Notes on the Synthesis of Film, Art… Life?

Recently I’ve just finished reading Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1972).  Yes, that’s before Schrader rose to prominence as a screenwriter and filmmaker. Is such a book a bit dated?  Considering the techno-reigning world we’re living in now, where speed is measured by nanoseconds, and where 3D and CGI have become the necessary features for movies to generate sales, I think we need to read this all the more.

The three directors in the book had produced some of the best movies of all time. Since I have not seen all the films Schrader discusses, I might not have grasped as fully his arguments and illustrations as they deserve. And I admit I do not embrace unquestionably all those that I do get. Nevertheless, there are many, many parts that I want to record down. I’d consider them crucial elements to mull over during the creative process in just about anything. I’ve listed some of these fine quotes in the following.

They all point to the axiom of ‘less is more’, the value of stillness and simplicity, the speechless sketch that speaks volumes, the importance of being over doing, the quality of sparseness over abundance, the bare essence of life.

Notes to myself: when watching, writing, reading, doing, or just plain walking down the mundane path of everyday, keep these points in mind.

  • Ozu’s camera is always at the level of a person seated in traditional fashion on the tatami, about three feet above the ground. “This traditional view is the view in repose, commanding a very limited field of vision. It is the attitude for watching, for listening, it is the position from which one sees the Noh… It is the aesthetic attitude; it is the passive attitude.”[1]
  • Ozu chose his actors not for their “star” quality or acting skill, but for their “essential” quality. “In casting it is not a matter of skilfulness or lack of skill an actor has. It is what he is…”
  • “Pictures with obvious plots bore me now,” Ozu told Richie. “Naturally, a film must have some kind of structure or else it is not a film, but I feel that a picture isn’t good if it has too much drama or action… I want to portray a man’s character by eliminating all the dramatic devices. I want to make people feel what life is like without delineating all the dramatic up’s and downs.”
  • His films are characterized by “an abstentious rigor, a concern for brevity and economy, an aspiring to the ultimate in limitation.”
  • Given a selection of inflections, the choice is monotone; a choice of sounds, the choice is silence; a selection of actions, the choice is stillness–there is no question of “reality”. It is obvious why a transcendental artist in cinema (the “realistic” medium) would choose such a representation of life: it prepares reality for the intrusion of the Transcendent…
  • “The opening five shots of An Autumn Afternoon: The everyday celebrates the bare threshold of existence; it meticulously sets up the straw man of day-to-day reality.”
  • In films of transcendental style, irony is the temporary solution to living in a schizoid world. The principal characters take an attitude of detached awareness, find humor in the bad as well as the good, passing judgment on nothing.



  • Like Ozu, Bresson has an antipathy toward plot: “I try more and more in my films to suppress what people call plot. Plot is a novelist’s trick.”
  • As far as I can I eliminate anything which may distract from the interior drama. For me, the cinema is an exploration within. Within the mind, the cinema can do anything.”
  • On the surface there would seem little to link Ozu and Bresson… But their common desire to express the Transcendent on film made that link crucial… Transcendental style can express the endemic metaphors of each culture: it is like the mountain which is a mountain, doesn’t seem to be a mountain, then is a mountain again.
  • The abundant means sustain the viewer’s (or reader’s or listener’s) physical existence, that is, they maintain his interest; the sparse means, meanwhile, elevate his soul.  The abundant means are sensual, emotional, humanistic, individualistic. They are characterized by realistic portraiture, three-dimensionality…
  • The “religious” film, either of the “spectacular” or “inspirational” variety, provides the most common example of the overuse of the abundant artistic means… the abundant means are indeed tempting to a filmmaker, especially if he is bent on proselytizing. (Now… why am I thinking of Avatar?)
  • The transcendental style in films is unified with the transcendental style in any art, mosaics, painting, flower-arranging, tea ceremony, liturgy.  At this point the function of religious art is complete; it may now fade back into experience. The wind blows where it will;  it doesn’t matter once all is grace.


Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, published by University of California Press, 1972. 194 pages.

[1] Schrader quoting Donald Richie, “The Later Films of Yasujiro Ozu,” Film Quarterly, 13 (Fall 1959), p. 21.
The following three quotes are from the same source.


Some informative links:

Paul Schrader,

Donald Richie

Yasujiru Ozu,

Robert Bresson,

Carl Theodor Dreyer

David Bordwell


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

5 thoughts on “Notes on the Synthesis of Film, Art… Life?”

  1. Oh yes, the transcendental. This is very good, and it does sync with my post and my thoughts at the moment. I slipped by your comment after reading it with interest, so sorry. But I have come back, seen it again, and responded.

    There I mentioned that I love the film Lost in Translation for this restraint written of here.

    When we moved home from Istanbul, and Don had NFL Monday Nite Football on the TV, I sat, astonished, at the glitter and techno-mayhem just for the opening montage. I wondered how much money was spent on it. Stuff like that actually drives me away.

    Thanks for being one of the quiet ones. “The closer I get, the better she looks.”


    1. Ruth,

      It’s interesting that you mentioned Lost In Translation because that’s another example of exploring the existential while adhering to another style. Sofia Coppola is no Ozu, but her handling of the movie just makes one think of deeper issues and meaning. Although it’s not a ‘quiet’ film, it stimulates quiet thoughts. And in the midst of all the techno frenzies nowadays, it’s all the more important to hear that ‘still, small voice’ speaking to us.

      Thanks for sharing your thought and let’s just enjoy the synchronicity. BTW, Paul Schrader himself after writing this book had moved on to write a few screenplays that had also left marks of being some of the best movies ever made. And I remember your Cartier-Bresson post, while this is Robert Bresson the film director here. The b/w picture on my post here is from his film Pickpocket. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll enjoy it as I also remember that you like Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs.


  2. I’m having a terrible time focusing on this post, as my attention is being consumed by a recent and rather sad synchronicity. I’ve been in Louisiana in the swamp and bayous, and since returning have been caught in watching the terrible oil spill move toward places where I quite literally stood as the Deep Horizon sank to the depths.

    It was a light and fun trip and I’m still trying to find a way to write about it all in the new context. However. I posted some photos on the Weather Underground site, where most of the story unfolded, and caught the attention of another photographer. He, in turn, posted some images from the same area which he took a few years ago.

    I was astonished by the richness and depth of his images. Mine were fine, but his were special. As it turns out, the photos he posted had been taken with film and “real” camera settings – no point-and-shoot for him. Then, he had scanned them, and then put them on the site. The whole process took him two days 😉

    I’m not sure why this seems relevant – except that once again we have richness and depth exposed by a slow, detailed, labor intensive process calibrated not by a machine but by human decision and hand. What he produced is “photography in repose” – not the frenetic clickclickclick of the digital world, but the gentle coaxing of rich, spare images from film.

    I’ll bring back the link to one of his images in a bit so you can see it.


    1. The oil spill is certainly a devastating catastrophe… you know, I was thinking about you and wondering whether it had affected your boat varnishing business.

      The sync here is obvious as I remember your recent post about photography. The older method, especially when the photographer develops his/her own pictures, is an art in itself. The techno progress we’re having might have made everyone a ‘photographer’ with a click, but not ‘an artist’ with skills and insight. I suppose that’s the difference between a ‘snap shot’ and ‘photography’ with depth and significance. And, I suppose that’s the distinction between ‘movies’ and ‘films’.

      But as Ruth has mentioned, about the movie Lost In Translation, there can be different artistic styles in expressing meaning and deeper thoughts. But I’m convinced that stillness and solitude are essential for one to grasp and appreciate them.


  3. Here you go. Scroll down past a couple of weather maps and you’ll find some iris.

    Then, if you keep going down in the comments, you’ll find a remarkable image of comet Hale-Bopp, taken from the heart of the Louisiana swamp, in a location accessible only by boat – it’s comment #143 on this page:

    Wow… those photos of the comet are marvellous. The irises are exquisite! I really should get a better camera… right now I’m just using a pocket digital, that’s why the deer photos are far from satisfactory.



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