Sounds of Silence

A Commentary and Review of Patrick Shen's documentary film, “In Pursuit of Silence”
By John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director

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“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
        Austrian thinker, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922

What better way to try to express the elusive and most inexplicable meanings to be discovered in our lives than in the finest expressions of language, art, music, and perhaps the most powerful form of modern communication, film?

But when composer John Cage’s famous and controversial piece entitled, “4’33” -- consisting of four minutes, thirty-three seconds of total silence -- was first performed on stage on August 29, 1952, in Woodstock, NY, the enraged audience nearly ran the pianist out of town. (A story recounted in this month’s film.)

In 2010, author George Protchnik wrote In “Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise.” The book is aptly titled, with the gist of what the pages within contain. Like the subsequent film with the same title by Patrick Shen, the book deals with the benefits to be pursued and found in the unfathomable depths of quietude and patient listening, the distinctions between sound and noise, and the harmful, even deadly effects of noise on our health and well-being. But a book is a quiet companion, willing to wait silently on your bedside table until such time as you might choose to engage it, word-by-word, chapter-by-chapter, a little bit at a time.

On the other hand, engaging a filmmaker’s work on the same subject involves an immediacy that demands our attention to the sights and sounds that might be flung in our faces and assault our ears.  Every discerning film viewer becomes a critic that squares themselves off with the projection screen in front of them, and essentially says, “OK, show me what you’ve got!”

More than mere entertainment for an hour or two, the types of films Mountain Shadow typically strives to bring our audiences require some appreciation and interpretation of the pregnant pause, and the cinematic “device” of those empty, silent spaces between the spoken lines and action scenes.  It’s a test of patience, and even tolerance sometimes, for the average U.S. moviegoer; awaiting the possibility of something greater than overt and obvious un-ambiguity.

Certainly a weak film can offer fast-paced scenes, peppered with innocuous dialogue, but still drag interminably. Conversely, sometimes a lingering visual or a character’s pensive expression can leave one suspended for as long as a skillful filmmaker thinks you can stand it, and then asks for more. In this regard, Patrick Shen’s cinematic
pursuit does an eloquent and masterful job of what one contributor in the film calls “the language of the great silent spaces.”

The film begins with one of several stories about people who bear witness to the depths of silence. In July, 2013, a recluse named Greg Hindy set off on a one-year trek from Nashua, N.H. to Los Angeles. In this day and age, that may have been the easier challenge than the additional one he undertook; namely, a monastic-like vow of silence for the entire journey.

Communicating with others with only handwritten notes, he observed, “Time away (from noisy distractions) has given me perspective on what I should allow back into my life.” Interestingly, this traveller starts from that other extreme, and chooses the opposite tack of those of us trying to find little ways to ever so slightly reduce the decibel levels of our lives. But as the mute Greg Hindy scribbles it, “Silence is something to explore, not explain.”

On the subject of silence, we can all readily acknowledge a world engulfed in human-made noise, with deafening music, machines, and the near-madness of cable news shouting matches; and with the only seeming alternative being noise-cancelling headphones with alternative noise of our own choosing. But “silence is where we hear something deeper than our chatter,” one of the film’s contributors says. “And silence is where we speak something deeper than our words.”

Shen’s 81-minute documentary takes this notion to a whole different level. Described as a meditative journey of sorts, it requires more than tolerance in simply turning off our cell phones in a theater, sitting still and remaining silent. But in return, it offers more than relief from the incessant cacophony around us. There is a path to pursue, countering a world where noise has been recognized as its own form of pollution.

“If we could all learn to live with silence it would take a lot of pressure off of our planet,” another contributor in the film observes. “There wouldn’t be this constant seeking, seeking, seeking for something else to fill up that empty space. When what will actually fill up that empty space is going into the empty space.” Or, as yet another commentator says, “It’s not some kind of exoticism, or esoteric practice in a coded language. It’s as simple as shifting your attention from the things that cause noise in your life to the vast interior spaces that comprise our natural silence.”

“Silence has to do with an interruption,” says Protchnik, “and not just of sound, but of the imposition of our own egos on the world.” Put another way, perhaps, it is that unpretentious assertion regarding those uncertain boundaries of that world we otherwise can’t presume to really fully know. In other words, silence offers us a reminder, an invocation of unknown spaces, not merely emptiness.  Just as deep silence is more than the absence of noise, the seeming emptiness of silence is full of the possibilities of that which we do not yet know.

And, as Wittgenstein once put it, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  This is what a film like “In Pursuit of Silence” tries to tell us, show us, offer us.

You might think anyone who would make a film that strives to express through sight and sound the unfathomable depths of silence should beware. As should word merchants who write film reviews, for that matter! It is a little like those who try to speak most eloquently when trying to express the limitation of human art or language!  

In this effort, however, Shen does a very credible job.