Reel Sounds: The Power of Silence
This Reel Sounds column takes the form of a dialogue as it is an edited extract of an episode of Resonance FM’s visual culture show I’m Ready for my Close-Up broadcast in September 2008, in which Alex Fitch and Virginie SÃ©lavy discussed modern silent movies, including the work of Guy Maddin.
Alex Fitch: Before we discuss Guy Maddin, I want to bring up the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called ‘Hush’, which â€“ suitably as it celebrates a form of filmmaking that most people think is anachronistic â€“ was the last episode to be broadcast on TV in the 20th century. It won many awards and is based on German nightmarish tales like Struwwelpeter; by removing the dialogue from the soundtrack Buffy’s creators have brought something very primal and nightmarish to the storytelling.
Virginie SÃ©lavy: Yes, it is a bit like one of those nightmares that everybody has at some point: you’re running away in slow motion from something scary that is chasing you! It’s the same idea in ‘Hush’: the characters scream as they are attacked but no one can hear them. The other interesting thing is that it shows how powerful the human voice is when Buffy finally gets her voice back and screams, breaking the silence and killing the evil guys.
AF: Maybe it’s because we grew up on a diet of MTV, or rather TV influenced by MTV, where the combination of music and visuals became a new language for film. That said, people from the ‘MTV generation’ are increasingly reliant on bad dialogue rather than visual storytelling to drive the plot of their movies, which is bizarre.
VS: It’s not surprising that someone like Guy Maddin is attracted to primarily visual storytelling. I think that it’s much easier to create surrealist types of narratives or fantasy worlds with silent film because dialogue can make certain scenarios seem a bit trite or too literal. I think Maddin avoids the excesses of melodrama by not having dialogue. Through silent film you’re able to create a more poetic world, because it is not purely representational. It’s a bit like animation: it can’t be realistic, it doesn’t attempt to recreate the real world, which makes it a lot easier to create a convincing fantasy world.
AF: I thought Maddin’s first film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, which does have dialogue, wasn’t particularly good. It could just be because he was learning as a filmmaker, but I think he found his voice â€“ ironically â€“ when he started making silent movies. He started using dialogue again a few years ago in The Saddest Music in the World, but that works really well because it feels informed by his silent work. It is as if his development reflected the history of cinema itself: he had to learn how to make sound movies by doing silent films first. He doesn’t need dialogue to tell a story, but The Saddest Music in the World is as much about music as it is about pictures, and I guess that also came from his work on the ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary the year before.
VS: These modern silent films are different from the films from the silent era because old silent films didn’t have a synched soundtrack â€“ it was generally played live in each cinema, and improvised by the pianist. In a film like Cowards Bend the Knee, the soundtrack is very important and so suggestive and well used that you don’t feel the need for dialogue at all.
AF: It makes me think of animation, from Fantasia to episodes of Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes â€“ the ones that won awards were quite often the ones without dialogue, I’m surprised people haven’t noticed this correlation over the years! Film is such a visual medium; particularly when you’re making something like a cartoon, when you’re drawing a character 24 times every second, to have to then think about how the mouth might move and dub over it seems a needlessly convoluted way of telling a story.
VS: Definitely. Hitchcock once said something like ‘silent film is the purest form of cinema’, and I can really understand that, it’s often a much more poetic form than sound film. It is unfortunate that modern silent films, like Guy Maddin’s movies, or Esteban Sapir’s La Antena, are categorised as ‘arty’ movies, and therefore only get the attention of a minority audience, because if more people got to see them they would realise that not only are they stunningly beautiful, but they’re also really entertaining…