Director Paul Schrader Talks Transcendental Style in Film

How do the subtle films maintain audience participation without risking boredom? Film narratives that explore the human condition and lived experiences can often render composites of life that people may, in turn, find dull. Take away the sweeping music, exaggerated emotional reactions, and plot devices, and you may find two hours of uninteresting cinematic exhibition.

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As part of TIFF 2017, a short video essay narrated by filmmaker and celebrated film scholar Paul Schrader (“Blue Collar,” “American Gigolo,” three Scorsese screenwriting collaborations including “Taxi Driver” and more), delves into the style of transcendental film (he wrote an entire book about the subject too). Schrader begins the short video essay by saying, “If you come to expect action, you’re not going to get it.” When audiences are expected to watch nothing, attention is gauged by watching what Schrader calls “dead time.” This is in complete contrast to what moviegoers are used to in more popular cinema. Movies will try to reach out to the audience and hold their attention, but transcendental films will use techniques of boredom to lean away from the audience, causing a self-reflexive mode of viewing.

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Schrader uses examples, such as films like “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels.” Chantal Akerman‘s seminal French film uses these techniques of boredom and mundane imagery to, as Schrader states, “Move the viewer.” Once a viewer becomes active in the ordinary, then transgressions are made through what is expected of cinema to behold to audiences. At some point, however, audiences must be freed of their boredom. The expectation is that viewers can only lean towards the narrative until a certain end. With the addition of cinematic tropes such as sweeping music and spontaneous emotional reaction, it is then that the audience is released of their strained ennui to relish the full effect of what the film was trying to prove. Once you have the action that you have been craving and waiting for, the transcendental movie watching experience becomes all the more active.