The Art of Silence

Some say that nostalgia is a thing of the past. Perhaps it always has been. Whatever the case, looking back is an act that inevitably puts one in great danger of heading towards one of two extremes.

At one end is the view that everything in the past was part of a utopian existence, now sadly passed away. The other, equally illusory notion, is that only the experiences of the present can lay claim to the shore of that hallowed land. We either veer towards dismissing the benefits of the present time for imagined positivity in the past, or trumpet the marches of the modern; conveniently eliding over the actual experiences of those who have gone before.

But two experiences this week, both with their roots in the past, have taught me again of the need to try and appreciate the need for balancing out the pros and cons of both past and present experience.

Some of the most easily recognised battle lines are drawn with the sharp stick of technology. Each new invention or innovation,once it has proved itself among us, seems to inhabit the thoughts and logic of all it touches. Once you have tasted this new thing, it would be churlish of you to turn back. Indeed, why would you? How could you? The assumption is that the bright new toy must, by dint of expediency and efficacy, be the better.

And so, within a generation, the very thought of having to perform certain tasks in ‘the old fashioned way’ soon becomes actually laughable. Perhaps some of these, which I think our grandchildren will indulge with a sad smile, will be familiar to us already as belonging to the ever lengthening list of ‘how we used to live’:

* Getting out of your seat to turn a record over, after it had played (perhaps) 6 songs

*Not being able to make a ‘phone call without using a telephone which was permanently placed out in the street

* Using an encyclopedia to find out any information that could not be found by asking your family

* (Probably having to visit the Library if your family were not rich enough to own an encyclopedia)

* Taking your ‘photos to a special shop to have them developed – leaving them there and having to return perhaps in two weeks time to collect them – and only then finding out how they had come out

*Going to a ‘Travel agent’ to book your holiday because only they had immediate access to the airline, hotel and travel company information. (The extent of your independence was to take away some more books to read before you chose your holiday)

*Once a film was no longer showing at the cinema, waiting anything up to four years before it would appear on television. (And even then it may be that your favourite was only put out once a year at best.) You had no other means of watching it.

…and the list goes on.

Once we have taken a step forward it seems all too easy to forget some of the benefits of the previous way of doing things. Once you have talking movies, who would want to go and see a silent film? And once you have Playstation and X box who would really want to read a comic? But, given the amazing storytelling that it is possible to achieve through modern methods, it would be futile to suggest that silent movies were a pinnacle of cinema. Nor would it be tenable to say that comics were, or are, the ultimate experience for escapists.

I think that the real lies somewhere between the two.

Hollywood, 1927: As silent movie star George Valentin wonders if the arrival of talking pictures will cause him to fade into oblivion, he begins a slow burning romance with Peppy Miller, a young dancer set to make it big in the new talking pictures. Watching director Michel Hazanavicius‘ silent film ‘The Artist’ was a wonderfully graceful experience. This graceful air was emphasised by the simple score without being shattered by the now ubiquitous high definition soundtrack. With no explosions, no mumbled dialogue, no shouting and yelling, no squelchey kisses, no squealing tyres, the film, starring  Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman, gave me an insight into the experience of moviegoers from the past.

Rather than having all one’s sensual cues presented on a plate I began to wonder if cinema had come full circle to try and regain something of the spiritual dimension of its past. There we were, locked into a building with over one hundred fellow humans, with all our personal stories untold. Together we sat, silently for the most part, contemplating and also generating a shared experience far beyond just sitting through another blockbuster.

The wonder is, that in the silent movie, it all happens in your mind, rather than your senses. But as you sit in the crowded theatre you realise that this is more than an individual experience. All the minds of the audience were actually congregating – somewhere between the screen and our seats – to collectively generate the larger world shown on the screen (or rather, the sounds, sighs and dialogue that were not on the screen), and share the enjoyment of it together. The real film was not showing up there on the reflective background, but at some equidistant space between our collective thoughts, experiences and imaginings.

So I was forced to review my previously somewhat dismissive attitude to pre 1930’s cinema. Instead, Hazanavicius’ film showed me something of what we have missed from that era in our high-tech, 3D, sensurround, CGI world. There was a time when it was enough to have the story set out in mime. You, the audience, were trusted with enough intelligence to work out the finer details.

(No need for unlikely dialogue to parcel out the clumsy and heavily laden script:

“Hey, isn’t that the guy who’s been following us?” (In case you hadn’t picked that up. You might have fallen asleep, been out to the foyer to get a coke or just be unobservant)

“Yes, do you think he’s up to no good?” (I just want to signpost this for you, to avoid any unnecessary surprises later on. We all know this isn’t ambivalence on his part, but again, you might not have picked up in the fact that he hasn’t just killed us.)

And I was left wondering if those early audiences took away with them stories that were more firmly lodged in their minds than many a modern film ever could be, because only a silent film can be entirely yours as well as a shared experience. It is a heady mix of what is shown on screen, cut (yes, pun very intentional) with our own world of emotion, sound and senses to make up the gaps.

As if to confirm this I was given access to another blast from the past in a seemingly unconnected way. Wandering aimlessly around a local antique cun Bric a brac shop I came upon some copies of ‘StarLord‘ comic from the late 1970’s. (Perhaps I’ll save all the publications details etc for another blog on the world of comics.) Suffice it to say that I quickly made up my mind to purchase what turned out to be nearly the complete print run of this short lived manifestation of the British SciFi comic scene in 1978.

No-one was more surprised by me to find that I actually remembered several of the strips as soon as I opened the pages. I cannot say I would have been able to recall the overarching story line, but I could definitely predict the adjoining panels and pages once shown the initial scene. In fact my new collection was soon in two piles. Issues I had read in 1978 and issues I had not.

It was then that I realised why. Surely the comic book was a successor (and precursor) to the silent movie in many ways? Not as fluid as the silver screen, but a wonderful miming of events nonetheless. No sound effects – not that you could hear – no, even the greatest ‘Karrumph!’ only really took place within your head. And there were the gaps – larger this time as they were whole sequences that the artist didn’t have space to show you – the gaps that would be filled using one’s own imagination.

Do I want to go back to the days of silent film? No, not really. But I would like to see more modern films made in this way so that more of us can experience a different form of storytelling. There is far more to the concept of cinema than CGI and 3D. Talkies should perhaps have been seen as a choice rather than an upgrade.

And do I want to go back to the days of 1978 when a silent movie, played out in a comic book, was all you had to keep you going until the next film release? I don’t really need to, because it seems the stories have never really left me anyway.

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About Stuart Dyer

Stuart Dyer, Christian Writer and Musician living in West Sussex, England. Works in the hope of producing the worthy novel or solo; giggles at Oliver Hardy, Peter Sellers and Spike Jones; admires Hudson Taylor, Dickens, Salinger, Bill Bailey and Neil Peart; listens from Wagner to Miles with lots of stops in between; dances to motown and aims to achieve balance in all things.
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