I have a lot of thoughts on silence. Like, I know this is a chat/blog that centers around audio, and mostly music at that, but there are some really, really interesting things you can do with silence.
This is most notable in film, when it comes to art. Silence has a big role to play, bigger than most give it credit for. One of the things it’s best at doing is tagging a film as being a certain genre. A good sound design will inform the viewer just as much as the visual or narrative elements.
To be clear here, sound design is the entire soundscape of a film. It’s more than just the dialog that makes a film, and it certainly is more than just the soundtrack. There’s value to both, of course, but they work in different ways than, say, a novel or an album.
That, after all, is what makes film its own unique art form.
Fair warning, this post has more spoilers than a 2002 Honda Civic with a fart can. Continue at your own risk.
Also, since I’m using clips of movies off YouTube, I fully expect these links to break. I’ll try to give descriptions.
Three Approaches to Battle
I love sci-fi, speculative fiction, and other forms of — gasp — genre fiction, an unfairly maligned term used to differentiate such writings from the more serious Literature. I have a very hard time writing it, despite reading and watching so much of it, though, so I try my best to learn from what I see.
One of the big things that comes out of genre fic, though certainly not the only thing, is action and battle. This is especially prevalent in film, as this makes for a very impressive scene or act.
Sound design, for the large part, follows this. If you think of any of the big battles of Star Wars, it’s easy enough to see: it’s all action, all the time, and we’re on the edge of our seats.
We’re on the edge of the seats because the film tells us to be: the cuts become quick, the contrast goes up, the environmental noise increase while, the dialog generally decreases, and the music is…what’s the phrase…pulse pounding? Heart racing? You can fill in the blank.
This is very effective, and has seen very little in the way of decline over the years, but it isn’t the only tactic to getting the audience interested in a battle scene.
One alternative tactic that has been used to great effect is, for lack of a better term, the “cut the music” tactic.
The battles in The Lord of the Rings were a fantastic example of this. In this scene, the Rohirim charge at the battle of Pelenor, we see the one of the last charges of Theoden and his Rohirim against the forces of Mordor.
At the beginning of the charge, we have our call to battle. As the speech grows in intensity, so does the music. This continues straight into the charge itself. In this, we see how the charge is this huge, romantic part of fighting, that to die in a charge like this must be something heroic. This is shown by the fact that those cut down by arrows do not slow the charge or the music.
And then the music stops.
The horses don’t, of course, they keep going. The battle keeps being fought, but suddenly, it isn’t romantic anymore. It’s real and immediate and horrible and loud. This crops up several times, even within the same battle. There will be some upper hand won and the romanticism will creep back in, only to be destroyed by, say, Oliphaunts (and where, might I ask, were they hiding those such that Theoden was surprised to see them?).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, we have the “cut the action” tactic.
The Cornucopia bloodbath from The Hunger Games is, far and away, the best possible instance of “cut the action” that I can think of. As Katniss is raised up toward the field of the Cornucopia, all sound of action — dialog or environment — is silenced.
This is an extremely poignant means of pointing out the dissonance and disconnect between those on the battlefield — or those outside the Capitol in general — and those within the Capitol. For one, it’s a battle for life or death, a means of at least a small spark of glory for one’s district. For the Capitol, it’s the Superbowl.
Mixed in with the airy synths is a piece by Steve Reich, the first movement to his Three Movements:
This plays along with the scene of children killing each other, while still keeping its distance. It’s enough action for the Capitol, while still keeping them from attaching to individuals on the field. Notably, the introduction of this theme comes as Katniss begins to realize that this is real. She has, up until now, been frightened and overwhelmed, has gone through instruction as to the pageantry of the Hunger Games, but only now does she realize that actual, literal death is involved.
Environmental sound comes back only for a brief moment as Katniss runs into another player, and then fades once more as the two decide to leave each other alone, showing the audience that it is humanity and mercy that should be tied to reality, not this spectacle.
It’s heavy-handed directing. It’s good directing. It indicates that the audience should see this dissonance, without explicitly pointing it out to them. Add in flash-cuts and shakycam, and we, as the audience, are at the edge of our seats just as effectively as if there had been grand, John Williamsy music backing the scene.
Slow and Fast Climaxes
All of this leads into the core point, which is that the use of silence of various sorts can act as a genre tag. In the above movies, we’ve seen the blatant This Is Action from Star Wars turned into a few different angles. First, it’s turned into a romantic epic in Lord of the Rings, and then into a dystopian YA hellscape by The Hunger Games.
So, let’s not put to fine a point on it: the soundscape of a movie is one of the prime signifiers of genre.
The Fifth Element is a fantastic action flick — one of my favorites — which does an excellent job of subverting expectations by mixing a boatload of themes into it. In some respects, it’d be almost comical. It is comical in many places. It steers clear of comedy, though, and maintains its action status
This scene…well, I think it’s actually quite difficult to talk about The Fifth Element without discussing The Diva Dance. In this scene, in the midst of a thriller where a confused Bruce Willis tries to track down mysterious stones, we all sit down to watch a bit of opera.
Slowly but surely, the action is mixed back in, until we crescendo at the end of the dance itself. This is a fast climax. We’re shown a set up, and we race race race into the action until kablooey. Kablam. Whatever the kids are saying these days.
That we sit at that high intensity level for, like, twenty minutes after that is a good example of what we’d call in choir “park-and-bark”. But that’s neither here nor there.
Another good example of a fast climax is The Matrix. There are lots of climactic scenes in the film and this, the penultimate, shows it best.
Again, as the fight progresses, so does the tempo until we wind up with Neo nearly getting trained by Agent Smith. The climax is fast and, with it, comes the genre tag of “action”.
Speed plays a lot into what defines a movie’s genre. If we were to take a movie — hell, even the same actor, in one case — and slow it down, we veer wildly away from genre, and wind up more in thriller-ville.
A Scanner Darkly is, therefore, not an action movie. It may feature Keanu Reeves (who is a good actor and I will fight you if you say otherwise; he just got some shit roles), and it may feature some plot elements that totally could head into actionland, but instead, we get a vomity and shaky sort of…half climax that points heavily at this denouement:
By this point, Reeves’ character has been destroyed by the drugs he was taking while snitching on the drug users and dealers. He has experienced too much and collapsed down into a shell. He’s brought in and turned into mindless slave labor.
And yet, at this moment, a bit of him as a person shines through. He sees something on the ground, and bends down to see a little blue flower.
A whole field of little blue flowers. The very ingredient used to make the drugs that destroyed him being grown by the company that runs the rehab clinics. Everything starts to fall into place while slow, meandering strings seek out every bit of dissonance and unwind it. The climax, the resolution, takes place after the end of the movie, as the strings get higher and higher until they cascade down and by then, we’re long past any shots. And the tempo never budges.
Solaris is another example of this. It got a lot of hate, too, which I thought was unjust. Perhaps it’s because this whole movie takes place
That said, it’s not a slow movie. The plot progresses steadily as the silent character of the planet Solaris makes itself known in increasingly distressing ways.
The movie just happens at the pace of a heavily regimented life aboard a space station being impinged upon by stress. That’s all the planet is, really, is stress.
As before, there is a climax of the movie, but it’s a confusing one. The intensity grows to the point where we’re preparing to abandon the space station. We move forward to back on earth, then realize that, no, the stress has become too much, and we’re lost. And then…we don’t have to think that way anymore.
I will unabashedly admit that this is my one hundred percent absolute favorite soundtrack of all time. It’s great on its own, and it’s — wait for it — stellar with the film. Please, please, do yourself a favor and check it out. Plus, it’s by Cliff Martinez, of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame.
The Importance of Silence
I started thinking about this post in terms of writing about music, but silence, I think is the key.
In film, you have the soundtrack, the dialog, and the environmental sound. All of those are produced mostly, if not entirely in some films, in post. And all of these can be silent, each in their own way and each to its own effect.
Silence is incredibly important. It’s as important as the rest of the sound that goes into the soundscape of a film.
Saving Private Ryan goes to show us the importance of silence. In fact, there is no musical soundtrack for the first half hour of the movie. It is one hundred percent bleak, horrible, messy, disjointed, confused, disgusting war:
ss, first person pov, 90% environmental, 10% dialog, 0% soundtrack)
We start with four and a half minutes of unrelenting, raw, immediate sound. There is nothing but the static of something awful happening to all of the characters.
This is only broken when Tom Hanks’ character winds up shell-shocked. For once, instead of flashing past all of the awful atrocities of war, we’re struck dumb as we watch people we know, people we’ve seen on our LCI being torn to shreds.
The silence and fog clears after a minute and a half, and we’re back to hell for two more minutes, then another shell.
Throughout all of this, not only is there no music, but almost no dialog. It isn’t until we wind up slammed against the beach calling for Banglores to tear apart barbed wire do we start to see that there’s a reason for this madness. A mad reason, but it’s there.
Finally, take Bong Joon-ho’s 2009 film Mother. Silence of all types plays so much of a role in the film that it might as well be its own character. The main character is never even named, after all.
Notably, though, look at the way sound is manipulated in the opening and closing (embedding is disabled on the videos, you’ll have to click through) shots: our unnamed mother struggles internally, and then begins to dance. It’s echoed, pure and simple. The song is even the same.
The closing shot is what holds the more power in terms of silence, though. You move down through a bus of dancing mothers, ecstatic and loud, and then that noise fades to silence, leaving only environmental road noise. There are no longer any people here with the mother. It is just her and the road. Her and all of the burdens she’s carried.
And then she opens her case of acupuncture needles. We see her hunt for the point which will untie her heart and let her feelings loose, and then in goes the needle, and then…
And music. She rises from her seat and begins to dance.
I cannot begin to state how much I loved this movie. It’s so achingly slow, but it’s all so, so beautiful. Don’t listen to just me, though:
I know, strange animals, strange audio, mostly music. But you gotta trust me, silence fits in there, too. When you take something like music, narrowly, or audio as a whole and apply it to story, you have a lot of different directions you can take. The story will have a genre, but if you stick a thriller soundtrack on top of an action movie, you’ll have…a mess. You’ll have meaningful silences that would be forwarded by Wagneresque strings and horns. If you put soaring strings over a quiet family drama, you’ll have turned the mess upside down. You’ll have big bangy music over what would best be shown by silence.
Sound design, and particularly silence, go a long way toward making the presentation of a story’s genre effective.
I’m not a film studies student, nor even that much of a film buff, but I love — love — soundtracks. I majored in composition in school to focus specifically on them, second only to choral music. I have one surviving soundtrack composition and it’s old. These are all just Makyo-colored observations.
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