In 1972, film student and aspiring critic Paul Schrader published his landmark study on spirituality in cinema, Transcendental Style in Film.
Four years later, he broke into the film scene with his monumental screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, propelling a career that would span over 40 years. His latest directorial effort, First Reformed, was released this year to near- unanimous critical acclaim. Transcendental Style in Film looks to canonized moviemakers Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer to argue that, in withholding narrative action and subverting empathy, these moviemakers use boredom as a tool to push viewers into contemplation—into a space where we’re better able to accept “the paradox of the spiritual within the physical.”
Inadvertently, Schrader outlined the philosophical foundation of contemporary slow cinema. With this recent republication, he devotes a new 35-page introduction that eagerly plows through a new era of contemplative moviemaking, drawing a “cosmogonic” map that places such diverse moviemakers as Andy Warhol, Bruno Dumont, and Jim Jarmusch in relation to their various non-narrative directions. Readers new to academic film writing will find this book to be an ideal introduction, precise yet encompassing in its approach to film history and theory. The other camp of devotees—comprised of cinephiles aspiring to be moviemakers—will find a companion piece to Schrader’s work, a vantage point from which we can see his theories as deftly articulated as applied.
For moviemakers, Schrader’s analysis reads as instructive rather than analytical, offering ways in which directorial decisions can produce a powerful response that’s more difficult to evoke than empathy—enlightenment. At his most clinically academic, Schrader revels in some arbitrary aspects of film theory, which begs for a level of mental engagement that might at first feel like homework… until it doesn’t. This deep dive into three all- time great moviemakers is the perfect example of why eating your cultural vegetables can be endlessly rewarding, potentially even life-changing. MM
Transcendental Style in Film was released by UC Press on May 18, 2018. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2018 issue.