Filmmaker Paul Schrader, whose most cogent claim to fame is as the screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s classic film Taxi Driver, got his first ‘in’ to the world of film with the publication of Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, a book which was lauded as a seminal work of criticism upon its 1972 release, but which the years have not been kind to.
This is because it is simply not a well written book. While not an outright bad work, it is wholly generic. Any film student or callow film critic could have penned it. Indeed, the book has been seen as a model of ‘deeper criticism’ ever since its release.
The work’s origins came from Schrader’s time as a film student, and although this work was published when he was 26, it clearly reads like a callow undergrad thesis — larded with pointless quotations and references to other big names in cinema (to lend an air of authority), rather rote assertions about the films and scenes discussed, and a nebulous proposition about the book’s title that Schrader fails to properly define. It was, indeed, an expansion of his 1972 UCLA Master’s Thesis.
As example, from pages 5 and 6, read as Schrader struggles to define transcendental, and falls into the pointless quotation trap I mention:
Part of the confusion is semantic; the term ‘transcendental’ can have different meanings for different writers. It can mean, directly or indirectly: (1) the Transcendent, the wholly or ideal itself, or what Rudolf Otto called ‘the Wholly Other,’ (2) the transcendental, human acts or artifacts which express something of the Transcendent, or what Mircea Eliade in his anthropological study of comparative religions calls ‘hierophanies,’ (3) transcendence, the human religious experience which may be motivated by either a deep psychological need or neurosis (Freud), or by an external, ‘Other’ force (Jung).
Aside from the ridiculously bad use of punctuation — commas where semi-colons are needed, commas where none are needed, etc., a problem that plagues the whole book — in this brief quotation we see that Schrader cannot a) simply define a term for his benefit, b) mixes up definitions needlessly by c) quoting famous and not so famous authorities (see The Appeal to Authority Fallacy), and d) invoking specious terminology to lend an air of depth and arcane to his quest.
Of course, this sort of self-important psychobabble came about due to the horrid writings and criticism of the French critics, most notably the lame Cahiers du Cinema crowd of the 1950s. Still, aping the bad from another language is no excuse, and the book gets no better in its remaining 163 pages of text.