“What do we do when we fall?” a disembodied voice says in a pit of silence. A hand reaches into the light, into focus.
Batman Begins delivers this moment in the middle of its climax, as Wayne Manor burns to the ground around our titular character. That moment is the reason Warner Brothers hired Christopher Nolan, a then-relatively-unknown independent filmmaker, to take the reins of DC’s most financially successful and critically acclaimed superhero.
It’s a moment of absolute silence framed by a violent roar.
I’ll never forget seeing the first Fast and the Furious movie with my grandfather. Ten minutes in, the crushing volume of the movie nearly forced him to leave the theater. He was visibly shaken from the film’s noise. On our way out of the theater, he told me that some movies need to be quiet, or else all that noise is meaningless. And even though he was mostly talking about the ringing in his ears, I’ve always found that to be an amazing piece of advice for filmmakers.
A few years after The Fast and the Furious drilled a hole into my grandfather’s brain, I got interested in more ambitious fare.
That’s when I discovered Andei Tarkovsky, the master of cinematic silence.
More specifically, I saw Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, one of the most quiet movies ever made (that still used microphones). And while my friends fell into a deep sleep, I was totally entranced by what I was seeing. This was a filmmaker with a very unique vision of the world. He was confident in his storytelling and bold in his portrayal of a Medieval painter’s life.
Long stretches of Andrei Rublev are without any sound at all. It’s just a lonely man making his way from place to place. It’s Andrei working on a portrait. It’s a landscape filled with roaming early Christians in Russia.
One of the most affecting scenes of the film is characterized by its unique use of sound:
Tarkovsky knows exactly how to make his audience wander off into their own minds. Most filmmakers would hate the idea of lulling their audience into a daydream, but Tarkovsky relishes in it.
Because the film is so quiet, its epic battle scenes are that much more horrifying. The absolute noise of the great fights is overwhelming in the midst of all that silence, making them some of the most memorable in all of cinema.
Later on, Solaris made its way onto my radar. Here’s a film Tarkovsky made as a direct reaction to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only, unlike 2001, Tarkovsky, unbelievably enough, includes even more silence than Kubrick did.
Where Kubrick used “The Blue Danube” to carry his scenes of slow space travel, Tarkovsky used quiet shots of cars ambling along the highway in black and white. For several minutes. Uncut and uninterrupted.
We’re being transported to another world in the silent montage. Some have claimed the scene is too much filler, but I’ve always found it essential to the tonal shift the film takes in space. It’s a palette cleanser. We’re leaving Earth and all of its drama and politics. We’re moving into the silence. In the case of Solaris, silence doesn’t necessarily mean lack of sound. Silence is a lack of all noise, visual or otherwise. Strange laser noises may appear on the soundtrack during the highway sequence, but the cars are doing nothing of consequence. It’s a quiet drive home, as any of us would call it had we taken the trip ourselves.
It’s hard to find American films that embrace silence in the same way. Terrence Malick would be the most obvious choice, with The New World being the best example, but that film’s fate might be the reason we don’t see more silence.
The most popular American movie to utilize cinematic silence in the last thirty years is probably Cast Away, appropriately enough. But even then, in all that silence, Chuck Nolan is still talking to Wilson and saying, out loud, everything he’s doing for us to hear.
When Chuck leaves the island, Alan Silvestri’s sentimental strings pick up, even though the silent contemplation of leaving home would have been more appropriate.
I’m not saying that noisy movies are always bad, and that quiet movies are always good. I’m just saying films that use truly quiet moments may give their louder scenes more poignance. With Batman Begins offering us a great example.
My friends fell asleep during Andrei Rublev because it’s nearly four hours long, black and white, Russian, and very quiet. I don’t blame them for getting sleepy. I don’t expect every movie to be quite so bold, but I do think the film gives us an excellent lesson in the power of sound design.
David Lynch works as his own sound designer on his films because he knows its importance. Blue Velvet is one of the most aurally exciting films ever made, not because it’s silent or loud, but because it knows how to do both at the appropriate times. Long stretches of Blue Velvet are loud and crass, with Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth acting as essentially a human guitar distortion, but Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy spends much of the movie in a silent state of shock and terror. Her scenes are, more often than not, just images set against a blank soundtrack. And that’s why Frank Booth is so scary. He breaks that silent wall.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a new Tarkovsky film since his death of a heart attack almost thirty years ago. The film follows a handful of policemen as they try to find a body that’s been buried somewhere in the Turkish countryside. It takes place over the course of a single night, and it often focuses on individuals as they think out loud about their lives, their country, and the morality around them.
Ceylan’s film is one of the most quiet I’ve ever seen. It’ll test the patience of a casual moviegoer, but for those who like to work for their art, it’s a spellbinding piece of cinema. Not only does it take place on the beautiful farmland of a middle eastern country, but it allows the viewer to soak in the visuals without telling them how to feel with music. Large portions of the film focus on how grass blows in the wind, or how an apple rolls down a hill and into a creek.
It’s an extreme example of a filmmaker utilizing silence to make a point, as is The New World or any of Tarkovsky‘s films, but they’re essential for audiences who have grown tired of the merciless noise of huge-budget spectacles.
Like the work of Thomas Pynchon or John Cage, the challenge of the work is part of the appeal, and what those works can teach mainstream artists is important.
It’s the relationship between high fashion and regular, Target-bought outfits, as so eloquently explained in The Devil Wears Prada. Just because Batman Begins isn’t a Tarkovsky film, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been informed by the silence they utilized. It’s an artform to treat sound design so delicately, and its an art that needs to continue to be studied.