Transcendental Style (God in Film Pt 9)

This blog post really should have come earlier.

When I started this blog series on how literally showing God or angels in movies may always feel cheesy and therefore we should consider alternate ways to talk about the divine, I mentioned two writers who’ve really influenced this series: Roy Anker and Paul Schrader.

Anker argued in his book Catching Light that most religious movies don’t capture divinity in a compelling way. In that book and Of Pilgrims and Fire he analyzed films which I’ve referenced throughout this series, movies which talk about divinity in unusual ways.

Schrader made a similar argument in his 1969 review of the film Pickpocket, also suggesting a new way to depict divinity on film.

However, Schrader’s way is so different from Anker’s that it made more sense to talk about his ideas now, after going through Anker’s ideas (and my own thoughts on using humor and evil).

Schrader suggests the key to showing divinity on film doesn’t come from characters and plot points. As he explained in a Hollywood Reporter interview, the key is “style, not content.”

Specifically, you show divinity on film by using “transcendental style,” which Schrader wrote an entire book on.

Various movies use this style. Schrader suggests The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which I talked about in Pt 4, uses elements from it.

The style’s especially present in Pickpocket and in Schrader’s own film, First Reformed.

Basically, Schrader argues we think film is realistic, it captures the world we really see. But we only see the natural world, not the supernatural elements.

So, if you want viewers to feel like they’re having a divine encounter, you start by working against what film does best.

You give the movie a minimal style. In Pickpocket and First Reformed, the camera barely moves around. There are almost no close-ups or background music.

This confuses viewers. We know this isn’t how filmmakers normally work, so we want to know what’s going on.

Then something shifts. The hero does what Schrader calls a “decisive action” (120), something that conflicts with how everyone else behaves in the film.

In Pickpocket, a man named Michel decides to become a thief for no particular reason.

In First Reformed, a pastor named Ernest Toller questions whether pollution has ruined our planet and radical measures must be taken.

As these characters act out, we get little moments where the camera finally moves around and we hear music.

So, something’s changing. To use Schrader’s language, the audience feels “a growing crack in the dull surface of everyday reality” (121). How do we reconcile the film’s cold, restrained environment with the hero doing things that don’t fit a cold (i.e. only natural) world?

This tension continues until the hero does another decisive action and then the movie lets in everything it’s holding back.

In Pickpocket, Michel ends up in prison and Joanne, a woman he rejected earlier, visits him. Michel tells Joanne he loves her, and the movie finally brings in music and a close-up camera shot.

In First Reformed, Toller plans to become a “martyr for the planet,” killing himself by drinking toxic chemicals. But Mary, a woman he loves, finds him first. They embrace, with singing in the background and the camera moving in a tight circle around them.

These are radical scenes, moments where the characters do unnatural (i.e. more than natural) actions.

Joane gives Michel Christ-like charity, showing him another way to live. As Roger Ebert puts it, he is being “healed by the touch of her hand.”

Mary shows Toller she loves him and he responds even though earlier he’s rejected the idea he could find romantic love.

These events don’t fit the movie’s “natural style,” so they must be supernatural — the movie’s jumping into a new reality.

This leaves readers with a choice. They can either recognize this supernatural intrusion or toss it away and claim the movie doesn’t make sense.

As Schrader writes, the jump “forces the viewer into the confrontation with the Wholly Other he would normally avoid. He is faced with an explicably spiritual act within a cold environment, an act which now requests his participation and approval… It is a “miracle” which must be accepted or rejected” (176).


Any thoughts about this? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear them. 

This conclude my blog series on God in film. If you haven’t read the other entries, just type “God in film” into the search bar.

3 thoughts on “Transcendental Style (God in Film Pt 9)

  1. Pingback: Eccentric Artist: Ken Russell and the Problem of Maverick Christianity – G. Connor Salter

  2. Pingback: Create Wonder (Building a Better Christian Novel Pt 4) – G. Connor Salter

  3. Pingback: Films on Faith I’ve Enjoyed – G. Connor Salter

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