Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer

Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer

by Paul Schrader

Paperback(First Edition, With a New Introduction)

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With a new introduction, acclaimed director and screenwriter Paul Schrader revisits and updates his contemplation of slow cinema over the past fifty years. Unlike the style of psychological realism, which dominates film, the transcendental style expresses a spiritual state by means of austere camerawork, acting devoid of self-consciousness, and editing that avoids editorial comment. This seminal text analyzes the film style of three great directors—Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer—and posits a common dramatic language used by these artists from divergent cultures. The new edition updates Schrader’s theoretical framework and extends his theory to the works of Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia), Béla Tarr (Hungary), Theo Angelopoulos (Greece), and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey), among others. This key work by one of our most searching directors and writers is widely cited and used in film and art classes. With evocative prose and nimble associations, Schrader consistently urges readers and viewers alike to keep exploring the world of the art film.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520296817
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/18/2018
Edition description: First Edition, With a New Introduction
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 233,265
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Paul Schrader is an American screenwriter and director whose writing credits include Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ and whose directing credits include American Gigolo, Mishima, Light Sleeper, Affliction, and First Reformed. Transcendental Style in Film was first published in 1972 by University of California Press.

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Rethinking Transcendental Style

What became of transcendental style? What in the 1950s began as art house cinema has blossomed into the hydra-headed creature we call slow cinema. Bresson and Ozu, seen as esoteric and slow, now are audience friendly compared to the multi-hour epics of Béla Tarr and Lav Diaz and Pedro Costa. A theater experience for art house customers morphed into marginalized audio-video presentations shown only at film festivals and art galleries.

What happened? Gilles Deleuze happened. So did Andrei Tarkovsky. And slow cinema was soon to follow.


In 1971, at the age of 24, a grad student a UCLA film school, I had the temerity to write and publish a book titled Transcendental Style in Film. Forty-five years later I found myself on a panel at the annual convention of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies titled "Rethinking Transcendental Style: New Approaches in Spirituality and Cinematic Form."

So I started rethinking. How did I come to write the book in the first place and how does its premise hold up after forty-five years?

I wasn't drawn to the topic out of academic obligation or desire to publish. I had a problem and I was looking for an answer. It was the same impulse that caused me to write a screenplay two years later.

I was a product of the Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, a Calvinist denomination which at that time proscribed theater attendance and other "worldly amusements." So naturally I was drawn to the forbidden — not the forbidden forbidden, of course, but the acceptable forbidden. I wanted to square my love of movies with my religious upbringing. Through a Glass Darkly (1961) was the point of entry; Viridiana (1961) was the counterpoint of entry.

That didn't last long. Two years later it was 1968 and I was in Los Angeles in full pursuit of the profane. Calvin College was a memory.

Then, as a film critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, I watched the LA release of Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959). And wrote about it. And saw it again. And wrote about it again. I sensed a bridge between the spirituality I was raised with and the "profane" cinema I loved. And it was a bridge of style, not content. Church people had been using movies since they first moved to illustrate religious beliefs, but this was something different. The convergence of spirituality and cinema would occur in style, not content. In the How, not the What. Susan Sontag was for me (and many others) the first to shine a light in this murky ideological expanse. Her essay on Robert Bresson in Against Interpretation (1966) and the "Aesthetics of Silence" in Styles of Radical Will (1967) jolted me into thought. Pauline Kael had inspired my first love of popular cinema; Sontag took my appreciation to the next level. Film could and did operate on a spiritual plane.

Yasujiro Ozu was using techniques similar to Bresson in Japanese family dramas. And to not dissimilar effect. These techniques were neither parochial nor Christian nor Western. They were spiritual (related to the spirit as opposed to matter). So I cautiously — and with the generous help of scholars far more knowledgeable than myself — began to explore how such a style worked. I was curious. That curiosity grew. I realized I was far too young to write such a book. But I also realized that nobody else was writing it. I was in a unique moment of transition: my love of movies was full blown and my knowledge of theological aesthetics still intact. In a few years I would not be able to devote a year to writing a book that produced no income. If I didn't write it now I never would. And neither would anyone else. Sontag, ever voracious, had moved on.

University of California Press was kind enough to publish Transcendental Style in Film. Two years later I stopped writing regular criticism and focused on film-making.


Transcendental style can be seen, forty-five years later, as part of a larger movement, the movement away from narrative. A way station, if you will, in the post–World War II progression from neorealism to surveillance video.

In 1971, struggling with the concept of transcendental style, I sought to understand how the distancing devices used by these directors could create an alternate film reality — a transcendent one. I wrote that they created disparity, which I defined as "an actual or potential disunity between man and his environment," "a growing crack in the dull surface of everyday reality."

By delaying edits, not moving the camera, forswearing music cues, not employing coverage, and heightening the mundane, transcendental style creates a sense of unease the viewer must resolve. The film-maker assists the viewer's impulse for resolution by the use of a Decisive Moment, an unexpected image or act, which then results in a stasis, an acceptance of parallel reality — transcendence. At that time, I had little idea how the phenomenology of such a process would work. I posited that the psyche, squeezed by untenable disparity, would break free to another plane.

Ten years later French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote two groundbreaking works on cinema (Cinema I and Cinema II) and by 1989 both were published in English translations. Deleuze explicitly addressed the phenomenology of perception through time.

To grossly simplify Deleuze, he contends film history falls into two perceptual periods: (1) movement-image and (2) time-image. Movementimage began with the origins of cinema and was the dominant perceptual principle until after World War II. It's the action of a projected image. Such movement perceived on screen continues in our minds. We're hardwired for it. Even after the image of the running man is cut on screen, the viewer still imagines the runner completing his task. Deleuze references Aristotle and the notion of the first mover to explain how our mind continues a movement even after the image has gone. "Light is stronger than the story," he wrote.

World War II dates the rough demarcation of a shift, more in Europe than America, from movement-image to time-image. Screen movement still occurred, of course, but it was increasingly "subordinated to time." What does that mean? It means that a film edit is determined not by action on screen but by the creative desire to associate images over time. Man exits one room, enters another — that's movement-image editing. Man exits one room, shot of trees in the wind, shot of train passing — that's time-image editing. Man exits one room, the screen lingers on the empty door. That's time-image editing. Deleuze called this the "nonrational cut." The non-rational cut breaks from sensorimotor logic. Deleuze first sees this in the deep-focus films of Welles but, for practical purposes, it comes to the fore in walking/wandering films like Rossellini's Voyage in Italy (1954), Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960), Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961). The time-image reached first full expression in the films of Yasujiro Ozu. "The vase in Late Spring (1949)," writes Deleuze, "is interposed between the daughter's half smile and her tears. ... This is time, time itself ... a direct time-image which gives change unchanging form." Movement-image is informed by Aristotelian logic: "A" can never equal "not A." Time-image rejects the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction, posits a world where something and its opposite can coexist: "A" can be "not A."

Deleuze opens Cinema II with a description of the four-minute maid sequence in De Sica's Umberto D (1952), the scene which had so impressed André Bazin eighteen years before. The young girl, a minor character, gets up, comes and goes into the kitchen, hunts down ants, grinds coffee. Where Bazin emphasized the scene's realism, Deleuze focused on its use of time. The young maid strikes a match against the kitchen wall three times; it fails to light. She gets another match and strikes again. Without cutting, without comment. Irrelevant action in real time. This is a defining moment in cinema. Just as the runaway baby carriage of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) epitomizes the movement-image, the "little maid" and her match strikes exemplify the time-image.

Another way to put it: Deleuze feels that "mature cinema" (post-WWII) was no longer primarily concerned with telling stories to our conscious selves but now also seeks to communicate with the unconscious and the ways in which the unconscious processes memories, fantasies, and dreams.

Bergson's concept of duration is crucial to Deleuze's concept of time-image. Time allows the viewer to imbue the image with associations, even contradictory ones. Hence the long take. What began as a four-second shot of a passing train in Ozu grows to eight minutes of meandering cows in Béla Tarr.

Deleuze is getting at the nuts and bolts of transcendental style. This is what I was struggling to apprehend. Our minds are wired to complete an on-screen image. We create patterns from chaos, just like our forefathers did when they imagined stars in the form of mythic beasts. We complete the action.

Film artists realized from the beginning they could use this neurological predisposition to manipulate the viewer. Cinema, after all, is only still images projected in rapid succession. The spectator will imagine the gun firing, the monster emerging from the cave, and so forth.

Postwar film-makers realized that just as movement-image could be manipulated to create suspense, time-image could be manipulated to create introspection. We not only fill in the blanks, but we create new blanks.

Introspection has always been a goal of art. What film-makers (and, as a consequence, Deleuze) came to realize was that introspection created by a moving photographic image is unique. It's not like the introspection evoked by a sculpture or painting or passage of music; it is the by-product of a changing image. Cinematic introspection can be molded to a greater extent than introspection caused by a singular image, say, a Rothko canvas or Zen garden. It can vary. It can change. The film artist molds introspection via duration. Duration can evoke Deleuze's "memories, fantasies and dreams." Duration can peel back the social veneer of an activity. Duration can invoke the Wholly Other.

In the past fifteen years the new field of neuroesthetics, pioneered by Semir Zeki, has sought to scientifically explain what Deleuze theorized. Combining science and aesthetics, neurobiologists use brain scans to study which areas of the brain perceive visual stimuli and how they process it — how in fact, the brain determines whether something is beautiful. ("Can an aesthetic judgment ever be quantified," Zeki rhetorically asks. "The answer is yes.") No one has yet explained how the brain processes slow cinema, but I expect the answer will be as satisfying as knowing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

In Transcendental Style in Film I wrote about hierophanies evoked by style. Deleuze attempted to explain how that actually works.


Like Deleuze, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky sensed a shift in the cinematic winds. He and Deleuze were simultaneously working on the same paradigm shift. Both understood that the use of time in movies had evolved.

Tarkovsky directed five films from 1962 to 1986. He was not interested in the spiritual per se; although he often spoke of the spiritual nature of film art and employed religious imagery, his primary interest was in cinema's ability to evoke poetry and memory — more pantheistic than theistic. (A disputable opinion. Joseph Kickasola, a theological film scholar, describes Tarkovsky as "one of the most directly religious film-makers ever.")

Tarkovsky was an aesthetician as well as a film-maker. His theoretical writings echo his journey as a director. He came of film-making age during Deleuze's postwar second era of cinema. Tarkovsky admired Mizoguchi's long slow takes, Antonioni's de-dramatized narrative, De Sica's emphasis on mundane reality, Bergman's use of ordinary sounds, and most of all, Tarkovsky admired Robert Bresson's "unity of theory and practice." On the surface Bresson's and Tarkovsky's films are quite different. Critic Fredric Jameson wrote that Tarkovsky likes to gorge the spectator's eyes whereas Bresson prefers to starve them. But both artists felt the keys to the artist's kingdom lie in the application of style over content. It's the form of things that makes you free.

Tarkovsky rejected the Soviet school of montage in favor of André Bazin's "ontology of the photographic image" and Bazin's advocacy of the Italian neorealists. Bazin felt that with the invention of moving photographs, the age-old artistic desire to represent reality had reached its apotheosis. Cinema was "as complete an imitation as possible of the outer world." Sergei Eisenstein felt that the power of cinema was in its ability to orchestrate reality. Bazin said it was just the opposite: the power of cinema was not to manipulate reality. Neorealism revealed "the aesthetic implicit in cinema." "Neorealism knows only immanence," said Bazin. "It is from appearance only." For Bazin the long take favored by the neorealists enabled spectators to choose what they wanted to see rather than what had been dictated by montage.

Tarkovsky embraced Bazin. Then he turned neorealism on its head. Bazin had written, "The photographic image is the object itself. The object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. Viewed from this perspective, the cinema is objectivity in time. Now, for the first time, the image of things is the image of their duration" (italics mine). Of the duration of the Eskimo waiting for the seal in Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922), Bazin said, "The length of the hunt is the very substance of the image, its true object." But for Tarkovsky duration was more than mere waiting. It was Henri Bergson's "durée," duration, time itself, the vital force governing and meditating upon all organic life.

Tarkovsky stands in a line of documentary observers of life. Also in the line are contemplative stylists Ophüls, Mizoguchi, Rossellini, Resnais, Dreyer, Bergman, Ozu, Bresson. What exactly makes him so special?


Here's what I think is the difference: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Mizoguchi, De Sica, and the rest used film time to create an emotional or intellectual or spiritual effect. Tarkovsky used film techniques to study time. For Tarkovsky time was not a means to a goal. It was the goal.

The manifestation of time on film is the long take. Not the fancy out-the-door-down-the-street long takes of Orson Welles or Alfonso Cuarón — no, even though those takes run long in screen time, they are little different than conventional film coverage. They are driven by the logic of edits: wide shot, over-the-shoulder, close-up, point of view, two-shot.

The Tarkovsky long shot is more than long. It's meditative. The psychological effect of slow cinema's "long take" is unlike any other film technique. Film techniques are about "getting there"— telling a story, explaining an action, evoking an emotion — whereas the long take is about "being there." Julian Jason Haladyn in Boredom and Art compares the effect of the long take to a train journey, an early symbol of modernity. The train journey places emphasis on expectation rather than presence. The traveler's mind is focused on the destination, not where he or she is here and now. Travelers can't appreciate being in the present because their perception of time and space is constantly shifting. Motion pictures, like modernity itself, embraced this constant flux. Slow cinema, specifically the long take, sought to reverse the headlong impetus of technology in favor of the present.

Andrei Tarkovsky stands at the fulcrum of an aesthetic paradigm shift. His earlier films, Ivan's Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966), although slow-paced and replete with associative imagery, adhered to chronological narrative. As he evolved as an artist, Tarkovsky realized that what he was really after was more akin to boredom (my choice of word, not Tarkovsky's) than slowness. He called it "time pressure."

Toward the end of his life (he died at age 54) Tarkovsky organized his thoughts in a book appropriately titled Sculpting in Time. "The cinema image," he wrote, "is the observation of a phenomenon passing through time. Time becomes the very foundation of cinema. ... Time exerts a pressure which runs through the shot. ... Just as a quivering reed can tell you about the current or water pressure of a river, in the same way we know the movement of time as it flows through the shot."

The long take gives time power. It intensifies the image. Jonathan Rosenbaum referred to this moment as the "pedal point. ... When you hold a chord for a long time it becomes meditative, because it gives you time to think and almost makes a demand on your imagination." Watch an image long enough and your mind goes to work.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Rethinking Transcendental Style 1

Introduction to the Original Edition 35

Ozu 45

Bresson 85

Dreyer 133

Conclusion 169

Notes 187

Selected Bibliography 197

Index 207

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