- Film, Nonfiction

On First Reformed


The form perfectly matches the content. And so, with First Reformed, Paul Schrader has done it, just as Henry Jaglom, another disciple of greater directors, was able to hit jackpot once with Deja Vu. William Gass said if tragedies weren’t tragic, no one would go to them, but these days if a serious film doesn’t “speak” to the issues of the day (how the issues of certain human beings are greater than others is a different discussion) it is pretty much DOA. First Reformed is concerned with everything we worry about today—including race, but in an offhand way—without blatantly stacking the deck, as a film like American Beauty does. It promises to be a tragedy and even though it turns out not to be, there is still catharsis in its last second Ordet-like save, and I don’t mean because some in the audience think the priest is dead and imagines being saved. “Nothing matters but the quality of affection,” Ezra Pound wrote in Canto LXXVI. What is the quality of affection in that swirling rapturous kissing between the priest and the pregnant widow? Carnality, like in Ordet? It might not matter if it proves affection is still possible.

Any film that makes you thirsty to know its ending after ten minutes of screen time is blessed, and also has a lot of space to fill. It’s a mysterious arc—the conversation near the beginning between the priest and the suicidal young man (twelve minutes long) is the crux, the rest being the priest’s backslide until the final moment. A major part of his flailing and the young man’s suicide (his screensaver gives continuous projections of climate change on a world map and he hides his suicide note under the computer), is demonstrated by how the stream of constant information drives some of us mad. The Clouds of Sils Maria is the only other film I’ve seen that captures the disennoblement of life being lived on-line. The cold lighting of the late winter setting adds to the despair, echoing the two obvious precursors Diary of A Country Priest and Winter Light. “I despise you,” Ethan Hawke’s priest says to Esther, a church aid who wants to take care of him—an English-language Ingmar Bergman line if there ever was one.

Schrader has delivered the redemption ending to greater effect in his screenplays for others, than in his directed films. In his best film before this, Affliction, there is some static surrounding the emotional upheaval for the actors and director versus what appears on screen, made more morose by a tertiary character’s didactic voiceover. A few years after throwing out his directing philosophy and making simple fare like The Canyons, he reportedly wrote this film, the one he’d said he’d never make—beholden to the trinity of Bresson, Dreyer, and Ozu (the nod to Late Spring‘s bike ride seems forced) the subjects of his book Transcendental Style in Film, one of the most read film books in this country. Is that too programmatic a soundbite? Sometimes people travail for years before coming to their masterpiece, if at all, where every moment is charged and weighted and hewn. I am thinking of one recent, shining example that has much to do with First Reformed besides Ethan Hawke—Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Not a visionary film like Tree of Life or The Master, but the best filmed theater and the deepest expression of American sickness with incomparable acting, a chiseled script, and the New York that Lumet, for all his misses, gelled with when it served as setting. Many people die in that Shakespearean Tragedy. In First Reformed, one young man does, but we feel like we are all dying in the end times evoked in the dying city of Albany. It takes something special to inscribe that feeling on the spectator. Truth and a higher art. First Reformed contains everything Schrader has thought and felt about film history, transmuted to make a work worthy of the canon. Maybe the best way to speak to this is to bring in another priest of high art, T.S. Eliot, who said, “Tradition…cannot be inherited…it involves the historical sense [which] involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence…” Stealing rather than homage works out better for everyone.