Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida and its non-dramatic drama: What it means for a film style to be 'transcendental'

What is “transcendental” style of cinema? It’s one of the precursors of what we call “slow cinema” today.

Baradwaj Rangan November 07, 2019 12:36:41 IST
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida and its non-dramatic drama: What it means for a film style to be 'transcendental'

In last week’s column about Robert Bresson, I referred to Paul Schrader’s 1971 book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. It was republished in 2018, with a new introduction titled “Rethinking Transcendental Style”. A lot of what I quote here is from this introduction, and we will see it as applied in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013).

But first, what is “transcendental” style? It’s one of the precursors of what we call “slow cinema” today. It is a movement away from narrative, “a way station, if you will, in the post–World War II progression from neorealism to surveillance video”. By delaying edits and not moving the camera, by avoiding music cues, by not employing coverage from various angles (that a “normal” movie would mix up during the editing to heighten tension), and by heightening the mundane, there is a sense of watching real time unfold.

Schrader points to the shot of the maid striking the match in Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952). In a video, he says, “It was no longer about the activity of striking a match. It was about how long you’re going to sit and watch.” The maid strikes a match against the kitchen wall three times; it fails to light. She gets another match and strikes again. There is no cutting. Now, why do we “need” to see this? What do we get from seeing this stretch, as opposed to a quick cut to a lit matchstick? Here’s what: Watch an image long enough and your mind goes to work. We get meditative, introspective. The question now is: What did you think about in the time it took while the maid was attempting to light the match? A transcendental guide or guru or filmmaker seeks to escort the respondent to another level of consciousness.

The transcendental style creates a sense of unease the viewer must resolve — because unlike the director of a narrative film, the transcendental filmmaker isn’t interested in merely spelling out a story for you (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and that’s what 99% of film viewers want when they go to watch a movie). Traditional film techniques are about “getting there” — telling a story, explaining an action, evoking an emotion — whereas the long take (i.e., without cuts) is about “being there.”  It is the very manifestation of time. Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time, “Just as a quivering reed can tell you about the current or water pressure of a river, in the same way we know the movement of time as it flows through the shot.”

Back when Schrader wrote Transcendental Style in Film, the films of Bresson and Ozu were seen as esoteric and slow, but today, they are positively audience-friendly when compared with the epics of Béla Tarr (Sátántangó runs 7 hours, 12 minutes), Lav Diaz (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery runs 8 hours, 5 minutes) and Pedro Costa (In Vanda’s Room runs a “mere” 2 hours, 59 minutes). In the Bresson/Ozu era, the “slow film” was still an art-house theatre experience. Today’s slow cinema is mostly restricted to film festivals and art galleries — but Ida is a compact film (just 82 minutes) with a compact budget ($2.6 million), and it grossed $15.3 million worldwide, making it a rare theatrical success for this kind of cinema, whether you want to call it “slow” or “transcendental” or just… “boring” (though in Schrader’s eyes, “boredom” in these films is an aesthetic device).

Pawel Pawlikowskis Ida and its nondramatic drama What it means for a film style to be transcendental

A still from Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida.

At first, I wondered why Schrader chose to include Ida in his list — because it seems more of an “art film” than something you’d categorise as transcendental/slow. For one, boredom is certainly not an option — so artfully composed are the shots. If nothing else, you can just keep staring at the film with a dropped jaw. Plus, there is a solid plot, set in 1960s Poland. Ida, brought up in a convent, is about to take her vows as a nun — but her prioress encourages her to first visit her aunt. Thereon emerges a tale that harks back to the Holocaust. Ida finds out about her roots, what happened to her family. She tastes her first cigarette. She finds herself drawn to an alto saxophone player. All of this is a far cry from, say, Sátántangó, whose  opening stretch is some nine minutes of a herd of cows pottering about the mud outside a barn.

But slowly, you see the transcendence. You see the “dead time” in the scene where Ida binds a suitcase with rope, or when a woman slathers cold butter on her bread (and then adds sugar) — these scenes add no discernable “meaning” to either plot or characterisation, and there’s even an echo of the match-striking maid from Umberto D., when a woman attempts to light her cigarette. You see how the dramatic (in plot) is rendered as undramatically as possible (in execution) — in a suicide, in a car that’s driven off the road by a drunk driver, in a scene where the ground is dug up to yield skulls of one’s family. You see Ida and her sax player saying goodbye, but behind closed glass doors, so you don’t hear what they are saying to each other. 

Maybe the point is that everything they could possibly be saying to each other has already been said, so why bother. “I despise stories,” Béla Tarr said. “They mislead people into believing something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another.” That’s what Ida does: she flees from one condition to another, and in what could be a metaphor for the film itself, she wanders off during a crucial revelation. We are denied the dramatic details of this revelation as we follow Ida into a… muddy barn, where she finds a cow. It’s only at the end that we get a burst of “cinematic” emotion. We get background music. We get a long tracking shot. All the austerity thus far — the stillness, the silence — makes this cinematic stretch stand out all the more. It’s like a reward for penance. It feels transcendent.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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