Friday 28 December 2012

The Sound of Silence

(Cinemascope thanks Ms. Camiele White for this excellent take on the use of silence in cinema, which is particularly relevant in this darn noisy world of ours. The 1920 short that she begins her essay with, holds a special place for her - and not just for cinematic reasons - adding an affecting  personal touch to this fine piece)
Unlike many of my other posts, this one didn’t come at the hands and sounds of Björk. I was gifted a very rare video – a 10-minute clip of an early silent film, in fact. It was the first (and to my knowledge, only) silent film starring an all Native American cast. My undying admiration and love of my Native American heritage led me to watch every second of this silent piece of cinematic history, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was almost in tears. However, it wasn’t just the pull of my ancestry (my tribes being Blackfoot on my father’s side and Cherokee on my mother’s) that claimed all the working pieces of my heart. Rather it was the brilliance with which each moment was portrayed, the silence giving depth and purpose to each movement, each exclamation of physicality.

The film, The Daughter of Dawn, is an intimate look at the tradition and beauty of the Cheyenne people. However, more than that it’s simply the love story of two people who were promised to others but found their soul’s counterpart in each other. It’s a common tale, dating back as early as the 15th century, most likely even earlier than that. It’s also a story that through its many permutations can get bogged down with cliché and unoriginality.

But therein lay the beauty inherent in silent film. There are no words, no verbal inflections or cues. All the audience has is the use of human expression and interaction and a loose sense of a story. The grandeur in silence is its ability to transcend expectation and give new form and texture to something as simple as a love story.

There are films even beyond the silent genre that manage to encapsulate their brightest moments in the quiet space between scenes, the whispering tension between two characters. Some of the most incredible in my memory seem to find the fine balance between intimacy and physical largeness.

It’s pretty well documented that I tout Japanese animation as probably the Mecca of all things subtlety. But the truth is, the understanding of how to give the story room to express itself is something so innately ingrained in the very fabric of the culture itself, there’s little doubt who all the real masters of this concept of silence are. Though the films exhibit grand sweeps of illustration, form and soundtrack, the truest moments of elegance and bigness come from the quiet times when even a whisper can break the fragility of the moment. One of the most heartbreaking films ever produced, Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies opens with a throbbing silence, a pulsating murmur of a dying memory in the heart of a man forced to accept the maturity and fire of wartime Japan. The snapshots of his life drenched in blood and the refuse of adult anger and greed were all posed in shocking bluntness, each moment completely devoid of sound, save perhaps the crackle of fire that seemed to underscore the background music of the film.

However, while Fireflies was a testament to the power of absolute silence in jagged moments of anger and isolation, a film like Les Triplettes de Belleville was a master class in the art of dialogue – or lack thereof in this case. Indeed, there were perhaps five full lines of dialogue in all 80 minutes of the film; however, the music and animation managed to give great texture and depth to the story itself. Indeed, Sylvain Chomet seems to be a master of storytelling, allowing the characters’ experiences to make up for any lack of verbal communication. It’s all in the eyes, in the minute details. The sound itself is secondary, creating a thrumming background music that allows the story to unfold through the music and the movement of the characters.

Of course, the best horror and thriller utilize silence to give the films height and unending cinematic scope. Such films as Se7en and The Exorcist rely on the moments between moments to give the story texture. The tension is palpable, one is literally able to reach out and grab the thickness of certain scenes as if the film itself were attempting to kidnap the viewer and throw her headlong into the madness.

Then there are films like Nakata Hideo’s Ringu. Talk about incredible use of silence, the film is drenched in an unsettling amount of silence, provoking viewers to almost have to fill in the spaces. But what’s so masterful about the piece is that it simply basks in its own largeness without muddying up the story with erroneous bits of flash. It’s as simple as taking a photo, each shot only as big as it’s supposed to be. On the contrary, a film like Miike Takashi’s Audition is all big movements and gruesome moments. Though also heavily steeped in silence, in contrast to the other films, it’s the moments of sound that are so poignant. One almost yearns for silence in order to ease the sickening feeling of foreboding that comes whenever the crazed love interest opens her mouth and traps us in her grisly universe.

I’ve always found the lack of sound an even more exhilarating form of storytelling than even the most astute dialogue. It forces the actors to give in to the drama of the moment, each second poised at attention and ready to burst. I’ve found that even in the absence of music, there’s a bubbling anticipation that these silent moments seem to bring to an explosive crescendo without the crashing of cymbals or the heavy cut of bode instruments. Sometimes, my friends, silence is the breaking point that forces us to reexamine our understanding of sound.

Camiele White suffers from too much film information. In order to remedy her psychosis she’s decided to write about it. Right now, she’s trying something a bit different and writes has her own blog called Madasa Writing. If you want to engage in a little conversation (at your own risk) she can be reached at


Sam Juliano said...

Excellent piece here from Camille White! The spaces of silence in the deeply moving GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES resonate. I haven't seen DAUGHTER OF DAWN, but your recommendation is well noted. Yes, the minute details add up to everything in THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, a charming French animated feature, and yes with THE EXORCIST and RINGU the silence is of the unsettling kind.

Another world class director who uses silence (and spare sound in fact) is Robert Bresson.

Excellent piece here!

Shubhajit said...

Thanks Sam for appreciating this contribution by Ms. White, and for providing your astute observations & appraisals of some of the films discussed in the article. And yes, Bresson was a master in usage on silence - couldn't agree more with you on that.

David said...

Shubhajit, the email address is incorrect in the author byline.

Shubhajit said...

Thanks David for pointing that out. I've corrected it.