Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dryer (with a New Introduction)

Reviewed by:

G. Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.

Title:

Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dryer (with a New Introduction)

Author:

Paul Schrader

Publisher:

University of California Press

Publication Date:

May 28, 2018 (original edition 1972)

Format:

Paperback

Length:

230 pages

OVERVIEW

Paul Schrader has an interesting relationship with religion. Born into a strict fundamentalist family, he studied theology at Calvin College to be a minister. While there, he realized his true love was film, a “worldly pursuit” his denomination disapproved of. He went on to become a film critic and then become a filmmaker, most notably writing the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s 1975 film Taxi Driver. The films he makes (such as the Oscar-nominated 2017 film First Reformed) are often dark tales about people living on the edges, but contain many theological themes and references.

This book, written while Schrader was completing a film degree at UCLA, talks about what it means to make a movie about God. Biblical epics use special effects to depict God, but often seem like just smoke and mirrors. Inspirational Christian films show relatable characters who get changed by God, but don’t really communicate the experience itself. Can you make a movie that captures what a spiritual encounter feels like? Schrader argues you can, but the key is in a little-known genre he calls “transcendental style.” Developed by three particular filmmakers — Robert Bresson, Carl Dryer, Yasujiro Ozu – transcendental style is a unique genre that plays with audience expectations until a moment where the movie seems to jump into another dimension. Schrader unpacks these director’s key movies, showing how transcendental style works and what it tells us about spirituality, our perception of God and the world around us. This edition includes a new introduction where Schrader looks back at his original thesis, clarifies what genre transcendental style fits into, and considers which directors have tried transcendental style since the 1970s.

This is certainly an academic text, written for people who love challenging films and have watched films from many different countries and periods. Readers who are really seeking how to make better Christian propaganda films will be disappointed; Schrader admits up front that transcendental style is hard to do well and doesn’t have to be a Christian technique. The idea is to capture what it feels like to meet God, to be a mortal coming up against something infinite, and that experience cuts across many religions. For those willing to rise to Schrader’s challenge though, the insights are well worth it. By meditating on what film can say about the human experience, Schrader helps readers understand what it means to make good stories, which any Christian interested in art should care about. By discussing what it means to experience God, he prompts readers to think about what makes Christianity’s view of God unique (and how to communicate that well). In short, Schrader guides readers past shallow ideas about faith-based films to something more powerful, where religion and film can meet in compelling ways.

One of the great (and often overlooked) books on faith and film.

ASSESSMENT

Rating (1 to 5 stars)

5 stars

Suggested Audience

Aspiring filmmakers or film buffs who are interested in how to integrate and present spiritual themes in movies.

Christian Impact

Schrader uses his theology background to connect his thesis to concepts like salvation, free will, and continually deals with the question what it means to be human and try to relate to God. His thoughts on the topic will push artists and art lovers to rethink how movies affect them and how they see God.

Note: Readers interested in reading Schrader’s other film essays or how his theological views impact his films may enjoy Schrader on Schrader, a collection of interviews by Kevin Jackson (Faber & Faber, 1999; expanded and republished 2004).

Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer

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