First Reformed Paul Schrader (USA 2017) Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfield
viewed: Tyneside Cinema 17 July 2018; ticket: £9.75
old man’s film
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed prompted me to think about the relation between the primary framing of a film, the way in which a film frames its content; and the difference between subversion of frame and betrayal of frame.
Subversion is radical reframing of a film’s material that is designed to produce a complete shift in the audience’s perception of what they have seen ( or perhaps what they’re seeing). A radical undermining of a movie’s premises. Subversive reframing is most often experienced as a mechanical script device wherein at the end of the movie (or perhaps at some strategic point in a movie) the audience suddenly understands the narrative has been a dream; or that a narrative that has been mediated through one understanding of its primary frame, is suddenly inverted and seen through a new unexpected perspective. We understand what we have seen differently with new illumination.
Bunuel and Godard were masters of radically subverting frame and filmic form, with political or social intent. They both produced films that presented a particular proposition wrapped in a particular genre or stylistic statement that they subverted to open up the material to reveal a quite different perspective: Simon of the Desert and Contempt, in different ways, both have this quality of shifting frame: challenging the audience to radically reappraise what they have experienced.
Alongside exploiting the capacity of film to subvert itself there is the capacity of film to betray itself: to disrespect the audience in an act of directorial bad faith. In filmic betrayal we see a director shifting the energy of their film to transform the way it is understood, but motivated by cynical or exploitative intention. We see betrayal in its mundane form in some Hollywood movies such as the gangster films of the 1930’s after the introduction of the Code, where contrary to the moral logic of the film, the forces of law and order and false morality come out on top. Script writing under the influence of ‘bad faith’ conforms narrative outcomes to the dominant forms of political and ideological correctitude. Other forms of bad faith pander to commercial considerations or the self image of the director as reason for betraying the dynamic framing their films.
Schrader’s First Reformed is an act of betrayal.
The first shot is a very slow track into the eponymous church. In this shot two core aspects of the movie are opened up.
Firstly through this shot the movie introduces itself as a carefully crafted stylistic construct. This formal visual introduction is confirmed in the body of the movie in which the choreography of Schrader’s scenes are constructed in camera in a style reminiscent of Japanese director Jasujiro Ozu. Like Ozu Schrader constructs his master scenes using singular shots from an immobile camera. The static camera frames a space, often an unremarkable domestic setting, in which the characters are located, in which they interact and through which they pass in and out of vision.
Ozu’s method of filming, in particular Tokyo story, creates a primary frame that references something about the nature of time and something about the way in which the things that happen in life are never fully seen. First Reformed composed in like manner, references nothing about time, but does point to an endemic formality that shapes interpersonal relations in the culure, as well as the idea that there are areas of life that are closed off. His austere framing with his camera, makes a statement about the way in which Schrader sees the nature of reality in which he locates Ernst the priest.
Secondly, the opening shot introduces the church, the First Reformed Church, a skeletal white structure, which is more a mausoleum than a church; a repository of God that is more tourist attraction than place of worship. This church is a building mired in the past. Yet for all that it is a backwater, it is in this place, not in the corporate world of full on Christian evangelism, that Ernst has been sent. A dying priest in a dying church.
Schrader’s movie, as in its shootiong style so also in content, has a recognisable starting point.
First Reformed’s protagonist, Ernst takes his cue from Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. The which it is hard to believe that Bresson’s movie did not initially inspire and inform Schrader’s decision to make First Reformed. In the opening section of the film Ernst, like Bresson’s padre, reveals he has decided to keep a daily journal to enable him to minutely trace his inner spiritual life. Ernst like his Bresson forbear, elects to handwrite his thoughts and also finds that his thoughts gather about his physical rather than spiritual state. Both priests are deathly ill. Both priests have been given their livings in appropriate backwaters where they will be out of the way.
Bresson’s subject, made radiant by H L Burel’s cinematography is increasingly abstracted from the world. His destiny is to move towards grace. But Schrader’s subject, whilst he might want to leave the world, finds his destiny to be in the world as he is drawn the deeper into interaction with the exteriorities and complexities of life.
The scripted forces Schrader sets in motion make for a powerful interplay of conflict opposition and contradiction: the sacred and the profane, the physical and the spiritual. Ernst is increasingly aware of and disturbed by man’s desecration of the earth. He is aware that he is dying and progressively racked by self doubt and feeling of inadequacy, is pushed into action in the world. He comes to see the need for his action in increasingly violent terms. Aernst moves into a crisis as inner logic draws him on into to some defining act of violation of all that he outwardly represents.
The nature and the means of his intended act of redemptive violence momentarily hold centre stage. As the commemorative and rededication service of the First Reformed Church attain their climax, the tension locates itself in the body of Ernst: will his action be directed against destroying himself or himself and others? And will his act be private or public. As the tension mounts Schrader chooses to unravel his plot in a denouement of bad faith anti climax and betrayal.
Schrader having set in motion inexorable forces of logic that demand resolution on the terms that he has nurtured, suddenly adopts a narrative solution borrowed from old Saturday morning cinema serials such as the Perils of Pauline: with a bound Ernst is free. Schrader’s script ditches everything it has developed to plunge protagonist and audience into a Disneyesque fantasy. Ernst finds redemption in a mystical union with Mary the wife of the young man whom he had counselled before his suicide. Ernst experiences a vision of oneness with life. The audience are subjected by Schrader to a magico realist sequence in which Ernst and Mary’s merged and intermeshed bodies commune across the skies like Mary Poppins. Instead of ending with a death foretold, First Reformed ends with Ernst and Mary locked in an unending kiss whilst the steadycam revolves about them.
This ending does nothing except betray the framing premise of First Reformed. It may be Schrader thinks he is making some sort of statement about the redemptive nature of love. But if his idea of love is chocolate box schmaltz, then Schrader’s scripting looks like the desperation of an old man frightened by the forces he has himself has unleashed. A director who is desperate to pander to the American palate for mushy food and soft landings, who has nothing to offer but betrayal and Sleeping Beauty happy ending.