IT is rare that we go to the cinema in search of silence.
More often than not, the cinemagoer seeks out colourful, large and loud films that are ripe for escapism. The superhero movie is the current oasis for such distracting pleasures. A realm of perpetual motion where the viewer is hardly ever left in silence with their own thoughts.
The booming superhero cinematic experience is some way from the infancy of the art form – a time when film was bound to silence by technological limitation. A time when audiences could be satisfied merely by the moving image alone, whether it be of Topsy the electrocuted elephant or – later – by the highly-physical acting of Charlie Chaplin and his peers.
Audiences now crave sound. Filmmakers and their teams (especially sound designers) are under pressure to deliver intricate detail and cohesion. The viewer is just as much a listener – and craves layered, high-quality surround sound to fall into an immersive state. Perhaps one day content creators will be under similar pressure to focus on other senses such as touch and taste.
This attention to sound is why the conscious decision of a filmmaker to make their work silent for more than 20 seconds – or so – is considered brave and somewhat of a novelty. John Krasinski’s film A Quiet Place seems to be a prime example of that.
If the trailers are anything to go by, A Quiet Place uses silence – and the pressing, fatalistic need for silence – as a means for building tension. When the silence is broken, bad things are bound to happen.
Silence in this way can be a simple but effective tool. Especially if you consider that when the film is silent, you feel an absence of sound not only on the screen but in your cinema chair too. It can make for an unnerving, uncomfortable shared experience – and perhaps why A Quiet Place looks so alluring.
This, of course, lends silence to the horror genre. The two mostly come together in a pre-jump-scare context as silence helps to build suspense before a visual jump and the accompanying sharp return of sound.
Of all the horrors to use silence in recent years, Hush and Don’t Breathe are the most noteworthy. Mike Flanagan’s Hush saw a deaf woman (played by the brilliant Kate Siegel) attempt to fend off a home invader. While Fede Alvarez and Nino Kirtadze’s film, Don’t Breathe, flipped the viewpoint. This time putting us in the home invaders’ shoes as they attempt to keep silent in the home of a gun-wielding blind man.
In both instances, audiences are left to soak in the uncomfortable dread of silence.
Last year, director David Lowery warned us we were in for an unusually quiet experience ahead of a screening of his ethereal film A Ghost Story. For Lowery, silence and stillness allowed him to create the reverse effect to action or horror flicks. Lowery’s prolonged, calm images gave space for meditative thought rather than unsettling anticipation.
As he put it: ‘I like when I go to see a movie that allows me time to think, when I’m not worried about when the next cut will occur. I don’t have to think about what is going to happen next. I can just exist in a moment and regard an image for a given period of time.’
A Ghost Story’s noticeably quiet experience was one of the true cinematic joys of 2017. A film far-flung from the noisy cinema we are usually fed.
A reminder that when silence is used artfully in film – whether it is for tension or for reflection – it can be golden. As the Tremeloes reminded us: ‘Silence is golden, golden.’