Tag Archives: Film studies

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. Continue reading


Transcendental style in film Part One: The Ascetic Aesthetic

I know, I know, that’s the least inviting title to a blog post ever but don’t go! There’s videos and everything!

Still here? Okay then. First of all you should know that  I adopted/poached/stole the term ‘transcendental style’ from the great Paul Schrader‘s only kind of great book Transcendental Style in the Films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer. The term ‘the Ascetic aesthetic’ is all mine though, which I guess is something of a Pyrrhic victory but anyways, the point is that there exists a kind fo religious film that exhibits a certain style suited to religious topics. Sure, movies about religion and religious topics have always existed but no-one is ever going to mistake the films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer for this thing, for example:

Or even for that weird-looking Heaven is For Real movie that was the number 2 box-office film in America after Captain America: Winter Soldier but not even released in cinemas here because of the UK’s general, if diminishing, trend of not being insane.

Also, I’m not arguing that there is a definitive, objective thing that we can call ‘transcendental style’ and then piss our pants when a film does or does not conform to that particular style because A) who gives a shit? and B) there already exists some debate as to the merits of Schrader’s analysis and its efforts to produce what Colin Burnett calls an, ‘hermeneutical monopoly’ which leaves no room for other interpretations. And the last thing any of us wants is to accidentally create a hermeneutical monopoly. No sir.

However,  ‘transcendental style’  seems like a useful model or metaphor for considering how certain films choose to present  spiritual and religious themes. It also gives us a way of suggesting a link between the films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer that Schrader analyses, with the more recent films such as Darren Aaronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) , Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void (2009) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). The bridge between them being, I want to argue, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). More on all that in part two. In these posts I’m going to suggest that the different forms of ‘transcendental style’ in these films is akin to the differing approaches to transcendence in various mystical and religious schools. One is ascetic, based on self-control, abstinence from sensual pleasures and deep, quite contemplation of the ineffable. The other is ecstatic, finding transcendence in sudden ego-loss, immersion in sensual pleasures like sex or drugs, and the experience of cosmic consciousness.

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