Have you ever been in an argument with a person whom you knew you weren’t going to convince, no matter what you said? At some point, you may have thought, “it’s better to keep my mouth shut and let them think what they want.” You’re not the first person to see the wisdom there – whether it’s biblical proverbs or the old adage that claims “silence is golden,” historical insight has attested to the occasional necessity of silence. And film is no exception, actually. We expect them to be filled with noise from dialogue, audio effects, and soundtracks. There are, however, times when a director can startle us with the lack of these normally prominent elements. For an excellent example, let’s turn to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006). As you can see from the video below, this is a film held together in a powerful way by a soundtrack that almost seamlessly complements its emotionally-raw visual composition.
Yet one of the most striking (if perplexing) scenes comes unaccompanied by music, or by any other sound at all. Hugh Jackman’s character is just walking through the snowy streets at night, absorbed in thought, paying no attention to his surroundings. He starts crossing the street and – HONK! He is almost run over by a car, and the shock of the horn and screeching tires is enough to jar us violently back into reality with Jackman.
In music, as in film, silence doesn’t sit well with us. Miles Davis famously said of jazz that “it’s the notes you don’t play” that are so important. And in a style of music that thrives on defying expectations with experimental progressions, a truer statement could not have been made. Jazz riffs can make our brains ache with dissonance, anticipating chords and conclusions that never come. We are so used to the old patterns, the familiar endings, that we might even have an unspoken feeling of being cheated by the music. I’m reminded of the ending of Jonah’s story in the Bible – at the end of chapter 3, God decides not to destroy Nineveh. Jonah, however, expected that conclusive chord of wrath; God’s silence “seemed very wrong, and he became angry.” Maybe it’s similarly telling that people dislike jazz, perhaps because it doesn’t give us what we are so accustomed to.
In music and films, we see life portrayed with all these subtle choices, driving us to emotions both high and low. And in a society that never rests, it’s all too easy to seek out that same pace in art, demanding constant stimulation in the expected fashion. Let’s ask ourselves whether we can cope when silences happen. Somebody once said that we fill in silences with our own hopes, desires, and wishes. And sometimes the silences can be filled with dissatisfaction. There’s a lot I could say – but how will you fill in the silences in your soundtrack of life?