In Pursuit of Silence (2016)

October 16th, 2016
Author: Meredith Taylor

Director: Patrick Shen | US | Doc | 81min

Patrick Shen is an American award-winning filmmaker best known for his feature debut Flight From Death. Here he turns his camera to silence, an increasingly sought after commodity in our busy world. IN PURSUIT OF SILENCE is a well-intentioned but rather condescending documentary presenting the corrosive effects of noise and as this were some new revelation. But does he bring anything new to the debate with his premise that seems more affirming than revealing.

We know that modern life is a cacophonous existence. Twenty four hours a day we are continually bombarded by obtrusive sounds, whether we are aware of it or not: other peoples’ conversations on the tube; builders’ drills and sirens; musak in cafes and babies crying: wherever we go it is almost impossible to escape the intrusion of noise. Try to find noise-blocking headphones and you will be offered those that only function with personal media devices – more sound and sensory stimulation. Silence (or the sound of the natural ambient world) is becoming not only golden but also vital to our survival as human beings, but many (particularly the young) are aware of this: so it is vital that we tune into its healing power. As animals we need to retreat and connect with our natural environment. The more we resort to the technological world for satisfaction, the less we feel validated, and the more we have to clamour to be heard and valued.

Shen opens his investigation on the role of noise pollution with John Cage’s silent composition 4’33. We discover that silence was the main thrust of his work, and this piece consists of four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence (or, rather, of whatever ambient sound exist where this work is being performed). More common knowledge comes next. Unwanted sound can have a detrimental effect on both our physical and mental health. It leads to increased heart beat and cortisol release –  causing stress,  sleep deprivation, hypertension and even cardiac arrest.

We meet Greg Hindy who in 2014 walked from New Hampshire to Los Angeles under a self-imposed vow of silence, his innermost thoughts  written on a notebook and held up to the camera – crystallise our feelings: “The sources of noise that I am trying to get away from are so embedded in electronics and entertainment that I really could not allow any such distractions. Time away has given me perspective on what I should allow back into my life, and to what extent. Sometimes to really see things the way that they truly are, you have to take a step back, and then another step, and then a few more”. Well put Greg. But is this new?.

Structurally, the film feels overly episodic with two many commentators making it feel fragmented rather than discursive, and where is the ground-breaking revelation in the third act?. As is often the case in documentaries: a point is made and then rammed home over and over again without leaving the audience to reach their own conclusions. We hear from Dr. Helen Lees (author of Silence in Schools), Pico Iyer (The Art of Stillness), Susan Cain (Quiet), Maggie Ross (Silence: A User’s Guide), and Brooklyn-based author George Prochnik whose book In Pursuit of Silence was largely an inspiration for Shen’s film and his definition of silence is simply “the interruption of the imposition of our own egos upon the world.”

There are glorious interludes in remote landscapes such as the Denali National Park in Alaska, where a geeky park “soundscape technician” instructs us on the balance between silence, listening, and space. Even here overhead planes can still be seen and heard. In Japan, a researcher explores the benefits of natural ambient sound revealing the calming effects that this has on improving the body’s overall capacity to heal itself. Particularly, the rhythmic sound of waves on a beach has the power to regulate human functions and heartbeat. Trappist monks spend a great deal of their time in meditation in Iowa and a Zen temple in Japan leading to some footage of a Japanese tea ceremony; silence offers us a way to return and to reconnect with ourselves and is the most reaffirming thing we can do, rather than to reach out to technology or even people. But this is all ‘white noise’ that qualifies what we already know.

And In Pursuit of Silence isn’t always the balm you may be hoping for when you see its title. To illustrate his points Shen frequently blasts us with loud noises, some of which are quite unbearable. We know what that feels like and don’t need to hear it – specially from TV news or talk shows. During a political TV debate we witness an hilarious scene of three people talking at once, none of them listening, leading to Lees observation: “If nobody’s talking, nobody’s dominating,” And this seems to be the only salient takeaway worth ruminating over. We live in an increasingly vocal world, where everyone is trying to impose their own will and their own opinions on the rest of us, even when they have no informed opinion on which to place their rhetoric. We have lost the power to remain silent. And sometimes silence is the most powerful statement of all. MT



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