The Silence of Silents

Previously on Self Distract… I’m a writer and I talk too much but still I wanted to persuade you that shutting up is a good thing. I believe you looked at me like that. But what was on my mind was how effective silence is in drama and Heide Goody pointed out that there were these entire wordless feature films that I’d forgotten.

She mentioned Buster Keaton and his silent movies are amazing.

Yet even as I was nodding in agreement and even as I was thinking she’s dead right and I should’ve thought of the silents before, I was also thinking about this.

There are silent films that didn’t need to be silent.

I mean movies and TV that deliberately chose to be silent for effect rather than because they simply didn’t have microphones.

I’m trying to remember the name of a television drama, some kind of military thing, where it went silent for one episode for no reason. Well, no drama reason. No story reason. I imagine it was several years into the run and the production team were bored.

Instead of characters speaking to one another, you had them pointing and gesturing like they were in a clothes catalogue. In every other episode the characters were played at least as if they intended to look believable but here they were amdram and if any had a moustache, you expected toiling.

Was it called Commando? Something like that. I can’t find it and I’m not one hundred percent unhappy about that.

Whereas I have found and will watch again one episode of The Prisoner.

It’s perhaps my favourite episode, Many Happy Returns by Anthony Skene, and for all sorts of reasons but one is that nobody speaks for about the first 20 minutes – and it is superb.

The silence is so well done that you don’t realise it’s silent. It’s so much a part of the story – Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) wakes up to find the Village is deserted – that it’s natural. He doesn’t speak because there’s nobody to speak to.

That’s so obvious that you don’t think about it at all, you don’t think about how unusual this is for television drama. And then when you do hear speech it is a huge jolt.

That’s using silence for drama.

Do you know, I just looked up who wrote it and found that the script has been published. What’s more, I’ve got the book it’s published in. Right, that’s going to be my 421st script read of the year.

That book is The Prisoner: The Original Scripts – Volume 1 and Many Happy Returns is on Blu ray shiny disc.

Shut up

It doesn’t always follow that every writer likes every piece of great writing but, come on, you can’t fail to love every brilliant second of Trainspotting’s script by John Hodge. Only, I was into that film, entirely and completely engrossed from the opening half a second.

And specifically the opening half a second where there isn’t a word. Isn’t a sound.

I know it’s only half a second, maybe 20 frames at most, but the silence is completely arresting. For that one fraction of a moment you’re seeing a street scene before feet come down out of the top of frame and Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life bursts in. Take a look:

Choose life, eh?

Then I suspect few people have ever compared Trainspotting to Gerry Anderson’s UFO, but here goes. Watch the famous title sequence and see what I’m seeing.

The far future of 1980. And the far past of camerawork focusing on a woman’s backside. Anyway. After the Century 21 Television sting, it’s silent for what seems like an age but is actually about a second.

It’s a punch. Maybe because it’s a little different from the usual, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think that silence is a hugely powerful punch.

I think silence can also make you hold your breath. There’s that recent horror film A Quiet Place where you have to shut up to survive, for instance. I’ll never know how effective it is because it’s horror and I’m a wimp. Then there’s a noisy thriller in cinemas right now – I don’t want to spoil it just to make one small point – but it features a single moment of silence and that made me jump.

Flashback 22 years to the first Mission: Impossible film. If you’ve seen it, you remember the very long silent scene as Tom Cruise steals a list from a PC in a CIA vault. Forget the hanging off buildings and aircraft he does in the later films, this silent scene is excruciatingly tense. I love it. If you’ve a little while, take a look at this short video analysing the scene and its production. I can’t show it to you unless I point out that its clips from the television version of Mission: Impossible are from the forgotten 1980s remake instead of the 1960s original, mind.

Also, this is a YouTube video so in the midst of interesting detail it gets childish for a moment or two. Silence would’ve been better.

I’m conscious that for a piece about shutting up, this week I’m showing you an awful lot of audio and video clips. But I think this is all using the same muscles you do in writing. I think video editing is like drafting. I definitely think a film is finally written in the edit suite.

Which means I am a fan of sound and film editor Walter Murch. He works on everything and talks about it too. Of the very, very many lectures of his you can find online, here’s an excerpt where he talks about silence. It’s about the effectiveness of it but does also cop to how sometimes sheer production frustration can create art.

I’ll shut up now. And get on with some writing.