Review Of Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/13/07


  Filmmaker Paul Schrader, whose most cogent claim to fame is as the screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s classic film Taxi Driver, got his first ‘in’ to the world of film with the publication of Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, a book which has been lauded as a seminal work of criticism, upon its 1972 release, but which the years have not been kind to.

  This is because it is simply not a well written book. While not outrightly a bad work, it is wholly generic. Any film student or callow film critic could have penned it. Indeed, the book has been seen as a model of ‘deeper criticism’ ever since its release. The work’s origins came from Schrader’s time as a film student, and although this work was published when he was 26, it clearly reads like a callow undergrad thesis; larded with pointless quotations and references to other big names in cinema (to lend an air of authority), rather rote assertions about the films and scenes discussed, and a nebulous proposition about the book’s title that Schrader, himself, even fails to properly define. It was, indeed, an expansion of his 1972 UCLA Master’s Thesis.

  As example, from pages 5 and 6, read as Schrader struggles to define transcendental, and falls into the pointless quotation trap I mention:


  Part of the confusion is semantic; the term ‘transcendental’ can have different meanings for different writers. It can mean, directly or indirectly: (1) the Transcendent, the wholly or ideal itself, or what Rudolf Otto called ‘the Wholly Other,’ (2) the transcendental, human acts or artifacts which express something of the Transcendent, or what Mircea Eliade in his anthropological study of comparative religions calls ‘hierophanies,’ (3) transcendence, the human religious experience which may be motivated by either a deep psychological need or neurosis (Freud), or by an external, ‘Other’ force (Jung).

  Aside from the ridiculously bad use of punctuation- commas where semi-colons are needed, commas where none are needed, etc., a problem that plagues the whole book, in this brief quotation we see that Schrader cannot a) simply define a term for his benefit, b) mixes up definitions needlessly by c) quoting famous and not so famous authorities (see The Appeal to Authority Fallacy), and d) invoking specious terminology to lend an air of depth and arcana to his quest.

  Of course, this sort of self-important psychobabble came about due to the horrid writings and criticism of the French critics- most notably the lame Cahiers du Cinema crowd of the 1950s. Still, aping the bad from another language is no excuse, and the book gets no better in its remaining 163 pages of text. Indeed, just two pages on, on page 8, Schrader defines ‘style’ with a classic circular definition, even as he warns the naïf that the word can be ‘susceptible to semantic confusion,’ and can have various meanings. Ok, say along with me, ‘Duh!’ But, then Schrader leaves his own book’s definition of the term equally nebulous, and then mucks up what ‘transcendental style’ means even more than the definitions of the two separate words.

  Once he gets on to the films of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, Schrader does no better. He asks:


  Do Ozu’s films express the Transcendent, or do they express Ozu, Zen culture, and man’s experience of the Transcendent?

  Before the reader can cogitate on the obvious answer, Schrader gives it, by stating, ‘The first, immediate answer must be: ‘both, of course.’’ Great, except that, having answered his thesis, he unconvincingly tries to parse out the differences in understanding the willy-nilly differences only he sees, and ends up the Ozu section back with, ‘both, of course.’ Except that he masks his discursive tautology by ending up the Ozu section by trying to link him, none too well, with the films of the French Robert Bresson. Read this classic unifying tack of quoting a fallacious authority- this time a pet theory or posit, to try to cover up nebulous claims. It ends the Ozu section:


  The differences between Ozu and Bresson are unified in stasis, the culmination of transcendental style. The Wholly Other, once perceived, cannot be limited by culture.

  Note how he bridges the two filmmakers with a term that he has no real handle on, and then ends with the sort of sentence meant to be profound, but which, due to his lack of defining it, which is due to his assumption that readers will know of the pet theories of such a big name as Rudolf Otto, a minor Lutheran religious theorist, fails such.

  Yet, if his thesis re: Ozu’s work, seems mere piffle, Schrader makes the cardinal error of confusing the artist and the art in his discourse on Bresson. On pages 87 and 88, after a digression on Bresson’s relation to his culture, he writes:


  The more a critic realizes Bresson’s theological and aesthetic underpinnings, the further he shies away from a purely psychological interpretation of Bresson’s ‘personality.’ Bresson’s personality, like those of his characters, becomes increasingly identified with his passion (or in Coomaraswamy’s terms, his ‘thesis’).

  The problem is that while Schrader is seemingly attempting to criticize misinterpreting an artist via his work (when done by others), he is in fact upholding that claim, while merely positing a different basis by which to psychoanalyze an artist via his art. That this is a nearly impossible thing to do once one realizes that art is not a receptacle for truth, wholly passes Schrader by. And note the obligatory Appeal to Authority.

  On page 61, in quoting Bresson on his own work, Schrader’s book’s nadir- at least critically, id not artistically, is reached. Bresson claims, ‘I am more occupied with the special language of the cinema than with the subject of my films.’ What makes this so interesting is that Schrader does absolutely nothing with the posit. In short, Bresson is claiming that film uses the techniques of other arts (the word language, metaphorically or not), and Schrader fails to see that this may be the key to defining the man’s style. Aside from the fallacy of positing film as an ‘exceptional art,’ which naturally most filmmakers do, Bresson leaves open a golden in for Schrader to exploit- the disconnect between Bresson’s style and subject matter, which he instead shoehorns him into a claim as a Transcendentalist; a claim Bresson bristled at, but which Schrader insists on. Does Schrader explore this schism? Does he lay out Bresson’s posit and debunk it? Does he even dive into the claim and explore it? No. This shows that while the book is posited as a work of criticism- i.e.- dealing with what is in front of an audience, it is really a not too thinly veiled work of dogma, retro-fitted to masque as criticism.

  The section of the book devoted to Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer has all of the same problems that the Ozu and Bresson sections bear, plus an additional one, when Schrader misanalyzes even some basic narrative posits, such as calling the claimed witch character of Herlof’s Marthe, in Day Of Wrath, a stand-in for the Devil, whereas she is really innocuous. From page 127:


  Marthe is the nether side of Joan of Arc- the Transcendent seen through a Demonic mirror.

  In fact, this is not so, and although Schrader tries to frame the claim by backpedaling a bit, and claiming this is how the characters view her, he never disavows that statement, which comes from Schrader, not the characters.

  On the positive side, Schrader does make a few interesting points, most notably when he describes the shock of the viewer, when watching Ordet, over the seemingly insane character John’s ability to actually raise the dead, thus abnegating the expectations the film raises. But, these are few and far between. The book ends on a very bad note, both intellectually and stylistically:


  Transcendental style can bring us nearer to that silence, that invisible image, in which the parallel lines of religion and art meet and interpenetrate.

  The very last word of the book, ‘interpenetrate,’ is so consciously designed to sound ‘deep’ and evoke a mystical feel, especially given that ‘penetrate’ would suffice, and coming directly on the heels of words like ‘silence,’ ‘invisible,’ ‘religion,’ and ‘art,’ that even were one not aware of Schrader’s age at the writing of this text beforehand, such ‘ooh, ah’ moments would thrust it directly at the reader at the last moment.

  The book is bogged down in a slightly off-kilter struggle between didacticism and full-on pedantry, from Schrader’s inability to define his book’s very title, to his blatant and fallacious appeals to authority that yield little, since those authorities have little to do with the subject matter the appeal is based in. Ultimately, Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer ends up as a conveniently admixed regurge of ideas others have had before, had better, and a few muddled pet ideas Schrader cannot even fully define. In short, aside from its lack of real content, the book’s style is nonexistent, for that is the definition of the generic- indifferentiation. It is reflected in Schrader’s wildly anarchistic punctuative style, his ennui-directed form of critical engagement, and his inability to even convincingly ground the text in a clear claim. Yes, the book may still be valuable for a handful of passages, but its bulk has about as much resonance to the work within, and that being made in cinema today, as mediaeval texts on human anatomy do to modern microsurgery. Take a pass on Schrader’s ideas and book, and indulge his art: go rewatch Taxi Driver, instead.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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