Prior to writing the script for Taxi Driver (1976), Paul Schrader wrote the book, Transcendental Style in Film, in which he postulates that Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and, in some cases, Carl Dreyer utilized a similar formal approach in many of their films. Like a scientist, Schrader observes a pattern and hypothesizes a formalistic origin, which he calls the “transcendental style.” Rather than merely entertain and offer audiences a vicarious experience, Schrader posits that the transcendental style ultimately confronts the viewer with the “Wholly Other.” Although there is some contention regarding Schrader’s book, especially its spiritual connotation, it offers a unique and intriguing perspective regarding the works of said filmmakers.
According to Schrader, these films start by establishing disparity between the protagonist and the everyday world around them. This disparity inevitably alienates the protagonist from the viewer as well, which is the complete opposite of most narrative films that strive to connect viewers with the protagonist.
Next, through a series of decisive moments, it becomes apparent that the protagonist is motivated by something not of this world, but by something Schrader calls their holy agony. Like “a growing crack in the dull surface” of their cold, unfeeling environment, the disparity between the protagonist and their world expands, casting suspicion that he/she may be some kind of spiritual vessel, a saint, or divine manifestation.
These films come to a climax with the protagonist’s decisive action, a “miraculous” act that confronts the willing viewer with the Wholly Other. In the case of Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, the miracle is Joan’s martyrdom at the stake. On the other hand, the miracle can be much less dramatic, such as Ozu’s Tokyo Story, where the miracle is a weeping Setsuko Hara.
Finally, to solidify the transcendental state produced by the decisive action, the film carefully concludes with a single image and, sometimes, a blast of music intended to induce stasis, “a still re-view of the external world intended to suggest the oneness of all things.”
It is also important to point out what Schrader calls sparse and abundant means. In a nutshell, transcendental films seldom utilize sensual, emotional, and humanistic techniques intended to evoke empathy. Rather, they rely on cold, formalistic, and hieratic techniques utilized by Byzantine artists, e.g., two-dimensionality, frontality, and stolidity. Such sparse means contribute to the disparity between the protagonist and their world; however, the savvy transcendental filmmaker strategically incorporates abundant means as well, in an attempt to hold the viewer’s attention just enough. For instance, Bresson’s Pickpocket utilizes action sequences and suspense, but it’s overall objective is a sparse, transcendental end.
Immensely intrigued by Schrader’s book, I set out to make my own transcendental film, titled Jasmin & Josephine. Because I could only produce a short film, it was impossible to thoroughly implement the style, so I simply focused on its major components. You could call it a formalistic exercise.
I chose to depict a young woman who’s holy agony was to serve an elderly woman with no familial relation. After casting a fair, “angelic” actress, I worked closely with her and proceeded to strip away any showy mannerisms and dramatics. Like the Byzantine icons, I wanted her virtually emotionless most of the time.
Second, I structured the film following Schrader’s everyday world, disparity, decisive action, and stasis format. The film begins with a woman doing mundane things for seemingly no special purpose. However, when the elderly woman is revealed, we realize the protagonist is a servant and her loving care develops a growing sense of disparity with the world around her. Although you can argue I did not incorporate a clear decisive action or a moment of stasis; nonetheless, my hope was for the viewer to conclude the film with a sense of awe and wonder having witnessed selfless love.
Except for the performances, I made Jasmin & Josephine completely alone, from script to screen. I say this not to brag or boast, but to express my deeply personal connection with the film. Unsurprisingly, it was denied admission to every film festival I submitted to; however, I am immensely proud of it and feel it is my best film to date. Because of my stripped down approach, I was able to create something exactly the way I wanted to utilizing the transcendental style.
-Christopher J. Boghosian
Christopher J. Boghosian is an independent filmmaker in Los Angeles, California. He regularly contributes Production Notes regarding the making of his current feature film, which you can learn more about at FollowMyFilm.com.