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Examples of a 'Release of Grace' found in Transcendental Films

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Greetings, all - it's been about five years since I checked in here! So thrilled to see a brand new Top 25 list fresh off the polls. Can't wait to dive into that.

I've been on a pretty big Paul Schrader/Transcendental Style binge since seeing First Reformed earlier this year, and I've been burdened with a strong desire to do some personal categorizing for all the films that have spoken to my soul over the years and the films that I wish to deliberately seek more of going forward.

One of the elements of the transcendental film that has most fascinated me is what I've heard Paul refer to as 'freeing the audience,' when he describes the way the Bresson will reward his patient viewers with a sudden burst of music at the very end or the way Ozu will suddenly let his characters be visibly emotional after being conditioned not to expect it, etc. (This interview includes a great short summary of this.) My heart leapt for joy when I heard this described this way, because it's very similar to a bold filmmaking technique that I began to notice in some of my favourite films years ago and that I used to describe as a 'Grace' moment. Specifically, I've thought of it as a moment that is essentially a small miracle (God overtly making himself known?) in a world then has up to that point been agnostic and/or whose characters have struggled with faith.

Examples that have significantly stood out to me, personally, as 'grace' moments (POTENTIAL SPOILERS):

Ordet, obviously.
Stalker, when it begins to rain inside the Zone.
Magnolia and, I would argue, several of PTA's other films (I made a video essay about this specifically)
Breaking the Waves, the last shot.
Dekalog: I, the ending with the computer and the church.

I've been struggling to better finesse this definition, and maybe I'm completely reaching through the weeds in my attempts, but I'm curious if 'Release of Grace' sparks to mind any other examples? Am I misinterpreting or undercutting Schrader's definition as it pertains to transcendental style?

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Hi Jeremy. Good to hear from you.

I was at a conference last week and ended up discussing Transcendental Style with my co-presenter. I'm sort of the opinion that "transcendental style" was always a catch-all term for the films (stylistically) different that affected Schrader in a particular way. I think he hints as much by putting the renewed emphasis on how they *affect* viewers rather than on *how* they affect viewers. 

In that vein, I've always assumed Pickpocket was the quintessential example since it seemed to be the one that prompted his projected more than any other. The end of "A Man Escaped" seems to operate in the same way (sudden release of emotion that is the more powerful because we are leaning in.)

This is a weird example, but I just rewatched Persuasion, and I think in some ways Anne's reading of Wentworth's letter operates emotionally in similar ways to what Schrader describes, though it does not have the music cues. 

Here's another really odd example from pop-culture. For me, the end of Rounders follows that same emotional arc of withheld emotions followed by a burst of release. Because a poker face calls for no affect (tells), McDermott (Matt Damon) has to not show emotions. And there isn't much in the way of musical cues. The sudden outburst of Teddy KGB after the climactic hand provides an external release of emotion which is so much more powerful than would be the visualization of McDermott fist pumping or jumping up and down. I also note how the use of Foley sound increases the tension (chips, cards) and makes noticeable the lack of music in the first half of the scene. (Note: this scene has some profanity):



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  • 10 months later...

Ken, thank you so much for the thoughtful response! (I managed to get my hands on the first volume of Faith and Spirituality after months of trying to find it, and it's everything I hoped it would be. So much gratitude for that, also.)

I had to revisit this thread because I just discovered "it" again, in the closing moments of Bruggemann's Stations of the Cross (2014). The way the camera suddenly lifted up in a simple crane shot after spending the entirely of the film at eye level on sticks. I don't think a visual moment has hit me that hard since First Reformed's similar "unleashing" of the camera. 

You may be entirely right when you suggest that the term "transcendental style" doesn't hold much merit as a broadly-accepted category outside of Schrader's own pet term. That's sort of what I was fishing for by posting this thread. Do you think Schrader has just sort of been in his own bubble by codifying something that's inherently subjective? 

On a slightly unrelated note, I was a little surprised and disappointed to notice just now that Stations of the Cross seems not to have been considered at all for the new Top 100 list. Did it really fail to connect with anyone in this community?

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Hi Jeremy,

We've shortened the cycle from five years to one year. Good to hear from you again.


Do you think Schrader has just sort of been in his own bubble by codifying something that's inherently subjective? 

I've never met the man, so this is all conjecture...maybe even projection...but not really. 
I think it is important to remember that Schrader was all of twenty-six when he published Transcendental Style. I think at that age my first journal article was still a year or two away. Also...and no offense meant to Calvin College, he was coming out of a Bible College education and an upbringing that didn't necessarily immerse him in practice on how to express himself academically. On the one hand, this can be a great plus as we see works like Mimesis or The Celluloid Closet that owe part of their greatness to the authors being forced to interact primarily with the primary works of art themselves rather than through ideological templates that one become more fluent in during postgraduate studies. 

I think there are ideas in the book, and when I go back and look at it, it is useful for me as a model of a sensitive reader/viewer examining his own reactions. I think that the language he uses to describe that reaction is unfortunate (and here I mean "Style" not "Transcendental") since it implies some *formal* similarity between these auteurs that don't always see. But once I got past dickering about terminology, I was better able to see (and I'd argue he was better able to articulate in older age) some of the qualities of these films that Scharder was responding to.

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