Silence is something I do not understand. Being quiet has never really been my thing. Every parent/teacher meeting during my elementary years included some version of, “Patricia is delightful to have in class and very intelligent, but she needs to learn when it’s time to be quiet. She talks a LOT.” In fact, when I’m less than loud and chatty, someone will usually ask if I’m okay, and usually, I’m not. I even talk in my sleep! And I don’t stay silent when I’m angry—no, I’ll let fly at that moment. I’m usually quiet only when I’m hurt and I’ve given up on something or someone.
Silence has its uses, though (at least I’ve heard that). It is a fantastic way to cruelly punish a loved one who you are annoyed with; it is an effective (though cowardly) way to end a romantic relationship; and it is the perfect way to showcase a hot Frenchman and win an Academy Award.
Which brings me to “The Artist,” this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner and the focus of my “big day out” this past weekend.
For those of you who don’t know, and many don’t, “The Artist” is a black-and-white silent movie about silent movies. I’d been wanting to see it, and thought I’d missed my chance, but then it won five Oscars, gaining it a little more time in movie theaters.
Hot Frenchman aside, the movie is fantastic—it’s beautifully shot and cleverly devised—there are many inside jokes about talkies, and the film itself sort of spoofs the silent film genre by offering a plot that is pure melodramatic-but-happy-ending Hollywood.
But let me tell you something: WATCHING a silent movie in this day and age is VERY stressful. Really. First of all, there are no loud car chases or wild music to cover up the opening of the crinkly wrapper of the shortbread cookies you snuck into the theater. Blowing your nose is strictly verboten. And you have NO idea how annoying your fellow audience members can be until they become the soundtrack of your entire movie-watching experience. Never mind their words—what’s with the inappropriate laughter?! The guy behind me obviously read the reviews that mentioned the subtle humor of the movie’s concept and decided it was okay to guffaw uproariously every time anyone on screen made any kind of eye roll or gesture, which means he laughed a lot when he shouldn’t have—you know, like during an apartment fire and a suicide attempt.
So about five minutes into it, I was wondering how I was going to sit still, be quiet, and not turn around and choke the breath out of the guy behind me for an hour and 40 minutes.
Here’s the thing about silence…you really have to listen.
Writer Susan Griffin said, “A story is told as much by silence as by speech.” This is very true in the case of a silent movie. I became completely absorbed in watching the movie—no fidgeting, no rooting around in my purse, no trips to the bathroom, none of the activities I usually resort to because it’s nearly impossible for me to sit still for two hours and do only one thing.
In this case, if I took my eyes from the screen, I might miss a gesture or a facial expression that defined a whole scene. I’m not exaggerating, either. When there is no dialogue, no sound, no laugh track, the only way to identify a character’s true intent is to look for the visual cues in his smile or frown, sparkle (or lack thereof) in the eyes or the body language. In order for me to truly enjoy this movie, I needed to discern when George’s smile at Peppy was actually melancholy instead of genuinely happy. I never realized before how much of our current big screen experience is truly relayed by the background music, sound effects and dialogue on the movie screen, rather than the actual acting.
Which brings me back to silence. Life is not a movie. Oh, how we learn that lesson as we get older, don’t we? In real life, there is no parking space right in front of the burning building where the heroine is tied up; no caped crusader swoops in at the last second to whisk you away from physical harm; the farm isn’t saved because the entire town withdrew all its money from the bank to pay your mortgage. As Rosie O’Donnell said to Meg Ryan in “Sleepless in Seattle”: “You don’t want to be in love; you want to be in love in a movie.”
In real life, silence can convey emotion and meaning, but only if we pay attention to all the other clues that go along with it. However, and I can definitely speak for myself on this one, we tend to use silence the wrong way. We are quiet too often for the wrong reasons—to avoid a confrontation or a serious discussion, to hurt someone’s feelings by ignoring them, to gain the upper hand in a negotiation. Then the times when we should stay silent and think—when we are about to say something hurtful, when we are about to escalate a heated argument with a careless comment, when something serious needs to be discussed in order to make a situation better—we end up saying too much and being sorry for it later. My pet peeve is finding out that something I’ve done or am doing has bothered someone for a long, long time, and I only find out about it when the camel’s back is broken and that person decides to lash out.
I did realize while watching “The Artist” that more important than the lack of words was the need to stop whatever else I’m doing and really see the moment at hand for what it is. It’s not words or noise or silence or quiet that has the impact; it’s focusing on the reason behind it.
I can’t be quiet. It’s one of my major personality traits and one of my key flaws. I say what I think and many times that gets me into trouble. But on the flip side, being silent does little to fuel happiness, creative thinking, or activity on my part. When I’m silent, be assured that I’m thinking too much—overthinking a personal situation or planning and plotting a project down to the minutiae that will end up bogging me down in details that will eventually bury me. It’s much better for me (and you) if I talk things through and then act on the brainstormed solution. When I “sleep on” something, the plot just becomes more complex and convoluted, trust me. I won’t be winning any Oscars for holding my tongue.
So the next time you hear me and think, “Gee, I wish she’d shut up for a few minutes,” just remember, my silence IS deafening.