Have Your Say: The Sound Of Silence...

Associate Editor, Features; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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Have Your Say: The Sound Of Silence...
The industry of cinema has, in its century of existence, leapt over several big technological hurdles. Audiences were stunned in the 19th century by seeing a moving image at all, but immediately the race was on between inventors worldwide to improve the medium.
Great strides have been made since then: increases in sharpness, increases in length, adding color, adding 3D (seriously, they were onto that one a lot earlier than you might expect)...

And then of course there was the addition of sound.
Sound changed everything in Hollywood at the time and the transition has been the subject of many a film already, some of them very well-known even. Recently "The Artist" joined that list and judging by how it cleaned up at the Oscars there is still some fire in the subject when properly used.

Now the fun thing about new technology is that you can choose whether or not to use it. Take color: most films have it but it is universally acknowledged that there still is a place for artistic Black & White on occasion. Limitations can actually be used as an advantage, providing increased mood effects or beauty in compositions.

So here is my question: is it possible to make a movie without sound, the same as some do not use color (and some refuse to ever use 3D)?
"The Artist" got away by having "no sound" because it was about movies without sound. Can you think of another context, and please DO mention other films, where the absence of sound would be a deliberate boon?

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Ard VijnFebruary 28, 2012 7:13 AM

I'm trying to imagine a silent version of any of Michael Bay's Transformer films... Results are mixed.

Niels MatthijsFebruary 28, 2012 8:21 AM

Kitano's Dolls has one outstanding sequence where the sound is dropped completely (the segment with the yakuza). It's a jarring scene that becomes all the more powerful because the sound is entirely muted.

Not sure about entire films though. It might go well with fake-docu films like Blair Witch, adding to the tension as you don't even have sonic cues to alert you about looming dangers.

Ard VijnFebruary 28, 2012 9:10 AM

Even Takeshi Koike's "Redline" features a few moments of silence during both finishes and when a certain... car engine explodes. But thinking of the rest of that film without sound is sacrilege of course.
SACRILEGE I SAY!

Interestingly, "Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai" did start with a sequence deliberately trying to evoke the era of silent films. The animation is sepia-tinted, the print flickers and looks worn, the only sound is an orchestral score and the dialogue is shown using slides, not heard. But here again it is silent movies which is referred to, not silence as a tool in itself.

I just think it is odd that this visual artform has to rely on sound so much.

Kurt HalfyardFebruary 28, 2012 9:35 AM

I wish more filmmakers would set their 'exterior' shots in Space to silence, which would be the physically correct way to do so. Stanley Kubrick understood this (2001: A Space Odyssey). Joss Whedon understood this (Firefly). Stuart Gordon even chose to care! (Robot Jox). Few other filmmakers bother.

huffy08February 28, 2012 9:46 AM

First thing that comes to mind is Rififi. Twenty-something minute heist sequence is virtually without sound, though it wasn't so much a stylistic choice. Still amazing.

Niels MatthijsFebruary 28, 2012 10:10 AM

Film is an audiovisual artform. Music and sound can be an incredibly powerful tool in the hands of the right director, only in most cases it's just background noise. If anything, directors are way too conservative when using sound in films.

Taking away sound is usually a nifty anticlimax in emotional scenes (shots of people screaming or chaotic events on screen), though I guess that's also because it is so underused. Once people get used to it, it might lose its effect rather quircky.

A nice variation on this idea is found in the remake of Springtime In A Small Town. While a soundtrack seems to be lacking for most of the film, you do get the idea there is music playing in the background. A very weird and unique experience.

Kurt HalfyardFebruary 28, 2012 2:07 PM

Silence in film can be as effective or more-so than noise. Particular it has the ability to make an audience uncomfortable (see also: Darkness) which can be really make a moment or scene pop on screen.

Big fan of Rafifi her as well, good mention, Huffy08.

See also: The opening scenes of There Will Be Blood, Belleville Rendezvous, WallE, and lenghty chunks of Children of Men.

philFebruary 28, 2012 2:30 PM

I remember the serial killer film "The Ugly" having an effective sequence in which the killer attacked a deaf girl. Every so often the film would cut from the cacophony of the chase to her point of view and the sound would (obviously) drop out completely.

Transformers without sound eh? I guess not having to listen to Shia LaBeouf screeching his head off might make those films slightly more watchable.

It's hard to think of any specific area that might benefit from an absence of sound. Even scenes in films that appear to be silent often have low level, barely audible soundtracks. Horror films seem to be the obvious choice as to where a sudden lack of sound might be used to unnerving effect.

Tom StoneFebruary 28, 2012 4:39 PM

Watching Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox with the sound down was the only way I could handle that terrible adaptation of Dahl's book

ToryFebruary 28, 2012 6:19 PM

I LOVE Rififi. Wonderful, wonderful movie. Probably my favorite heist scene ever. Props for that one.

sitenoiseFebruary 28, 2012 9:30 PM

Not quite on point, but Kim Ki-duk, my introduction to East Asian film. Watched three by him where the lead actor never spoke a word. Changed my film life forever. Eureka: a twelve year old Aoi Miyazaki goes at least three hours into that one before she utters a word, and mesmerizes.

nolanbruce.bruceFebruary 29, 2012 2:40 PM

Veit Helmer uses a lot of silence (or at least a lack of dialogue) in Tuvalu and Absurdistan to great effect.

Jon PaisFebruary 29, 2012 9:38 PM

Tuvalu - wonderful picture!

Shelagh M. Rowan-LeggMarch 1, 2012 9:33 AM

I think 'silent' is not correct; The Artist has no spoken dialogue until the end, but it does have a score. Silent films would always (or perhaps almost always) have musical accompianment.

That being said, I think there is definitely a place for a silent film, or scenes with extended silence, in films. Maya Deren used silence a lot to great effect in her work. It might work better in experimental film though; audiences for narrative film likely couldn't handle long silences.

MichaelMarch 1, 2012 11:58 AM

Everyone, please stop referring to The Artist as a "silent movie." The soundtrack is continuous--even if a few scattered instances are quiet.

The Artist is a movie without any audible dialogue--until the final minute.

This is an important distinction to make becuase some critics have implied that mainstream audiences may be ready to accept silent cinema or more experimental use of sound. So far one popular gimmick film (albeit enjoyable and well made) does not prove this theory.

When Michael Bay's silent black and white Bad Boys 3 dominates the summer box office, maybe then we can continue this conversation.

Ard VijnMarch 2, 2012 4:24 AM

Everyone, please stop referring to The Artist as a "silent movie."

Yeah, I know. Guilty as charged and won't do it again. But THE ARTIST was just too good a jumping point for this question not to use.

SakariMarch 3, 2012 5:22 AM

I think a silent film means one without a soundtrack, so The Artist, having one, is not silent. Then again, I understand "real" silent films were normally not watched in silence - there was a musical accompaniment, perhaps an orchestra, perhaps a pianist. Sometimes a score was composed for a film, but for the most part, the makers had little control over what sound, in fact, accompanied their film's showing.
Probably music was played, but it cannot always have been the same music. We can only speculate what effect this had on the viewers. Was the experience in Yokohama the same as in Cairo, say? If it was the same film, but the music was different?

Let's say someone made a "silent" film now, that is, one without a soundtrack or with some kind of a "null" one. In today's world, it would also be watched in silence - because theatres are not equipped with accompaniment. This is not what makers of the "real" silent films had in mind. For them, having no soundtrack was not an (artistic) choice, but a fact of life.

billydakingMarch 4, 2012 9:34 PM

Michael, all silent movies, real silent movies, had music accompanying them, usually non-stop. Organ music or orchestral music was always composed and released with the films to be performed live.

SakariMarch 5, 2012 11:30 AM

"Always" seems an exaggeration. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_film