The new silent era: how films turned the volume down

A Quiet Place is a smart, scary little shocker that uses restraint in the area of sound to enhance its visual horrors. Give or take the score, the odd whisper and the occasional blood-curdling roar, John Krasinski’s film deals in cinema’s most underused commodity: silence. This will be music to the ears of anyone overwhelmed by the cacophonous use of sound in modern film, but there is a narrative reason too: the movie is set in a world terrorised by blind carnivorous monsters with acute hearing. The only way to avoid their gnashing jaws and lunging talons is to keep shtum. Communication between the main characters – a family of five hiding in an underground shelter – is conducted chiefly through sign language, lending a small advantage to the eldest child, Regan, who happens, like the actor playing her (Millicent Simmonds), to be deaf. It’s as if the whole world has come round to Regan’s way of hearing things, or rather not hearing them.

The scenario is the inverse of that in Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, also starring Simmonds, this time as the deaf runaway Rose. She appears in those sections of the film set in 1927, which are shot, as The Artist was, in the style of a silent movie, accompanied here by Carter Burwell’s busy-bee score. Leaving the cinema one afternoon, Rose notices that the building is closing temporarily to allow newfangled sound equipment to be fitted. The era of the talkie has arrived, putting her cruelly out of sync with the movies she adores.

Both A Quiet Place and Wonderstruck attempt to reverse that alienation process by placing audiences as closely as possible inside the eyes and ears of their deaf characters. That noble aim was achieved most effectively by the 2014 Ukrainian drama The Tribe, set in a boarding school for deaf-mute adolescents and performed entirely in sign language without subtitles. Deprived of auditory cues, the non-deaf viewer has to fight to gain purchase on the meaning of each scene; the only sounds are the thump of fists against chests or palms slapping palms as signing hands flutter like flightless birds. Some of the film’s surprises could not have occurred in a hearing context, such as the weirdly subdued road accident in which the victims’ deafness renders them oblivious to danger – an “It’s behind you!” moment echoed in the scene in A Quiet Place when Regan fails to hear a monster approaching. Being blind, it is unaware of her presence also.

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