:: Article

What Have I to Fear?

By Jackson Arn.

First Reformed (2017), directed by Paul Schrader

Reverend Ernst Toller stares out the window at the church where he should be preaching. Today, the pews are packed with people from across the state. One of them runs an enormous company, the kind that can get away with polluting the environment because its lawyers have already rewritten the regulations. As Toller watches the congregants arrive, his face is unreadable. Maybe he’s thinking about Revelations 11:18, the Bible verse he copied into his notebook a few days ago, which ends, “destroy them which destroy the earth.” Underneath his black robes, he’s wearing a suicide bomb vest.

He sees a young woman named Mary walk through the doors. She’s the widow of Michael, the man who owned the vest, and she’s pregnant with Michael’s child. There is no mistaking Toller’s expression now; he screams, tears off the vest, wraps himself in barbed wire. Moaning and bleeding, he puts on white robes and pours himself a glass of viscous, yellow drain cleaner. As he prepares to drink, an old hymn wafts in from the church, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It’s same hymn Reverend Harry Powell sings at the end of The Night of the Hunter, another frightening film about a priest. Reverend Powell tries to murder two small children; Reverend Toller’s plan is only slightly less horrifying, and this time the music seems even more punishingly ironic:

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,

Leaning on the everlasting arms;

I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,

Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Suddenly, Toller turns to see Mary standing in the doorway. They hesitate, but only for a moment. Almost without thinking, they walk across the room, embrace, and kiss as the camera circles them again and again and the glass of poison lies forgotten on the floor. Toller is still wearing his bloody cilice, but his robes remain immaculately, miraculously white.

This wasn’t the first ending the director Paul Schrader considered for First Reformed, his twentieth feature film. When he shared an early draft of his screenplay with Kent Jones—the director of the New York Film Festival and, like Schrader, an influential critic—the story ended in Toller’s suicide, self-martyrdom for his own ruthless asceticism as much as society’s evils. Like much in the final version of the film, this scenario paid homage to Diary of a Country Priest (1951), directed by Robert Bresson, whose work has cast a long shadow over Schrader’s. On Jones’s recommendation, Schrader changed the screenplay to mirror Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), which concludes, rather abruptly, with a bona fide miracle restoring the characters’ Christian faith. He’d also considered letting the bomb detonate inside the church, a la the finale of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), and then panning over the ruins. A nudge was all it took for Schrader to change Toller’s self-immolation to epiphany: in the final version of First Reformed, in Schrader’s filmography, and in Christianity, they’re virtually inseparable.

The first time I saw First Reformed in theaters, there were gasps, snickers, murmurs of approval, and a couple what the fucks as the credits rolled. I heard plenty more the second time I watched the film, and the third, and something tells me those are exactly the reactions Schrader had hoped for. I doubt I was the only one in the theater who’d come back, but the more I scrutinized the final scene, the more I tried to study it from different vantage points, the more it stayed the same. Unlike Inception, The Master, Moonlight, or any of the other recent American films with ambiguous, much-talked-about endings, First Reformed seems in some ways designed to bypass close readings; there are no hidden clues or hints or Easter eggs to dig up. You don’t exactly grow to understand the ending any better, you just circle it in a state of belief and disbelief, like the camera orbiting Mary and Toller. Even if you know about the earlier, rejected drafts of the screenplay, the seams don’t show, and in fact, the exact opposite occurs: believable or not, the ending begins to feel necessary, inescapable, inevitable.

***

By most traditional measures, First Reformed has a clumsy ending. Toller and Mary’s kiss seems bizarrely abrupt, denying us the pleasure of seeing the various strands of plot slowly coming together. The scene is tonally abrupt, too—one could almost mistake it for the kind of fairytale finale Golden Age Hollywood producers slapped onto otherwise grim films by Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. In his Poetics, Aristotle offered one of the first and most persuasive criticisms of these sorts of resolutions, which on ancient Greek stages usually involved an actor dangling from a crane, impersonating a god. “It is obvious,” he wrote, “that the solutions of plots too should come about as a result of the plot itself, and not from a contrivance.” First Reformed would seem to feature a textbook example of such a contrivance: instead of hinging on some preexisting aspect of the plot or Toller’s character, the ending requires a god from the crane, a deus ex machina, to set things in order.

Schrader, who began his career writing criticism for the Los Angeles Free Press in the late 60s, knows the rules of storytelling too well to break them accidentally. Like many of the films he’s written and/or directed, including Taxi Driver (1976), American Gigolo (1980), and Light Sleeper (1992), First Reformed harkens back to a tradition that you might call non-Aristotelian, in which the representation of divinity isn’t a last-minute loophole but the essence of the work of art.

In 1972, when he was all of 26, Schrader published what is still the definitive study of this tradition, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, reissued by the University of California Press earlier this year. In many ways, the book resembles the features he’d go on to create: patient, lucidly told, comfortable juggling a set of theological and cultural allusions rarely encountered outside the university classroom. In a word, TS argues that cinema can convey a universal sense of the transcendent. Filmmakers like Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer have used the camera to convert the material world into a set of rituals; the state they’re trying to produce is nothing short of spiritual enlightenment.

How to ritualize the material world? Schrader is especially fond of an example from Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), in which the narrator, Michel, recalls, “I sat in the lobby of a large bank.” The camera proceeds to show Michel writing the same words in his journal and then, after the fade, sitting in the bank lobby, for a grand total of three versions of the same banality. The effect this produces isn’t so different from that of chanting a Buddhist mantra or a Catholic catechism; it numbs us to reality and (ideally, anyway) refocuses our attention on a higher plane of being. Schrader’s films abound with dedicated journal-keepers, from Travis Bickle, scribbling sinisterly cheerful letters to his parents, to John LeTour, the drug dealer Willem Dafoe plays in Light Sleeper, trying to write away his self-loathing. At the beginning of First Reformed, Reverend Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, announces that he’ll keep a diary for one year and then destroy it. Beneath these characters’ narration, nearly always seen and heard simultaneously, you can hear the same whispered words: life is fleeting, life is fleeting, life is fleeting …

Fleeting, and miserable, too. At the heart of all transcendental films and all religions, Schrader finds, is the sense of “disparity,” that unbridgeable divide between humanity and the environment, the mind and the body, faith and doubt (First Reformed is interested in every version of the binary). But because earthly existence is marred by disparity, disparity can never be resolved through earthly means. It’s for this reason that the endings of transcendental films almost always feature an unexpected, emotional, sometimes miraculous event: the pious Inger’s resurrection in Ordet; Professor Shukichi’s outpouring of sadness in Ozu’s Late Spring (1949); Michel’s declaration of love for Jeanne in Pickpocket. These characters’ troubled lives cannot be fixed. They can only be transcended.

To be a human being, Toller tells Michael (Philip Ettinger, expertly conveying his character’s inner trembling) near the start of First Reformed, is to be forever holding two contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time; in other words, to be trapped in a state of disparity. Whether or not the film’s ending resonates with you depends in large part on whether or not you agree. Moved by Michael’s example, Toller tries to reinvent himself as a political crusader, first by peaceful means, then by flirting with ecoterrorism, wandering in and out of a local factory with a bomb strapped to his chest (a scene that strongly evokes Robert De Niro’s vigilantism in Taxi Driver). He does all this in part because he’s realized he’s complicit in the great evil of climate change. His church has been repaired with donations from one of America’s biggest polluters. Every Sunday reminds Toller of the environmental devastation the company sponsors, so that even his inaction is a kind of action.

But there’s no easy way out of his bind: he has to be willing to risk taking innocent lives, and not just his own, in order to fight this threat to life. Strangely, Toller’s mission echoes another piece of advice he gives Michael when Michael tells him about his fear of an environmental apocalypse: “This isn’t about the world, this is about you.” Burdened with an empty little church, a dead child, and a failed marriage and body, he’s looking for deliverance from his own pains. Several times while watching First Reformed, I thought of Kirillov, the wannabe terrorist from Dostoevsky’s novel Demons, who boasts that his suicide will transform humanity, though it’s really a sign of his powerlessness.

One way to interpret First Reformed’s final scene, then, is to read it as an invocation to the viewer to change. It is not enough for Toller to aspire to save the world; he must also labor to save himself, exercising constant gratitude and humility and forgiveness. You’d have to try to miss the Christian dimensions of this ending, and yet the ending isn’t exclusively relevant—or even, I would argue, most relevant—to a Christian viewer; instead, its emphasis on careful self-improvement rhymes with everything from Thoreau’s radical Transcendentalism to Gandhi’s “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

This is also why it would be unfair to call the film’s ending a deus ex machina. Instead of providing a facile evasion of reality, Schrader pushes us to confront reality and alter ourselves, even as he steers First Reformed toward an unrealistic conclusion. The brief moment of transcendence doesn’t erase the two hours of disparity preceding it, any more than Toller’s white robes trick us into forgetting about the barbed wire underneath. It’s the difference between transcendence and mere escapism—or, per TS, the difference between lifting the viewer up to divinity and dragging divinity down to the viewer.

***

Schrader’s theories of transcendental style give off more than a whiff of machismo. Leave it to lily-livered works to provide emotional cues and thoroughly foreshadowed finales; films directed in the transcendental style take a tougher approach, one that Schrader recently characterized as passive-aggressive. “Most movies,” he said at a Lincoln Center Q&A, “are desperately hungry for your approval. They grab you by the lapel and show you beautiful people and they play you music to let you know how to feel all the time … and then there’s another kind of film that says, ‘I’m not going to give you everything you want, I’m going to hold some things back, and if you’re interested then I’m going to hold some more things back.’”

Half-listen to this discussion and you might think Schrader is describing his upbringing, not his movies. He was raised by strict Calvinist parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan and didn’t watch a film (that well-known transcendental masterpiece The Absent-Minded Professor) until he was seventeen years old. His relationship with his father was anything but warm—the elder Schrader, a frustrated ex-pastor, regularly beat his children—and his relationship with his brother Leonard, another accomplished screenwriter, wasn’t much better. By the time he’d turned eighteen, three men in his family, including his uncle, had committed suicide. Schrader’s screenplays, with their cavalcade of tortured male leads, are sometimes knocked for (allegedly) denying equal psychological insight to the female characters, though this seems less like sexism than an author writing from personal experience—grief, Calvinism, and alienation, he said recently, were “the software that was loaded into my computer.”

He continued to struggle with all three during his time in the 1970s as a film critic and later as a screenwriter and director, compensating with a gram-a-day cocaine habit and, by his own account, an insufferable swagger. In a decade of film history featuring the likes of Michael Cimino and Billy Friedkin, the young Schrader’s ego deserves special commendation. When I saw him introduce Pickpocket at Manhattan’s IFC Center several years ago, he reminisced about watching the film as a young man and thinking, “Okay, I could do that.” In 1976, at the Cannes premiere of Taxi Driver, he finally met Bresson; when his idol asked if he thought his movie would win the Palm d’Or, Schrader replied, “Yeah” without a second’s hesitation (it did). For many years, he drove around L.A. in a blue Alfa Romeo with a vanity plate that read, “OZU.”

Could there be any apter symbol for Schrader’s frustrating, fitfully brilliant career than that car? The key difference between his work and that of the directors he discusses in TS is that where Schrader’s predecessors adhered to rigorous aesthetic codes, Schrader regularly ignores their rules, delighting in the kinds of thrills and sensory indulgences you’d find in any number of other R-rated Hollywood movies. The protagonist of American Gigolo, a lost soul lurching from job to job, wouldn’t be out of place in a Bresson film, except that he’s played by Richard Gere and carries a Giorgio Moroder synth score and an aura of gaudy purple light with him wherever he goes. To his next film, Cat People (1982), Schrader added David Bowie vocals and a John Heard/Nastassja Kinski sex scene.

This isn’t to say that other transcendental directors didn’t explore the tension between the ascetic and the sensual, too. Bresson’s films feature more than their share of shocking content, from prison breaks to rapes to axe murders (in fact, this may begin to explain why Bresson’s influence on Schrader has been stronger than Ozu’s or Dreyer’s). But Bresson’s style remains restrained even when he’s dealing with savage violence; he would never have shot something as explicit as the blood-spattered, Michael Been-scored shootout at the climax of Light Sleeper.

Bresson was an ascetic who occasionally dipped his toe into sensuality. In his films, as in his life, Schrader has swung all the way back and forth between asceticism and indulgence; the chilliness of Calvinist Michigan and the sweaty excesses of Southern California. To his detractors, this makes him something of a traitor: a shrewd critic who perverted Bresson by trying to make him more palatable for the American multiplex. To my mind, the battle between the ascetic and sensual elements of Schrader’s style is part of what makes them disappointing at times but, very often, jaw-droppingly successful. His weakest efforts (The Canyons, Dog Eat Dog) surrender to the profane, indulgent side of life and wind up feeling pointless, even clumsy. But it’s precisely because the possibility of defeat is so strong that the battle remains compelling. In almost every shot of First Reformed, you can sense Schrader struggling to work out his own feelings toward his material, playing devil’s advocate for both sides, trying to square faith with worldly desire and worldly despair.

***

One of the most remarkable things about First Reformed is that it doesn’t merely use film to study theology: it studies the recent trends in filmmaking through a theological lens.

In the 44 years since Schrader sold his first screenplay, the rise of “slow cinema” has been one of the key events of film history. The six-, seven-, or ten-hour works of Lav Diaz, with their spartan economies of plot and editing, make Diary of a Country Priest look like Entourage, and as such, they’ve attracted plenty of fans and scoffers. Schrader’s own feelings on the genre are hard to pin down. In March, he argued that the novelty had worn off, but in his introduction to the new edition of TS he concedes that the bulk of great 21st century directors, from Béla Tarr to Chantal Akerman to Hou Hsiao-hsien, have embraced the paradigm of “plotlessness, wordlessness, slowness, and alienation.” And in other recent interviews, he’s been comfortable describing First Reformed as his own stab at slow cinema, though it strikes me as a critique at least as much as an imitation.

The fine distinction between slow and transcendental may help explain the single most baffling stretch of First Reformed: not the ending, but the scene that takes place around the ninety minute-mark. Reverend Toller has been drinking. He hears a knock on the door—Mary. He invites her in, they chat for a while, she mentions a game she used to play with her late husband: he’d lie on his back and she’d climb on top of him, touch her hands to his, and stare into his eyes. Toller suggests they give the game a try, and they assume their positions. At first, they just stare back at one another, but then, slowly, their bodies—I almost want to say “body”— rise off the floorboards. As the camera circles them, the room dissolves, revealing outer space. The scene shifts to terrestrial paradise, comprised of waterfalls, rainforests, and the like, and then, finally, to footage of factories, smog, garbage. It’s an uncanny marvel, recalling everything from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror to Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, and it elicited even more what the fucks than the ending.

What is this scene doing here? Why this abrupt, improbable encounter between Toller and Mary before the one that brings the film to a close? And why is Schrader messing with the plot structure he identified in Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, the structure he’s borrowed for so many of his own films?

Schrader is fond of pointing out, with his legendary bluntness, that slow cinema can be boring. That’s why, for many of the directors who favor long takes and minimal plots, it’s sometimes necessary to throw out some red meat, rewarding the audience for its patience. One of the oddest tendencies of contemporary art film is the inevitable “big moment,” offsetting all that slowness—think of the brutal stabbing in Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) or the Eurodance number at the finale of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999). In some filmmakers’ hands, these moments offer stunningly unexpected catharses. In others’, they come off a little desperate—and their arbitrariness begins to feel as uninspired as the screenwriting clichés they were supposed to replace. (Watching a Michael Haneke movie, for instance, has become a matter of waiting for the ugly, climactic “surprise.”)

In a clumsier work, First Reformed’s levitation scene would have been the climax, the part where Schrader thanked his viewers for putting up with the stark cinematography and deadpan narration—but luckily, First Reformed is too passive-aggressive to offer thanks. I’m not sure if Schrader intended the scene to be a parody of the contemporary art film or a straightforward homage. In either case, he seems to be making a point about the path serious filmmaking has taken in recent years. The levitation scene is slow cinema with all of its strengths and weaknesses; it exemplifies abruptness for the sake of abruptness (and, by the same token, slowness for the sake of slowness). The ending of First Reformed is similarly abrupt, but with a higher purpose, and it’s this higher purpose, Schrader appears to be saying, that has been near-absent from cinema for some time.

Toward the end of his introduction to TS, Schrader quotes Béla Tarr: “I despise stories. They mislead people into believing something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another. All that remains is time. This is probably the only thing that’s still genuine—time itself: the years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds.” It’s hard to imagine anything further from the tone of First Reformed’s ending, and this may explain why that scene hit me harder than almost any stretch of film I’ve watched recently. For Tarr and many other “serious” directors, the task of the filmmaker would appear to be the preservation of time itself. For Schrader, the task is more urgent: teaching viewers something through unforgettable stories—before time runs out.

Jackson Arn

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jackson Arn
’s writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Asymptote, The Point, and other publications. Read his work here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 4th, 2018.