say.

Bleak humor has always been a part of Schrader’s work, but by importing this sort of contemplative imagery and conflicted narration from European cinema into current American society with our insatiable consumerism, pasteurized religion, transactional relationships, disregard for impending ecological collapse and general crassness, the tragicomic is elevated to a fiendish level in First Reformed. In an early scene, Toller gives a family a tour of his small historical church, part of his job description as he is effectively owned by Abundant Life (a polluter-subsidized mega-church whose well-meaning pastor is played by Cedric the Entertainer). The kind of sad chuckles elicited in this scene are of a singular nature, especially when enveloped in a “dark night of the soul” milieu—depicted sometimes through the sardonic mundanity of clogged toilets and bodily ailments, at other times through Googling climate doom and humanity’s radicalized fringes (where the line between terrorist/martyr begins to blur for Toller), or the micro-macro dread of a slow zoom-in on Pepto-Bismol bubbling in scotch (see also: Travis Bickle, Alka-Seltzer). Throughout First Reformed, the formal compositions, the center framing, the quiet but insistent thrum of the film’s pacing, the way sound is used: all take on a satirical bite without losing the depth of the “everyday” or the pathos of the “passion.” The film’s scenario is nuanced, developed and, in fact, familiar. The despondent among us see ourselves all too much in Toller, prideful and pitiful and powerless, and we recognize this godforsaken place he’s living in. There’s a shot of the U.S. flag flapping weakly in the night; turns out, First Reformed is the quintessential American film for our times. And a film where a cord of barbed wire and a bottle of Drano are used like Chekhov’s gun.

In stasis the form of the film returns to the hard stylization of the everyday—but with a new purpose. The world is like it once was, but now one understands that the transcendent is just beneath every realistic surface. […] As transcendental style takes effect over the time span of a feature-length motion picture, it must gradually root out audience empathy and replace it, in the terms of aesthetician Wilhelm Worringer, with abstraction.

To some degree, Schrader’s work has always shown the influence of European cinema (and Japanese greats like Ozu), be it as an introspective provocateur with Hardcore and American Gigolo or care of the titular inner turmoil of Affliction, but it also has always been heavily filtered—almost beyond the point of recognition—through the lens of ’70s American cinema. For the first time in a long and illustrious career, Schrader with First Reformed shifts that paradigm into a sharp balance. He has never been as simultaneously indebted to and empowered by his intellectual influences. He’s never leaned this hard into making a film that leans away.

Ironic, then, that all this influence (this Bresson, this Dreyer, this Winter Light) as channeled through a late-career artist preoccupied with our guilt and/or complicity with the destruction of our Earth and ourselves, and thus our need for grace—this experience that one might think a more cerebral drift from Schrader’s past work—actually hits in its sum with a power that can’t be overstated. It dwarfs the emotional resonance of many of Schrader’s other films.

First Reformed ends on a stunning moment wherein the climax and denouement of Dreyer’s Ordet coalesces into one image, human love as divine act (both things possibly just imagined), the Passion of the Sublime—and the camera is freed, swirling around in a heavenly swoon. Diegetic music of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”—this time the song not a question but a proclamation of dependency—becomes non-diegetic as it echoes within a moment displaced from its performance, also a moment perhaps displaced from real space and time. But the feeling the moment holds is real, nonetheless, speaking like Christ’s beatitude that “those who mourn shall be comforted.” Schrader, in the end, can’t resist the cinema that intoxicates him, even as he honors the cinema he worships (even as he pushes that to the brink). We see all sides—despair and hope, carnality and transcendence, Schrader the pulp lover and Schrader the auteur—married together with an ecstatic kiss. It’s an elliptical stasis. It’s an exclamation point like a question mark like a period of ineffable finality on what may very well be one of the greatest American films ever made. The screen cuts to black abruptly, the film already listening to everything billowing up within you. A liturgy without dictation. A style, a Word, a thought that deconstructs itself into a space for something, anything, to answer. A sermon that knows only the same truth as what dwells deep within any heart that dares to face the darkness full-on while still wishing to pray for the light. To be broken and then reformed.

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