In Theory of the Film: Sound, Bela Balazs argues that silence in sound film is more powerful than in any other of the performing arts including stage and radio productions:

“Silence is when the buzzing of a fly on the windowpane fills the whole room with sound and the ticking of a clock smashes time into fragments with sledgehammer blows.”[1]

In this poetic example, the theorist points to something greater than the complete absence of sound, which is something others believe impossible to achieve in life. Theorist and philosopher Jacques Attali wrote in regards to listening that “death alone is silent.”[2] This means that from the moment we are born, the conscious and hearing-enabled constantly experience the sounds around them. Even in the vacuum of space, for the few seconds we would be able to survive unprotected, the sound of blood pumping through our system would still be audible to us. Balazs explains with colorful language that to be silent means to listen to sounds that usually go unnoticed. For example, as I thoughtfully type this essay — in a room that most would describe as silent for the lack of dialogue occurring – I can hear the distinct buzzing of two fridges in the kitchen next to me. I can hear cars passing on the street a block over. Sitting in silence in this case is by no means silent. I am able to discern the state of my surroundings and my place in them by navigating the amplified buzzes and creaks around me.

In film, or more specifically what he calls “sound film,” Balazs argues that this kind of silence works as a moment of reflection or tension for the character(s) on screen as well as the audience. In this way the symbiotic audio/visual nature of sound film is rendered essential to Balazs’ theory of sound. Though sound and film exist separately, the power of cinematic storytelling lies in the utilization of both mediums. The only way silence can act, as an enhanced room tone of sorts is to incorporate visual cues of space and depth. Furthermore, if there is no human face to express emotion or react to the silence, then a significant portion of the story is lost. Balazs explains that “sound alone is not space creating,”[3]; if it is accompanied by visualizations of a space, however, a rich soundscape can add depth and tension to a scene.

In comparison to most feature films today, All is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor, 2013) is considered a silent film because no more than a few dozen lines are delivered throughout the film, the majority of which are spoken within the first two minutes through voiceover. However, the film is in reality quite loud, with very few moments of technically absolute silence in the sound mix. As we follow the journey of the sole character played by Robert Redford, he sits without speaking and the soundscape is full of varying timbres of the sounds of the sea interacting with his vessel. We hear the wind blow across the water, across his windbreaker jacket, across the sails. We hear the scraping of his metal spoon in his metal can of beans. We hear the friction of the ropes pulling. All of these elements add up to create a complex silence that describes the space that Redford’s character occupies. We hear the roar of the tempest through various filters also, each providing a different perspective of the storm’s intensity as defined by Redford’s surroundings.

The most distinct moment in the soundscape of the film occurred right after the sailor was thrown overboard as he tried to put on the storm jib. He struggles in the water, trying to pull himself to the surface for quite sometime and when he gets back onto the boat, everything else in the mix disappears except his labored breathing. This fleeting moment of relative silence focuses the audience’s attention on the veteran yachtsman’s exhaustion. It also reveals the patience of Redford’s character. Instead of scrambling to get the jib fixed on the deck, he takes several moments to gather himself after almost drowning. In tension with Balazs’ theory, we do not however see his face as he rests on deck, though through his actions after the silence it is revealed to the audience that the silence meant the man knows his own limits.

Again he says nothing in this scene, but the sound mixing captures the varying environments the man experiences within a small time frame. With the visual imprint that this man is stuck on this yacht, we can close our eyes and interpret the space through the soundscapes. From the moment he steps out into the storm we can hear that the man is above water in the middle of a storm, then under water, then above water again with super focused breathing, and finally the relative quiet of the space below deck. These changes in timbre help color the soundscape, as Balazs would say, in relation to the visual image it is synced with.[4] Because of this we experience this storm in many different ways. The space that surrounds this muted man is rich with audible information about the circumstances of him and his boat. In the silence, he is interacting with his physical surroundings in such a way that highlights his thought process. And though taking a break in the middle of saving his boat – and in affect his life – might not seem like a great move, the sound mix adds purpose to the chaos by guiding the audience through the actions of this single, silent man.

[1] Bela Balazs, “Theory of the Film: Sound,” in Film Sound: Theory and Practice, ed. Elizabeth Weis and John Belton, (New York, USA: Columbia University Press, 1985), 118.

[2] Jacques Attali, “Listening,” in Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 3.

[3] Bela Balazs, “Theory of the Film: Sound,” 117.

[4] Ibid.

*Originally written in 2016 for an academic course at UCSC.

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