Form out of Formlessness

Just as silence doesn’t exist in the sonic realm, so too does it elude us in the cinematic.

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven and earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to sort nothing
A local habitation and a name.
-William Shakespeare

I lost count of how many times someone suggested we change the title of my new film In Pursuit of Silence to something more scientifically honest, like say In Pursuit of Quiet. They’d argue that because silence doesn’t exist as a physical condition and that if it were, it would be undesirable to most, the name of the film is misguided or inaccurate. I’m grateful to these early critics as it forced us to define the scope of the film and grapple with all the inherent paradoxes and challenges we were up against. How do you visually portray silence and what does a soundtrack for a film exploring silence sound like are questions that surfaced time and time again throughout the entire three-year process. If silence, as centuries of literature tells us, defies explanation then how do you even talk about it let alone make a film about it?

I considered making a silent film, one resembling perhaps the work of one of my cinematic heroes Nathaniel Dorsky whose entire body of work is silent. But that kind of work requires a level of maturity that I feel I hadn’t achieved yet. Plus, even if stripped entirely of a soundtrack does not the juxtaposition of images and composition choices say something or express something whether it’s a specific narrative or aesthetic and therefore negate silence? I also found the conventional documentary format problematic and, well, noisy. Experts talking at length as if in a lecture hall, visuals having no purpose other than to direct, specify or define often leaving no room for viewers to fill in the blanks on their own, and finally the occasional fly-on-the-wall moment to break it all up. Silence after all exists in the space between our words and points to a reality beyond words. Wouldn’t any attempt to discuss silence simply shatter the very material I intended to pay homage to? Just as silence doesn’t exist in the sonic realm, so too does it elude us in the cinematic. Naturally, these paradoxes left me wondering if making a film about silence made any sense at all.

“…not only does silence exist in a world full of speech and other sounds, but any given silence takes its identity as a stretch of time being perforated by sound.” -Susan Sontag, Aesthetics of Silence

As the Japanese might suggest, the shape and personality of the silences we encounter draw their identity from our surroundings, our past experiences, our memories, and even our emotional state. The hushed voices of a museum heard after the assault of a bustling city sidewalk has a vastly different quality to it than the dead quiet of an empty church interrupted by the occasional creak of wooden pews. Further, one might feel a sense of nostalgia in an old church whereas another might find it deeply emotional or perhaps suffocating adding yet another dimension to the experience. One person’s journey into silence doesn’t and shouldn’t look like the next person’s.

And so I began to ponder my own journey with silence for some clues. I thought about the existential yearnings of adolescence that sparked my journey inward. The theater listing in the newspaper that led to my visiting a movie theater one afternoon in 2007 to see Into Great Silence, the beautiful film by Philip Groning. The words of authors, filmmakers and poets like Max Picard, Nathaniel Dorsky, Mary Oliver, Rilke, Rumi, Henry David Thoreau, John Cage and Pico Iyer, to name a few, who write in a manner that embodies silence rather than attempts to demystify it. Then there was the music of composers like John Cage, Goldmund, and Arvo Part who treat silence as a collaborator rather than a space with which to fill their egos. It seems that my journey with silence had been informed and fueled in large part by an experience of words both spoken and written, sounds, and images. These experiences gave me insight, context, and the freedom to explore the spaces in between. These spaces in between, in fact, wouldn’t exist without the interruptions of sound perforating the silence. I wondered if I would have even known where to look for silence without these interruptions. What I began to discover was that silence and speech were inextricably tied to one another and that silence, far from being what we in the west would define as the “absence of sound,” is also inextricably tied to our experience of the world.

I felt this gave the team and I the permission to explore silence in a manner that mimicked our experience of the world. Just as the world informed my journey into silence thus far, so could the film, we thought, provide insight, context, and most importantly, freedom to explore the spaces in between. So, we began the work of filmmaking and the delicate work of selecting metaphors that would present an honest portrait of silence. A portrait that would — as all portraits do — capture a glimpse of something much larger and complex as it appears to the artist in a particular context and specific moment of time.

There is no answer to the questions about what a film exploring silence should look like and sound like of course. Like silence, it defies definition. However, it is clear that to be fair to the subject, we must think of it not as a vacuum or a state of nothingness but a much more complex phenomenon that is inclusive of our being and our experience in the world.

“How strange this silence would seem without these crickets here to explain.”-William Michaelian

I’m a LA-based filmmaker interested in art as a process of self alteration. My most recent film In Pursuit of Silence can currently been seen in select theaters in the U.S. This essay will appear in the forthcoming book Notes on Silence which can be pre-ordered here.

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