Note: This speech was originally given at Calvin College on February 21, 2017 by SBP co-founder Garrett Strpko in response to a lecture by filmmaker Paul Schrader on the Transcendental Style in Film. Other members of the panel included philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff and Calvin College Professor Emeritus Roy Anker.
Let me first start by saying what an honor and privilege it is to be here this evening. I’m reflecting on what it is that exactly allows a sophomore undergraduate who isn’t even old enough to buy a drink to be discussing film theory with some of the Calvin’s greatest academic minds ever associated with Calvin College.
I often find myself at odds with the question- “are you still studying film at Calvin?” Of course, I respond with “Yes,” which is inevitably followed up with “so what exactly are you going to do with that?”
When posed with this question, I say I want to be a director, and I usually try and draw it back to Paul Schrader, because I do go to Calvin, after all. “You know Paul Schrader? He wrote Taxi Driver,” which, as a side note, humorously seems like the more palatable option compared to films with titles such as Hardcore and American Gigolo, which are about exactly what they sound like they’re about. Then, I mention something about the transcendental style.
To be honest, however, though I’ve been interested in Schrader’s work for a couple years now, it hasn’t been until quite recently that I’ve delved into what exactly the transcendental style is, or what it looks like, how it works. A reason for this is because I’ve never been a big fan of the Christian film industry., so the general idea of being able to portray the sacred on film through style rather than content seemed intriguing enough to me that I didn’t have to get too into it to believe it. For that reason, the idea that we could portray the transcendent on film through style rather than content seemed entirely plausible to me and I didn’t need any convincing it could work, because that sounded like a much better option than mainstream religious films, whatever it was.
But truthfully, as I’ve started actually reading about the theory, figuring out what the style consists of, the techniques and the forms, I was quite surprised by what I was reading. My idea of what the transcendental style might look like was somewhat different from what the theory actually was. Rather than simple editing and mostly stationary camerawork that doesn’t call too much attention to itself, I was expecting blatant juxtapositions of symbolic shots. Instead of sometimes deadpan, non-emotive performances, I was expecting an emphasis on emotional, varied performances. Rather than sparse uses of music, I was expecting sweeping arrangements that were consistent throughout. In short, I was expecting yet another cinema of emotions, one that directly manipulates a viewer’s feelings to get them to think about God.
But this is what I’ve come to enjoy so much about the transcendental style- it is in some ways antithetical to what one might think about what it means to experience the spiritual, as well as wherein the ‘power of film’ lies. And in this way, I’ve found it gets back to the true nature of faith, and of God, how we portray those things in our art. What separates the transcendental film from the mainstream Christian blockbuster is in fact that it doesn’t care about emotion, about manipulation, and about proselytizing in the same sense.
In studying the transcendental style, I’ve discovered where it is that I think the religious film tends to fail. For a long time, I always thought it was that they were often poor imitations of mainstream Hollywood films, but the issue is deeper than that. Proponents of the religious film argue that these movies express something holier than Hollywood because of their content, but they don’t have the same regard for film form. In copying the style of a standard Hollywood film, I would argue that the religious film, rather than elevating the sacred, still elevates the ‘profane’ because it sticks to this filmimitates the form that focuses not only on emotions, but on the talent and beauty of the actors, as well as a certain way of looking at the skill of those involved in a film’s production. It elevates the human ability to make something as great as a film through its very form, whether it recognizes it or not.
I find that the transcendental film is humbler. It understands that faith is not the same as emotion. Most mainstream religious films are about how God meets us in times of severe desperation, when everything looks bleak, or when everything looks great, when our feelings and emotions are running high and all of our human affairs seem so incredibly important. Most transcendental films, however, are about how God meets us in the mundane and when we’re devoid of any feeling whatsoever, because faith is something greater than emotion. It’s not that you don’t experience emotion when watching a transcendental film, but you aren’t told what to feel. Instead of being manipulated into experiencing a certain emotion of God or spirituality, we are confronted by God, realizing our own humanity, and therefore his divinity, which is, to borrow a term from Schrader, “Wholly Other.” This is the kind of disorienting spiritual experience that puts that which is divine at the center of our wonder in a piece of art, rather than on our own propensity to try and find it, and it is why I find the transcendental style to be, at the very least, a step towards a truer sense of how to portray the spiritual on film. As Schrader himself puts it in his book, an emotional, abundant film about Christ might sway an atheist to sympathize with him, but this is because Christ has been brought down to the viewer’s level, not the viewer to Christ’s. Yet, this raises some conundrums. Namely, that this way of thinking about style and film form is not common. Most audience members value a clearly directed emotional cinematic experience, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But nowadays, the transcendental style is thus mostly relegated to art films that fall outside the interests of a standard viewership, let alone studio executives. As a result, there is perhaps an air of cultural elitism that accompanies the transcendental style and its related genres. My questions have to do with why this is the case, and what we can do to change it. Does it require a knowledge of film form and theory to truly understand the transcendental style, and if so, what can we do to help make the style more accessible to mass audiences? Does it mean perhaps inserting bits and pieces of the style into one’s films, perhaps gradually building into something that is completely transcendental? And if the style is not that accessible, then does it actually have any meaningful transformative value in comparison to mainstream religious film, which is becoming increasingly popular? These are tough questions, but they’re ones that are important as we look toward the future of the transcendental style. Thank you.