Film Review: In Pursuit of Silence

Visually as well as aurally engaging, 'In Pursuit of Silence' tilts towards preciousness while overstating its case for quietude.
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In certain corners of the world, human beings are making so much noise that people literally cannot hear themselves think. That’s just one assertion, backed by expert testimony and some cited scientific study, used in the relatively one-sided documentary In Pursuit of Silence to prosecute its case against the mind-numbing hubbub of the modern world.

The film, directed by Patrick Shen, begins as less of a screed, and more a meditation on the very nature of quiet, and on what technically constitutes silence. Is it merely the lack of such manmade noise as blaring car horns, bustling crowds and the general, inescapable hum of seven billion pulsing individuals covering the planet? Is it more purely a concept of tranquil, unhurried motionlessness, not to be measured exactly in decibels? Does God, or zen, or peace reside only in silence? The exploration reveals that one’s definition of silence can be as individual as any person’s pursuit of it.

Director Shen, also the film’s cinematographer and editor, proffers plenty of tastefully framed, aurally stimulating scenes, captured from around the world, that reveal different meanings and circumstances of silence: a group of silent monks who only vocalize to chant hymns; the buzz of fluorescent lamps at an empty gas station in the desert; an audience of hundreds in a concert hall seated perfectly still and quiet as they take in a performance of composer John Cage’s monumental avant-garde work of silence, 4’33”. Between such scenes, there are scientists, technicians, and philosophers like Julian Treasure, chairman of the ominously named Sound Agency, and George Prochnik, author of the book In Pursuit of Silence, who expound, often dryly, on what is to be gained or lost in our world of noise.

Shen even follows briefly the journey of a young man, Greg Hindy, who in 2014 walked “silently” across the United States, from New Hampshire to California, using only a writing pad and pen to express his thoughts, or order his lunch. Hindy represents an extreme, but relatable, example of someone seeking to step away from the ever-mounting cacophony of modern, digital life. He is without a doubt an advocate for silence and solitude, as are most of the subjects interviewed here, at least one of whom believes that words simply can’t express essential emotions. Silence is essential.

Via those interviews, and a rather precious association between picturesque vistas and the lovely quiet of nature, In Pursuit of Silence loudly expresses a preference for silence. Various locations, from a Brooklyn apartment to a town square in Mumbai, are identified in part by their measured decibel levels, while the chairman of the Sound Agency describes the physiological, psychological, cognitive and behavioral effects of the daily noise that’s driving humans mad. Chronic exposure to the stressful din of urban life can kill, as is acknowledged by the World Health Organization, which warns about the dangers of noise pollution.

But what of the gleeful sound of children at play, or the joyful noise of songs and laughter? Conversely, what about the soul-deadening quiet of solitary prison confinement, or the lonely silence of a home abandoned, or a hospital room where no one ever visits? Only one expert among many in Shen’s film has anything positive to say in support of the balance between sound and quiet. Again and again, speech is derided as merely an aspect of ego, and Cage’s work is used solely to drive home the point that silence is something “deeper” than words. The film ignores the fact that Cage also produced masterfully noisy compositions like Five and Amores.

Instead, In Pursuit of Silence plots its precisely edited course through delicately hushed Japanese tearooms and bucolic mountaintop retreats. Few would argue against the value of finding and, as one monk puts it, keeping the silence; human beings need some measure of quiet. But silence isn’t absolutely golden, all so-called noise isn’t deadly, and a more fair-minded approach here might have made a stronger impression. One shudders to think what Shen or most of his subjects might have to say about a Metallica concert. John Cage might have relished the noise.

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