Ancient and Medieval philosophers from Parmenides to Ibn Sina speculated about the “transcendentals,” or the ontological properties of being itself—that is, the “things” or properties it entails to be something. Different philosophers provide different numbers of properties, and different properties. Thomas Aquinas opined five: “thing”, “one”, “something”, “good”, and “true.” The most famous and influential list is what the Platonic (or perhaps more accurately, the Neo-Platonic) transcendentals: the good, the true, and the beautiful.
The traditional ordering of the Platonic transcendentals is “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” The order I’ve given above, though, is foundational to my project.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, a German Jesuit, using this order of the transcendentals re-oriented theological aesthetics (and by implication, theological anthropology). The three transcendentals, emanating from the Divine, manifest in the world. The objective reflection of the ultimate transcendentals, then, can be found throughout the world around us—and given the ultimate source for these transcendentals, by contemplating on the beautiful, the good, and the true one brings oneself closer to the Divine. Beauty is his starting point, and since he believes the Good and the True emanate from beauty, there is no other place to start. For Balthasar, “Before the beautiful—no, not really before but within the beautiful—the whole person quivers. He not only ‘finds’ the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it.”
My purposes take Balthasar seriously, especially in his task of perceiving the Beautiful, the Good, and the True in our world. Identifying, questioning, and categorizing the descriptors of the Beautiful, the Good, and the True may be another way to state the goals of this project. The “forms” of the Beautiful, the Good, and the True radiate into and from film. Film can be transcendental.
This aesthetic philosophy has implications for my methodology of film analysis. Since I begin with the Beautiful, form—rather than plot/narrative or themes—is my natural beginning point.
More practically than reading the dense tomes of philosophers, my criticism is informed by film writers that take the medium itself as their starting point. Richard Brody (The New Yorker), Matt Zoller Seitz (RogerEbert.com), Sean Gilman (The Chinese Cinema; Seattle Screen Scene), and David Bordwell (Davidbordwell.net ; University of Wisconsin-Madison) are four exemplar names among many in this right. But lesser known writers and thinkers like Neil Bahadur (Letterboxd), Rohan Naahar (The Indian Express), Oscar Goff (Boston Hassle), Hsiu-Chuang Deppman (Oberlin College), and Carl Plantinga (Calvin University) have made indelible contributions to how I view and think about the moving image.
I should point out that this project is The Transcendent Cinema rather than The Transcendental Cinema mostly because the latter carries too many connotations thanks to Paul Schrader. His use of the term to describe a specific set of film styles is not the intent of this website. It’s not totally alien though, either. (After all, we both held the same editor position at the Calvin University Chimes.) Schrader used “transcendent” in a way that evoked “the divine,” the Being in Western philosophy and theology that exemplifies the transcendentals and from where/whom they flow. The reality of a Transcendent is irrelevant to my project (and probably to Schrader’s as well). But movies can still be transcendental—and that’s why we fell in love with the silver screen in the first place.