Bad TS = Good CCC (Schrader)

Paul Schrader, in Transcendental Style in Film, 1972

A good work can be of "oversparse" means if it fails to sustain life until the process of spiritual purification occurs. The aescetic who starves himself to death out of repentance rather than faith, the church which folds because it won't accept contributions, these would be victims of the overly sparse means. "Oversparse" does not mean "oversacred." These means, rather, are not oversparse in principle but in particular : they are too sparse for the particular individual or organization to which they have been applied.

In cinema, therefore, oversparse means would theoretically be those which cannot sustain an audience. Oversparse means in this context should not be mistaken for lack of popularity or small box-office receipts; instead, oversparse means are those which are too sparse too quick. An oversparse film does not allow the viewer to progress from abundant to sparse means. It requires too much of him, demanding instant stasis, and drives him figuratively (and often literally) from the theater.

In Film Culture there has been a debate over a type of film which might be called "oversparse." P. Adams Sitney originally described what he called "structural film," and George Maciunas more accurately redefined it as "monomorphic structural film," film "having a single simple form, exhibiting essentially one structural pattern." Within this general category of monomorphic films there is a subcategory I would call stasis films. The films, in terms of transcendental style, are simply extended stasis; they examine a frozen view of life through a duration of time.

The most famous of these "stasis films" is Michael Snow's brilliant Wavelength, which is a 45-minute uninterrupted zoom across an apartment loft and "into" a photograph of the sea pinned to the far wall. The over-riding movement of the film is that of the constantly self-restricting camera which examines the still view closer and closer. Bruce Baillie's Still Life is a one-shot, fixed-frame, two-minute study of what the title implies, a still life consisting of a tabletop, a floral arrangement, and some table objects. Stan Brakhage's Song 27, My Mountain is a 30-minute film study of a Rocky Mountain peak from various angles. Sitney reports that Harry Smith once suggested to Warhol that he film a lengthy fixed shot of Mount Fuji, in which case one would have a concrete case of a transcendental style stasis film—the isolation and prolongation of an Ozu coda.

I don't want to condemn or belittle these films; I would simply like to suggest that, in terms of transcendental style, they employ overly sparse artistic means. Transcendental style builds a spiritual momentum, progressing from abundant to sparse artistic means. To achieve this effect it uses and progressively rejects certain abundant movie devices: character delineation and interaction, linear narrative structure. The stasis films reject even this level of abundant means; they begin at stasis. Transcendental style induces a spiritual movement from everyday to stasis; stasis films require that that movement be already completed. Earlier in this essay I referred to Warhol's static films (Sleep, Eat, Empire) as everyday films; they may also be described as stasis films. In Zen terms, both everyday and stasis are the "mountain." Warhol's static films can be thought of as either everyday or stasis films, but, importantly, I do not think they can be thought of as both, effecting movement from one to the other. And movement from abundant to sparse means is our working definition of sacred art.

In order to be effective stasis films require a special knowledge and commitment on the viewer's part. Unless the viewer has a knowledge of past achievements in film and art, and a commitment to explore the spiritual through art, he cannot appreciate the innovation or intention of these films. Stasis films, unlike films of transcendental style, cannot operate on a "cold" unprepared viewer and take him to another level. It is in this sense that the overly sparse stasis films cannot sustain an audience. (*)
(*) An important distinction must be made here : the stasis are only oversparse to the extent that they fall into the same category as films of transcendental style. If Warhol's never-filmed Fujiyama film had sought to evoke the same awareness as Late Autumn, then it would have necessarily failed from oversparseness: there simply would have been no attempt to set the spiritual process in motion. But most stasis films, rather than being an extension of transcendental style, are a different breed of film altogether. The best of the stasis films (those by Gehr, Landow, Frampton) attempt, if I understand them, to evoke a transcendental awareness in a method closer to contemporary painting than to the filmic transcendental style. I think, for example, that a fixed-tripod-zoom film like Ernie Gehr's Serene Velocity (a 30-minute shot of a corridor quickly intercut from various zoom positions), would be better served rear-projected in an art gallery or home than in a movie theater. Like Kandinsky, these film-makers accept the abundant means as a given and operate only within sparse means. This, again, is not to demean the film-painter, but to distinguish him from the film-maker of transcendental style. Of all the stasis film-makers, Michael Snow has come closest to transcendental style in Wavelength and he may in fact be evolving a new transcendental style in movies.

There is an entire spectrum of abundant artistic means leading to sparse artistic means, just as there is a spectrum of holy feelings leading to a final transcendent attitude. If one did not make this admission he would indeed be on the high road to Beuron. Spirituality in art must have room to move, to change with the times and the arts. The best definition of spiritual art is one that is similarly in flux. It is situated on the spectrum of temporal means and may from time to time move on that spectrum.

In each art and age the transcendental finds its proper level and style. Sometimes that style uses more abundant means, sometimes more sparse means. In film, at present, that level is transcendental style. It represents that point on the spectrum at which the Transcendent is most successfully expressed. If it used more abundant means, it would be less Holy; if it used more sparse means, it would be solipsistic. [..]

  • See my commentary here


HarryTuttle said…
I comment Schrader's excerpt in a later post, here(30 Juin 2010)

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