How First Reformed fights climate change by paying homage to Andrei Tarkovsky and Hieronymus Bosch
There’s a moment in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018) that pushes the Beatles well past any of John and Paul’s psychedelic machinations. Recently widowed Amanda Seyfried, unnervingly amorous for a pregnant woman in the midst of a panic attack, shows up at her reverend (Ethan Hawke)’s rectory in the middle of the night. She explains to him a special ritual she and her late husband used to do––that is, before he splattered the greater-Albany-area snow with his brains––they called a “magical mystery tour.” After sharing a joint, they would lie on top of one another, splayed out, every extremity stretched to capacity, ensuring as much surface area of contact as physically possible. Then, they would breathe in unison. This was transcendence. Her husband a secular man, a man of science, this was sublimity. Reverend Toller, hanging onto her every word like a starved, feral animal, having perhaps gotten off only once since his own divorce several years earlier––with a fellow clergywoman no less!––asks if she wants him to do it with her. After a few beats of bashful denial, she assents.
As an audience member, mostly I’m psyched to see what I believe may turn into a sex scene between Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried. Unfortunately, it’s not a sex scene between Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried. Nevertheless, in our cushy arthouse cinema seats we lick our own jowls, tracking saliva all over the carefully cultivated tension. After many fraught minutes of their intimate prostration: the miraculous happens.
The two begin to lift off the floor, still sandwiched together. They float through the room. Everybody in the theater gasps. This was not a mystical movie, we think, even in spite of its thematic interest in mysticism! The universe Schrader has established heretofore is not only realistic but real. The year is 2017, the anthropocenic America he illustrates is the anthropocenic America we know. So how can he defy the rules of internal logic in this way? We all wonder as we sit up a bit straighter, arch our backs and tilt our torsos toward the screen. What follows is a sequence of shots, beginning with the cosmos and ending with a screen entirely blacked out by car tires, that depicts the descent of man into a hell dug by his own hand. At first we watch as the church house falls away and Mary and Toller are left flying Big Lebowski-superman-style across the universe, reminding us of our astronomical insignificance and atomicity among the stars, that we are nothing. Nothing––nothing but, what? love? Soon the green-screen background changes and they are hovering above mountain ranges, then smoke stacks, and soon the couple disappears from view completely, and we’re left with Stalkeresque shots of the destruction we’ve wreaked on our planet (think of Tarkovsky’s “zone”).
Tarkovsky, who Schrader cites as his primary influence, when asked about the device in Solaris (1972) and The Mirror (1975), said:
Why do I so frequently include a levitation scene, a body rising up? Simply because the scene has a great power. This way things can be created that are more cinematic, more photogenic. When I imagine a person suspended in mid-air, it pleases me. I find myself filled with emotion. If some fool asks me why in my last film people float up in the air, I would say: “It’s magic”. If the same question came from someone with a more acute intelligence and poetic sensibility, I would respond that for these characters love was not the same thing as it was for the author of Betty Blue. For me love is the supreme manifestation of mutual understanding, and this cannot be represented by the sexual act. Everybody says that if there is no ‘love’ in a film, it is because of censorship. In reality it is not ‘love’ that’s shown on screen but the sexual act. The sexual act is for everyone, for every couple, something unique. When it is put into films, it’s the opposite.[1. “Levitating through Tarkovksky’s Mirror: The Tree of Life and Interstellar,” A Day in the Life of a Cinephile, 2014, substituteforgaze.weebly.com/the-write-stuff/levitating-through-tarkovkskys-mirror-the-tree-of-life-and-interstellar.]
But in First Reformed, something is awry. I can’t shake the sense that this “intimacy” is deeply perverse; beneath it a black bile metastasizes. I refuse to believe it is “love,” as Tarkovsky describes it, consecrating their bond. Mary’s grieving; Toller’s an inebriated alcoholic (misogynist?) with stomach cancer potentially leveraging his religious authority for human touch. Schrader is turning the levitation device on its head by, yes, raising them up off the floor, but then by taking them from that highest elevation, the zenith of all life and matter, and plunging them deep into the lowest. Despite the literal levitation, this is not an ascent but a descent. Schrader subverts the beauty and magnificence of love and intimacy to reveal all humanity as depraved, wicked, irredeemable even in tenderness and connection.
I reasoned the bizarre departure from realism served to seize our attention. That it meant to shock us, halfway through the otherwise slow and cerebral film, out of cognitive dissonance and into acknowledging that which we live our every day in defiance of, the truth about climate change, the truth about our imminent and self-assured annihilation, the very same anxieties which led Mary’s environmentalist husband to take his own life.
Schrader, who moderated a Q&A I attended in January, apparently had other intentions with the scene. While I thought it was a propagandic punctuation tactic, Schrader claimed it was a way he could “tip off the audience,” let us know that we’d soon be leaving the confines of the movie and penetrating another substrate entirely, something empyrean, or, perhaps, the opposite. More likely, both. According to Schrader, he was recreating Bosch’s timeless triptych. Schrader begins with Eden, Bosch’s leftmost panel, rendered on-screen as space and earth before us, before our degeneracy and maiming of natural harmony. Next, the eponymous garden itself is characterized by the introduction of humans, of us, the trickling in of urbanity. Finally, Hell is oil rigs and glacial calving and emaciated polar bears, engines and capitalism and fossil fuels. Hell is now. Hell is the decimated Great Barrier Reef. Hell is shorelines threatening coastal cities, toughened viruses and invasive species. Hell is the imminent global refugee crisis over resources. In the late fifteenth century, did Bosch know?
The full screen of tires the sequence ends on is at last the blackness in the upper rightmost section of Bosch’s painting. As Mary’s husband Michael prognosticates a day before he shoots himself, we have gone too far.
Will God ever forgive us?