Seen but not heard
By Nigel Andrews
Published: July 28 2006 15:47 | Last updated: July 28 2006 15:47
In broadcasting it is “dead air”. In Trappist monasteries it is a vow. In school exam rooms it is the law. In poetry it is eternity (or a favourite symbol of it). In cinema it is the past that the talking picture moved beyond, 80 years ago, with the arrival of synchronised sound.
On urban streets and on transport systems it is something we keep at bay with our iPods (for the unformed din of a city is sometimes the worst “silence” of all). In soccer stadiums people can hardly stand it either. A two-minute silence for a dead footballer seldom has a prayer. Someone - some terrace-dweller appalled by that virgin vacancy - must yell something out.
Silence is like water. Yesterday it was taken for granted, today it is in crisis. We are urged to conserve and cherish it, yet lots of people want to pour it down the drain. Meanwhile art, culture, movies and that modern phenomenon we could call “found iconography” - the making-over of real events as cultural artefacts or foundries of modern myth - are becoming obsessed with it.
I think of the now famous photo of the Falling Man, the unknown soldier of 9/11. That jumper no one can identify hangs upside down in the air, frozen in space and time, with no noise around him, on the most exclamatory day in modern history. Does his silence sanitise the horror of the World Trade Center tragedy or megaphone it? I am not sure. I am not sure anyone is sure.
For living witnesses, though, what response is possible in the immediacy of an atrocity but silence? In the film United 93 the most dramatic moment is that in which a control tower’s officials watch the second plane hit the second skyscraper. Total silence, with a couple of numbly murmured expletives. And there is silence again (bar some ill-advised music) when United 93 hits the earth in Pennsylvania, a moment when the unspeakable has to remain just that.
Then there is the silence deep at another core, the core of a suicide bombing. It is in danger of becoming, if something so ugly and horrendous could be, a cliche of artistic or filmic perception: that moment of white-out, those after-seconds when the detonator has been pulled, the destruction has been wrought and the world swims for seconds in a deafened nothingness. Bleached. Serene. Purged of life, choice, hate, violence. A moment almost beautiful.
For that is the power of silence. It is the best and worst thing. It is comfort and fear. It is the peace of mind that converts everything to serenity. Yet it is the negation of all things.
In cinema the use of silence is so central to every movie (if it is only the silence to punctuate non-silence, to make counterpoint and meaning) that we have come to disregard it completely. This binary heartbeat of sound and silence - on/off, on/off, on/off is so important that its management, manipulation or artful disruption can dictate our entire response to a movie.
The knowledge of silence and non-silence is what makes a great director. It is true today on the 80th anniversary of sound cinema, which though born as a popular success with The Jazz Singer in 1927 was actually delivered a year earlier. (The first synchronised-sound feature was Warners’ Don Juan, which premiered on August 6 1926). It was equally true before film sound even existed.
When F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) pitches its hero Jonathan Harker into the vampire’s realm, the film’s caption-filled, garrulous opening scenes give way to a long passage of virtual silence. It begins with the crossing of a sinister, symbolic bridge. A mute coachman escorts Harker to the castle. Nosferatu greets him with a curt one-liner about unpunctuality. Then silence extends through half of dinner until a striking clock (its sound evoked by its image) startles the hero into cutting his thumb. Jolted back to the earthly, he is instantly transported to the unearthlier-than-ever: the Count puts his tongue to the wound. The coming of Hell is done with that single sound fracturing extended soundlessness.
(To make the point again: pre-sound movies are seldom silent and often downright noisy. Captions, close-ups, declamatory cuts, capital-A Acting. Early cinema can hector us like a street orator. Only the greatest “silent” directors knew how to achieve moments of silence.)
Another example: at the beginning of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, the silence of death - the instant of that silencing - is the touch that entrances the entire film. “Rosebud!” comes the whisper. Then the dying man lets fall the snow-filled glass globe which shatters into wordlessness, mystery. The miniature landscape inside the globe, huge in closeup, becomes a country of the beyond, annihilating all to that last spoken word whose enigma resonates on.
Then there is the first meeting between the heroes in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.
For a whole scene they say nothing. There is that long, gravel-scratching silence - a stand-off or a courtship? - while they wait to be interviewed for a job guarding sheep on high mountains, a job no man could want unless silence and solitude are at the core of his needs. A blank sonic canvas is presented, upfront, to the viewer. He is told: “Fill this in. All the colours are at your disposal. The story starts here.” But the story is, of course, being told already.
Is silence the hidden resource of all great performed art? Is it the point reached by movies, or by drama, when the veil lifts and we gaze at the realities beyond language?
Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful book about Shakespeare, Will in the World, pinpoints the essence of his achievement as a tragic playwright. Shakespeare took old and tested plots - the cause-and-effect yarns that were the templates for Hamlet, King Lear and Othello - and purged them of explanation. Shakespeare’s Hamlet no longer has a clear reason for hesitating to punish Claudius. Shakespeare’s Lear has no reason for the last-minute catechising of his children with which the play begins: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” (He has already divided the kingdom.) Shakespeare’s Iago has no reason for destroying Othello. In fact his last words swear eternal silence on the subject. “From this time forth I never will speak word.”
Why is Goldblatt’s perception so telling? Because a single or predominant explanation of events is dull, finite, deadly. It closes off speculation. It diminishes the acoustic of possibility. It says to the audience’s brain, “Don’t bother. Here is the answer.”
By contrast the unexplained, like silence, opens everything up. And silence, like the (non) colour black, needn’t be nothing; it can be and often is composed of everything. In German director Philip Groning’s recent feature documentary Die Grosse Stille, about a Carthusian monastery, the silence of the monks is scrupulously observed by the filmmaker while the visuals provide a code, a thesaurus to the occupations and preoccupations that speak - without language - for the monks’ lives and ideas.
Even when silence is nothing - of a kind - it can have power and import. Ingmar Bergman made a film about speechlessness that is like an extended scream. Persona, the story of a theatre actress (Liv Ullmann) taking an unexplained vow of silence after mysteriously abdicating from the stage, questions the efficacy of words as human communication. The actress and the anxiously voluble psychotherapist (Bibi Andersson) challenge each other’s roles, swap them, confound them. The film asks “Who is truly silent, the mute woman or the one who can’t stop talking?”
In Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the greatest film about the mocking silence of existence, a girl from a yachting party goes missing on a volcanic island. She never reappears, on the island or anywhere else, though friends search and continue to search. What follows is, spiritually if not literally, a silent movie. For all its prattle of the rich and educated, its strained nothings of couples anxious to adorn or camouflage their failing love, it is a study in answerlessness. The girl who doesn’t come back is the same as the echo that doesn’t come back, when a world seeking explanations shouts into the darkness.
In cinema, silence literal and silence metaphysical interlock and interchange. Just as silent movies can be noisy, talky movies can be silent. Cinema’s basis in image rather than word enfranchises silence on every level and in every layer of meaning - it allows silence to be played with and explored as reality and metaphor - in a way impossible with stage drama even in Shakespeare’s hands. (In terms of “reality silence”, the closest theatre dares to get is the Pinteresque pause).
Cinema’s fascination with silence is evident from the way the word rings like a cash till in movie titles. Over and over. The Silent World, Run Silent Run Deep, Silent Running, Silence and Cry, Silent Movie, The Silence of the Lambs.
Forget the arthouse crowd for a moment. What does silence mean for the multiplex moviegoer? It can conjure fear. It can create suspense. It can instil anxiety. (”It’s too quiet,” say western characters waiting for an ambush). It conjures helplessness: the mute girl of The Spiral Staircase who cannot speak or scream. It conjures awe of the unknown. What are those silent lambs, or that black slab in 2001, if not a symbol of the universe’s silence?
Yet in keeping with the notion of silence as a system of opposites it can also stand for strength and assurance. It speaks for a self-belief that needs no words. The strong silent hero of westerns lives out Thomas Carlyle’s maxim: “Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better.” John Wayne in Stagecoach, Gary Cooper in High Noon, Alan Ladd in Shane offer actions not words. They are as noble in their distrust, as granite-like in their integrity, as the Red Indian for whom “white man speak with forked tongue.”
In Tom Horn, Steve McQueen adopts silence as a moral commitment. It is a hero’s heroic statement of faith. Condemned for a crime he didn’t commit, he refuses to speak at his kangaroo trial. As McQueen’s penultimate film, Tom Horn was omega to the alpha of his career start. In his first performances he was a hyperkinetic, motor-mouthed Method actor, interchangeable with half a dozen others. Doing everything he conveyed nothing. It was silence that made him. It was the courage to let the weathered face, blue eyes, wry jut of jaw, striating smile-lines, boyish-yet-manlike strut do the work, tell the story.
Silence as strength isn’t confined to males. Holly Hunter’s mute heroine in The Piano makes up in indomitability for what she lacks in verbal eloquence. She also comes empowered by writer-director Jane Campion to decouple silence from emotional repression. Her character sexualises, almost singlehanded, an entire swathe of the male population in backwoods-colonial 19th-century New Zealand.
Silence as strength is not confined even to humans. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg in The Terminator has, famously, a mere 16 lines of dialogue. They are less conventional speech, more the creations of some cosmic soundbite machine (”I’ll be back”). Yet the Schwarzenegger taciturnity won him superstardom while co-actor Michael Biehn, talking himself hoarse as the film’s nominal hero, remains filed in Hollywood under W for “Who?”
Silence is the great bipolar force in film. It enhances the sinister. Yet it weaponises the good. It strips the filmgoer’s nerves for scenes of terror and suspense. Yet it reassures him when a hero refuses to speak, steadfast against betrayal or self-betrayal. (Isn’t “he didn’t talk” a torture victim’s great badge of courage?) Silence extends the horizon of possibility in both directions.
Go further. In nearly every great moment in screen history silence is integral to the magic. I mean those moments when time is arrested and narrative is held still, when an epiphany paints itself like a swift, indelible stroke on the viewer’s mind.
I think of those split seconds in The Wild Bunch when the mute exchange of looks between the outlaws - men about to surrender their lives in an atoning blaze of violent justice - choreographs a decision beyond words. I think of Jean-Pierre Leaud in the last shot of Les Quatre Cents Coups gazing at the camera in a gnomic, challenging freeze-frame that says to the audience, “Now you give some answers.” I think of Klaus Kinski at the end of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, adrift on a raft, whirlpooling into cosmic inconsequence, his only companions a bunch of monkeys mutely scampering in a world without speech.
Silence in great films is a far frontier. We peer over the lip of existence, as if over the edge of a waterfall. The makeshift of words is drowned by the roar of the infinite. We are presented with something unearthly, unworldly: something that urges us to enter the work of art, to inhabit it, to be remade by it. Or be rendered, in some cases, powerless by it. (Perhaps we are the monkeys at the end of Aguirre).
One of my favourite movies - in the mad-but-beautiful class - is Guy Maddin’s Careful. A Canadian obsessed with silent cinema, Maddin fashioned this pastiche of a pre-talkie melodrama. The difference between imitation and reality is that where silent cinema combated its silence, shovelling in substitute “noise” where it could (inter-titles, music accompaniment, close-ups of bells or pistons), for Maddin silence is the drama and enthralment. The inhabitants of his alpine village, filmed in faux-primitive black-and-white studio sets, dare not speak loudly for fear of setting off an avalanche. They walk softly, talk softly, quarrel softly, love softly. Yet the quieter life is on the surface, the more turbulent and unappeasable become the underlying realities and emotions, from incestuous passion to family feuds to conflicts of faith to murder.
The same principle - less is more - explains Hitchcock’s fascination throughout his career with scenes that take place out of earshot of the audience. So often, we see but do not hear a vital conversation. It may be two men talking behind an office’s glass door, their animated silhouettes our only clue to what they are saying. It may be apartment-dwellers framed in their windows as they make out-of-range chatter in Rear Window. It may be Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain, listening to an all-important explanation from Paul Newman, which we cannot hear, on a studio hillock. Hitchcock knew that the word “suspense” implies suspension: that of the audience’s ability to know everything. If you starve the viewer’s appetite you increase his hunger, curiosity and engagement.
Mystery lies at the heart of it. Not just mystery in its parochial and plural sense (plot riddles, character enigmas) but mystery singular and momentous - mystery “religious”. The wonder of the unknowable. When we follow Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot around the mazes of the ultramodern world in Playtime, or watch Brigitte Helm metamorphose into a robot amid the fiery aerial rings in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or find ourselves teleported to a neoclassical bedroom, chill and eternal, on Jupiter in 2001, we have gone so far beyond words that cinema establishes its own space-station. It is far from Planet Theatre or Planet Literature. It is out there in the starry dark where true filmgoers live.
A picture tells a thousand words? Those and more. And silences speak forever, to those ready to hear.