Nostalgia can manifest in many forms at the cinema.  Sometimes it can be overt, sometimes it can be unconscious but film is most definitely the medium to explore its inner workings.  A number of films have recently used sound, not just in an interesting way, but as a major part of the narrative and character focus whilst touching upon nostalgia.  These range from the superb horror Berberian Sound Studio (2012) to the average The Artist (2011).  The latest film that uses sound as the starting point to an emotional journey, Silence sees the debut feature of director Pat Collins.  Collins’ background as a documentary filmmaker shines through within this layered but at the same clear and delicate film which mixes a number of elements to create a scrapbook of ideas.

Silence follows the character of Eoghan as he ventures from his current city of Berlin, back to the land of his past in order to fulfil the new job of trying to capture silence on audio.  The film instantly sets up a contrast between the city and the countryside though this later becomes a far more complex, emotional divide.  In many ways, Silence is far more about contrast than the inherent “lack of” that the title implies.  All of the themes touched upon within the film are more to do with contrasts and context than a void created by a lack of people.  The silence in question is slowly defined more of being born of a place without people but the film rarely ventures into creating an absolute for it, instead showing the journey and the process to be far more enlightening than the prize at the end of an endless, impossible quest.

Relationships With Sound.

“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” – John Cage

Though the quest becomes far more based around nostalgia as Eoghan progresses through his old countryside haunts, Silence still contains a number of interesting sound ideas.  This first becomes apparent in the city of Berlin during the film’s prologue.  Eoghan is explaining why he is going away to record silence.  At first Eoghan’s argument seem mystical and unfounded but as the conversation progresses, the viewer is locked out of it by the sounds of the city, more specifically a passing train.  The conversation is drowned out by the man-made sound hinting that the characters can’t even discuss their own lives let alone try and record silence.  This sets up one of the main contrasts though, as Eoghan journeys on through the marshland and fields of Ireland, the contrast begins to blur.

The film’s general soundscape is also interesting in that the diegetic soundworld tends to have a cascading effect.  The dialogue or general sound from one scene to another, shifts as much as the trees in the breeze with characters talking over footage of themselves just before they have spoken.  This allows comment on previous scenes to flourish and illusions to build, especially over the archive footage present which will mostly have been silent otherwise.  The cascading is present throughout but is especially prevalent when Eoghan visits a photographic museum.  As he asks the owner about her connection with the museum, the personal nature of her answers becomes entangled with the footage which shows her at separate points showing Eoghan around but not specifically discussing what the viewer can hear.

Equally as affecting is using some of Eoghan’s recording sound over the archive material which seems to fit uncannily well to the footage that ranges from Super 8, 8mm and 16mm footage.  The wind in one particular scene fits well over the battered wind-swept footage but its linking of sound to the past is one of the key aspects that bring in the waves of nostalgia.  The sounds works so well for the older films that perhaps these are the memories being lit for Eoghan as he listens to the sounds of what he is recording.  Eoghan even seems to rely on sound for acknowledgment as to what is around him.  As he is staying in his first hotel, he opens the window to hear the sound of people enjoying themselves.  He then closes and opens the window a number times, almost taking a quiet pleasure in controlling the feelings of solitude and company as if tempting himself away and mentally preparing for his exploration where he thinks he will not have the choice of solitude; where isolation is meant to be a given.

Another startling aspect of Silence, if slightly ironic, is the consistent presence of music which takes on a number of forms.  Sometimes the music appears to be coming from the tape-deck in Eoghan’s car.  Rory Gallagher and Sandy Denny play but they are mixed outside of the characters soundworld acting more like a nondiegetic source score.  These may be more excursions into the romantic and the nostalgic; music often is in film but the choice of artists seems to hint at more personal reasons.

Landscape.

Any landscape is a condition of the spirit.- Henri Frederic Amiel

Though there are obvious ties to the landscape within the film and the narrative aims of the character, Silence is built around a scrapbook of scenery.  From marshland to riversides, fields to hills, Eoghan searches out for the silence, gradually getting closer and closer to the island where he was originally from.  In this sense, the job of recording silence seems more like an excuse and even when he is interrupted in each recording by a number of different people, he doesn’t seem too bothered.  The landscape again presents one of the film’s contrasts though not in the way of the initial city contrast.

The empty but beautiful spaces seem full of interesting people brimming with stories related to silence and sound.  The contrast however seems to do with Eoghan and the landscape itself.  While he is quiet, contemplative and gentle, the landscape seems stark and dramatic, especially when a wind is brewing or a river is violently flowing.  These breezes seem to make up the majority of the sound that Eoghan records along with the bird calls of giddy Lapwings and Avocets, highlighting again the absurdity of trying to record a simplistic silence.  This is why the search quickly identifies the silence as being produced somewhere away from people.  It is people that define silence and therefore a lack of will produce it; logic that is handily flimsy enough to carry Eoghan all of the way back home to his empty house on Tory Island.

Silence fits well into the group of landscape driven films.  It sits nicely alongside the likes of Kevin Brownlow’s Winstanley (1976) and Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea (2011) whilst still retaining a quintessential Irish-ness through music and dialogue.  The latter film in particular shares some resemblances, especially when Eoghan is shown to be camping outside.  His character in some ways resembles Jake, living away from the world in a self-imposed solitude.  The two films even share similar shots with both protagonists’ having their isolation shown by their faces being lit up in the dark by a lonely camp fire.

Outside of this, Silence ventures more into the sensory.  Though the film has obvious ties to sound, there is also a great sense of touch.  Eoghan acknowledges the world around him through touch as well  whether he’s rubbing a small plant between his fingers or touching the moss on a tree to see how it feels.  This again brings forth nostalgia but it is rarely confirmed, only hinted at. Perhaps these feelings of moss bring back childhood memories of exploring, or maybe they confirm the world to Eoghan who seems distant and lost.

Nostalgia.

It is right that he too should have his little chronicle, his memories, his reason, and be able to recognize the good in the bad, the bad in the worst, and so grow gently old down all the unchanging days, and die one day like any other day, only shorter. – Samuel Beckett

Nostalgia within Silence has been a point consistently returned to but it’s the film’s overwhelming preoccupation.  Each of the characters Eoghan meets seem equally engulfed by it, whether they are living by it or through it.  The first man to interrupt his filming takes him back to his mother’s house where he writes.  The conversations within the film are naturalistic, almost private, showing Collin’s documentary feel.  Some people are playing themselves, adding naturalism to the performances, though the mixture of the two makes it difficult to distinguish.

As the previously mentioned archive footage flitters in and out, they seem as aged and as nostalgic as the contents of the photographic museum that he visits.  This museum sums up Eoghan’s journey in a microcosm with the character’s recordings and Collins’ film acting as outer forms of the museum itself only on the personal level of the character instead.  The character relates history through objects of memory, whether they are stories of people no longer there or folk songs and birds.  While at the house of Michael Harding, he sings an old song for him to remind Michael of the melodies.  This feels like another escape, perhaps ironic as the obvious, aural presence of a person is leading him back through nostalgia just as much as the proposed silence of people’s absence on the moors.

As the conversations about home continue, the silence becomes a side-point representing more of Eoghan’s distance from his past than an audible phenomena.  A final conversation with a young man about the island where he lived drives him to visit it on the boat.  He has a conversation with an older man about the island and how the Corncrakes are doing.  His old house is now derelict with broken windows and aged walls.  It is the final place for Eoghan in the film but is a fitting one for, in finding the empty rooms absent of people, he also finds the closest to his perceived silence that he’ll probably discover.  Home is where the heart is and the heart of Eoghan is silent.

Silence is released in cinemas on 07/08/2013.

Adam Scovell

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4 thoughts on “Silence (Pat Collins, 2012) – Landscape and Nostalgia.

  1. I would add ‘Neighboring Sounds’ to the list of recent films where sound plays a huge role. Highly recommended.

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