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December 01, 2006

The Film Critic Blog-a-thon: Paul Schrader


Paul Schrader's book, Transcendental Style in Film appeared at just the right time for me. In September of 1973, two important events happened - I began my graduate Cinema Studies at New York University and I also converted to Nichiren Buddhism. While there were other books that looked into the spiritual component of films and filmmakers, Schrader's examination of the films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer forced me to look at film in a way I had not done previously. There is a letter, a "gosho" by the Buddhist priest Nichiren, titled "The Opening of the Eyes". For me, Schrader's book was equally eye opening.

Several months after I had begun my Buddhist practice, the film The Human Revolution opened in New York City. For me, the biggest problem with the film is that the depiction of the enlightenment was not convincing, using hightened color and the chorus as part of the audio component. It was later, in reading Schrader that my discontent with the film was articulated with what Schrader described as "over-abundant means", the conveyance of faith frequent associated with that in the films by Cecil B. De Mille. Similar employment of the De Mille model can also be seen in two films about Nichiren - Nichiren: Man of Many Miracles and Nichiren, two films currently available on Japanese DVD. My argument against the two Human Revolution films is primarily that the film-makers relied on the techniques used in Judeo-Christian epics for Buddhist subject matter.

On a more personal level, Paul Schrader was gracious enough to meet with me to discuss his book. This took place the day after he had introduced a couple of Yakuza films at the Museum of Modern Art, and was transitioning from film critic to screenwriter. I don't remember much of our discussion except that it took place at the Algonquin Hotel, and we briefly discussed whether John Ford or Howard Hawks was more Buddhist. Soon after that discussion, I wrote a paper detailing my ideas on film and Buddhism for my semiotics class.

Among the things I have gleaned from Transcendental Style has been a deeper appreciation of Bresson and Ozu. Schrader's discussion of Ozu's framing from the point of view of someone on a tatami mat has probably played a role in my own photography. The book articulated the schism I felt not only with films that were about Buddhism, but with other films that had religious subject matter. With about thirty years of film going since meeting Schrader and writing my essay, I have found that the films that best expressed Buddhist concepts were not specifically about Buddhist subjects, nor necessarily made my filmmakers who identified as Buddhist.

At a time when film companies are jumping on the faith based bandwagon, courting a "Christian" audience, Schrader's book might be considered more timely in framing discussions on how faith is conveyed in film. If Schrader's book has one weakness, it is that it does read like an academic thesis. The chapter on Bresson is dated, having been written prior to the release of Bresson's last three films. These are minor quibbles as what Schrader has done is create a more critical way of looking at films about faith.

Additionally, no serious discussion of Schrader's work as a screenwriter or director can be made without having read Transcendental Style in Film. I have disagreements with Schrader's film canon published in "Film Comment", in particular his comparison of life and art having a beginning, middle and end. I want to remind Schrader of Godard's comment of "Yes, but not necessarily in that order." In general I prefer the films Schrader wrote for Martin Scorsese to his own directorial efforts. For the record, my favorite Schrader directed films are American Gigolo, Cat People and Light of Day. As idiosyncratic as it may be to others, of the books on film I have owned over the years, my first edition copy of Transcendental Style in Film is one of the few I truly treasure.

For other blog-a-thon links, click on Andy Horbal's site No More Marriages! at the right.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 1, 2006 08:50 AM


Thank you for participating in the blog-a-thon! While I, like most everyone else, have some serious issues with Mr. Schrader's recent "Canon Fodder" article, I still think it's a fine piece of writing. This is only my second experience with Mr. Schrader's criticism, after his "Notes on Film Noir" piece that was included in American Movie Critics, but I'm beginning to think I'll make him my next project after Andrew Sarris. And I'll start with Transcendental Style, which might also be a good way to introduce my Buddhist roommate into more films!

Posted by: Horbal. Andrew Horbal. at December 1, 2006 08:47 PM

Transcendental Style in Film is one of those rare film books that I've heard both rave reviews of, and stern warnings against. But that's sometimes the sign of a great film, and great literature, well, and great music, so, perhaps I'm missing out.

Maybe it's also a silly personal bias, but I have a problem accepting Schrader as the film academic/theorist he's morphed into. I think it's my peception of a screenwriter as either Adaptation.'s brothers Kaufman or Sunset Blvd.'s Joe Gillis.

(both, incidentally, rare films whose titles end in periods! Maybe they're the definitive statements on screenwriting. Hehe.)

PS: Is there any sort of concensus on the Ozu tatami-level shot? I remember hearing that it was, before I heard that it wasn't. But now I've heard both, and am confused. Acquarello, for example, argues against it in the comment section to this post.

Posted by: Pacze Moj at December 2, 2006 04:30 PM

Interesting stuff; I wonder what you thought of maybe the loopiest of so-called Buddhist films, King Hu's A Touch of Zen.

Posted by: Noel Vera at December 3, 2006 01:08 AM

Pacze: Schrader established himself as a film critic prior to screenwriting credits, primarily associated with the LA based magazine "Cinema" which he also edited. Interestingly, Pauline Kael was an early supporter of Schrader in his film critic days.

Noel: I've seen a couple of King Hu films including Touch of Zen. Since there are several schools of Buddhism, what appears in Hu's films is best described as the mystical cinematic version, a sort of generic Buddhism that is not grounded in any particular scholarship.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at December 3, 2006 02:04 AM

Peter, what an interesting post, particularly for the criticism of Buddhist concepts being rendered through Christian sensibilities. I wonder if film could ever capture how quiet a moment of illumination might be? You mention the films that best expressed Buddhist concepts were not specifically about Buddhist subjects, nor necessarily made by filmmakers who identified as Buddhist. I would be interested to know what some of those examples might be. I consider Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's films to be rapturously Buddhist, calmly Buddhist. Would you agree?

How has your particular practice in Buddhism been affected by living in Thailand?

Posted by: Maya at December 4, 2006 03:54 AM

I think the concept of a film representing the view of a particular religion needs to be examined more closely. There needs to be a distinction made between what may be considered generic to a particular faith, and that which belongs to specific branches of that faith. While I am interested in films about Buddhism, the form of Buddhism I practice is as distinct from other forms of Buddhism in the way that while Catholics, Mormons, Baptists and Calvinists are all Christian, but have differing beliefs and practices. A film that struck me as Buddhist in its examination of unintended cause and effect is Bresson's L'Argent. I also thought the documentary on environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides struck on the concept of being one with one's surroundings. I'm not ready to comment on Joe's films although I see aspects of Buddhism in the Thai films I've seen. In terms of my own practice of Buddhism, it is private right now. While there are Nichiren Buddhists in Thailand, I have not been in contact with them, but it is a very different kind of Buddism from the one practiced at the various wats here. I did respectfully observe some activities while passing by on a couple of occassions.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at December 4, 2006 05:55 AM

Ah yes, RIVERS AND TIDES; I would agree.

Posted by: Maya at December 4, 2006 11:40 AM

Now you've gone and skewed my perception as Schrader-the-screenwriter. Just kidding! Thanks for the info. I wonder if I can find any of his "Cinema" stuff laying around. I think that also proves, for me, that for whatever reason(s), I have an easier time accepting a critic/theorist as a filmmaker than the other way 'round.

Speaking of Bresson's L'Argent and transcendental film, filmmaker Philip Gr�ning�s latest (his previous was titled L�Amour, l�argent, l�amour work, Into Great Silence seems like something to take a look at. It�s a German documentary about a Catholic monastery in France that I was made aware of on a Buddhist forum!

PS: Sorry about the huge gaps between paragraphs in my last comment. It looked fine on the preview, I swear.


Posted by: Pacze Moj at December 4, 2006 03:40 PM

And what's with all the upside down question marks and 1/2 signs? Are you deconstructing again? Heh.

Posted by: Maya at December 6, 2006 02:53 AM

There are no meanings to those signs, Michael. It's just glitches that occur when I copy and paste from Apple Works to Movable Type involving quotes and apostrophes.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at December 6, 2006 04:03 AM

A ghost in the machine...


Posted by: Pacze Moj at December 6, 2006 05:53 PM

did my long comment get lost in the hyperspace? :(

Posted by: HarryTuttle at December 12, 2006 12:29 PM

It sure looks that way. Try again now that I'm home and eliminated the junk that comes in.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at December 16, 2006 07:19 AM

I found your blog via google by accident and have to admit that youve a really interesting blog :-)
Just saved your feed in my reader, have a nice day :)

Posted by: Florian at January 28, 2007 11:42 PM