Transcendental style in film Part Two: The Ecstatic Aesthetic

Part one introduced the concept of ‘transcendental style’ in cinema. It showed how various critics- most prominently a pre-filmmaking Paul Schrader- described a formal style in the works of Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer designed to put the viewer into a contemplative state. In short: films that are really slow and no-one explains anything and so that makes you think about the spiritual meaning of the film instead of how shitty the CGI is and whatnot The key stylistic choices of this mode of transcendental style are slowness, stillness and precision.

I am going to argue that a second mode of transcendental style in film exists. Why am i going to argue that? A) because I think it might be interesting and B) because I don’t get out much anymore. But anyway, much as in religious practices there are many roads to transcendence, so in cinematic style. The films of Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer might perhaps be likened to the spiritual practices of the monk or nun. An “ascetic aesthetic“. a slow life, based on contemplation, quietness, simplicity. In the history of spiritual practices this ascetic trend was countered (complimented isn’t quite accurate) by those schools which emphasized states of ecstasy as the road to enlightenment. In cinema this ‘ecstatic aesthetic‘  repeatedly manifests itself in psychedelic vistas of the cosmos. A Dionysian alternative to the Apollonian order of the first style. If Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer want to open your mind, the film makers who use the second mode want to blow it. It’s probably worth noting that this is not a clean break from the other style. Jonathan Rosenbaum cites a few letters and interviews in which Dreyer, responding to criticisms that the miracle that ends Ordet was simply a retreat into archiac religiosity, mentioned,  “recent psychic research, represented by pioneers like Rhine, Ouspensky, Dunne, Aldous Huxley, and so forth,”  and elsewhere stated that

The new science that followed Einstein’s theory of relativity had supplied that outside the three-dimensional world which we can grasp with our senses, there is a fourth dimension—–the dimension of time—–as well as a fifth dimension—–the dimension of the psychic that proves that it is possible to live events that have not yet happened. New perspectives are opened up that make one realize an intimate connection between exact science and intuitive religion. The new science brings us toward a more intimate understanding of the divine power and is even beginning to give us a natural explanation to things of the supernatural.

This melange of science, psychical research, higher dimensions, Ouspensky, Huxley and so on points towards the counterculture of the 1960s and the  emergence of new age spiritualities which sought to reconcile science and religion. Also, they did a shit load of psychedelics. As such, the ecstatic aesthetic, our second mode of transcendental style, works by trying to immerse the audience in the transcendental experience itself.

2001: a space odyssey

In some respects the bridge between these two modes is not a film about religion or faith (at least not how it usually thought of) but a sci-fi movie; Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick’s film shares something of the stately, careful precision of those earlier film-makers, as well as a certain slowness (although the edge is taken off this by slowness taking place in spaceships and shit). We might even argue that Kubrick’s films have an even chillier and more actively misanthropic view of humanity and the possibility of transcendence than do Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer. But what Kubrick does offer, in 2001 at least, is the transcendence money-shot. Not the quiet, profound moment of grace as in Pickpocket or the metaphysically puzzling but plainly presented miracle of Ordet, but a full-blown psychedelic experience of the infinite followed by rebirth as cosmic space-fetus! Take that, Bresson!

Here’s the full nine and a half minutes of the stargate sequence in case you’d forgotten how mind-boggling it is.

 

What I’m saying is that 2001: A Space Odyssey utilise the best of both modes (and arguably even invents the second mode) in moving from quiet contemplation to full blown tie-dye tee-shirt freak-out. It tells us something that hippies would drop acid and go see 2001 back when it played the movie-houses. It wasn’t just for shits and giggles, it was ritual. LSD was the holy sacrament and 2001 was the litany.

 

The Fountain

In recent years the ecstatic aesthetic transcendent style has been utilized in movies like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006). Aronofsky’s film meets the criteria for transcendental cinema in being explicitly mystical in its subject matter. Telling the story of three incarnations of the same doomed romance in a feudal past, the contemporary world and some strange future where Hugh Jackman has no hair and floats around space in a giant bubble with a little garden in it. Which is amazing. Anyway, here’s the trailer to give you a feel if you haven’t seen it.

 

In The Fountain the ecstatic aesthetic is used to call attention to the fundamental connectedness of all existence. The past resembles the present resembles the future. Architecture, clothing, cancers, the cosmos; all follow the same pattern. Circles and spheres are a recurring motif. As Joe Galm over at Next Projection puts it:

the goal is to underscore the consistencies that occur throughout space and time, the likes of which appear across a spectrum beyond that of mortal apprehension. In each component of the ternary story, our male and female leads fall separated by some large, metaphorical obstacle: The Inquisition, cancer, hereafter. Aronofsky seemingly aims to elucidate the ebb and flow of existence through time by highlighting the universal patterns we actually have the capacity to recognize. This is why nebular visions give way to corporeal ones, and why circles (ceremonial monstrances, patterny décor), rings (wedding and royal bands), and spheroids (seeds, Tom’s Elysian vessel) fold into each other throughout the work.

Like 2001, there’s something a little druggy about this whole everything-is-everything malarkey. In this bonus clip from the DVD release, the psychedelic consciousness link is made more explicit. Here we see Future-Jackman cultivating mushrooms, drinking a brew from them and finally mediating; the camera closing in on and through his forehead. Note how the galaxies and nebulae outside the bubble ship, the tree-bark and mushroom skins, and the psychedelic visions we are led to assume Future-Jackman experiences all resemble each other in pattern, texture and colour.

The complex tripartite structure of the film, with Jackman and Rachel Weisz playing reincarnations (?) of the same characters and enacting the same doomed love affair coupled with the repeated visual matches of inner and outer-space, recall the alchemical formula, “as above, so below“. This concept of the microcosm as a mirror of the microcosm is also a key theme in his debut Pi (1998). as seen in the video below.

 

Enter the Void

If Aranofksy uses the ecstatic aesthetic to evoke an alchemical mysticism, Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void is explicitly a Buddhist mysticism. Indeed, the film itself its structured around the  Bardo Thodel, or Tibetan Book of the Dead. To get close to Noe’ style, and to see how  unlike Fountain and Tree of Life, Goe uses the visual excesses afforded by the ecstatic style to invoke a sort of terror as much as awe. Witness the film’s credit sequence below, which smash the viewer into submission simply though presenting the credits in a jarring, garish, eclectic mix of styles and colours. Quentin Tarantino, who had the film in his top 10  films of 2010. called them “Hands down best credit scene of the year … Maybe best credit scene of the decade. One of the greatest in cinema history.” So let’s play “see if you agree with Quentin Tarantino”. Full disclosure: I think he makes a good point. I also suggest turning the lights off and turning the volume up for full effect.

Given that Noe’s favourite film is 2001: a space odyssey it should be no surprise that Noe’s use of the psychedelic style is countered, as in 2001, by a formal precision surrounding those scenes. In this instance Noe’s choice to shoot the entire film from the point of view of his protagonist. This is a technical feat only attempted few times before, with 1947’s The Lady in the Lake being perhaps the most famous example. Not coincidentally, Noe claims to have watched that film while tripping balls on mushrooms, so if you need the Rosetta Stone for translating Enter the Void, that story is it.  However, Enter the Void goes further by having the film first be seen through his physical eyes and then later through the ‘eyes’ of his soul as it weaves its way backwards through his life and then forwards again past his death into the future. Only in this POV mode the camera is no longer to what the body would be able to see. It’s still POV but it’s the soul’s POV and able to glide into the air or across the city or (SPOILERS!) into his sister’s vagina whereupon he follows her lover’s semen down her vaginal canal to her ovum and then from the POV of a baby being born which may or not may be his reincarnation. 

Trust me when I tell that you that synopsis will not really prepare you for the experience of seeing it unfold.

 Enter the Void also offers some familiar trippy visuals, including a long sequence of the protagonist’s DMT trip. DMT is the synthesised version of a drug that actually occurs naturally in the brain (some say it is responsible for dreaming). Dr Rick Strasman refers to it as the ‘spirit molecule‘, due to its alleged role in bringing on Near Death Experiences. Experiencing disembodied consciousness is a common feature of most NDEs and DMT trips. It’s role in Enter the Void is to provide an access point. Our protagonist has already had some self-induced experience of consciousness beyond the body even before the transmigration of his soul. Smoke a bowl and watch the video below, maaaan! Or, you know, whatever.

 

The Tree of life

Now at this point I’m going to go out on ‘a limb’ (BOOM!)and say that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is the outright masterpiece of the ecstatic aesthetic. Another near-impossible film to summarise plot-wise (so I’m not going to bother), The Tree of Life ticks all the boxes. Thematically it is explicitly concerned with transcendental questions. It opens with a quote from the Book of Job and then we meet a family of three brothers at some point in the 1950s. Their mother and father embody what is described in the voice-over  as “the way of nature and the way of grace”:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life … the way of Nature… and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy… when all the world is shining around it… when love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace… ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you. Whatever comes.

So immediately we are introduced to some themes; such as the concept of grace; the sacred and transcendent as opposed to the profane and earthly, that we have already encountered in the first mode of transcendental style, the ascetic aesthetic. Malick, embracing the second mode of the ecstatic aesthetic, tells his story through a time-fractured narrative structure; a polyphony of voice-overs, and most ambitiously, intermittent sequences of, oh, little things, like THE CREATION OF ALL EXISTENCE. There is also a scene with dinosaurs in which one dinosaur encounters another, but because the second is injured the first appears to merciful and leaves her/him be. Thus proving that even dinosaurs can follow the way of grace. Or something. Robert Bresson’s Jurassic Park, everyone!

Roger Ebert gave the film four stars of four and wrote, “The Tree of Life is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives. The only other film I’ve seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey and it lacked Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling. There were once several directors who yearned to make no less than a masterpiece, but now there are only a few. Malick has stayed true to that hope ever since his first feature in 1973.” It’s notable that Ebert cites the ubiquitous 2001 as Douglas Trumble, who did the effects for Kubrick’s film, also worked on Tree of Life, outdoing the stargate sequence with his epic evocation of the birth of the universe (the effects team also included people who had worked on The Fountain). Here it is below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EEIeH7ymwA

What’s interesting here is that Tree of Life kind of reverse the technique used by Noe and Aronofsky. The huge psychedelic formation scenes, while demonstrating the same visual rhyming between microcosm and macrocosm, are much more classical and controlled (for all that epicness/epicinicity?), whereas his camerawork in the rest of the film is much loose. In The Fountain the camera’s POV is always clearly the director. Despite the elaborate trimmings the visual grammar of The Foutain is standard  Hollywood style shot/reverse shot. Noe goes one better, mixing his psychedelic freak-outs with an elaborate disembodied but still first-person POV.  Malick’s use of camerawork and editing here is astonishing. Breaking from many of the formal conventions of narrative cinema, such as the shot-reverse shot when characters converse it cuts away to shots of nature-flowers, waterfalls, animals-apropos of nothing (echoes of Uzo’s empty spaces). The camera clings to the floor and climbs trees. It glides and rises, speeds up and slows down; all as if of its own accord. It’s movements don’t seem determined by narrative or plot or character. If the camera moves allow the POV to be unfixed from space then the editing loosens the grip of time, jumping backwards and forwards. The POV in The Tree of Life seems to be the eye of God; omnipotent, all-seeing, everywhere (and everything) at once. The film doesn’t take place from any single characters point of view but from the point of view of the universe itself.

Conclusion

That’s it, that’s all I wanted to say. Maybe it was useful, maybe not. Hopefully it made you want to watch some more movies. And if you are for some strange reason particularly drawn to this mode of transcendental style then I’d also recommend Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and probably a whole bunch of other things that don’t occur to me right now anyway. Any suggestions though, please add to the comments section!

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About Scott Jeffery

Hello humans. I am Dr. Scott Jeffery. I do the following things (in no particular order): Research into Post/Humanism and Transhumanism and superheroes (seriously, I’ve got a PhD and everything) Stand-up comedy Compulsive rumination I blog about these things (plus occultism and all kinds of other lovely, strange topics) at NthMind. I also write regular short film reviews at Filmdribble. I can be contacted via twitter (@sjzenarchy) or at sjzenarchy@gmail.com. View all posts by Scott Jeffery

2 responses to “Transcendental style in film Part Two: The Ecstatic Aesthetic

  • misterjaxon

    This is an absolutely brilliant blog post. Peter Bradshaw wrote that The Tree of Life may come to be seen as the decade’s great Christian artwork. Would you agree?

    • Scott Jeffery

      Thanks for the kind words. I see what Bradshaw means but I think that limits it a little bit. The transcendental aspect seems as much informed by a kind of nature mysticism than a strict biblical interpretation. The theological questions are there if you want them but I think it works more broadly than that. Like I said in the post, the camera is ‘God’ but that God isn’t the unified presence (and supreme Authorial voice) of the biblical God. A supreme becoming rather than a supreme Being.

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