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July 8, 2018

EXISTENTIALIST HORSERADISH: Paul Schrader’s World and “First Reformed”



“Faith is in its essence simply a matter of will…, to believe is to wish to believe, and to believe in God is, before and above all, to wish that there may be a God.” 
~~Miguel de Unamuno, “The Tragic Sense of Life,” 1912

“Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial ‘doubt.’ This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion. This false ‘faith’ which is what we often live by and which we even come to confuse with our ‘religion’ is subjected to inexorable questioning…. Hence, is it clear that genuine contemplation is incompatible with complacency and with smug acceptance of prejudiced opinions. It is not mere passive acquiescence in the status quo, as some would like to believe – for this would reduce it to the level of spiritual anesthesia.”
~~Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” 1962

“And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come…; that thou…shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.” 
~~Revelation 11:18


In Paul Schrader’s 1976 interview included in George Stevens, Jr.’s “The Great Movie Makers: The Next Generation from the 1950s to Hollywood Today,” Schrader says, “One of the great things about being a movie critic [in the 1960s] was that criticism was part of the counterculture movement. …. That’s all gone now, and criticism has … been relegated to … a form of consumer guidance.”

The 1960s counterculture movement. A movement that rested on moral imperative. Is there any such overarching moral commitment today more than 50 years hence? No matter our political or sociological orientation, we all seem immersed in a monoculture, a monoculture of self-serving, self-righteous indignation with little sense of the common weal, a monoculture willing to sacrifice earthly, let alone spiritual, salvation for short-term gain — or just mindless escape.

“First Reformed” is writer/director Schrader’s fearless new film in which Schrader’s directorial authority and Ethan Hawke’s bold performance prove both artists are, in their collaboration, fundamentally confronting our times. “First Reformed” is the film of our moment. 

The relationship of “First Reformed" to “Taxi Driver,” Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film for which Schrader wrote the screenplay, has been much discussed and is, indeed, incontrovertible. "First Reformed" is a continuation of that narrative. The insomniac taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a 26-year-old Vietnam vet who feels mired in the sordid mean streets of New York City. The Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke) of “First Reformed” is a 46-year-old Calvinist minister who has lost his only child, a son, and is mired in an existentialist crisis of faith — a personal guilt that accrues over the course of the film into a sense of collective guilt for the rape of the planet.

Yet the comparison is limiting. First, as Schrader himself pointed out in an interview with Terry Gross for “Fresh Air,” “…Travis being a juvenile…is experiencing loneliness in a very narcissistic way, whereas Reverend Toller, as an older man, is feeling [loneliness] in an existential way. And so the expression [in each film] is different.” Schrader said in 1976, “[Travis] has very few convictions about anything except immorality. …. [H]e doesn’t have any real beliefs or strong theories….” By contrast, the Rev. Toller does nothing if not wrestle with belief. The comparison also fails to acknowledge the debt of “First Reformed” to Schrader’s screen adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1955 novel for Scorsese’s 1988 “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Second, “First Reformed,” a magnum opus in the context of Schrader’s oeuvre, posits on some levels a rejection of the Calvinist Reformed tradition central to Schrader’s background, so it is important to understand the core Calvinist doctrines of predestination and election: i.e., though human beings have free agency to act in sin or in virtue, and have the capacity for goodness, they are, in Reformed theology, in bondage to sin. From eternity, God has chosen (elected) those sinners to whom he will grant mercy, and we cannot know the mind of God. This concept, that one cannot know the mind of God, becomes a leitmotif throughout “First Reformed,” an existentialist challenge for Toller and a toss-off excuse for everyone else, a way to shrug off responsibility for the most profound questions facing our present environmental crisis.

Schrader first explores Calvinist theology in “Hardcore” (1979), the five points of Calvinism being: 1) “total depravity” as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin; 2) “unconditional election”; 3) “limited atonement,” in that atonement is intended for some, yet not all; 4) “irresistible grace,” an inward call which, when directed toward the elect, cannot be denied; and 5) “perseverance of the saints,” that those whom God elects will continue in faith into eternity. In later films, Schrader will confront this theology through a process that will upend Calvinism for, I contend, a position of philosophical existentialism. In an interview with Randall Colburn of consequencesofsound.net, Schrader says, “…I left Calvin in the way a bullet leaves a gun, because if you don’t leave with that much force, it’s going to bring you right back.” Yet eventually, “the circle is completed.”

Schrader’s influences for "First Reformed" are deep. He tells Colburn, “[Y]ou have the character from [Robert Bresson’s 1951] ‘Diary of a Country Priest,’ and you have a premise from [Ingmar Bergman’s 1963] ‘Winter Light,’ you have the [Andrei] Tarkovsky element, you have the [Carl Theodore] Dreyer element, and you have other films that are all involved, and then I didn’t realize I was working out in my head…the enormous way in which ‘Taxi Driver’ was filtering into here, that craziness.”

Schrader, like the iconic director for whom he has written a quartet of films, Martin Scorsese, is concerned with nothing less than salvation from a profoundly existentialist point of view. What is necessary to forge meaning in a conscientious human life? What is the requisite existentialist act we either undertake or renounce with consequences for existential meaning?

In “First Reformed,” Hawke’s Calvinist, the Reverend Ernst Toller, could not be more earnest nor could life have taken a greater toll. He comes from a line of military chaplains who have served out of twin commitments to church and country. He wrestles with the reality that he has lost his only son, whom he encouraged to serve in the Iraq war, a war he now believes “had no moral justification.” Subsequently, he has lost his marriage as well as his chaplaincy, and now finds himself shepherding a stagnating congregation of an historic parish that is little more than a tourist attraction now owned by a New Age mega-church, Abundant Life. The youth at Abundant Life make fun of First Reformed as the “souvenir shop.”

Like many Schrader protagonists, Toller will narrate his story in voice-over, in this instance, through the words he commits to a journal. Travis Bickle keeps a diary in “Taxi Driver,” as does John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) in “Light Sleeper,” a drug dealer who wants to get out.

Toller, in the crosshairs of twin personal crises, both physical and spiritual, has vowed to keep the journal for a year’s time, then destroy it. The journal “is a form of prayer,” he writes, a way to speak to a God from whom his crisis of faith has walled him off. Toller feels a deep affinity to Thomas Merton, the Catalan Trappist monk and author, and keeps one of Merton’s books at his bedside.

When Mary (Amanda Seyfried), whose husband is a reluctant member of Toller’s mere handful of parishioners, approaches Toller regarding concerns about her husband Michael’s (Philip Ettinger) estrangement, Toller’s initial response is to refer her to Abundant Life with its team of counselors, but she counters, “He feels it’s more a company than a church.”

Mary is pregnant, and Michael is an eco-warrior who believes it would be wrong to bring a child into the world of 2017, when most scientists long ago agreed global collapse will reach its apotheosis around 2050. Michael bemoans the fact that scientists warned us that significant action would have to be undertaken by 2015. “I thought things could change,” he laments. “I thought people would listen.” Michael confronts Toller: “How do you sanction bringing a little girl into the world, a child full of hopes and naive ideas, who grows up to be a young woman, who looks you in the eyes and asks, ‘How did you let this happen?’ ”

Toller answers, we must hold hope and despair in our minds simultaneously. “Courage,” says Toller, “is the answer to despair, not reason.” Michael persists, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” Toller, the Calvinist, continues, “We can’t know the mind of God.” This is the excuse everyone else will use in “First Reformed.” Only Toller imposes the existentialist qualification: “But we can choose a righteous life.” We can choose righteousness over selfishness and destruction, and if we cannot know the mind of God, we can at least ask for forgiveness and grace.

The preeminent existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, like other atheistic existentialists, did not affirm God’s existence. Yet Sartre posits that even if God were to exist, his existence would not change the fact that mankind is free and has a human responsibility to choose. The responsibility is not God’s, it is man’s, and this fact places us in a condition of anguish. Later in “First Reformed,” Toller will write, “Discernment intersects with the Christian life at every moment.” Discernment is a word that implies both the necessity of choice and responsibility — the cornerstones of the existentialist position.

Toller’s personal crisis of faith converges with his sincere concern for his flock. What is he — what are we — to do in the face of a ruination of which we are knowingly the cause? The question Michael has posed to Toller, “Will God forgive us?” ultimately becomes Toller’s.

The conversation takes place in a study of sorts adjacent to Mary and Michael’s living room. On the right side of the couch in the living room sits a prop one must bow to the set dressers for finding or to Schrader for inventing: a 1960s/‘70s-esque floor lamp, the lighting source of which is shaped as the one-dollar bill’s Eye of Providence, the all-seeing eye of God. (Michael was granted compassionate release from Fort Providence in Canada, because of Mary’s pregnancy, where he was serving for eco-protests.) The lamp also brings to mind the giant, disembodied eyes of T. J. Eckleburg’s billboard in the valley of ashes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which look down on the novel’s characters’ moral failures and represent America’s loss of spiritual values. How quaint that sounds today.

Toller’s benefactor and kindly nemesis is Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer), pastor of Abundant Life Church — which owns the historic First Reformed — who has reached out to provide Toller with employment out of pity. Names matter in this film and one cannot help but sense the affinity between Joel Jeffers and the ideology of a Joel Orsteen-like prosperity ministry. Substitute “abundance” for “prosperity.” And yet, Jeffers seems to harbor genuine concern for Toller and counsels, “Even a pastor needs a pastor.”

At Jeffer’s suggestion, Toller attends a youth support group where a young woman takes her turn: “No one loves the Lord more than my father.” Her father has lost his job and has been unable to find another. She wants to know how this can be in the eyes of the Lord. When Toller tries to explain that Christ’s teachings make no correlation between goodness and prosperity, he is met with a young man’s offense at political correctness. “So Christians shouldn’t succeed. Christianity is for losers,” the young man angrily shoots back, along with a list of other grievances, including Muslim xenophobia.

To soothe Toller’s frustration, Jeffers commiserates: “They’re just frightened. They want certainty.” They are facing global warming, economic threats; they live in isolation, communicating on social media; they are fearful for their future. Jeffers goes on to say that as such, they will turn to a closed, even jihadist, mindset as a mode of self-preservation. “All we can do is guide by example.” To Toller’s ears this is a guileless observation, as it is to Schrader.

In Colburn’s interview Schrader says, “When I was growing up on the west side of Grand Rapids [Michigan], I think we had six or seven churches. Now we have two, and then there’s Hillsong. One of the churches that I grew up going to now has lyrics on a flat screen, and it’s an evolution. It’s really become an entertainment-based religion, and I have a problem with that, because seeing a whole mass of people repeating the same actions, to me, is not that different from a football game or a political rally. It’s not about that quiet place where the holy resides; it’s about that buzz we get from being in a group and group logic and group think, which of course can be very dangerous.” Schrader makes the important distinction: the holy is meditative, not performative.

In his 1962 “An Introduction to Existentialism,” Robert G. Olson explains [emphasis mine]:
“The ordinary man believes he is most free when he is not obliged to choose or when circumstances clearly dictate which choice is best. The existentialist believes that man is most free when he recognizes he is obliged to choose. The ordinary man says that freedom is valuable because it leads to happiness, security, contentment. The existentialist says that freedom is valuable because through it man may realize his own dignity, and triumph over the unhappiness to which he is irrevocably condemned. The ordinary man tries to ignore the unpleasant facts of life, and if he is exposed to an ‘impossible situation’ where no choice would conceivably be a choice of happiness, he is without recourse. The existentialist refuses to ignore the unpleasant facts of life, and spends most [of his] time trying to find some technique by which to triumph over them.”

Schrader makes a number of fascinating directorial choices in “First Reformed.” One involves the cinematography (Alexander Dynan). The film is structured almost entirely with stationary shots. Movement is achieved through actors moving in and out of shots and through editing. The exceptions are few — the long opening shot as the camera dollies toward the church, the short dolly to the right at a crucial point in front of Mary and Michael’s house, and a zoom on Toller's glass of whiskey and Pepto-Bismol. (We’ve seen this concoction before, poured by detectives in noir films where it carries a wee bit of levity. Here it is dead serious.)

There are, in addition, a minimum of dolly shots: the bare boughs of trees as Mary and Toller bicycle through a park; the levitation scene; the daytime and nighttime streetscapes to and from the factory owned by the Koch-like industrialist Edward Balq (Michael Gaston) — should we balk at his corporate power? — whose largesse, ironically, has kept First Reformed from becoming a parking lot; and the final scene. Even these lyrical moments give the impression that the camera sits still as what it is positioned to record moves by, as if ordained.

Another is the structure of the score, which initially seems will consist exclusively of the hymns performed by the Abundant Life choristers (hymns which naive words betray their beauty), until, well into the film, Lustmord’s synthesizer, with its dark ambient vibrations, starts to seep in as a reflection of the maelstrom building in Toller’s psyche.

Additionally, the geography of the bare little parsonage where Toller lives is more central to the narrative than the church structure itself. Its main or living room is used only twice in the film, for the levitation scene and the final sequence — in both instances, for spiritual, one might even say, transcendent moments.

After “First Reformed” begins with, as noted above, Toller’s voice-over diary, which is intercut with one of Toller’s soliloquist sermons, the first words of actual dialogue in the first full scene of the film involve First Reformed’s Elder (Bill Hoag) asking Toller about a leak in one of the church’s toilets. As in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the fact of the flesh is crucial. Just as the plumbing at First Reformed is failing, so we will discover Toller’s mortal plumbing is breaking down as well.

Toller’s contemplative (and drinking) processes take place in the sparse bedroom, situated between the kitchen and the toilet. The number of scenes that take place in the toilet is striking. With its peeling plaster and single stark light, the room speaks to Toller’s somatic being. Toller wrestles with soul in the bedroom; he wrestles with viscera in the toilet — and, by extension, mortality, literally with his blood and guts. He pisses blood; plunges the clogged plumbing; vomits into the bowl; and only a few scenes on, looks into a mirror reflection of his bleeding gums. The toilet is the metaphor, not only for Toller’s clogged corporeal body, but for his clogged spirituality.

Finally, from a dramatic point of view, Schrader establishes something of a counterpoise between Toller’s scenes of spiritual crisis and scenes of banal everydayness. Whether it be the logistics of seating plans for First Reformed’s 250th reconsecration celebration, the guided tours of the historic church, the repair of the historic organ — in the interspersed scenes of day-to-day-ness, Toller is at his most awkward. He is a misfit in what we call the “real” world.

Circling back to the levitation scene that takes place in the living room of the parsonage, about which some critics have complained, it is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s 2011 cosmic sequence in “The Tree of Life.” In Schrader’s abbreviated cinematic language, it begins in similar cosmic grandeur, then devolves into a series of nightmare images of environmental degradation.

Like “The Tree of Life,” “First Reformed” is a visual, aural and narrative masterpiece. And like “The Tree of Life,” “First Reformed” addresses profound questions of the human relationships to human community and to earth. Both are audacious films that speak against the Hollywood status quo, but "First Reformed" moves beyond Malick's romanticism to take up the desperate reality of the general refusal to recognize the threats of climate and geographic disintegration.

The trajectory of the theme of environmental collapse gains momentum as “First Reformed” progresses. Few public figures take on the existential fact, even obliquely, of the Malthusian reality of our impact on the environment. In this monumental cinematic achievement, Schrader has taken on global catastrophe within the context of the true meaning of individual sacrifice and redemption in the Christian context of grace.

Sartre’s pared down existentialist dictum — existence precedes essence — means nothing less than that the actions one takes, moment by moment, create meaning in the face of a meaningless, indifferent universe. Man is condemned to freedom; freedom demands choice; and choice demands responsibility for the creation of existentialist meaning.

Before viewing “First Reformed,” I tried to view Schrader’s oeuvre. Of the 29 films he has written and directed, or written or directed, I was able to screen 21. I had seen many before, but the intensity of the concentrated experience distilled my encounter with “First Reformed” in ways I otherwise would have missed.

For those familiar with Schrader’s output, his is the manifestation of the desperate struggle of redemption. It is the factory worker screwed by management and the union alike in “Blue Collar” (Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor, and Yaphet Kotto); the self-righteous Calvinist father who unwittingly drives his daughter into prostitution in “Hardcore” (George C. Scott); the gigolo who devotes himself to what he sees as a transcendent challenge in servicing older women in “American Gigolo” (Richard Gere); the commitment to the samurai code in the masterful first screenplay (co-written with his brother Leonard Schrader and Robert Towne) “The Yakuza” (Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura) that emerges again in the amazingly original, experimental achievement that is the biographical exploration of “Mashima: A Life in Four Chapters” (Ken Ogata); a Christ (Willem Dafoe) who persists in persuading Judas (Harvey Keitel) that his betrayal is necessary to the redemption of mankind; the abused son trying to navigate his way through adult life, family, and continued abuse in “Affliction” (Nick Nolte); the holocaust survivor Adam (Jeff Goldblum) of “Adam Resurrected,” based on Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, who, in seeking his own redemption, grants it to his fellow Israeli psychiatric asylum dwellers; the mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino) of “City Hall” and the CIA agent Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage) of “The Dying of the Light,” who try to worm their way out of the rot of political manipulation and corruption.

That, early in Schrader’s career, two such radically different characters as Jake Van Dorn of “Hardcore” and Travis Bickle of “Taxi Driver” take upon themselves an essentially identical quest, to save an adolescent girl from the sex trade, tells us much about the thematic concerns that will occupy Schrader’s work for almost a half century. And then there are Schrader’s characters who succumb to a naive belief that they can trust one axiological system to subvert another in the attempt to find their way out of the sucking quicksand of an unjust world.

A Yiddish saying has it that “For a worm in horseradish, the world is … horseradish.” Schrader’s characters are mired in their worlds. Much as they try to transcend the horseradish, they find themselves deeper in the quagmire. The more they strive for higher ground, a way out, the more entrenched they become, as though caught in a cruel cosmic joke. Wittingly or unwittingly they self-destruct or are destroyed by others. Whatever their final fate, they find, if not salvation, at the very least, benediction.

In a formal existentialist perspective, for both Sartre and Martin Heidegger, no Eden from which we were expelled ever existed, yet the fallen state exists, what Heidegger calls inauthenticity and Sartre calls being-in-the-midst-of-the-word. From this fallen state there is yet a transcendence to which we must aspire. Being-in-the-world is for Sartre to be fully aware of the world. By contrast, being-in-the-midst-of-the-world is the state of fallenness, inauthenticity. To cite Olson again, it is “a state in which the individual constantly obeys commands and prohibitions whose source is unknown and unidentifiable and whose justification he does not bother to inquire into.”

Our goal is to escape from this condition of fallenness — to, at the very least, inquire — to see, if you will, beyond the horseradish. As annoying and self-absorbed as Toller's behavior is (and in Colburn’s interview Schrader says, “…this guy is using his suffering to make himself, in a selfish way, more important”), transcending the horseradish is precisely what Toller is trying to do. He is attempting to engage in the supreme existentialist act of getting beyond the being-in-the-midst-of-the-word — the horseradish — to the requisite being-in-the-world.

The arc of “First Reformed” takes place over the eight weeks leading to the 250th anniversary reconsecration ceremony of the historic church. As the ceremony gets underway, with Toller absent, Abundant Life’s Jeffers enlists choir leader Esther (Victoria Hill) to fill the vacuum. (Esther and Toller have consummated a brief affair, but Toller in turn has spurned her as an obstacle to his spiritual path.) The final scene of “First Reformed” moves between Toller and Esther, as Esther sings the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” her coif and her eye glasses conjuring something like an amalgam of the two figures in Grant Wood’s 1930 painting “American Gothic.”

Leaning, leaning,
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.


The sentiment of the hymn goes against everything in Toller’s conception of Christ’s passion in the garden of Gethsemane. Jeffers has chided Toller for being “always in the garden. Even Jesus went to the mountaintop; he was in the temple, in the marketplace.” Jeffers goes on, “Jesus doesn’t want our suffering. Jesus suffered for us. He wants our commitment and our obedience.”

Toller will have none of it, because the idea that even the son of God could vicariously spare one’s suffering is anathema to Toller’s faith. Olson recapitulates his overview of existentialism and the existentialists' attitude toward death thus: “Even the militant atheist who vigorously denies God fares better at the hands of the Christian existentialists than the ‘serene believer’; for the energy of his despair is more akin to faith than the calm of the man who recites a creed by rote, and he is more honest than the faint who has allowed the energy of his hope to blind him to the tragic contradictions of the human condition. In sum, the Christian existentialist does not regard faith in the afterlife as a comforting illusion born of bad faith, but he does regard as illusory and morally valueless a faith which is not perpetually sharpened and daily recreated in and through despair.”

As noted at the opening of this essay, Schrader began his career in film as a critic. He published “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer” in 1972. It seems synchronous that the Anthology of Film Archives in New York City would screen a revival of Robert Bresson’s 1959 “Pickpocket” this June, about which Richard Brody wrote for "The New Yorker" that Bresson modeled “Pickpocket” on “Crime and Punishment,” and the film “evokes Dostoyevskian emotional extremes: torment and exaltation, nihilistic fury and religious passion. But the movie, above all, affirms the miracle of redemptive love and its price in humility and unconditional surrender.” Brody’s would be an accurate description of “First Reformed.”

Taken together, Schrader’s body of work suggests the path to salvation is fraught. Deliverance does not come to us. It can only be attained through acts of renunciation and sacrifice. Within the First Reformed doctrine, none of us can know who among us are the elect, but we should all act as though we are deserving of God’s mercy. A belief in God is not necessary to this world view. We each carry the burden of responsibility to act as though deserving of forgiveness and grace, whether it be of God, of Gaia, of the Hicks Boson particle, of a doe-eyed cow in the pasture, a homeless man on the street, a young woman with child— in other words, deserving of the mystery.









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