Like most underfunded documentaries, Touch the Sound hasn’t achieved much of a theatrical run and isn’t that easy on the eyes; it’s got the feel of a PBS piece you might watch idly on a slow night. But its narrative about Evelyn Glennie, the profoundly deaf musician who trained herself to hear by mobilizing other senses, shines unexpectedly when it recreates her aural experience. For long stretches, noiseless, wordless urban and pastoral landscapes are punctuated only by the occasional whistle or honk or clang. Upon that foundation of silence director Thomas Riedelsheimer builds what is essentially Glennie’s ideology about sound — namely, that we can hear with our entire beings if we tune out the static of modern life. A curious sense of liberation lingers after the film ends. It is surprisingly seductive, that stillness.
It is a quiet to which moviegoers clamor more than we realize.
The recent buzz generated by Capote speaks to that desire. Directed by Bennett Miller and featuring a tepid script by Dan Futterman (Robin William’s spineless son in The Birdcage), this filmic essay about how the late author constructed In Cold Blood (and himself in the process) isn’t really anything to write home about. It neither delves fully into the timely, fecund topic of journalistic ethics nor does it impart new insights into that puckfaced conundrum himself. Mostly, it’s a terrific vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman, although impressions of famous people are dubious achievements that are grossly overestimated by Hollywood. (The Ray Charles-inspired Jamie Foxx vocal on Kanye’s so-good “Gold Digger” packs much more bang for your buck than the whole of Ray.) In fairness, Hoffman not only delivers what by all accounts is a spot-on simulation of Capote, but he gives the kind of subtle, discomfiting performance that has become his trademark, as does Catherine Keener as author Harper “Nelle” Lee.
But Hoffman and Keener aren’t really why the film has flipped so many wigs. Half a dozen features have been released this year that contain equally compelling performances. It is Capote’s voluptuous quiet that appeals to the many critics and audiences worn down by bombastic Hollywood soundtracks and the incessant, self-conscious chatter of indies. The first few shots of Capote say it all: a wintry, Midwestern terrain, austere and beautifully blank. A family home, neutrally colored, perched primly at the edge of the prairie. A girl who enters that house and discovers the bloodied corpses of her friend and her family — at which point the camera scurries to the cacophony of a Manhattan evening, presided over grandly by the see-and-be-seen king, Mr. Capote himself.
It’s a transition that sets the tenor of the entire feature: the famous socialite-writer as a kind of whistler in the dark, a rabblerouser who rouses good neighbors in the middle of the night from much-earned sleep; the disquieter, essentially. The success of this film does not lie in our fascination with this ‘50s/60s icon and his self-pitying amorality. It lies squarely in the tranquility disrupted not only by abject criminals but by the brigade of their documenters that was led by Capote. For the real journey of this film is Truman’s eventual, painful surrender to the silent roar of middle America, and to all the terror that it can contain. It is in conveying that wretched quiet that Miller and Futterman succeed, perhaps despite themselves.
European filmmakers have always proved quite handy with quiescence; the confidence and depth it requires distinguishes such masters as Bergman, Fellini amd Tati. Not surprisingly, Americans emulators have produced more varied results, as if we’re such a young nation that we’ve yet to stop fidgeting. Woody Allen trips all over himself when he tries on Bergman- (or even Fellini-) inspired somber, and in Gus Van Sant’s trilogy of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, “still” slides into “soporific.” But Jim Jarmusch has mastered the evocative silence. It’s what made his career, sometimes undeservedly.(Broken Flowers is a recent example of undeserved accolades.) And part of why George Clooney hasn’t been hung out to dry for his overtly political allegory Good Night, and Good Luck, which hones in on how Edward R. Murrow helped take down the senator from Wisconsin and the Committee of Un-American Activities, is because it’s an economic film. It sidesteps preachiness by telling its story as much through spare sets, black-and-white cinematography and oddly articulate silences as through its snapdragon dialogue.
And then there’s Forty Shades of Blue, which seems less like a European film than a Russian one, albeit one set in Memphis. It also may be the best film released this year in the US. At the least, and that this is a necessary qualification shocks me, it is the best US nondoc of the year. (Murderball and Grizzly Man are outrageously good.) About a triangle of sex and resentment (love factors very little into this geometry) between an aging, debauched R&B; producer Alan James (Rip Torn), his significantly younger, Russian immigrant girlfriend and baby’s momma Laura (Dina Korzun), and Michael, his resentful grown son (Darren Burrows), it’s blessedly hushed given that it takes place in arguably the heart of American music. Sad and slow, the film’s central tension lies not its sexual infidelities and indiscretions but in the question of whether we have the right to expect joy in our daily lives.
In early scenes, Laura’s true character emerges only through the cracks of her trophy wife veneer: long and lean and pale and clad with more money than taste. She roves about makeup counters, impassively receives her husband’s gestures of affections, applies her makeup with more care than she greets her child. Alan is honored for his musical achievements, and at the ceremony delivers such a heartfelt speech about how soul breached the gap between white and black folk that there’s not a dry eye on the house. Except for Laura, whose expression remains inscrutable as she sips a glass of white wine. Just as she may be dismissed for being an ice princess (and the movie for offering up such a fatuous cliché), the event breaks up, he abandons her for a blowsy blond, and the camera holds on Laura, who, features immobile, shoulders high and tight, strides to the bar where she drowns herself in vino desperatas. Michael is introduced to his defacto stepmother through a half-ajar door as he espies her drunken struggle with a stranger who drives her home but fails to extract the blowjob he no doubt expects.
As the film unpacks, Laura’s exact dilemma grows clear. She lives with greater ease and luxury than she even dreamed of in her former life, but remains dangerously malnourished emotionally, and this is a fact she cannot acknowledge, let alone indulge. To expect more is foolish, even ungrateful in her eyes. When Michael complains about his father’s negligence, she bursts out, “Americans are so spoiled!” When asked how she is, she answers “fine” as if she were willing it so each time. Only the ragged, narcissistic desire of father and son James disrupts the precarious balance she’s achieved between her needs, her highly developed morality and the selfishness of this family of aging boys. She is profoundly sad, in other words, and the film does not shy from laying out that misery.
Scenes heat up leisurely and linger on the bare trees and impersonal, garishly appointed rooms of her surroundings while almost as a sideplot characters make sloppy, fierce love and look disappointedly, longingly, wordlessly at each other. (In this way, the film recalls the woefully undersung Junebug, released early this summer.) The resulting effect is of floating above all that wild emotionality, in the manner that Laura wishes she could. The effect, actually, is deeply Russian: a philosophical investigation of a matter of the heart.
When that deceit inevitably causes her to implode, she jumps out from the car Alan’s driving, striding noiselessly along a deserted American street into a dark nowhere. If this were my perfect movie, I thought, it’d end here.
And it did.
We Americans pretty much never shut up anymore. People blither on their cell phones and thumb their sideberries everywhere and always (even during film screenings); blast out ears with programmatic music and blather when walking or running or showering or shitting. There are virtually no moments left when we have to sit still and grapple with the pain that lurks in every modern template. Only a rarified strain of movies compel us to listen by resuscitating the stillness our daily lives so sorely lack. We are lucky that so many have been released this fall. For at their best, they burrow into that quiet and all it holds, allowing us to channel ourselves and our truest selves through them. And even if we don’t know why we love these films, sometimes we still yield to their deeper lessons and pleasures.