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Photo by Unsplash/Kristina Flour

The end of silence in the cinema?

By
Essay | 10 minute read
Have we grown out of the habit of silence when we watch films together? One writer goes in search of a quiet place

A college friend who insisted on taking me to see the film Aliens vowed never again. I am the person to avoid at screenings of horror movies. I shriek in terror like a Victorian heroine of a nervous disposition and you run the risk of having an arm wrenched off if you happen to be sitting adjacent. When not terrified, I giggle because monsters, ghouls or psychopathic zombies are – quite obviously – ridiculous. A squelchy foetus-like blob erupting from a stomach – oh yes, I squeal and recoil into my friend’s shoulder. Then laugh. Very loudly.

This was not why I feared seeing A Quiet Place, one of this year’s critical and popular hits. The film follows a couple, Lee and Evelyn Abbott – played by real-life husband and wife John Krasinski and Emily Blunt – and their children, battling to survive in a dystopian world with fierce, darting extraterrestrials who cannot see but compensate by hunting entirely through their acute sense of hearing. From reviews and the suspenseful trailer, I knew that for their potential human victims, this meant communicating in sign language, muffling their  tracks, giving no audible clue as to their whereabouts for fear of immediate death.

Emily Blunt with John Krasinski (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

It wasn’t the prospect of the monsters that terrified me. It was the quiet. I knew that I would want absolute silence, a quiet so intense as to hear the blood pumping through your veins and feel the hairs on your forearms standing on edge. I knew there would be no point holding your breath as the Abbott family dashed noiselessly to safety if there was a running commentary of mobile phone alerts, gossipy conversations and rustling sweet wrappers. Some stories soon after release reported audiences complaining of the intrusion of chomping popcorn-eaters, wrecking the atmosphere and destroying the cleverly ratcheted tension. That was inevitable, wasn’t it? Yet I wanted to see the film. I went in dread.

The etiquette of silence is complicated, not least because etiquette increasingly appears an outdated and inconvenient notion. I may be a hopeless curmudgeon, but it feels incorrigibly disrespectful when an audience enters a shared space – a cinema, a theatre, a concert hall – and treats it like their own living room or a pub. Channel 4’s Gogglebox has elevated ordinary viewers discussing what’s on television to an art form. It is a cultural phenomenon that has apparently reinforced the eminence and rights of the armchair critic, not only to judge but to share their views, volubly. The idea that films should be watched in silence is increasingly a minority view. It is difficult to get silence to prevail.

When Downfall, the historical drama recounting the final days of Adolf Hitler, was released more than a decade ago, we saw it on a gloriously sunny day in Hampstead, London. Unsurprisingly, it was not a packed house. This made it particularly unfortunate that with only a handful of other viewers, two sat directly in front of us. Even more unfortunately, they proved to be an elderly Jewish couple intent on questioning the movie at regular intervals.

Dare we intervene? Given the subject matter, should we not defer to their age and experience? We did for most of the film, contemplated moving seats, realised that the intensity of their discussion would make no difference as it would be impossible to ignore, and stayed put. Eventually, we very politely apologised but indicated their passionate debate was really rather audible. They had no idea. It had not occurred to them, so wrapped up were they in their own cinema-going experience. It was by no means clear that they were even conscious of having been talking. On gentle intervention, they were hugely apologetic in return. Their debate was adjourned.

I’m not a tyrant. Not really. Different grades of silence may apply even though, personally, I see no need to treat a musical differently from a tragedy. And I certainly saw no reason to give greater leeway to the grand woman at the Royal Opera House who thought her observations more interesting than Verdi to a kid who has never been before, even if the grandee was affronted to be politely shushed.

But I entirely understand that many people would not think the degree of rapt attention warranted by Schindler’s List is necessary – or possibly even desirable – for The Inbetweeners. I guess the concentration warranted for Call Me By Your Name may not apply in Thor: Ragnarok. I would still largely draw the line, though, at audiences joining in or talking back. Your karaoke version of any ABBA hit would have to be really very good to warrant joining in with the cast of Mamma Mia! on screen – or onstage. Belting out ‘Dancing Queen’ is for the disco at family weddings. In a cinema, I might permit you, though, to suck a Malteser, though only if you agreed not to crunch.

Imelda Staunton wouldn’t. During her West End run as the fiery Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? she instituted a food ban (or at least one was instituted in her name). A polite email from the Ambassador Theatre Group, which runs the Harold Pinter Theatre, told everyone who had bought tickets: ‘Out of consideration for the actors and fellow audience members, we ask that no food be consumed during the performance.’

Photo by Unsplash/Joseph Pearson

It’s a start. I’m with the actors Richard Griffiths and Bryan Cranston, Sir Simon Rattle, the conductor, and other performers who have turned stony Paddington Bear stares or brusque put-downs on carelessly rude audience members who fiddle with their phones or permit them to ring during a performance. I thought it a high-risk exercise when the wunderkind playwright James Graham wrote an entire play, Privacy, which actively required the audience to keep their mobiles on and use them – while he pointed out the invidious ways the settings you may not even know about are telling so many secrets about you. I was pleased to note that Quiz, his new drama about the cheating major on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, institutes a no-mobiles policy from the off.

Clever artists have always known the power of silence – partly because it is so very hard to achieve. The composer John Cage’s ‘4’33’, in which the ensemble does not play its instruments for the three movements of the composition, is precisely that – the sounds of the environment, the concert hall, the outside traffic, the air-conditioning, the creaking door, for the four minutes and thirty-three seconds of the work.

Steven Spielberg used absence of sound to imposing effect in early scenes of Saving Private Ryan when a D-Day soldier deafened by a shell can only observe the bloody chaos of the Normandy beaches but hears nothing of the explosive mayhem around him. While evidently not silent, Martin Scorsese introduced a Zen-like soundscape of sounds from nature that was so minimalist for his 2016 film Silence that the Oscars refused to countenance it for best musical score. Journalists know that often the best way to extract a story is to refuse to fill the gap. Even reluctant interviewees abhor the vacuum of no answer.

Into Great Silence, a 2005 documentary film, followed Carthusian monks going about their daily routines in their monastery high in the Alps. There was no commentary, no added audio, just the gentle sound of lives of pious contemplation, sharing simple meals, tending the garden and labouring in workshops. It is a meditation almost guaranteed to slow the heartbeat and calm the nerves. It is the reverse of Dolby sound shock and awe. Oddly, it is also entirely different from the impact of silent movies.

The point about silent movies is, of course, that they were nothing of the sort as the 2012 Oscar-winning modern, (mainly) silent film The Artist reminded us. (Its French star Jean Dujardin does have a couple of words to say at the end – when his strong French accent reveals why his character is so alarmed by the arrival of the talkies.) The live music accompaniment to silent films provided red-flag semaphore to the shifting moods, telling the story in tandem with the speech cards of dialogue and plot lines. Anyone who watched Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet-era political epic, when presented with a score by the Pet Shop Boys (or any other rendering) knows the drama of the music. When Neil Brand, a renowned silent movie historian and accompanist, takes to the piano for screenings of early twentieth-century classics, his fingers conjure fear, tragedy, comedy, disaster. The movies are far from silent; they simply lack the spoken word. (It is, incidentally, a thing of wonder to see the cinema organ rise from the stage at the Odeon, Leicester Square, London. It is sometimes flourished for film premieres and is an utter treat. When I googled to remind myself where in the West End I had seen this happen, I discovered the art deco Odeon cinema in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, also still has an organ. I’ve made a note to go.)

Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, circa 1925 (Photo by D. Debabov/Slava Katamidze Collection/Getty Images)

My no-talking exhortation risks making me sound like a killjoy, obviously. And I was brought up short and forced to re-calibrate my position when a woman with Asperger’s was ejected from a film screening for laughing. It had not occurred to me – or, evidently, to others – to consider what it is like to be a cinephile and disabled in certain ways. Of course a respect for film cannot justify intolerance.

Not everyone demands a quiet reverence for art, anyway. The Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington has argued a degree of noise has no impact on the integrity of a performance. When he last appeared onstage, he defended his young audience against criticisms that they had spoiled the production of Doctor Faustus by talking, eating and taking pictures on their mobiles, and he criticised those who wanted to shut them down. ‘I am afraid that if the theatre is going to die of anything, it will be from exactly this type of stereotyping and prejudice aimed towards a new and younger generation of theatregoers,’ he said.

Yet I remain to be convinced and know I’m not alone. Many years ago, I gently challenged a loud, elderly American who was intent on annotating the Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, verbally and with peculiarly dramatic arm gestures. ‘That’s beautiful,’ he said, as if none of the rest of us would notice. YES, WE CAN ALL SEE IT IS BEAUTIFUL, were the dozen thought bubbles from all around. On the way home, a young couple on the Tube came over to say thank you for the intervention, which had at least quietened him a little. It is self-centred commentators, who think their observations worth sharing, who are the spoilsports.

So what happened at A Quiet Place? We went. We even stuck with our nearest cinema even though years of experience indicates its convenience, geographically, has to be set against the reality that its principal purpose is as a popcorn and frankfurters-with-all-the-trimmings emporium with movies on the side – more reminiscent of the V&A’s one-time branding as a nice caff with quite a nice museum attached than a temple to cinematic art.

But on this occasion, we were awed. Whatever happened in other cinemas, we watched in a busy auditorium where the natural urge to talk was somehow constrained by the story. There was a collective inward shrink at the sound of a dislodged cola carton, barely a murmur to interrupt the oh-so-cleverly-conceived conceit of a childbirth introducing a clear and present danger of uncontrollable wailing into the narrative. The tension was palpable. And unruined. Almost no one spoke. I was genuinely thrilled at this apparent new reverence for film.

I wondered, briefly and optimistically, whether A Quiet Place might prompt a behaviour shift in cinema-going habits, a moment when audiences recognised the pleasure of full, uninterrupted immersion in what is unfolding on the big screen.

Of course it didn’t. Two days later, we returned to catch Wes Anderson’s typically idiosyncratic Isle of Dogs, an animated story of canines in a Japan of the near-future, exiled to an island ostensibly to tackle an outbreak of disease. Normal noisy service resumed.

All the more credit to A Quiet Place. It forced one audience, at least, to enter its world so completely as to play by the film’s own rules – silence as a life-and-death scenario. Though in real life, even I wouldn’t go that far.