The most exciting film opening in Chicagoland theaters today has absolutely nothing to do with “Star Wars,” though it does harken back to another crucial work of the 1970s. Before Paul Schrader penned his now-immortal script for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 landmark, “Taxi Driver,” he caught a screening of a film by Robert Bresson, one of the definitive masters of a genre known as “slow cinema.” The picture was 1959’s “Pickpocket,” and Schrader was immediately taken with its use of narration—articulating the inner thoughts of its main character while feeding the viewer other information through a visual means that the filmmaker has likened to an intravenous tube. “It’s putting nourishment in there that you can’t even tell,” Schrader explained during a marvelous Q&A at this month’s Chicago Critics Film Festival, following a screening of his latest masterpiece, “First Reformed.”
It is with this new movie—his most astonishing directorial effort since 1985’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”—that Schrader’s career has officially come full circle, telling a story evocative of “Taxi Driver” in the style of filmmakers like Bresson who inspired its initial conception. Whereas “Taxi Driver” was about a disillusioned veteran whose plans to wreak havoc on a world he believes to be diseased are foiled by the plight of a 12-year-old prostitute, “First Reformed” centers on a disillusioned military chaplain-turned-pastor whose plans to wreak havoc on a world he believes to be diseased are disrupted by the plight of a pregnant woman named Mary. Ethan Hawke delivers the performance of his career as Toller, the clergyman whose self-righteous convictions are fueled primarily by his personal demons.
When I interviewed Schrader two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, he was in the midst of preparations to begin shooting “First Reformed” in January 2017, and his enthusiasm about the project was infectious. He told me about the book he published in 1972 entitled Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, which has now been reissued with a new article in which the filmmaker analyzes slow cinema post-Tarkovsky. “I wrote about spirituality in film in that book of theological aesthetics, but my career went in a different direction,” Schrader told me. “I never thought I would make a spiritual film or a quiet film. I was too much enamored with psychological realism and action, both of which are anathema to a quiet film. Then a few years ago, I had dinner with Paweł Pawlikowski. I was a big fan of his film, ‘Ida,’ and he told me that if I kept a project at two million dollars, I’d be able to make the exact film I wanted. As I walked back to my place in New York, I realized that since the budgets of films have come down, I could actually make the spiritual film that I had always been afraid to make because I couldn’t get it financed. So I started writing the script for ‘First Reformed.’ […] It’s a little bit ‘Winter Light,’ a little bit ‘Diary of a Country Priest,’ a little bit ‘Ordet,’ a little bit ‘Ida,’ and a little bit me.”
Moviegoers unfamiliar with “slow cinema” may assume that the term promises little more than a dull slog, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, this genre’s contemplative nature proves to be far more transfixing than films so breathless to entertain that they forget to earn our investment. I can’t listen to this priceless quote from Schrader’s CCFF Q&A without recalling the tiresome fan service of “Solo: A Star Wars Story”: “Movies are normally desperately needy. They run right up to you, they grab you by the lapels, they show you pictures of beautiful girls and fast cars and they play music all the time so you know how to feel at any given moment, and they say, ‘Love me! Love me! Love me!’” The austere filmmakers featured in Schrader’s book are much more interested in withholding certain elements, refusing to utilize techniques that viewers have come to expect, such as a quick editing pace or varied coverage like over-the-shoulder shots.
“First Reformed” is lensed by Alexander Dynan in the same compressed aspect radio as “Ida”—1.37:1—and only on rare occasions does the camera ever move. Another of Schrader’s favorite recent examples of slow cinema also happens to be one of my all-time favorite films, Dietrich Brüggemann’s 2014 German drama, “Stations of the Cross.” Comprised of 14 vignettes unfolding in a single take, Brüggemann’s film follows Maria (Lea van Acken), a 14-year-old whose fundamentalist upbringing has caused her to reject life altogether, as she prepares to make a shattering sacrifice in order to heal her mute brother. Just as the three camera movements in “Stations of the Cross” signified moments of transition, the most striking camera moves in “First Reformed” occur when a scene jumps from the temporal plane to the cosmic realm, escaping the bonds of reality. The first instance of this involves characters who float while lying together, an image inspired by Tarkovsky (“Levitation was his go-to position,” Schrader quipped).
Though the subject matter Schrader is tackling couldn’t be more serious, there is a streak of dark humor that reverberates throughout “First Reformed,” causing countless moments to be funny, tragic and horrifying all at once. The same could be said of “Stations of the Cross,” and when I interviewed Brüggemann in 2014, he assured me that all of the film’s humor was intentional. “Things can be viewed [from] different perspectives,” he told me. “There’s always a tragic angle, a dramatic angle, a banal angle, a comic angle and probably many more. Most films that want to be taken seriously go to great lengths to avoid the comic angle, which can lead to great films, but always makes me a tad suspicious. I feel that as a filmmaker, it’s your duty to be aware of all those angles. My favorite writing handbook, which happens to be a comedy writers’ guide called The Comic Toolbox, gives a brilliant definition of comedy as ‘truth and pain.’ I couldn’t agree more.” Schrader makes no secret of the fact that “First Reformed” pays homage to various pictures that came before it, just as his previous film, “Dog Eat Dog,” was as much about crime films as it was about crime.
It’s fitting that the film’s hypnotic opening fade-in—which sharply contrasts with its last, jarring cut to black—was lifted from Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light,” since that film was itself an homage to Carl Dreyer’s “Ordet,” the slow cinema masterwork that greatly informed the final surrealistic moments of “First Reformed.” Schrader hopes that audiences will argue about the ending of this film, which is deliberately left open to multiple interpretations, as was the finale of “Taxi Driver.” There are certainly hints of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” in the camera move that circles a kissing couple, as the hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” is sung by Toller’s former lover, Esther, a character highly reminiscent of Barbara Bel Geddes’ motherly Midge. Though Esther is played by Victoria Hill, her singing voice is dubbed by Julia Murney, a choice that adds to the dreamlike, Club Silencio-esque quality of the sequence. “The secret of being a thief, a.k.a. an artist, is you have to steal around, because if you keep going back to same 7-Eleven, they catch you,” Schrader dryly explained at CCFF. “So you go to the gas station, the floral shop, that hot dog stand that no one ever pays attention to, and eventually you steal enough stuff that people think you made it up yourself.”
Regardless of how many past movies Schrader had in mind while making “First Reformed,” the film is entirely a product of his own distinctive vision, exploring themes that can be traced back to his earliest experiences in the director’s chair. In “Mishima,” three adaptations of novels by the titular Japanese writer—each of which end with an act of destruction aiming to achieve artistic transcendence—are juxtaposed with the moments leading up to the author committing “seppuku” (suicide by disembowelment) as his “last public performance.” “He really wanted his writing to become his life and his life to becomes his writing,” observed composer Philip Glass while speaking at the University of Chicago in 2016. “He was a man who was deeply poetic, but to the point where the conclusions of his intuitions led to his death.” Bookending the film are images of the sun, widely considered a “deity” in Japan, which is what Mishima gazes at as the life drains from his body. His notion of artistic transcendence isn’t all that far removed from the spiritual transcendence favored by Maria in “Stations of the Cross” and Toller in “First Reformed,” both of whom desire to turn themselves into a sacrifice a la Christ.
“This is a pathological fallacy deeply embedded in Christianity, the notion of suicidal glory, that my own suffering can redeem me,” said Schrader in an interview with WTOP’s Jason Fraley. “It’s not what the Bible teaches, [nor] what Jesus taught. It is a fallacy that is virtually the same as Jihadism.” What makes Toller’s crusade all the more compelling is that it is initially triggered by the very real threat of impending environmental collapse. Yet the pastor’s negligence of his own ailing body mirrors mankind’s negligence of the planet, as his self-loathing gradually clouds any clarity of moral purpose. His brand of spirituality may not extend far beyond the masochism embodied by Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” (I still can’t get over how churchgoing audiences embraced that grisly piece of exploitation while shunning Schrader’s infinitely more enlightening “Last Temptation of Christ”). “I guess there’s really only one fundamentalism in the world, it just takes different shapes,” Brüggemann told me. “Maybe it’s a streak in our nature. All those fundamentalists have similar agendas. ISIS isn’t so far away from what Calvin did in Genève in the 16th century.”
The strain of fanaticism infecting various so-called “faith-based” American films reached troubling heights in recent years with the box office success of hateful propaganda such as “God’s Not Dead” and “War Room.” “Evangelical films are an entirely different cat,” Schrader told me. “I just saw the trailer for a Christian sing-along film about an Australian group called Hillsong. You can tell that there is money to be made in those fields. Of course, the standard line in response to the evangelical agenda is, ‘You’re entitled to your beliefs but not your facts.’” He went on to say that slow cinema isn’t religious so much as it is meditative and contemplative. Slyly embedded throughout “First Reformed” is an early Christian symbol of a hand holding a hazelnut that was taken from a book written in 1350 by the theologian known as Julian of Norwich. “She talks about looking at a hazelnut in her palm for an hour until that hazelnut assumes the proportions of the world,” Schrader said at CCFF. “This was one of the early formative texts of meditation.” Slow cinema has a similar effect on the human psyche, giving us images to reflect on long after we’ve left the theater. About an hour into “Stations of the Cross,” I was amazed to find the film assuming the proportions of my own world, capturing certain truths about my existence that I had previously found difficult to articulate.
“Those long, locked-off shots had always been fascinating to me,” Brüggemann said during our conversation. “It’s a way of liberating the spectator’s gaze. The film doesn’t tell you where to look at. You can decide for yourself. The people in the scene form a system of interaction, and you can always observe the whole system. And it’s a merciless way of increasing pressure within the scene. It forces you to get the script not just right, but perfect, as you won’t be able to fix anything in the editing. Shooting a film like this is entirely different from shooting a normal film, to an extent that it nearly feels like a different art form.” Music can also liberate the viewer’s senses, as demonstrated by the circular melody of the hymn that accompanies the last scene of “First Reformed,” which recalls the repeated motifs of Glass’s score for “Mishima.” Rather than timing his score directly to the images, Glass would only look at the footage once, before writing the music based on his imperfect memory. This was a deliberate attempt on the part of the composer to create a distance between the score and the imagery, thus empowering the audience to find a connection between them (a technique also favored by meditation guru David Lynch).
Will people of faith be open to a film like “First Reformed”? I’d like to think that some will, particularly those who prefer not to have their sermons spoon-fed. Cinema can be a soul-cleansing experience on par with any church service, a fact echoed by the Dutch theologian from Schrader’s book who said that “art and religion are parallel lines which meet in infinity and resolve in God.” Toward the end of my chat with Schrader, I asked him about his thoughts regarding the current generation of filmmakers, and he argued that the difference between them and his own generation was not the talent, but the roles of film in society. “When I was breaking in during the ’60s and the ’70s, people actually looked to films to learn about social issues—women’s lib, civil rights, the war, whatever,” said Schrader. “When film is in the center of a social conversation, filmmakers will rise to it. Right now, there is no center to the conversation. There are probably more talented filmmakers now because there is a larger pool of them than there were 40 years ago, but film doesn’t have that importance anymore. The moment society looks to art, art responds. When fascism goes down in Spain or goes down in Chile or Italy or Czechoslovakia, the first people to respond are the artists because everyone is looking at them. I got into the film racket because I thought it was functional. You could solve real-life problems with metaphorical stories. Art is a tool like a hammer or a plier. You can actually use it.”
Here’s hoping American society looks to “First Reformed” as a lightning rod worthy of discussion, debate and most importantly, contemplation. Not a day goes by without my mind returning to the film, wrestling with its provocative implications and tantalizing mysteries. Like Brüggemann, Schrader has proven himself to be a master of slow cinema, and like the tortoise, he has outpaced every mainstream hare in his path.
“First Reformed” opens today in Chicagoland theaters, and the reissue of Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer is now available for purchase. “Stations of the Cross” can also be found on Amazon.