Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
Peter T Chattaway

First Reformed

Recommended Posts

On 7/7/2018 at 3:26 PM, Tyler said:

What was everyone's read on the ending? I thought

  Reveal hidden contents

Toller was dying and Mary didn't come in and find him, because the door was locked a few minutes earlier when Cedric the Entertainer tried to find him. The only other fantasy sequence we've seen involved Mary as well, so that's a bit of a precedent, and Toller mused once about what really happens when you're dying and what Michael might have seen in his final moments, so it makes sense structurally that the end would come back to that question.

 

Hmmm, I don’t think the first reason you give here for this interpretation works.

Cedric the Entertainer’s character tries to go in the door to the parsonage that is closest to the side door at the front of the church, and finds it locked, as you say. Presumably this is a kind of back door to the parsonage. The window to this door is what Toller looks through and sees Mary going in to the ceremony. That door is locked, and it’s the only one the Pastor Jeffers tries. But Mary doesn’t enter through that door. She enters the room from a different door, one that leads from the room where the final shot of the film occurs to a kind of entryway to what I presume is the parsonages main/front door. Mary might have tried the locked door first, but it makes sense she’d enter through the parsonage’s front door. (That’s the door she uses when she enters at night, leading to the levitation scene.) That suggests to me that Mary is simply more intent on actually

finding Toller the person, not just impatiently getting on with the ceremony.

There are certainly other reasons to see the end as a kind of fantasy or dream though (not hearing Mary’s footsteps as she enters, heightened lighting, her not reacting to embracing a man wrapped in barbed wire). It’s a totally legit interpretation, including for the other reasons you give.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I saw this film twice, and it was quite a different experience each time. The first time I saw with a friend who is a film scholar who also finished seminary. I’d watched Winter Light, Diary of a Country Priest, and Taxi Driver in the weeks leading up to it since that’s what reviews had mentioned. I found myself focusing on observing the intertextuality of the film with those and many other films and Christian and also environmentalist works. And that’s what my friend and I focused on in our discussions and interpretations. Of course I was also sobered and shocked by the film itself.

The second time I watched it, I really felt it a lot more. This is an emotionally intense film, simultaneously taxing and stimulating. I was with my wife, a clinical therapist, and our conversations focused more on the relational dynamics and characterization that the film did so well to display. I’m really glad I had the ability to watch it twice. Certain things spoke to me a lot more on second viewing, like the emphasis on prayer.

I and my wife and friend, I should add, are Christians with Reformed backgrounds, so that added another layer of resonance. My wife and I grew up CRC and attended Calvin College, as did Schrader. That also informed a lot of the conversations I’ve had. I see this film as, in some ways, very Reformed: strong doctrine of creation, a critique of extreme forms of faith, suggesting that you can’t save yourself. Of course it’s very critical of American Christianity as well, or at least the aspects of it that need critique…the church always needs reforming.

As to the ending, I’ve really been wrestling with what to make of it. I have a pretty lengthy interpretation, which I'll hide to avoid spoilers.

 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Schrader was intentionally ambiguous

Quote

“trying to find the right balance between it being a kind of intervention of grace, a kind of miracle, or an ecstatic vision, which is also a kind of miracle, I guess.”

Schrader's own take on the possible meanings of the ending basically corresponds to what I established right after I saw the film, though I also considered about it in terms of the range of what happens next. I lean toward "it actually happens" rather than he kills himself and the end is a vision, albeit a miraculous one. I keep coming back to the fact that what is portrayed is that Mary actually shows up and he doesn’t drink the poison.  It's arguably the more miraculous interpretation if what we see in the end is a God-sent vision showing Toller in a mystical moment that heaven is like a passionate kiss (as Schrader has suggested) before he dies, but then again someone else might say "it's just neurons firing." The "real-life" miracle would be more compelling even if less miraculous per se since it’s plausible Mary sensed something wasn’t right and went looking for Toller till she found him. Still a tad deus ex machina, but not the kind of miracle where the transcendent/heavenly breaking into the immanent/earthly. That's what exactly happens at the end of Ordet. (I’m thinking of N.T. Wright’s positing that heaven and earth are overlapping and interlocking rather than separate and distant.) The difference is that Ordet, the film itself, goes all in on the reality of the miracle and so forces the viewer to accept the reality they've seen or reject it, even though the whole film has been moving toward the former. But both films still end in a passionate affirmation of carnality and love.

I read First Reformed’s ending as a depiction of heavenly reality as interlocked with earthly reality. Heaven is lurking just beneath the worldly surface for the entire film. It breaks through in the levitation/dream--what is depicted isn't what is happening in everyday reality, in Shadowlands (to use a C.S. Lewis reference from The Last Battle). It's what is REALLY happening (as in Aslan's country). Likewise at the end of First Reformed. Instead of depicting simply immanent "real life" or an ecstatic, transcendent "vision," and ne'er the twain shall meet, the film depicts them as overlapping. What we see at the end is what is REALLY happening in both heaven and earth, when normally we only see earth. So in "real life," Mary does show up, Toller is saved from following through with his despair, and...who knows what a surveillance camera would show about their interpersonal interaction after the screen cuts to black/silence. The film suggests that's less important than what we're shown. I know this is dangerous territory because it sounds like I'm saying it didn't really happen, but there are only a few times where I think I really need to say that what a surveillance camera would show and what REALLY happened are the same thing (e.g. Jesus' resurrection). I think the ending is profoundly hopeful when read that way, which honestly is the way that I have to read the ending to square it with what we're presented through the whole film.

 

I know this is probably a pretty unconventional interpretation, but I think that the some interpretations that I've heard from others (and Schrader) as being opposed aren't mutually exclusive. It's both reality and a vision (just without him being dead or on the verge of death, although the cut to black could still mean he dies, just not of his own volition).

 

With the film's ending, I'm reminded of a passage I love from The Brothers Karamazov where Zosima is giving advice: Don't deceive others, and especially don't be honest with yourself. Don't be afraid. Active love is better but more difficult than love in dreams, etc. The passage ends this way.

Quote

But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment – I predict this for you – you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.

 

Edited by Rob Z

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I am personally disturbed by any interpretation of the film which posits that there is something "hopeful" about

 

treating a girlfriend like shit and having an affair with a recently widowed woman who had come to you just a few days earlier for spiritual counseling (whether hers or her husband's). And it certainly doesn't help that the whole which-girlfriend-will-he-go-for thing was precisely where First Reformed began to feel more like a conventional "movie" and less like the realistic slice-of-life kind of thing that it had been for the first half-hour or so.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hmm, to each their own, but I find this film so stylized and far enough removed from ultra-realism that I felt little to no ethical distress in observing the relationship between Hawke's and Seyfried's characters.  Ultimately, in my eyes, it's a relationship of great beauty and transcendence.  This is in contrast to, say, Lost in Translation, where the affair between Murray and Johansen is morally troubling.

On the other hand, I think we're supposed to be troubled by Hawke's treatment of the choir director.  He was a definite shit there.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
16 hours ago, Andrew said:

Hmm, to each their own, but I find this film so stylized and far enough removed from ultra-realism that I felt little to no ethical distress in observing the relationship between Hawke's and Seyfried's characters.  Ultimately, in my eyes, it's a relationship of great beauty and transcendence.  This is in contrast to, say, Lost in Translation, where the affair between Murray and Johansen is morally troubling.

On the other hand, I think we're supposed to be troubled by Hawke's treatment of the choir director.  He was a definite shit there.

I can’t fault anyone for not seeing the film as hopeful, although I ultimately do. It’s a bleak film, not optimistic in the least about the state of religion, politics, economics, environmental issues, etc. I have a cousin who grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, who has struggled a lot with Christian faith in its American form particularly, who walks the environmentalist walk more fully than anyone I know personally—a lot in common with Toller I talked the film up to him, but because he’s at a kind of down/rebuilding place in his life (like Toller) couldn’t really recommend it because of the bleakness of the film.

But I think there’s hope, and my takeaway is the same as Andrew’s, including regarding the relationship matters.

As to Toller’s treatment of Esther the choir director, the first time I saw the film, I was kind of jolted at his behavior. But on second viewing, if made more sense,

 

even if it’s no less cruel. He’s on edge, having just found out he probably has serious cancer.

He also is distancing himself from those who care about him (including Mary), because he figures

 

if he’s going to die soon, he’ll go out with a bang, and such a resolve would contribute to that distancing behavior

. When he says,

 

"your concerns are petty," he's clearly being a jerk in rejecting the genuine care of someone, not just her romantic desires. But he also has bigger things on his mind/heart--his own demise, and the demise of human life on earth. When he says to her "I despise you. I despise what you bring out in me", I first heard it as a pile on of put downs. But on second watch, I heard it as more of a qualification or a correction, acknowledging it's more about his issues than her. Still cringe-inducingly cruel. And on second watch, when he snaps at her, it's clear that he' snot just the troubled but fairly competent pastor we'd been identifying with. We see something has "snapped" inside him and he's headed off the rails. In that exchange with Esther, I thought that Hawke's facial expression was much like Pastor Erikson's in Winter Light in the scene when he similarly rejects Marta over her care for him.

Anyway, I thought those scenes were still “slice of life,” even if they were more dramatic.

As to Toller and Mary’s relationship, I don’t think it’s warranted to interpret it as

 

an affair, although it obviously depends on how you define that

, nor does calling it that do justice to the actual content and arc of their relationship. Does it stray into the inappropriate? sure—especially if a strict realism is assumed. It could have gone further in that direction, but I don’t see it developing into something immoral. I think the film is almost at pains to show that the growing relationship of Toller and Mary is genuine and personal and pushing boundaries in healthy ways, even if that does transgress best practices of pastoral care. And in this film, the stakes are far higher than the appropriateness of a professional/pastoral relationship. No one is immaculate in this film, not even Mary. Total depravity, a very Reformed concept, is on full display. Seeing hope (or salvation) in the midst of that reality and the despair it produces is essential to the film (and, I believe, to Christian faith). And I see a lot of grace and beauty in their relationship, too. From a relationship standpoint, I don’t fully buy the realism of the ending of

 

Pickpocket

, which Ken compared to the end of this film, either, but that doesn’t mean that the end of that film isn’t any less transcendent, inspired, and fitting. I do buy Ken's comparison.

On this point, Peter, I’m really curious if you though the ending of First Reformed could be seen as something like an instantiation of the Father Zosima quote I posted earlier, about being saved by God at the very moment of personal failure?

As I mentioned earlier, I see

 

the ending and the levitation sequence and the conversation before it in some sense are real, but I don’t think what the camera shows is best read as strict realism. Even in the scene where they lay on each other, I felt like it had overtones of Elisha raising the Shunamite widow’s son by laying on him eye to eye, hand to hand—a healing miracle—rather than anything sexual. Mary is a healing presence to Toller just as he tries to be there for her in her loss. What happens next obviously isn’t realistic. And it would probably be pretty uncomfortable for someone as pregnant as Mary to lie in that position for very long anyway

!

As to Peter's point about the film becoming more conventional in terms of

 

which woman will Toller choose, I hadn't really considered that. I thought it was very clear that Toller is moving away from Esther and towards Mary from the earliest scenes

. I do wish we had gotten to know more of the two main female characters, but this is Toller’s story, so we don’t. I guess the film was stylistically and otherwise unconventional enough,  including in the depth and seriousness of its religious and environmental questioning, and increasingly so in latter parts of the film, that I looked past the lack of depth on some of those relational aspects.

Edited by Rob Z

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Andrew wrote:
: Hmm, to each their own, but I find this film so stylized and far enough removed from ultra-realism that I felt little to no ethical distress in observing the relationship between Hawke's and Seyfried's characters. 

The film definitely becomes more stylized, to put it mildly, later on. But that just makes the conventionality and predictability of the Hawke-Seyfried relationship all the more... whatever the opposite of transcendent is. To my eyes, anyway.

Incidentally, my focus on the film's first half-hour is affected by the fact that I watched the film via a screening link, and the screener stopped working about half an hour into the movie. So I asked for a second screener -- which I ended up getting -- and as I waited for it, all I had to think about was that first half-hour. Which I did like. But which I also probably lent more weight to than I would have if I had seen the entire film in a single sitting the first time 'round.

Rob Z wrote:
: It’s a bleak film, not optimistic in the least about the state of religion, politics, economics, environmental issues, etc.

Indeed. So bleak is it, in fact, that I found myself wondering if analyzing the character dynamics etc. would even be missing the movie's overwhelmingly apocalyptic point.

: On this point, Peter, I’m really curious if you though the ending of First Reformed could be seen as something like an instantiation of the Father Zosima quote I posted earlier, about being saved by God at the very moment of personal failure?

I don't know. I'd have to see the (entire!) movie a second time, probably.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×