The Transcendental Style in Film is an approach to filmmaking that author and filmmaker Paul Schrader (1946- ) introduced in his book of the same title written in 1972. The subtitle of the book refers to the three directors who he considers follow the principles of the stylistic rules utilised in early religious artistic expression. These include Byzantine iconography, Gothic architecture and Zen art; all of which seek to express the Holy, or in other words, to create a religious experience in the viewer. According to Schrader, these principles when applied to film constitute the transcendental style in film. French director Robert Bresson (1901-1999) and Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu (1903-1963) in Schrader’s eyes were exemplars of the style and Carl Dreyer (1889-1963) to a lesser extent.
When I first came across the transcendental style, I was drawn to the way it challenged the theatrics of conventional cinema in an effort to engage with an audience on a profound level. In over simplified terms, the style works to distance the audience and encourages them to find their own subjective meaning in the film. In this sense, one film can have many different meanings for each of the audience.
The transcendental style in film engages with terms and ideas that can be ambiguous and subjective. Nevertheless, the conventions that it relies on are a little simpler to understand. They consist of a three stage structure, the everyday, disparity and stasis that are expressed with ‘the artful balance of filmic abundance and austerity’. In other words, the film is divided in to three stages. The first sets up the everyday world of the protagonist where nothing appears out of place. In the second stage an antagonistic force enters which triggers an internal struggle within the protagonist, and finally, this struggle becomes so powerful that it overtakes the protagonists’ world and slowly grinds his or her goals to a halt. The beginning of the film is expressed in abundant terms with enough story to engage an audience. As the film progresses, the cinematic expression becomes more austere. Image and scenes are striped of information, (including the removal of expression from performance). As such, the film begins to distance the audience and for them to find any meaning in the film, they must seek answers from somewhere other than the screen. In theory, the only option available is their own thoughts. In a sense, the audience becomes an active participant in discerning the film’s meaning. The final meaning becomes a combination of the story being played on screen and the audience’s individual perception of the world.
It gets complicated. Throughout the proceeding posts, I will be drawing on and referring to the transcendental style regularly. Little by little I hope that you begin to understand what it aims to achieve and can see the benefits of using aspects of it in your own work.