Silence and stillness are themes that keep coming up in the independent films playing in Missoula over the last several weeks. The refrain makes me think the lessons are important. First, we had the Montana-made feature Certain Women, marked by its profound subtlety. After that we got Moonlight, about people living distinctly different lives in Miami—and yet, in many ways, they're the same film. Both are explorations of humanity that require a patience few films are willing to ask of us. Finally, this week we have In Pursuit of Silence, a documentary by director Patrick Shen that really drives the point home. What is silence? Where do we find it? And why do we need it in our lives?
The film begins with a series of long, beautiful shots of still places in nature and elsewhere, where it's quiet enough to hear leaves rustling in the wind and voices carried from far off in the background. It's tranquil and meditative, for sure, but resist the urge to impatience. Soon enough, In Pursuit of Silence starts talking to experts and practitioners in the fields of noise and silence, and there's a surprising amount to learn.
On a decibel level, for example, silence doesn't actually exist. In one illuminating segment, a subject in the film enters an anechoic chamber, which is a room designed to eliminate all exterior sound. Even in this place, you can hear the sound of blood flowing through your veins. We learn about scientists in Japan who study the therapeutic benefits of extended stays in the forest. The effect is not just on mood, but on physiological diseases like cancer. And then there's the composer John Cage, who in the early 1950s infuriated audiences with a symphonic composition consisting of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. What do you think about that? Does the very thought of it make you mad? If so, why?
I have some experience with the subject. On four different occasions I've gone on Buddhist meditation retreats that demand total silence for nine out of 10 days. The silence serves a purpose. It keeps you focused on the task of meditating and it prevents you from telling lies. Every time I go to these things, I say to myself, "What on earth have I done?" and "Never again." Still, every couple of years I find myself wanting to return. Bizarre things happen inside your head when you stop constantly distracting it with bullshit. My head gets inundated with media. In those brief windows of silence, it seems like every film, television show, song or book I've ever consumed comes flooding back again. But also, somewhere in there, I discover truths about myself and my life and its fragile and precious place in the world.
Finding silence like that isn't easy.
In Pursuit of Silence makes some predictable points about technology, social media and the cacophony of distractions we're constantly inundated with, but just because they're obvious doesn't mean they aren't true. Watch the film with an open heart and you'll see that it makes a valid case for why we might sometimes need to go out of our way to reach a place of quiet, and why that effort matters.
My favorite part of the film involves a 20-something man who's chosen to travel cross-country on foot (not unlike Forrest Gump) on a self-made silent retreat. Occasionally, he writes notes and holds them up to the camera, and gosh, I don't know—I just want everyone to see the film and read this kid's notes.
In Pursuit of Silence screens at the Silver Theatre as part of the Big Sky Film Series Thu., Dec. 1, at 7 PM.