Paul Schrader Creates a Diagram Mapping the Progression of Arthouse Cinema: Ozu, Bresson, Tarkovsky & Other Auteurs

The dozens of film­mak­ers in the dia­gram above belong to a vari­ety of cul­tures and eras, but what do they have in com­mon? Some of the names that jump out at even the casu­al film­go­er — Andrei Tarkovsky, Jim Jar­musch, Pier Pao­lo Pasoli­ni, Ter­rence Mal­ick — may sug­gest a straight­for­ward con­nec­tion: cinephiles love them. Of course, not every cinephile loves every one of these direc­tors, and indeed, bit­ter cinephile argu­ments rage about their rel­a­tive mer­its even as we speak. But in one way or anoth­er, all of them are tak­en seri­ous­ly as auteurs by those who take film seri­ous­ly as an art form — and not least by Paul Schrad­er, one of the most seri­ous auteur-cinephiles alive.

Schrad­er first made his name as a film crit­ic, with his 1972 book Tran­scen­den­tal Style in Film: Ozu, Bres­son, Drey­er. In it he argues that the work of Yasu­jirō Ozu, Robert Bres­son, and Carl Theodor Drey­er have in com­mon a qual­i­ty that quite lit­er­al­ly “tran­scends” their dif­fer­ences in ori­gin.

This tran­scen­den­tal style in film “seeks to max­i­mize the mys­tery of exis­tence; it eschews all con­ven­tion­al inter­pre­ta­tions of real­i­ty: real­ism, nat­u­ral­ism, psy­chol­o­gism, roman­ti­cism, expres­sion­ism, impres­sion­ism, and, final­ly, ratio­nal­ism.” It “styl­izes real­i­ty by elim­i­nat­ing (or near­ly elim­i­nat­ing) those ele­ments which are pri­mar­i­ly expres­sive of human expe­ri­ence, there­by rob­bing the con­ven­tion­al inter­pre­ta­tions of real­i­ty of their rel­e­vance and pow­er.”

45 years on, Schrad­er revis­its this con­cept in the Toron­to Inter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val inter­view clip above. “Most movies lean toward you. They lean toward you aggres­sive­ly with their hands around your throat, try­ing to grab every sec­ond of your atten­tion.” But tran­scen­den­tal films “lean away from you, and they use time — and as oth­er peo­ple would call it, bore­dom — as a tech­nique.” They linger on the every­day, the unevent­ful, the repet­i­tive. Used adept­ly, this “with­hold­ing device” is a way of “acti­vat­ing” view­ers and their atten­tion. Then comes the “deci­sive action,” the moment in which the film does “some­thing unex­pect­ed”: the “big blast of Mozart” at the end of Bres­son’s Pick­pock­et, the “big blast of emo­tion” at the end of an oth­er­wise reserved Ozu pic­ture. “What are you going to do with it, now that he has total­ly con­di­tioned you not to expect it?”

In the new edi­tion of Tran­scen­den­tal Style in Film pub­lished in 2018, Schrad­er includes the dia­gram at the top of the post. It illus­trates the three major direc­tions in which film­mak­ers have depart­ed from tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive, rep­re­sent­ed by the N at the cen­ter. Ozu, Bres­son, and Drey­er all go off toward the med­i­ta­tive “man­dala.” Abbas Kiarosta­mi, Gus Van Sant, and the Ital­ian neo­re­al­ists start on path that leads to the “sur­veil­lance cam,” with its unblink­ing eye on an unchang­ing patch of real­i­ty. The likes of Ken­ji Mizoguchi, Michelan­ge­lo Anto­nioni, and David Lynch point the way to the audio­vi­su­al abstrac­tion of the “art gallery.” Float­ing around these aes­thet­ic end points are the names of film­mak­ers known for the “dif­fi­cul­ty” of their work: Stan Brakhage, Wang Bing, James Ben­ning.

Their work resides well past what Schrad­er calls the “Tarkovsky Ring,” named for the auteur of Mir­rorStalk­er, and Nos­tal­ghia. When an artist pass­es through the Tarkovsky Ring, as Schrad­er put it to Indiewire, “that’s the point where he is no longer mak­ing cin­e­ma for a pay­ing audi­ence. He’s mak­ing it for insti­tu­tions, for muse­ums, and so forth.” With­in the Tarkovsky Ring appear a fair few adven­tur­ous direc­tors still work­ing today, like Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kel­ly Reichardt, Alexan­der Sokurov, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Schrad­er has neglect­ed to include his own name on the dia­gram, per­haps leav­ing his exact place­ment as an exer­cise for the read­er. He cer­tain­ly belongs on there some­where: after all, some crit­ics have called his last fea­ture First Reformed his most tran­scen­dent yet.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Exhil­a­rat­ing Film­mak­ing of Robert Bres­son Explored in Eight Video Essays

How One Sim­ple Cut Reveals the Cin­e­mat­ic Genius of Yasu­jirō Ozu

Four Video Essays Explain the Mas­tery of Film­mak­er Abbas Kiarosta­mi (RIP)

Andrei Tarkovsky Reveals His Favorite Film­mak­ers: Bres­son, Anto­nioni, Felli­ni, and Oth­ers

Watch Online The Pas­sion of Joan of Arc by Carl Theodor Drey­er (1928)

The 5 Essen­tial Rules of Film Noir

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.


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