Transcendental Style on Television: Nicolas Refn’s Problematic Series Is A Massive Leap Forward for Streaming Aesthetics

Cristina Rodlo as Yaritza in Too Old To Die Young (all screenshots by author)

In his text Transcendental Style in Film, the critic turned auteur Paul Schrader observed a formal connection between several mid-1900s filmmakers, particularly Yasujirô Ozu, Robert Bresson and Carl Thedor Dreyer. “Transcendental film,” Schrader argues, “seeks to maximize the mystery of existence; it eschews all conventional interpretations of reality: realism, psychologism, romanticism, expressionism, and finally, rationalism.” Schrader also noted that films of various influences or experiences, whether the expressionism of Dreyer or even the Marxist realism of early Pier Paolo Pasolini, could still be transcendental in style. But most importantly, a transcendental film stylizes reality by eliminating those elements which are primarily expressive of human experience, “thereby formally eschewing conventional interpretations,” he says. “A form can express the transcendent, an experience cannot.” 

By this definition then, typically even the best television shows are formally incapable of transcendental style. Cinema, as Bret Easton Ellis repeatedly notes on his podcast, is primarily driven by “mood and atmosphere.” Television is driven by narrative. In the cinematic experience, the camera acts as a character indulging the viewer’s voyeuristic gaze. Television grips viewers by drowning their minds in excess information. Even the most aesthetically ground-breaking shows, from The Sopranos to Mad Men, are foremost defined by the achievements of their writers and the information the writer conveys. And a medium rooted in information overload can’t be transcendental because the transcendental, as defined by Schrader, requires minimizing narrative information in favor of a discernible deific atmosphere. As a result, there has never been transcendental style on television.

Until two weeks ago that is. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Amazon mini-series Too Old To Die Young, a 13-hour phantasmagoric odyssey of hyperviolence, sadism and bloody justice, is the first work in the medium of serialized television (streaming, cable or otherwise) to attempt and arguably even achieve transcendental style. 

Miles Teller as Martin in Too Old To Die Young

Too Old To Die Young primarily follows two male characters: Miles Teller is Martin, a homicide detective and a tender-hearted killer with glaring moral flaws. In addition to the abundance of blood on his hands, he is in a relationship with a 17-year-old child genius named Janey (Nell Tiger Free). Augusto Aguilera is Jésus, a spoiled cartel brat and Bel Air rich kid who seeks to avenge the death of his mother, cartel boss Magdalena (Carlotta Montanari) at the hands of Martin and Martin’s partner. The show tracks the men as they move towards their destinies–Martin becomes an avenging angel of the weak, and Jésus becomes an embodiment of apocalyptic primeval–and bears witness as those destinies collide. The other primary characters are the women who guide these men towards their destinies. Jena Malone is delightfully morally ambiguous as a trauma therapist who puts Martin on his path. Cristina Rodlo is Yaritza, Jésus’s cartel bodyguard, who uses her untouchable status in the cartel to moonlight as the “High Priestess of Death,” serially murdering cartel members to free the women they traffic while hiding in plain sight. John Hawkes is Viggo, a traumatized FBI vet who gives Martin a healthy outlet for his bloodlust.

This brief description of Too Old To Die Young’s narrative and characters might lead one to conclude that this is a standard “arty” crime thriller. I assure you: it is not. It defies conventional television structure with all the episodes bleeding into the next as if one piece of cinema, even though several of the longer episodes work just as well as contained cinematic experiences. The show grounds the viewer in its rigorously constructed aesthetic. It’s full of disjointed images, loose ends, and logic defying narrative turns. The elements normally used to help viewers correctly interpret a television show or perhaps a less transcendental film, elements that Bresson called “screens,” have largely been abstracted or removed all together. The plot is minimal, for instance, and its 13+ hours runtime could easily be condensed into a two-hour film, in which Refn leaves room for space, visual flourish and sumptuous detail. The acting in Too Old To Die Young is muted and blank, leaving all its central characters compelling enigmas. The miscasting of Teller, for example, could be criticized for his aggressive non-acting, but it works from a transcendental viewpoint: Martin’s opacity strengthens the show’s dream logic. The show’s score, a combination of original sounds by Cliff Martinez and electro-pop and punk hits by artists like Leather Nun and Goldfrapp, is gorgeous, but narratively almost besides the point.

Schrader argues that transcendental art “chooses irrationalism over rationalism, repetition over variation, sacred over profane, the deific over the humanistic, two-dimensional vision over three-dimensional vision, tradition over experiment, anonymity over individuation.” The plot of Too Old to Die Young is nothing if not irrational, and its story always surprises, even as it closes with loose ends and delivers little in the way of narrative catharsis. Its plot devices, being mainly rapists and pedophiles being brutally murdered by the show’s assorted fallen angel characters, are repeated to hypnotic effect. 

The show’s emphasis on Mexican mysticism and Tarot (most certainly inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky, who gives Refn Tarot readings every year and has become a mentor to the younger filmmaker), and allusions to Gnosticism favor an otherworldly, godly presence over an atheist realism or a monotheistic rigidity. Yaritza, for instance, is an enigma shrouded in the ethereal. Her cartel connection is left unexplained in the plot until Jésus’s cartel boss uncle, later revealed to be his incestuous father, claims to have discovered Yaritza materializing in the desert “a year ago.” A year ago (in the plot) is exactly when Jésus’s mother Magdalena was murdered. When Jésus starts using Yaritza as a surrogate for his incestuous maternal desire and literally says, “I thought you were my mother” to her at one point, Refn gently suggests that Yaritza could perhaps be a reincarnation of Magdalena as an avenging spirit righting her earthly wrongs. That Yaritza holds genuine tenderness towards Jésus, despite his infantile brutality and her penchant for punishing male sadism, reinforces this notion. These evocations of the mystical are purely in the realm of the transcendental: it leans holy, but rejects the orthodoxies of organized religion. 20th Century Swiss archeologist Waldemar Deonna said that transcendentalism is connected to primitivism, in which a religiosity is felt in a “deep unity,” but left undefined. There is a spirit, an atmosphere, of the divine coursing through Too Old To Die Young. That atmosphere is transcendental style.

But to say that Too Old to Die Young is an outlier in Refn’s filmography would be inaccurate. It is his longest work undoubtedly, his best work arguably, and his first transcendental work indisputably. But it’s also pure Refn aesthetically. It has the hyper-saturated, beautiful neon colors that have become the color blind filmmaker’s signature. The eclectic and visionary electronic score, muted acting, prolonged close-ups, and brutal violence that the filmmaker has grown infamous for are made use of in the show. There are even the camp aesthetics that the filmmaker started flirting with in The Neon Demon. The cartel, for instance, are portrayed as broody, self-serious, stylized peacocks who often slide into slapstick humor without irony. The director’s influences are also on display: the seductive violence and suspense of Brian De Palma, the psychedelic surrealism of Jodorowsky, the austerity and vacant space of Tarkovsky, and the ethical codes (not to mention creative use of blood splatter) of samurai films (particularly The Shogun Assassin and Lady Snowblood). But, as Schrader notes, a director’s “personality,” or a collection of his/her “preoccupations, needs, likes, dislikes, and idiosyncrasies” can coexist with transcendental style. Refn here has deftly weaved his filmographic language into the style of the transcendent.

The auteur-helmed television series is becoming more common in contemporary pop culture: Ben Stiller (Escape from Dannemora), David Fincher (Mindhunter) and other auteurs have developed shows in which they had sole creative control. The results have ranged from strong to disappointing, but nevertheless these shows all feel bound by the traditional confines of the television format.

Too Old to Die Young’s only real precedents are Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s dabbles into mini-series format (particularly Berlin Alexanderplatz), but more pertinently, David Lynch’s masterful return to Twin Peaks. Lynch envisioned Twin Peaks: The Return as an 18-hour film, and the series shattered the boundaries that distinguish the aesthetics of cinema and television. The most respected film journals, from Cahiers du Cinema to Film Comment, and the world’s premier filmmakers, from Jim Jarmusch to Gaspar Noé, have hailed it as the cinematic event of the decade. Refn was obviously excited by the possibilities that The Return presented. Not only does his show also make use of bleak and inescapable dread, postmodern references to its own construction, and flourishes of a macabre surrealism, but Refn also uses the long running time of a series to (just as Lynch did with The Return) suggest a universe outside of the confines of its own narrative. 

But Too Old to Die Young departs from The Return in one notable way: its transcendentalism. As groundbreaking as The Return was, it isn’t definitionally transcendent. Lynch doesn’t so much remove as he conceals. The Return is a mystery that is hard to unravel, but it’s there for the unraveling nonetheless. In contrast, a work of transcendental style defies unraveling. Whereas Lynch constructs a narrative that demands a multitude of interpretations, Refn has constructed a show that bravely defies all interpretations. This difference is crucial. In Kant’s philosophy, the transcendental ego constructs knowledge out of “sense impressions.” Refn has created a show that illustrates a vision of humanity that is mystically/cosmically doomed without heavily leaning on narrative. Instead, this hard-to-define but intuitive atmosphere, this transcendental style, is primarily cultivated through the beauty of image and sound.

The Return, for all its visual majesty and its references to video artists like Bruce Conner and Stan Brakhage, is story-centric in comparison with Too Old To Die Young, which shuns a sprawling narrative in favor of extraneous visual detail. All that emptiness is where the transcendentalism takes form. Refn often brings up his mother’s career as a photographer in interviews, and his belief that the still image is the ultimate communicative tool in visual culture. Academic analysis of Too Old to Die Young won’t be delving into its narrative, nor even its metaphors, but its style. Lynch, as artistically imagistic and strange as his work is, leaves clues and puzzles, and a puzzle can’t be transcendental. Refn’s shunning of metaphor and meaning in favor of an elusive atmosphere can be, and often is, transcendental.

All the open space in Too Old to Die Young works like visual art, allowing viewers to project all kinds of personalized fantasies onto the images. Refn orients the viewer sculpturally, allowing the form to mirror a recognizable reality. Too Old to Die Young’s tone, described by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw as “a doomy, sepulchral, and very plausible evocation of pure evil,” is viciously nihilistic. But its nihilism is holy; Refn employs the transcendental style to depict the modern world as spiritually doomed to annihilation. Refn is not a political grandstander, he’s a stylist. But when the world we live in has grown so cruel and ugly, perhaps the most adequate artistic response is to simply hold a mirror to it, imbue the reflection with extreme visual beauty, and find within it cosmic truth? This mystical familiarity is the transcendentalism found in the films of Bresson or Ozu, but updated for the post-digital streaming generation.  

Nevertheless, the responses of most mainstream critics towards Too Old To Die Young have ranged from bewildered and unmoved to outright hostile. Some of the criticism is fair, to be sure: hyperviolence, sexual violence, misogyny, lethargy, etc. Critics are missing the point. Refn’s vision is admirably bold, unhinged, and artistically committed. It wouldn’t surprise if this mini-series will someday be hailed as a turning point in television history: a point in which auteurist filmmakers discovered the long format series as a medium in which something radically purist could be achieved on television. Too Old to Die Young could be seen as the show that made film artists realize that television is capable of transcendental style.

Jena Malone as Diana

Note the backhanded compliment here by Collider’s Gregory Elwood: “Too Old To Die Young is ambitious, it is at times brilliant, but it will absolutely test the limits of what even the most open-minded viewers can embrace on the small screen.” Precisely. Schrader says that criticism and transcendental art are poor bedfellows: “Good criticism is eclectic,” says Schrader. “Transcendental art is autocratic.” 

For Too Old to Die Young to be adequately critiqued would demand a whole new kind of criticism. Even the ardent critics of Refn can’t deny the genuine formal innovation of this series, in which its auteur has stretched a sparse story over a sprawling runtime, bulking out the empty space with provocative and gorgeous images. Typical criticism, and the use of adjectives like “slow,” “monotonous,” or “pretentious” fails in conveying the reasons to watch this series, because transcendental art eludes conventional critique. “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language,” once wrote T.S. Elliot. No one has ever attempted transcendental style in television before, so Refn can’t be too disappointed that his critics can’t seem to adequately contextualize his work. 

More than cinema, which is widely accepted in academic art history, television is more often interpreted as a commodity. It manifests as commercial entertainment. But Too Old to Die Young is a personalized expression seemingly devoid of Amazon’s corporate overseeing. Somehow, critics are responding to this untethered creativity with suspicion. The Economist agrees that nothing like this show has ever been done before, but then says that that would have been a good thing. Why? Can critics, so used to the neat narratives of prestige television, not appreciate the beauty in ambiguous personal expression? Can they not applaud the first attempt at transcendental style in television?

Lack of critical precedent might not be the only thing critics have a problem with. A lot of these critics just don’t like Refn personally. Refn has a libertine streak, and rejects notions such as “humility” that critics desire for their artists to project in 2019. He is gleefully pretentious and self-satisfied. He has no problem telling journalists from The Guardian that he brings “the narcissistic and the high art” to moving image. In an interview with one of his filmmaking heroes William Friedkin, Refn insists that his widely (and in retrospect, unfairly) panned Only God Forgives is a masterpiece. Even Friedkin is bemused by the younger filmmaker’s total insulation from critical consensus. Lest we forget, this is a filmmaker who could have went big time after the monster critical and commercial hit that was Drive. Instead, Refn followed that Hollywood action masterpiece with two impenetrable and consciously arty esoteric thrillers. And despite his self-described punk mentality, he still has the world’s biggest company giving him money to make a glacially paced and bizarre 13-hour transcendental TV show. It shouldn’t shock that critics want to take him down a notch.

We are also quite obviously in a culturally puritanical moment. Where artists were once often celebrated for provocations and challenges to prevailing taboos, we are now at a time when certain transgressions are being pushed back against as reinforcing oppressive structures, especially when the artist in question is a white man. Refn’s work has often aligned with the “sadomodernist” films of auteurs like Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier (Refn’s father was Von Trier’s editor and the two directors have a fraught history) as defined by writer Moira Heigel for n + 1 Magazine: “The sadomodernist uses cruelty perpetrated on-screen to terrorize his audience, whom he dares: Look at this. Aware of the possibility that we might enjoy his dubious spectacle too much, the sadomodernist may also punish us, as Haneke does, on the level of form.” But as Heigel also notes, the scrutinization of violence in sadomodernism can often be confused for an endorsement of violence, especially now that the political moment has become so fraught that culture wants, even demands, its artists to take a moral stand.

To Old to Die Young is, putting it mildly, brutally violent. Its first episode depicts a horrifically battered woman hogtied and barely able to open her eyes and scream before Teller’s Martin shoots her in the head, and it only gets worse from there. But to call Refn a misogynist would be disputable. On the contrary, he’s very much a progressively minded man. He’s endorsed single payer healthcare and similar progressive programs, and publicly apologized on behalf of Denmark after his surrogate uncle Von Trier made his infamous Nazi comments at Cannes Film Festival in 2011.

His work also has feminist leanings, particularly in his most recent film The Neon Demon in which Refn made his female stars (notably Elle Fanning and Abbey Lee Kershaw) full collaborators in the film’s making, and unlike Von Trier’s actresses who often leave set wanting the filmmaker dead, Refn has formed strong friendships with his female collaborators. And for all Too Old to Die Young’s rampant sexual violence, there is a female-centricness to it that isn’t being addressed critically. There is a dichotomy between the male and female characters of Too Old to Die Young: while the male characters are on a collision course of fate racing towards violent ends, the female characters are fully in control of their destinies.   

Augusto Aguilera as Jésus

Ellwood and other critics have also criticized the sexual depictions of the show’s female characters, but this totally skirts over the fact that despite Refn’s heterosexuality, his cinematic gaze is essentially bi-sexual and the show’s characters are largely queered to different degrees. His camera perhaps sexualizes Jésus’s gym-sculpted and waxed hairless torso as much as it does the sinews and curves of its female leads. Most of the characters, when shown to have sex, embrace kinks and many of them aren’t heterosexual, nor specifically homosexual, but positively queered. “That’s one of the things that ‘queer’ can refer to,” wrote theorist Eve Sedgwick. “The open mesh of possibilities and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” Too Old to Die Young’s characters are largely fluid in sexuality and defiant of heteronormativity to some degree, heightening the show’s contradictory nature, and Refn’s gaze accentuates the sexuality of all of them. The result is perhaps the most sexually evocative cinematic experience of any series ever.

Regardless of these criticisms, whether they are fair or unfair, they have all distorted critics’ objectivities and rendered them incapable of recognizing Too Old to Die Young’s transcendental style. In an era that is “real without origin or reality,” according to Baudrillard, digitally attention divided, and increasingly suspicious of the holy and the transcendental, Refn’s achievement with this series is astonishing. Using the streaming television series, the most postmodern of all artistic mediums, Refn has created a work of art that “builds a spiritual momentum, progressing from abundant to sparse artistic meant,” as outlined in Schrader’s text. “To achieve this effect it uses and progressively rejects certain abundant movie devices: character delineation and interaction, linear narrative structure.” It doesn’t matter if Too Old to Die Young is good or not. Its gift to culture is transcendental style. And its transcendental style is indisputable.

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